Fake news from Chile

On July 24, 1975 Chile’s afternoon tabloid La Segunda published a front page story headlined “Exterminated like mice.”  The article described a shootout between rival factions of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and other Chilean leftist groups who had fled to Argentina after the 1973 military coup in which dozens of people were killed.

exterminaron como ratones

La Segunda is part of the El Mercurio newspaper chain, whose publisher, Augustin Edwards, died at his estate south of Santiago this week. The supposed shootout never took place and the newspaper report was part of an elaborate disinformation campaign by the Pinochet regime’s security agency, the DINA, aimed at discrediting victims of forced disappearances and their families.  The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation later described the report as “the high point of manipulating disinformation.”  And Edwards’ newspapers were often willing participants in these operations. 

According to the Commission, the DINA published two lists totalling 119 Chileans who had disappeared after their arrest via two obscure publications, the Argentine magazine Lea and the Brazilian newspaper Novo O Dia.  

“Subsequent investigation revealed that Lea was the first issue of a magazine that did not legally exist and provided no names of anyone involved in it and that Novo O Dia was published irregularly in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Further investigation into the source of the single issue of Lea led to a print shop linked to ultraright groups in the Argentinean government at that time. It also became clear that such unusual publications were used because despite considerable efforts the more serious media refused to publish the news.”

But Edwards’ El Mercurio newspaper chain was quick to pick up and republish this disinformation, with sensational headlines and additional material of questionable origin about Chilean subversives operating in other countries. The result, the Commission report noted, was “confusion within public opinion, and humiliation and isolation for the relatives of victim and those circles involved in defending human rights.”  And throughout the Pinochet dictatorship’s 17 years in power, Edwards’ newspapers routinely helped cover up human rights abuses, maligning the victims and casting doubt on the credibility of witnesses to such crimes.

The Chilean Journalists Association finally expelled Edwards two years ago. And last year his name appeared in the Panama Papers  as one of the clients served by the Panama City law firm Mossack, which had helped wealthy individuals from around  the world establish offshore  bank accounts.

The literary assassin

Mariana Callejas, former secret police agent and one of the more notorious figures from the Pinochet dictatorship, died in a care home this week.

I interviewed her in Santiago in 1989.  She was astonishingly frank, but then she was used to talking about her past, having given extended statements to FBI officials investigating the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.  Her husband, Michael Townley, an American working for the regime’s Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), had placed the bomb which killed Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt.

“If there are any doubt about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.”

The interview took place at her home in Lo Curro, an affluent municipality in eastern Santiago.  She brought out some short fiction to show me, saying she was writing more in English than in Spanish these days. I quickly read through one of the pieces, about an emperor and a butterfly and have to admit, she had writing talent. In the mid-seventies she hosted all-night literary gatherings (a curfew was in effect), even as their basement was being used as a holding pen and torture site for political prisoners. The late Roberto Bolaño wrote a fictionalized account of these dark events in his novella By Night in Chile; Callejas was called “Maria Canales.”  She published a collection of stories, La Larga Noche, which contained descriptions of torture and bomb making.  Another story was awarded a prize sponsored by a Chilean literary magazine, causing an understandable outcry; the magazine explained that the entries were submitted under pseudonyms and that the author’s identity was not known until after the winning story was announced.

I asked her how she came to work for the DINA.  She said the regime knew of her and Townley’s “resistance work” against the ill-fated socialist government of Salvador Allende, when far-right groups set off bombs and engaged in other sabotage.  She claimed to have been concerned when Townley told her of the plan to murder Letelier, and that the DINA chief had promised him a commission in the Chilean army after completing this deadly mission.

But Callejas was not exactly a cowed wife.  A Chilean court later found her guilty of involvement in another car bomb assassination: former army commander General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia, in Buenos Aires in 1974. She was given a 20-year prison sentence in 2008 but Chile’s Supreme Court later reduced this to five years under house arrest.

Last year Callejas and 14 other DINA agents were indicted in the 1976 murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carlos Soria; Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the victim had been kidnapped and brought to the Townley-Callejas home in Lo Curro where he was interrogated and killed during torture and that the perpetrators sought to cover up their crime by staging an automobile accident.  But Callejas, now in a care home, was suffering from dementia and was not formally charged.

