What killed Pablo Neruda?

Pablo Neruda, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the second Chilean poet to receive the award.

The Chilean Communist Party has asked that the remains of poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda be exhumed to establish whether he was poisoned by an injection he received shortly before his death less than two weeks after the military coup which brought General Augusto Pinochet’s regime to power.   A judge who has been investigating Neruda’s death since June of this year will consider the petition, but the Neruda Foundation (http://www.fundacionneruda.cl/ ) says such a move would be “an act of desecration.”

Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer and was moved from his home in the coastal town of Isla Negra to a Santiago hospital, where he died on September 23, 1973. Earlier this year the poet’s former driver said Neruda—who up to that moment had been able to walk around his hospital room and receive visitors—had been given an injection shortly before he died suddenly.  The former Mexican ambassador to Chile, who had offered the poet asylum in his country, has signed a legal affidavit to the effect that Neruda was well enough to plan such a relocation. The Neruda Foundation’s president, Juan Agustin Figueroa, opposes any exhumation and said “we do not believe in any third party involvement in his death.”

Judge Mario Carroza, who also investigated the death of former president Salvador Allende, has sent the Mexican affidavit, along with the testimonies of Neruda’s former driver, a doctor and a nurse to Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal to determine whether there are grounds for an exhumation.



The Krassnoff aftermath

Between 150-200 people attended Monday evening’s presentation of the updated edition of Miguel Krassnoff: Prisionero por Servir a Chile, a book about a former Pinochet regime security agent now serving a 144-year sentence for multiple human rights abuses. The guests included a veteran columnist for the El Mercurio newspaper and Alfonso Marquez de la Plata, one of the regime’s cabinet ministers, who now heads the Pinochet Foundation, as well as a number of retired military officers.  The event, held at the Club Providencia in eastern Santiago, was delayed by a bomb threat, but resumed after Chile’s carabinero police searched the premises with the use of sniffer dogs. According to news reports, Krassnoff’s wife spoke, demanding to know “where are our human rights?” and  guests sang the Chilean national anthem, including a stanza about valiant soldiers which the Pinochet regime added and which was eliminated when the country returned to democratic rule.

Hundreds of people gathered to protest the event, including some who said they had been tortured by Krassnoff.  Past victims include a British doctor, Sheila Cassidy, whose arrest and torture in 1976 prompted Britain to recall its ambassador, as well as a prizewinning Chilean historian, a director of the country’s national television network and Dr. Patricio Bustos, who heads the Servicio Medico Legal, the Chilean coroner’s office.  Dr. Bustos told El Mostrador http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2011/11/22/%E2%80%9Cnos-tiraron-desnudos-amarrados-a-un-somier-metalico-con-aplicaciones-de-electricidad%E2%80%9D/ that he and his girlfriend had been arrested in 1975 and held at the Villa Grimaldi detention center where they were tortured. Krassnoff, he recalled, was one of two officials at the center who did not bother to use an alias.

And earlier in the day a Chilean judge announced yet another case against Krassnoff, the kidnapping and disappearance in 1974 of an electronics technician who was taken from his home by three security agents and never seen again.

A book, an invitation and ….oops!

invitación Krassnoff

Miguel Krassnoff is an Austrian-born former officer in the Chilean army and one of the more notorious members of the Pinochet regime’s security forces.  He is currently serving a 144-year sentence for 23 separate convictions for homicide and forced disappearances. But he has his supporters, who were planning a gathering on Monday to present a new edition of an admiring book, whose title in English is Miguel Krassnoff: Prisoner for Serving Chile.  The event was to be held at a venue in an eastern Santiago municipality whose mayor, Cristian Labbe is an unreconstructed Pinochetista.   During the former dictator’s detention in London from 1998-2000 Labbe ordered trash collection to be suspended at the British and Spanish Embassies located in Providencia, and made 14 visits to the United Kingdom to express his support for Pinochet.

Those invited include Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, and when the invitation reached his office a presidential staffer sent a response which may have automatically generated, saying the president’s schedule for that time was already full, congratulating the event’s organizers and extending the president’s  “best wishes for success.”  News of this event and the presidential office’s reply have outraged  human rights groups and a day later the government issued a terse statement calling its response “a lamentable error” which had not been authorized by President Pinera and “did not represent his thinking.”  There has been a chorus of disapproval from Chilean political leaders  and even the mayor’s own rightist Union Democratica Independiente (UDI)  has sought to distance itself, saying Labbe was not representative of the UDI just because he was a party member.

Labbe maintained this is a freedom of speech issue, but now says he will not be attending the event, claiming a scheduling conflict. Meanwhile, Krassnoff and his admirers have a blog, http://miguelkrassnoff.blogspot.com/.

