An old crime, now a film

It was one of the most horrifying crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship, two young Chileans deliberately set on fire by soldiers during a protest in Santiago in 1986.  One died, the other was scarred for life, but the case made headlines around the world, in part because the dead teenager, Rodrigo Rojas, had grown up in Washington, D.C. This story is now a feature length film, La Mirada Incendiada, due to be released April 9th.

Here’s a link to the trailer:

And a link to the National Security Archive’s collection of declassified U.S. Embassy documents on the case detailing witness intimidation and how the Posta Central hospital, where the victims were initially treated, offered them “archaic and insufficient” treatment. There is also an account by a trusted contact within the Chilean uniformed police, the carabineros, who prepared a report on the case–which Pinochet refused to accept—and shows a growing rift between the carabineros and the Chilean army:

Rojas was a 19-year-old photographer who accompanied a group of University of Santiago students to one of the Chilean capital’s poorer neighborhoods. Some civilians, possibly vigilantes, began shooting at them. The young people were running away when one of the group, Carmen Gloria Quintana, stumbled and fell. Rojas was helping her up when the two were surrounded by army troops, who beat them, sprayed them with a flammable substance and set them on fire. The soldiers then wrapped them in blankets, threw them into their vehicle and drove them to a town north of Santiago and dumped them in a ditch.

The case received extensive coverage in the U.S. media, with a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. The U.S. ambassador, along with a handful of European diplomats, attended Rojas’ funeral, where they were eyewitnesses to the police attacking the crowd of mourners with tear gas and water cannon. There were even attempts to seize Rojas’s coffin.

Chilean journalists covering the case were also threatened. My friend and colleague Odette Magnet, who for eight years wrote about human rights for the weekly newsmagazine Hoy, recalls receiving phone calls after midnight in which security agents played a recording of a typewriter and machine gun fire. In another incident, she and an American colleague were riding a bus which two security agents boarded and accompanied them to their destination.

Carmen Gloria Quintana was later moved to a specialist burn unit at a Montreal hospital and Hoy magazine published a cover photograph of the ambulance taking her to the airport.  She underwent multiple surgeries, months of treatment, but eventually graduated from university, married, had children and later served as science attaché at the Chilean Embassy in Canada, where she still lives. She visits Chile from time to time.

Slow, slow justice

Rodrigo Rojas, a young Chilean photographer who grew up in Washington, D.C., made a trip to Chile in 1986 that would cost him his life.

Rodrigo Rojas, a young Chilean photographer who grew up in Washington, D.C., made a trip to Chile in 1986 that would cost him his life.

It happened 29 years ago this month, and was one of the most egregious human rights cases during the Pinochet dictatorship. A passing military patrol set two teenagers on fire during anti-government protests in Santiago, killing one and badly injuring the other. Unfortunately for the regime, the dead teenager, Rodrigo Rojas, was a budding photographer and U.S. resident who had grown up in Washington, D.C. and attended Woodrow Wilson High School. The killing received a great deal of publicity in the U.S. news media, including programs on ABC’s Nightline and CBS’s 60 Minutes.

This week a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of seven former army officers, part of a continuing investigation into the case. A former conscript has identified one of the officials who he said had set the two teenagers on fire, and described how officials tried to cover up their actions. The New York Times reports that the conscript and other young soldiers were drilled on what to tell investigators in the case.

“We had to memorize statements that had already been drafted,” he said. “They had even made a mock-up of the place so that we could learn our version better.”

They gathered several times to agree on their stories, Mr. Guzmán said. At one point, he said, they had a meeting with the vice commander in chief of the army at the time, Santiago Sinclair, now 87, who said that nothing would ever happen to them and that they should think about their families. “I am still afraid and think that maybe they will act on their threats,” Mr. Guzmán told the judge.

A silver lining to the case: Carmen Gloria Quintana, who survived the burning attack, was moved from a hospital in Santiago to a special burn facility in Montreal and spent years in rehabilitation. She still bears the scars of what happened, but since that time has managed to get a university degree, get married, pursue a career and currently serves as science attache to the Chilean Embassy in Ottawa.