Burn After Reading: Pinochet and the Iranians

Some time ago I wrote about a Freedom of Information request I’d made in 2007, https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/a-long-delayed-freedom-of-information-request/ searching for any documents dealing with the Pinochet regime’s arms sales as part of the research for my second Chile book, The General’s Slow Retreat.  The requested material was not released until five years later, and unfortunately did not contain anything that I could immediately use, especially since the book had already been published.

One of the documents, however, is worth summarizing here, in view of the Iran nuclear talks and the glimpse it provides into the murky world of arms dealing among developing countries. It is the story of the regime’s disastrous attempt to sell cluster bombs to Iran and is largely gleaned from Chilean and Spanish news sources, which broke the story early in 1990, just weeks before Pinochet was due to hand over the presidency to an elected president. And it reads like the plot of a Coen brothers movie.

But first, some background.  In 1984 an Iraqi plane landed at Santiago’s airport to collect a load of cluster bombs produced by a private Chilean arms dealer, Carlos Cardoen, who later accused the army’s munitions manufacturer FAMAE of stealing his technology to make its own cluster bombs. The Iran-Iraq war continued, and the Chilean army decided to see if it couldn’t get in on the action as well.  So in October 1985 one of FAMAE’s affiliates enlisted the services of an international arms broker, Bernard Stroiazzo, and an agreement was reached with Iran to sell 500 of its new cluster bombs at a cost of $14,000 each. As each bomb was estimated to cost around $2,500 to produce, the deal should have been lucrative indeed. But there are serious problems. The declassified State Department document, written by U.S. Ambassador Charles Gillespie, reports that

“During early 1986 on two separate test runs in Iran, the cluster bombs prove defective, destroying one Iranian phantom jet and nearly killing the head of the Iranian air force who participated in the demonstration. After the second incident, the Iranian authorities take middleman Stroiazzo and several Chilean technicians hostage pending financial compensation for Iranian losses.”

The Pinochet regime offers to replace the destroyed Iranian jet with an F-5 aircraft, if the Iranians will also purchase an additional $200 million in military hardware, including more cluster bombs and 15 additional aircraft from Chile. The F-5, however, had been purchased from the United States years before the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Chile for the regime’s human rights abuses.  To make this transaction, it would need U.S. government authorization, which seemed improbable. In addition, the Chilean air force was not keen to sell off so many of its aircraft and those officers hoping to rebuild ties with Washington were worried about possible repercussions. The head of FAMAE, Colonel Carlos Carreno, was scheduled to travel to Tehran to negotiate the deal, which presumably involves selling the F-5 by covert means. But three days before he is due to depart, the colonel is kidnapped by the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front,  whose earlier actions included an attempt to assassinate Pinochet. The deal with Iran falls apart. The hapless Colonel Carreno reappears three months later in Brazil, holding a rosary and refusing to say anything about his abduction.

Meanwhile, arms broker Stroiazzo somehow manages to escape his Iranian captors and “begins negotiations with Chilean authorities for financial compensation for Iran and for himself.”  An army general who heads the regime’s secret police offers Stroiazzo a potentially lucrative deal to build a toxic waste plant in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, but local opposition to the project causes authorities to back away from the project. Stroiazzo responds by filing a multimillion dollar international lawsuit and the story finally breaks. The document concludes that the political fallout “has some potential for damaging Pinochet’s and other elements of the armed forces’ image, but the incoming government does not appear particularly interested in actively pursuing the matter.”

In Calama, an old wound

Leonilda Rivas spent decades looking for her son's remains, but died three years ago before lab tests identified his bone fragments. Photo by Paula Allen

Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal has identified the remains of five men executed in the northern mining town of Calama during the aftermath of the 1973 military coup.  The bone fragments were discovered in the Atacama Desert and sent to a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria for testing. Last week officials finally turned the remains over to the families.

The case is part of the notorious Caravan of Death, a series of summary executions ordered by a visiting army delegation from Santiago that toured five provincial cities. The delegation suspected that local military officials were dealing too leniently with leftists and even went so far as to arrest, imprison and torture a military judge who had presided over the trials of political prisoners but whose prison sentences were deemed not severe enough. In Calama, 26 prisoners were taken from their cells and executed “in total disregard for the law in a cruel and barbarous manner,” according to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.

The victims’ bodies were never returned to their families, and quickly buried in the desert outskirts of Calama. A few years later the army attempted to hide the evidence of these and other killings by removing the bodies from makeshift graves in various parts of the country and dumping them into the sea. But the hasty removal still left fragments of bone and clothing behind.  Some of the bereaved wives and mothers began their own search, going out into the desert with shovels.  In July of 1990 a former soldier, now living outside the country, revealed the site’s location near Calama, and the remains of 13 of the men were later delivered to their families.

Other families were left in limbo, but continued searching the Atacama. Leonilda Rivas, pictured above, never gave up hope of finding the remains of her 23 year old son Manuel Hidalgo and giving him a proper burial. Her son’s remains were among those delivered to their families, but Rivas was not present at the Servicio Medico Legal’s brief ceremony–she died in 2008.

Chilean film director Patricio Guzman incorporated the Calama women’s search into his prize-winning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, a meditation on science, history and human rights in the world’s driest desert, whose clear skies attract astronomers from around the world.

“I wish that the telescopes didn’t just look in the sky but also see through the earth so that we could find them,” one of the widows tells Guzman.

A link to the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7f4MLL-Hk