The Weisfeiler case: still waiting

In late August that Chile’s Valech Commission published an updated list of human rights victims during the Pinochet regime, and conspicuous by his absence was Boris Weisfeiler, the Penn State mathematics professor who disappeared in 1985 while hiking in southern Chile. The omission was deeply upsetting to Weisfeiler’s family and friends, for earlier this year the missing mathematician’s sister Olga had travelled to Santiago and met with Chilean and US Embassy officials involved in the investigation into his disappearance.

It was her tenth visit to Chile, and she left with a cautiously hopeful feeling that the investigation was moving forward. But the Valech Commission’s failure to include Weisfeiler does not mean the end of the inquiry and “does not preclude criminal prosecution in the case,” according to the U.S. State Department. William A. Ostick, the State Department’s press advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told me in an e mail that the U.S government still considers it an open case.

“Representatives from the Embassy in Santiago have been in touch with Chilean officials since the publication of the Valech Commission’s most recent report,” he said. “We will continue to follow the case.”

Last week Chile’s Centro de Investigacion Periodistica (CIPER) published a story (http://ciperchile.cl/2011/10/20/cables-de-wikileaks-mencionan-polemicos-%E2%80%9Ctestigos-reservados%E2%80%9D-en-procesos-de-colonia-dignidad/) on the continuing judicial investigation into Colonia Dignidad, the secretive German colony used by the regime’s secret police to detain, interrogate and kill political prisoners. Colonia Dignidad, now renamed Villa Baviera, is located in the same general area of southern Chile where Weisfeiler was hiking, and a few years after his disappearance at least one informant told the U.S. Embassy that he had seen the mathematics professor inside the colony. The CIPER report cites two embassy cables released by Wikileaks—one unclassified, the other marked “confidential”—which describe the U.S. consul’s meetings in 2005 with Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda, who was investigating both Weisfeiler’s disappearance and Colonia Dignidad. Zepeda has come under criticism for offering immunity to some of his informants (“testigos reservados”) who had worked closely with the colony’s leaders, including one German colonist who admitted to helping dispose of the bodies of dead prisoners. Zepeda’s informants have maintained that Weisfeiler had never been at the compound, but how credible are their accounts? An excerpt from the unclassified cable:

Still, Zepeda added that he had reviewed the records of the original 1985 investigation and that he was convinced that a number of significant leads were not properly pursued. For example, he cited an interview in the court records of a local man who was found in possession of Weisfeiler’s drivers license, in which police did not ask elemental questions such as how he had come to be in possession of the document. Zepeda implied that Colonia Dignidad’s political influence in the area at the time might have influenced the course and thoroughness of the investigation. He said he had assigned his two best investigators to focus intensively on the Weisfeiler case, conducting what he described as a complete top-to-bottom review of all the available documentation and evidence, including the records of previous investigations.”

That was six years ago, and there have been no significant breakthroughs in the Weisfeiler inquiry. CIPER contacted Judge Zepeda, who declined comment, saying the investigation into Colonia Dignidad was still underway. Stay tuned.

Nocturno de Chile

Los Archivos del Cardenal, or The Cardinal's Archives, airs Thursday and Sunday evenings on Chile's state television channel

The guests ring the doorbell of a house in the affluent Lo Curro neighbourhood in eastern Santiago and an aspiring Chilean writer shows them into a living room where several guests are already seated.  Drinks are served; the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is discussed. The writer’s husband, a taciturn American, appears in the kitchen and glares at a guest who tries to open a door leading from the kitchen. Behind the door is a homemade lab where poisons and drugs are produced for the Pinochet regime’s secret police.

“Experimentos Bacteriologicos” is the seventh episode of Los Archivos del Cardenal http://www.tvn.cl/programas/losarchivosdelcardenal/2011/ , a gripping television series that presents fictionalized accounts of some of the cases documented by the Catholic Church’s human rights department, the Vicariate of Solidarity. The series began broadcasting last month and drew some initial grumblings from conservatives—which only seemed to boost its already high ratings. The show’s writer, Josefina Fernandez, happens to be the daughter of one of the Vicariate’s lawyers and is a fan of the U.S. series Law and Order. There is, quite obviously,  an enormous stockpile of chilling real life events for the show’s scripts.

