A special prison for special prisoners

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime's secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime’s secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

It was 20 years ago that Chile opened the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, a special facility to hold prisoners convicted of human rights violations. Why not send them to the regular prisons? Well, at the time the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was still army commander, still rattling his sabre and issuing not-so-veiled threats that he would launch a coup against the new civilian government if authorities acted too hastily against human rights violators. He claimed that his former officials would be in danger from other inmates, as well as from socialist prison guards. After protracted negotiations, the government built the Punta Peuco prison to hold those convicted of human rights abuses. Its first prisoners were the former head of Pinochet’s security apparatus and one of his top agents, both wanted in the United States for their role in the 1976 car bomb assassination of a Chilean exile leader and his American co-worker in Washington.

Since then, the Punta Peuco prison has added more inmates, as Chile’s judicial system slowly works its way through the backlog of human rights cases. One of the more notorious prisoners is Alvaro Corbalan, currently serving a life sentence for several killings, including the 1982 murder of a trade union activist and that of a carpenter whose body was later found in a staged suicide tableau with a forged letter confessing to killing the trade unionist. But it seems that Corbalan has been rather busy while in prison, and Chile’s Television Nacional program, Informe Especial http://www.24horas.cl/programas/informeespecial/informe-especial-los-archivos-secretos-de-alvaro-corbalan-1725221 , reports that a recent search of his cell turned up “over 50 file folders of classified information from the dictatorship, over 30 identity documents and state-of-the-art electronic equipment.” The identity documents included some with false names Corbalan used while working for the secret police.There was also a cell phone, a new notebook computer and two modems giving Corbalan broadband access within the prison. According to officials, the confiscated file folders contained detailed personal information on two former justice ministers as well as the prison’s entire management staff, plus files containing information on 18 cases involving the Pinochet regime’s security forces which may be of interest to several human rights investigations currently underway. But how was all this stuff smuggled into the prison?

Corbalan has left the prison on a number of occasions, sometimes for medical checkups at the Hospital Militar and sometimes on day passes—several years ago he was spotted at a yacht club on the Chilean coast, accompanied by family and friends. Will prison officials now keep him on a tighter leash? Stay tuned.

Rogues’ Gallery

Outside the Punta Peuco prison, built to hold the Pinochet regime’s human rights abusers.

The Punta Peuco prison lies on the outskirts of Santiago and is not your typical Latin American jail. When it opened its doors in 1995 it held just one inmate: former army colonel Pedro Espinoza, one of three Pinochet regime officials the United States wanted extradited for the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. The prison was built specifically to hold human rights offenders, and at present there are 49 inmates serving sentences there. Some high profile prisoners, such as former secret police director Manuel Contreras and former agent Miguel Krassnoff, have been moved to a separate facility, the Penal Cordillera, which is run by the Chilean army.

The Centro de Investigacion Periodistica, CIPER (www.ciper.cl) recently published a four-part series on the Punta Peuco prison’s inmates. The first article  http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/18/punta-peuco-i-la-fallida-operacion-de-inteligencia-de-alvaro-corbalan/  reported on the extraordinary activities of Alvaro Corbalán, former operations chief of the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI), the Pinochet regime’s secret police.  He is serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of a carpenter, whose body was then arranged to look like a suicide, with a forged note claiming he was the killer of a trade unionist murdered the previous year. Other crimes include the murder of a young leftist in 1985 and the killing of a Chilean journalist in wake of an assassination attempt against Pinochet in 1986.

Corbalán is perhaps best known for organizing a political party, the Avanzada Nacional, to campaign for Pinochet’s re-election in a one-man presidential plebiscite in 1988. But  incarceration has not diminished his interest in political intrigue.  Guards at the prison confiscated a 10-page memorandum he was writing to Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, offering to collaborate with his government and help prevent a future electoral victory by the center-left coalition which narrowly lost the 2009 presidential election. He suggested posting a certain sympathetic prison guard in the Chilean Interior Ministry, who could then act as liaison for any future operations.   Corbalán also indicated a certain rightwing member of the Chilean Senate might act as a courier for further communications.

The reaction to this first CIPER report was understandable outrage.  The Chilean Congress’s human rights commission announced it would call Corbalán’s prison sympathizers to a hearing, while President Piñera made a point of visiting Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria http://www.museodelamemoria.cl/, a historical museum documenting crimes committed during the Pinochet years.

The second article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/19/punta-peuco-ii-los-cachureos-del-guaton-romo/ recounts the double life of Osvaldo Romo, a one-time militant leftist who joined the regime’s security forces shortly after the 1973 coup. The exact circumstances are a little murky, but it appears that Romo switched sides voluntarily and became one of the most notorious human rights violators of that period, often arranging the arrests and torture of former colleagues.  Romo later fled to Brazil, but was extradited in 1992 and died at the Punto Peuco prison in 2007.

The third article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/24/punta-peuco-iii-el-otro-muro-que-divide-a-militares-y-carabineros/ details the divisions between ex-army officers and officials from Chile’s carabinero police within the prison, and comments from one of the few former regime security agents who has publicly acknowledged wrongdoing.

The final article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/05/02/punta-peuco-iv-las-historias-no-contadas-de-familiares-y-presos/ describes how families of the prisoners cope, with many insisting their husbands and fathers are political prisoners who committed no crimes and others bearing a burden of shame.