The curious case of the globetrotting colonel

It’s been over three decades since the Pinochet dictatorship ended in Chile and by now, you’d think most of its surviving killers and torturers would be behind bars. Quite a few are, and Chile even has a special jail to hold such prisoners.

But every now and then someone manages to elude justice. Consider the case of former army colonel Walter Klug, charged with the forced disappearance and killing of a university student and of more than 20 employees at two hydroelectric plants in southern Chile shortly after the 1973 military coup. In 2015 he was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for the first crime, but Klug, who holds dual Chilean and German citizenship, managed to leave the country on his German passport. He took up residency in Germany but two years ago travelled to Parma, Italy with his wife, an engineer who was attending a conference. Italian police arrested Klug at his hotel and later extradited him to Chile.

Here’s where it gets murky. Klug’s legal team successfully appealed his conviction in the case of the missing university student, though why this didn’t happen back in 2015 is unclear. The case of the missing hydroelectric plant workers was still moving through the courts, and. presumably Klug was not supposed to leave Chile while this was going on. Nevertheless, Klug fled the country again, using his German passport and earlier this week a Chilean human rights group reported that he was in Argentina, awaiting a flight to Germany—which has no extradition treaty with Chile.

Stay tuned.

Update: On Saturday, June 12, Argentine police arrested Klug outside his hotel in Buenos Aires and at last report he was due to appear before a judge to begin the process of extraditing him back to Chile.

An old crime, now a film

It was one of the most horrifying crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship, two young Chileans deliberately set on fire by soldiers during a protest in Santiago in 1986.  One died, the other was scarred for life, but the case made headlines around the world, in part because the dead teenager, Rodrigo Rojas, had grown up in Washington, D.C. This story is now a feature length film, La Mirada Incendiada, due to be released April 9th.

Here’s a link to the trailer:

And a link to the National Security Archive’s collection of declassified U.S. Embassy documents on the case detailing witness intimidation and how the Posta Central hospital, where the victims were initially treated, offered them “archaic and insufficient” treatment. There is also an account by a trusted contact within the Chilean uniformed police, the carabineros, who prepared a report on the case–which Pinochet refused to accept—and shows a growing rift between the carabineros and the Chilean army:

Rojas was a 19-year-old photographer who accompanied a group of University of Santiago students to one of the Chilean capital’s poorer neighborhoods. Some civilians, possibly vigilantes, began shooting at them. The young people were running away when one of the group, Carmen Gloria Quintana, stumbled and fell. Rojas was helping her up when the two were surrounded by army troops, who beat them, sprayed them with a flammable substance and set them on fire. The soldiers then wrapped them in blankets, threw them into their vehicle and drove them to a town north of Santiago and dumped them in a ditch.

The case received extensive coverage in the U.S. media, with a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. The U.S. ambassador, along with a handful of European diplomats, attended Rojas’ funeral, where they were eyewitnesses to the police attacking the crowd of mourners with tear gas and water cannon. There were even attempts to seize Rojas’s coffin.

Chilean journalists covering the case were also threatened. My friend and colleague Odette Magnet, who for eight years wrote about human rights for the weekly newsmagazine Hoy, recalls receiving phone calls after midnight in which security agents played a recording of a typewriter and machine gun fire. In another incident, she and an American colleague were riding a bus which two security agents boarded and accompanied them to their destination.

Carmen Gloria Quintana was later moved to a specialist burn unit at a Montreal hospital and Hoy magazine published a cover photograph of the ambulance taking her to the airport.  She underwent multiple surgeries, months of treatment, but eventually graduated from university, married, had children and later served as science attaché at the Chilean Embassy in Canada, where she still lives. She visits Chile from time to time.

At the Edge of the World: Memories of a Judge Who Indicted Pinochet

Judge Juan Guzman

Judge Juan Guzmán addressing the Center for Latin American Studies in Berkeley in 2007.

I’ve come upon this a bit late, but a memoir by Juan Guzmán Tapia, the courageous Chilean judge who prosecuted the late dictator General Augusto Pinochet, has been translated into English by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley has published an excerpt.

Early in 1998 Guzmán accepted a petition from relatives of five Chilean Communist Party members who were arrested and never seen again. Their cases, and other similar instances of forced disappearance, had been documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 1990 report. But a 1978 amnesty law imposed by the dictatorship had thwarted many previous human rights cases presented in Chilean courts.  Guzmán thought of a different legal approach: such arrests could be considered kidnappings, in legal terms, and since the detainees’ bodies had never been found their cases could be viewed as continuing violations (secuestro permanente) and thus prosecuted.