This most recent episode is based in part on the activities of Mariana Callejas and Michael Townley, a Chilean-American couple who worked for the regime’s secret police agency, the DINA. Callejas often held literary gatherings at their home, sometimes hosting her guests overnight during the curfew while the DINA used the premises not only as a makeshift lab but also to hold and interrogate political detainees.  The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano also included this material in his novel By Night in Chile, calling Callejas  “Maria Canales” and Townley “Jimmy Thompson”:

“As a general rule, prisoners were not killed in Jimmy’s house. It was meant to be just for interrogation, although there was the occasional death. It was also revealed that Jimmy had travelled to Washington and killed one of Allende’s ex-ministers and a North American woman who happened to get in the way. And that he had organized the assassinations of exiled Chileans in Argentina, and even in Europe, that civilized continent, to which Jimmy paid a brief visit with the diffidence of those born in the New World. All this came out. Maria had known about it for a long time, of course. But she wanted to be a writer, and writers require the physical proximity of other writers.”

One of the prisoners brought to the Townley-Callejas home was a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria, who worked at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago. Soria had used his diplomatic status to help Chileans fleeing political persecution find refuge in various embassies around the capital, actions which drew the attention of the DINA.  His body was later discovered in a car sunk in a canal.

And what became of this odd couple?  Townley was later extradited to the United States, where he entered the federal Witness Protection Program in exchange for testifying in the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington. Callejas remained in Chile, and in 1989 I managed to interview her at her Lo Curro house, which has since been torn down, while researching my first book.

“If there are any doubts 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.” She showed me passages from a short story she had written in English, about a butterfly and an emperor and said she was trying to write in mostly in English.  She later wrote a memoir, Siembra Vientos (now out of print but used copies are still being sold on Amazon).

There is more background in Spanish on this and other cases presented in Los Archivos del Cardenal at http://www.casosvicaria.udp.cl/.

More on the Valech Commission victim list

The Valech Commission’s recently updated list of human rights victims has a few names whose inclusion has upset many Chileans.  The panel’s former president, Maria Luisa Sepulveda, said that their mandate was to study these individuals’ treatment at the hands of the military regime, not judge their subsequent actions.  They include an accused assassin and two former leftists who collaborated with the Pinochet regime’s security forces after being tortured, and the backstories make compelling, if grim, reading.

Galvarino Apablaza had been an active member of Chile’s communist party when he was arrested in wake of the 1973 and tortured. Following his release, he went into exile, then returned  in 1986 to help found the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, an armed leftwing group that attempted to assassinate Pinochet that year.  The return to democracy in 1990 did not cause Apablaza to lay down his arms and the following year a rightwing member of Chile’s senate, Jaime Guzman, was killed by the group.  Chilean officials have linked the killing to Apablaza, who was granted asylum in Argentina—and Argentine authorities have refused to extradite him.

Then there is Luz Arce, a former member of Salvador Allende’s paramilitary bodyguards, the Grupo de Amigos Personales.  She, too, was arrested after the military coup and subjected to a horrifying barrage of torture, beatings and gang rape before being brainwashed and coerced into collaborating with the DINA, the regime’s brutal security agency.  Arce later gave testimony to the first official human rights inquiry in 1990 and wrote a book about her experiences, offering a rare look at the inner workings of the DINA and its activities in Chile and abroad. El Infierno was published in Santiago in 1993 and in 2004 the University of Wisconsin Press brought out an English version, The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile.  An excerpt:

“Sit down, Luz.  Untie her and take off her blindfold.  I can’t talk if I can’t see her eyes,” said a sickly sweet voice. “Ok, Lucecita, the two of us are going to talk. Bring some coffees! Lucecita, what sign are you?”


Of all the questions in the world, I would never have thought they would ask me that one at a time like that. He repeated it slowly, as if he were relishing each syllable.

“Y-O-U-R S-I-G-N, of the Z-O-D-I-A-C.”

Another leftist-turned-collaborator is Miguel Estay Reino, who also broke under torture and began working with the Chilean air force and police.  He was later indicted for his role in a notorious triple murder in 1985 and is currently in prison.  The inclusion of Estay and Arce on the list has outraged support groups for families of the disappeared, who were disappointed that many of the cases they have documented over the years were not added to the Valech Commission’s list and who are demanding the list be revised.




Still no justice for Boris Weisfeiler

On Friday the Valech Commission, the panel undertaking a further investigation into human rights abuses under the 1973-1990 Pinochet regime, published its final report online, listing additional killings and abuses committed during this period. http://www.comisionvalech.gov.cl/InformeValech.html An additional 30 deaths were added, raising the death toll to 3,095 and the total number of victims at just over 40,000.

Missing from this revised list is Boris Weisfeiler, the Penn State mathematics professor who disappeared while hiking in southern Chile in 1985 and the only American desaparecido. He was an experienced outdoorsman who had hiked alone in remote parts of Peru, Uzbekistan, Russia and Canada, but his trail in the Andean foothills brought him near Colonia Dignidad,  a secretive German colony used as a detention center by the regime’s secret police (see earlier posts on March 21 and 30). According to declassified U.S. State Department documents, Chilean witnesses reported seeing Weisfeiler at the compound.  His case has been under judicial investigation for years, but no indictments have been made, and the Valech Commission appears not to have found enough evidence to include the case in its report.