 

 

 

 

“The most dangerous man in Chile”

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

He was the terrifying fist in the dictator’s glove, but even the dictator was afraid of him. Manuel Contreras, the Chilean army officer whose secret police agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), brought a new level of fear and terror to Chileans at home and abroad. died in Santiago’s Hospital Militar,  the same facility where General Augusto Pinochet died in 2006.

It was just a few months after the 1973 military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, a socialist, when Contreras appeared at a meeting of Chile’s military commanders, cabinet and the intelligence directors of the army, air force, navy and national police, the carabineros. Pinochet announced that then-Colonel Contreras would be heading a new security agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA). Some of the officers expressed misgivings—the country was already under tight control, a state of siege was in effect and political prisoners were being rounded up and in many cases executed, so why the need for even more security services? The carabinero intelligence director, General German Campos, thought the new agency sounded like “a bunch of vulgar bodyguards” reminiscent of Salvador Allende’s Cuban-trained security detail.

Contreras’ DINA, which reported exclusively to Pinochet, proved to be much more than a group of bodyguards and would enable Pinochet to maneuver his way from one of four junta members to Supreme Leader of the Nation. Drawing officials from all the branches of the military, plus right-wing civilians, the new security agency expanded its tentacles, organizing secret detention centers throughout Chile. Every government ministry had its DINA informants; former junta member and air force commander General Gustavo Leigh told this blogger that he was surprised to discover a DINA agent working in his department. The junta’s press secretary once found that DINA agents had broken into his office and stolen press credentials, in order to disguise themselves as journalists. Contreras ingratiated himself with Pinochet’s wife Lucia, and obliged when she asked him to tap the phones of other military wives.

His most ambitious project was Operation Condor, a joint security program with the military regimes of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia to monitor and eliminate leftists and any former officials who might prove troublesome. Chileans who had fled their country and found refuge in Argentina were arrested and made to disappear. María Cecilia Magnet was kidnapped, along with her Argentine husband, Guillermo Tamburini, at their home on July 16, 1976.  Luis Elgueta was arrested 11 days later with his wife and sister-in-law. None were ever seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

General Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s former army commander, was killed with his wife in a car bomb explosion in Buenos Aires in 1974. Two years later former defence minister Orlando Letelier and his American co-worker were killed by another car bomb in Washington, D.C., sparking an FBI investigation leading to a U.S. extradition request for Contreras and two other DINA officials. Pinochet refused the extradition request, and reorganized the DINA into a supposedly more benign agency, the Central Nacional de Informacion (CNI). Pressure from Washington continued, and Contreras was finally removed, though not before Pinochet promoted him from colonel to general. A series of suspicious bombings rocked Santiago, which the carabinero police investigated and found to be the work of Contreras’ agents.

As civilian Contreras formed a private security agency headquartered in downtown Santiago, and many suspected he continued to do jobs for the Pinochet regime. He was also on the board of a private company, Telefonica Manquehue, which received an exclusive contract to provide phone coverage in one of Santiago’s expanding eastern neighborhoods. (This blogger lived for a time in this area—and the service was terrible.) But change was coming to Chile, and in 1988 Pinochet lost a one-man presidential plebiscite and would be forced to hand over the government to an elected civilian.

Contreras was understandably nervous. According to a declassified U.S. State Department cable, in February 1989 Contreras sent an intermediary to the American Embassy with a strange message. He claimed to have had four separate meetings with “gringos” in which it was agreed that neither government would reveal any information damaging to Contreras, Pinochet or U.S. officials. The U.S. had broken this agreement with recent initiatives on the Letelier case, and if a new understanding was not reached, Contreras was prepared to take unspecified actions against the U.S. He was prepared to give a sworn statement in Chile on the Letelier assassination, provided that he and U.S. officials could agree on an “appropriate story,” such as stating that Letelier had been a pro-Castro Cuban agent killed by Cuban exiles. As if to show he could still provide useful information, Contreras indicated that one of his agents had been involved in drug trafficking with one of Pinochet’s sons. The cable, written by deputy chief of mission George Jones described Contreras as “the most dangerous man in Chile” and that the possibility of “a Contreras-initiated terrorist act” could not be excluded. A handwritten note attached to the cable suggests ways to drive a wedge between Contreras and Pinochet:

I would be rightly surprised if any USG {US government] person made any such deal with this piece of dogshit—we should talk with (deleted) how this could be used to further pressure Contreras—the best defence may be an offense, e.g., telling the For Min [Foreign Ministry] that this guy is threatening us and that we will hold the GOC [Government of Chile] responsible if any of this is carried out—might signal in our way that Contreras is obviously willing to make up stories about everybody to blackmail them into protecting him (i.e., that we realize Pinochet et al are in the same boat) and imply that it would behoove Pinochet to go ahead and cut this guy loose.”