Guzmán’s work opened the way for dozens more lawsuits from Chileans whose relatives had disappeared during the the dictatorship. Some of the missing were believed to have been killed during the Caravan of Death, an infamous series of mass executions shortly after the 1973 military coup.  He interviewed retired military officers who had been on duty in the regions at the time of the killings, and while many denied everything others provided chilling testimonies and confessions. Guzmán was also the subject of a 2008 documentary, The Judge and the General.

This blogger had the privilege of interviewing Guzmán as part of my research for my second book.  His original memoir had been recently published, and he autographed my copy, which is sitting on my desk as I write this.

A short Chile round up

Spain’s El Pais has an excellent piece on the social prejudice underlying Chile’s recent unrest, citing a recent United Nations survey which showed that four out of every ten Chileans has suffered some form of discrimination for their social class, dress, neighborhood or job. An excerpt:

At a shopping center located in an affluent area of Santiago—a site which until recently would have been an unlikely venue for protests—a furious man confronts one of the demonstrators, who recorded the confrontation. “Go back to your shitty slum,” he ordered her.”

My colleague Odette Magnet has this column on Chile’s journalist association web site, noting that her country’s civil society is now “more alert and more empowered.”

And here’s a good story  from The Guardian on how a Chilean protest song, “The Rapist in Your Path,”  is spreading across the world.

Chile, enraged



This blogger’s heart is breaking as the news from Chile keeps getting worse. For the past several days Santiago has been rocked by protests over an increase in public transportation fares, and these protests have given way to rioting and looting. Which in turn has given way to the government imposing a state of emergency, sending the army into the streets and imposing a 7 pm to 6 am curfew.  It seems like a flashback to the dark days of the dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Three people were killed when a supermarket in Santiago was set on fire, and some airlines are cancelling flights to the Chilean capital–airport and airline employees can’t get to work.  And the unrest has spread to other Chilean cities.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet sent me this report from Santiago:

“Friday afternoon, 4 p.m.  I am on the corner of Tobalaba and Providencia avenues, trying to get home in the La Reina municipality of Santiago.  Hundreds of people are on foot, walking calmly and in silence.  It was hot, but people were not complaining.  The buses were not stopping because they were full to capacity. I counted 40 taxis passing by, all filled. Dozens of cars with no passengers, only their drivers, passed by.  I tried to make eye contact. Nothing. No one stopped to offer anyone a lift. I was shocked. The slogan that we’re a solidarity country seems like a joke. Another popular myth.

Santiago awoke on Saturday the 19th with tanks and soldiers in the streets, under a state of emergency.  Along with thousands of my compatriots, I found the scene painful, and in a split second we were back in the dark days of the military dictatorship. As if that weren’t enough, that same day President Sebastián Piñera declared a curfew.

For 17 years Chile was an armored country, with successive states of exception: the state of emergency, the state of siege, of disturbance to the internal peace. Cruel dictatorship. This is the  first time a state of emergency has been imposed since Chile returned to democratic rule, with the brief exception of the 2010 earthquake.  Chile’s digital newspaper El Mostrador bore this headline: “The day after black October 18, the military controls Santiago,  as it did in the 1980s.” But despite this people beat saucepans and honked car horns throughout the capital. The city was under a state of emergency, but it was not asleep. As the hours passed the protests grew and Piñera was forced to suspend the fare increase in the Santiago metro.

Up till then the government had managed to evade the source of the conflict, it only reinforced police action and applied the State Security Law. As we Chileans put it, he threw gasoline on the fire.

For a week now the Chilean capital has been witness to daily demonstrations by students protesting the fare hike.  Saturday’s tally: 308 arrests, 500 soldiers in the streets and reports of 11 people injured.  41 of the nearly 140 Metro stations were damaged, and some were burned. 16 buses were also burned. Police officers injured.  There was looting in some parts of Santiago and a building belonging to the state energy corporation, Enel, was burned.

What happened over the past few days is the unmistakeable scream of a country that can’t take any more. There are millions with pent up rage who feel they have nothing left to lose.  The underlying reason is not the Metro fare hike but the scandalous inequality in our society. Chile is the most unequal country in the region. This malaise was always going to erupt: people feel defenceless in the face of the rising cost of utilities, education, health care and the mismanagement of pension funds.

In the face of despair, extreme actions. Students began fare jumping in the Metro and a group of vandals did the rest, looting stores, banks, burning buses and destroying traffic lights.

Meanwhile, Piñera was writing his official speech and giving assurances that our country, in comparison with the rest of Latin America, “is an oasis.”

Something is very wrong here. Chile’s soul is rotting.”