Olga Weisfeiler, who submitted her brother’s case to the Valech Commission in March of last year, posted a statement on her family’s web site expressing her extreme disappointment with the decision. http://www.weisfeiler.com/boris/ “My brother is a victim of the political repression of the Pinochet regime, even if the Commission did not have the proof at its disposal to formally accept his case as a human rights atrocity,” she wrote. “I have waited over 25 years for both truth and justice in his case, and I will continue to wait for the government of Chile, and the Courts, to do what must be done to find him, and punish those who are responsible for depriving him of his life and liberty, and taking him from his family. It is also time for the U.S. government to make clear to Chile that the case of Boris Weisfeiler must be resolved and to provide all necessary investigative assistance toward that long overdue goal.”

The Weisfeiler case is still in the hands of a Chilean prosecutor, but it is unclear how the country’s judicial system will proceed. Earlier this year Olga made her tenth visit to Chile to meet with authorities in Santiago and U.S. Embassy officials, and came away with a somewhat more optimistic feeling that the case was being taken seriously. But now she told me in an e mail that she has “no idea what if anything will happen with the investigation now.”

Justice for an air force general

General Bachelet's letters were published in 2006.

They broke me from within. I found myself with comrades from the Chilean air force, whom I had known for 20 years, students of mine, who treated me like a criminal or a dog.” –General Alberto Bachelet, in a letter to his son, October 16, 1973

He refused to go along with the coup and was arrested at his office in the Chilean defense ministry on September 11, 1973. He was released that night, but a few days later his home was raided and he was brought to the Chilean air force academy where he was interrogated and tortured over a 30-hour period by some of his former colleagues.  He was moved to the air force hospital and held incommunicado.  A few weeks later he was sent home and placed under house arrest, then on December 18 authorities arrested him again and brought him to Santiago’s public jail.

Four months later a war tribunal began against “Bachelet and others.” But General Alberto Bachelet was already dead, having suffered a fatal heart attack while in prison.  This blogger received an eyewitness account of Bachelet’s death from Nelson Morales Leal, a former army reserve officer so disturbed by the abuses committed in wake of the coup that while on a day pass he deliberately got himself arrested for disorderly conduct in order go get out of the army. Morales ended up in the same jail with Bachelet and other political detainees.  He described how on March 12, 1974 he and his fellow prisoners were being herded out of their cells for lunch when Bachelet collapsed. Morales and other prisoners brought the general back to his cell, where he died. A sympathetic prison guard notified Radio Balmaceda, one of the slightly more independent radio stations still operating after the coup, and the subsequent broadcast prompted authorities to shut down the station.

Bachelet might never have imagined that his daughter Michelle would one day become Latin America’s first female defense minister, and later Chile’s first woman president.And now an investigation has opened into the circumstances of his death, led by the same judge who led the recent inquiry into the death of former president Salvador Allende (which was deemed to have been a suicide). Judge Mario Carroza told Radio Cooperativa that he would review the case, which was presented by a group of relatives of political prisoners who died during the 1973-1990 military regime.

The slow pace of truth and justice

First there was the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (http://www.usip.org/files/resources/collections/truth_commissions/Chile90-Report/Chile90-Report.pdf), which in 1991 reported that 2,279 persons were killed for political reasons under the Pinochet regime, with another 641 cases which researchers could not conclusively determine were politically motivated murders.  And there were another 449 cases of individuals who had disappeared, but no information other than their names could be determined.

Then there was the Valech Commission report of 2004  which documented arrests and torture under the regime, with testimonies from 35,865 people, of which 27,255 were deemed to be credible (http://www.comisionvalech.gov.cl/InformeValech.html. The commission’s work was criticized for being too limited—witnesses’ statements were taken for only six months and could only be given during office hours—but it prompted Chilean army commander General Julio Cheyre to publicly acknowledge the military’s abuses during that period.

And now comes the second Valech report, presented this week to President Sebastian Pinera. Shortly before she left office outgoing president Michelle Bachelet reopened the commission, which identified another 9,800 people arrested and tortured.  This brings the total of officially recognized victims to just over 40,000, with the number of those killed raised to 3,065. Survivors will be eligible for a modest state pension of about $260 per month.

There are still dozens of former regime officials facing prosecution for human rights crimes, with about 70 currently serving prison sentences. But the Chilean judicial system is so overloaded that the country’s prosecutors went on strike August 17, complaining of massive backlogs and insufficient funding.

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