Pinochet did eventually cut Contreras loose, but it would take years and the new civilian governments were wary of provoking a rebellion by the Chilean army, which Pinochet still controlled. Chile’s Supreme Court, which had rejected the U.S. extradition request, reopened the Letelier case in 1991. Four years later Contreras was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the double murder, and it would take several months of negotiations with his lawyers and family before Chilean officials could finally take him into custody. He was sent to the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, specially built to hold human rights violators. More investigations by Chilean prosecutors followed, and at the time of his death Contreras was serving combined jail sentences of over 500 years.

Los Miserables

Jorgelino Vergara, former civilian employee of the Pinochet regime’s secret police, the DINA, tells his story on CNN-Chile

Two recent items from Chile:

  1. Poverty levels in the country have declined from 15 to 14.4 percent, and extreme poverty has declined from 3.7 to 2.8 percent, according to the National Socioeconomic Survey, whose Spanish acronym is CASEN.  The report http://www.ministeriodesarrollosocial.gob.cl/noticias/2012/07/20/casen-revela-baja-de-la-pobreza-en-chile was presented by Chile’s Minister of Social Development, Joaquin Lavin, and almost immediately questioned by opposition groups citing other studies. Radio Cooperativa and the Imaginaccion polling company (http://www.imaginaccion.cl/) released a poll showing nine out of ten Chilean surveyed thought that social inequalities were not decreasing http://www.cooperativa.cl/nueve-de-cada-10-chilenos-no-cree-que-la-desigualdad-este-bajando/prontus_nots/2012-07-23/222402.html.
  2. On Tuesday Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal announced it had identified the remains of four men arrested in two separate incidents in 1976 http://www.sml.cl/sml/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=241:sml-identifica-victimas-halladas-en-cuesta-barriga&catid=35:identificacion-y-ddhh&Itemid=222.  The four—a mining expert, a university professor, a trade unionist and an engineer­­—were killed after lengthy, brutal interrogations at a secret detention site operated by the Pinochet regime’s secret police agency the DINA. (This particular site was incongruously named after the Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.)  Their bodies were thrown down an abandoned mine located on a road between Santiago and Valparaiso. Two years later, in a notorious maneuver known as Operation TV Set Removal, Pinochet regime security agents exhumed these and the bodies of other dead political detainees, tied them to metal railings and tossed them into the Pacific Ocean.  Investigators later discovered some 200 bits of bone fragments at the mine, which after years of forensic examinations and genetic testing at a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria yielded the men’s identities. Their funerals were scheduled for this weekend.

Recently the Chilean public was treated to the extraordinary story of Jorgelino Vergara, a man who survived extreme poverty in the country’s rural south and became a civilian employee of the DINA, working at the Simon Bolivar site after serving as servant at the home of DINA chief Manuel Contreras. A book about Vergara’s life, La Danza de los Cuervos, or The Dance of the Ravens, was published last month and he was later interviewed on CNN-Chile.

Vergara was one of a dozen children born to an impoverished campesino family. By the time he was five both parents had died and he went to live with an older brother employed on a large agricultural estate.  He grew up during the governments of Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (1964-70) and Socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-73) but neither administration’s land redistribution or agrarian reform programs had any effect on his family’s fortunes. Vergara’s brother had nine children of his own and the family was squeezed into three rooms in a shed-like building used to house farmworkers.  He had little schooling, and was often hungry.  Several years later he followed another brother to Santiago, searching for work and became a live-in servant at the home of a senior Chilean military officer—who just happened to the second-most powerful man in the country.  It was the first time in his life he had access to adequate food and shelter, and Vergara was later promoted to a job at the detention center, where almost no prisoners ever emerged alive.

Little did DINA officials know what an observant witness this poor campesino youth was. To watch the CNN interview—and be warned, it is horrifying: http://www.ecos.cl/2012/07/entrevista-jorgelino-vergara-el-mocito.html