Father Jose Aldunate, RIP

Father Jose Aldunate at a human rights demonstration in Santiago during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet

He was born into one of Chile’s oldest families but spent most of his life working for his country’s poor and campaigning for human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Jose Aldunate passed away at the age of 102 on September 28.

This blogger had the opportunity to interview Father Aldunate, known simply as Pepe to many, in the 1980s when he was a parish priest in a poor Santiago neighborhood.  I wanted to pick his brains about living conditions for low income Chileans and what social services, if any, they could access. I expected to hear some kind of political speech, but Aldunate was thoughtful and deliberative. There was a foundation for malnourished children, he said, and some of his parishioners had taken their children there, receiving good care. But unemployment was high, and many of those who did have jobs worked in harsh environments.

He told me of one young man who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, operating a factory machine. When he finished for the day, another worker arrived to begin the day’s second shift. The machine was only shut down on Sundays.

Aldunate had spent part of his boyhood in the United Kingdom (“I had an English nanny!”), attending a Jesuit boarding school in northern England where he played rugby and did very well academically. Back in Chile he followed his older brother into the Jesuits, later dividing his time between teaching and ministering to poor communities.  And he didn’t just minister: Aldunate sought jobs as a laborer in order to better understand his parishioners’ worlds. At the time of the 1973 military coup he started working alongside construction workers in the city of Concepcion, in southern Chile. His residence was raided by soldiers, who confiscated issues of the Jesuit magazine.  People were being arrested around him, but he was spared, and he later speculated it was because his prematurely gray hair made him look like a harmless elderly bystander. He spent five years in Concepcion, working half the year teaching and the other half as a construction worker.

Back in Santiago he worked in a neighborhood which became the site of one of the dictatorship’s most egregious abuses: the case of los quemados, the burned ones. In 1986 two teenagers, one a photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C., were arrested by soldiers during a demonstration and set on fire.  The case drew international attention, with CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace bringing a film crew to the neighborhood.  What would happen, he asked Aldunate, if anyone from the area who witnessed the attack offered to testify?

“It would be dangerous for them,” Aldunate told them.

I obtained a copy of the 60 Minutes segment and invited him to my house to see the program.  He arrived, smiled at my infant daughter sleeping in her bassinet, and watched the video without comment.

I later interviewed him for ABC radio on the anti-torture movement he had helped organize. It was a small group that included many Catholic priests and nuns, who staged brief demonstrations near police stations and any other sites where prisoners were interrogated. At the end of the interview I asked him if he could imagine a time in the future when the movement would no longer be necessary.  He broke into a big smile.

“Oh, I hope so,” he said. “I hope for the day when we can happily dissolve the group because it is not needed.”

That day came the following decade, when Chile returned to democracy. A notorious detention site, Villa Grimaldi, was converted into a peace park and open-air museum and Aldunate participated in the inauguration ceremony.  A group of former prisoners and their families walked through the double metal gate they had entered as detainees, and then the gate was locked securely behind them. The gated entrance was to never be used again, and Aldunate was appointed guardian of the keys.

“These walls which hid death and torture today will have signs of life,” he said.

I last saw Aldunate in 2007, when I visited him in a residence for retired priests in downtown Santiago.  Most of his vision was gone, he walked slowly but was as lucid as ever and was still writing occasionally for the Jesuit magazine. I introduced myself as one of the many foreign journalists who had interviewed him back in the 1980s and mentioned our last interview. He recounted how, with democracy re-established in Chile, members of the group met and decided it was no longer needed. Nine years later he was awarded a national prize for human rights.

One of the board members of the converted Villa Grimaldi made a comment to me that seemed to perfectly sum up this extraordinary man:

“I think Pepe is not of this world.”



More late justice in Chile

He once seemed a symbol of Chile’s democratic transition: an army general who condemned the Pinochet dictatorship’s human rights record and served as army commander during the government of President Ricardo Lagos, a socialist (2000-06). General Juan Emilio Cheyre published an article in 2003, saying that the military coup thirty years earlier had not been a “triumphant military pronouncement, but a time of acute civic enmity.” Six months later he gave a speech directly criticizing those civilian groups that had urged the Chilean military to stage the 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende’s government. The Chilean press described it as historic.

“Never again excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism,” he said. Chile was building an army for the 21st century and that it was time to move away from Cold War thinking.

And Cheyre’s immediate superior was none other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who was serving as Chile’s first female defense minister.

All this earned him the opprobrium of die hard Pinochet supporters, and Cheyre later said he had received death threats. But the general’s past would eventually surface. Last November he was convicted for his role in the killing of 15 people in the notorious Caravan of Death in northern Chile, where he was stationed after the coup. Cheyre was sentenced to three years’ house arrest for helping to cover up the killings. And this week police arrested him and three other former officials on charges of torturing 24 prisoners during this period.

