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 ( recently published a four-part series on the Punta Peuco prison’s inmates. The first article  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, a historical museum documenting crimes committed during the Pinochet years.

The second article 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 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 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.