Which makes Cheyre the most senior official to be held accountable for human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime.






Former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), whose death was ruled a homicide.

It was 27 years ago that General Augusto Pinochet attended the funeral of a man killed by his own security apparatus: former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Christian Democrat who led Chile from 1964 to 1970.

Protocol demands that acting heads of state attend the funerals of their predecessors, and this blogger covered the funeral.  The dictator’s motorcade pulled up to Santiago’s cathedral and as he emerged from the vehicle there were loud cries of Asesino! Asesino!  from some in the crowd gathered outside, and the jeering resumed after the service when Pinochet left. But the protesters were referring to the thousands of other human rights abuses committed by the regime, and at the time few were aware that Frei had become its latest and perhaps most prominent victim.

Here’s a link to an earlier post on the case.

Frei, one of the most vociferous critics of the socialist government of his successor, Salvador Allende, had even said the 1973 military coup had been necessary.  But as time passed he became a critic and then an opponent and thus came under the sinister eye of Pinochet’s security forces. His driver was an informant, keeping the regime up to date on his activities.

In late 1981 Frei checked into a private hospital in Santiago for a hernia operation and was discharged three days later, seemingly on the road to recovery. But Frei was slowly being poisoned to death and was readmitted to the hospital, where he died on January 22, 1982.

Frei’s body was eventually exhumed and examined by forensic experts, who found traces of mustard gas and other toxins. A judge in Santiago has indicted six people, including Frei’s former driver, in connection with the case, with sentences ranging from three to 10 years. Two of the indicted are former university professors of medicine charged with covering up the poisoning and falsifying the autopsy report.

Some further reading (in Spanish):

Frei’s daughter Carmen’s book on the case, Magnicidio: La historia del crimen de mi padre

And the Chilean newspaper La Tercera has a special report on the investigation.


Rethinking Pablo Neruda


One of my most treasured books, at least until recently, has been Neruda: Retratar la ausencia, a beautiful collection of black and white photographs of the poet’s home in the coastal town of Isla Negra, by Luis Poirot and published by the Neruda Foundation. The book, signed by dear friends, was presented to me at a small going away party in 1989, when I moved from Chile after nearly a decade of living and working in Santiago.

I also have a very old paperback copy of his memoir, Confieso que he vivido.  And it contains a disturbing passage from the poet’s time in Ceylon in the late 1920s, about a young Tamil woman whose job it was to empty human waste receptacles at his residence.  He seems oblivious to the fact that she wants nothing to do with him—avoiding eye contact, ignoring “gifts” of fruit and silk he places in her path and not responding when he calls out to her.  He can’t take a hint and decides that she is a “shy jungle animal.”  He grabs her wrist and “leads” her to his bed:

“It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open, all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me.”

Neruda’s memoir, with its confession of rape, was published in Spanish in 1974 and in English three years later, but it seems that only recently any attention has been paid to this passage and other unpleasant incidents in the Nobel laureate’s life. In 2015 Dutch writer Hagar Peeters published a novel, Malva, about Neruda’s only daughter, born with hydrocephaly, whom he abandoned along with her mother in Nazi-occupied Europe. Here’s a review of the English version, released a year ago:

There had been a proposal to rename Santiago’s airport after Neruda, and the cultural committee of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies voted for the change. But a growing chorus of outrage from human rights activists might put a stop to this. One parliamentarian and member of Chile’s Humanist Party, Pamela Jiles, wrote that it was bad for the country’s image to pay homage to “an abuser of women, who abandoned his sick child and confessed to rape.” Here’s a good summary in The Guardian:

Meanwhile, the Neruda Foundation (, which manages the poet’s legacy, has remained stonily silent. But perhaps the Foundation could raise some money and make a donation to a group helping survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka.

Wolf House

Casa del lobo

It’s the title of a new film inspired by Colonia Dignidad, the horrific German colony in southern Chile used by the Pinochet dictatorship’s secret police. La Casa Lobo, or Wolf House, is the work of two young Chilean producers, Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña, and recently won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

And it’s animated, a form not usually associated with horror, but the filmmakers used an intriguing approach: if the sinister leader of the cult were a Latin American Walt Disney, what kind film would he make? In an interview with El Mostrador, León noted that reports of abuses at Colonia Dignidad had been filtering out since the 1960s, but nothing was done about it. It is important to discuss this subject, and to find new forms and perspectives to deal with our national traumas, he said.

Here’s a link to the official trailer