Facebook Twitter Flickr Pinterest Linkedint Youtube


The Pinochet Years


The Pinochet Years

Under the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the people of Chile were subjected to a systematic campaign of torture and state violence: an estimated 2,600 - 3,400 Chilean citizens were executed or “disappeared” while another 30,000 to 100,000  were tortured. [1] [2]

1973 Coup d'état

On the morning of September 11, 1973 the world awoke to televised images of tanks rolling through the streets of Santiago. With a green light from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Chilean armed forces, under the command of General Augusto Pinochet toppled the democratic socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende.  By late morning, Pinochet ordered a full assault on the capital.  Shortly before air force jets bombed the presidential palace, Dr. Allende committed suicide. Pinochet’s military junta seized power, ending Chile’s long tradition of constitutional government. [3]

What followed was violent repression on a massive scale: Pinochet’s military dictatorship defined elements of the Chilean population as an ideological enemy—the “subversive”—and targeted individuals who fit this profile. The Chilean Army detained thousands of individuals at Chile Stadium, tortured and murdered hundreds, and organized death squads that traveled throughout the country executing suspected opponents of the dictatorship. According to the Valech Report on Political Imprisonment and Torture (2004), at least 27,255 people were tortured from 1973-1990. Approximately 2,296 people were killed or “disappeared”, although an additional 1,000 still remain unaccounted for. The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission found 899 additional cases of individuals “disappeared” or killed by state agents, in the same period. [2]

Arrests at State Technical University and mass detention at Chile Stadium

In the days following the September 11 coup, troops from the Chilean Armed forces began detaining suspected leftists and detaining them at Chile Stadium in Santiago. On September 12, soldiers entered the State Technical University and detained hundreds of students, professors, and staff members. Among those taken was Víctor Jara, a celebrated Chilean folk singer famous for his message of peace and social justice, who was teaching at the University during the siege.

At the Stadium, prisoners were subjected to brutal conditions. Placed in cramped makeshift cells throughout the Stadium, prisoners were deprived of food and beaten. Many were taken to subterranean rooms for interrogation and torture, and hundreds were killed, their bodies usually disposed of in secret to prevent families from learning of their fates. Víctor Jara was reportedly identified by a Chilean Army officer while in the stadium, tortured, and eventually executed. In all, about 5,000 civilians were abducted and sent to Chile Stadium in the aftermath of the coup.  Read more about Víctor Jara’s death [here].

The Caravan of Death & Operation Condor 

In October 1973, Pinochet  organized the “Caravan of Death”, a military death-squad charged with eliminating perceived opponents of the military regime.  Flying a cross-country circuit by helicopter, the Caravan of Death landed at military bases throughout the country and tortured and summarily executed at least 75 political prisoners. [4]

By 1975, the wave of repression extended across the entire Southern Cone of South America.  The secret police agencies of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil conspired to launch Operation Condor: a campaign of coordinated terrorist attacks against political opponents around the world. Operation Condor reached as far as Washington D.C., where Orlando Letelier—former Chilean ambassador to the U.S.—and his American assistant Ronni Moffitt were assassinated by car bomb in 1976. [5] While the full scope of Operation Condor may never be entirely revealed, the scale of atrocity became apparent with the discovery of the so-called "archives of terror" in Paraguay. [6] On December 1992, a judge and a lawyer were searching for files on former prisoners in a Paraguayan police station, when they chanced upon archives describing the fates of tens of thousands of Latin Americans tortured and disappeared by the continent's combined security services. Based on this discovery, researchers have estimated Operation Condor's toll at 50,000  murdered, 30,000 disappeared (and presumed dead) and 400,000 incarcerated. [7]

Transitional Justice: The Truth Commission and the Pinochet Prosecution

In 1989, the people of Chile held the first free, democratic elections in 17 years.  With that began a period of transition that pitted the need to remember against the  imperative to forget.  Survivors and the families of the disappeared sought to document past crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice, while the lingering forces of the old regime—Pinochet held a senate seat for life—demanded that Chile turn the page:

“It is best to remain silent and to forget. It is the only thing to do: we must forget. And forgetting does not occur by opening cases, putting people in jail."

- Former General Augusto Pinochet, 13 September 1995 [8]

But for the survivors, forgetting was not an option.  In 1991, the newly elected government formed the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, commonly called the Rettig Commission, after its commissioner Raúl Rettig.  In the end, the Rettig Report was a political compromise: with a 1978 amnesty law  in force, there would be no prosecutions. Still, its publication brought a measure of vindication for Pinochet’s victims.

“26 years after the military coup, distraught relatives of the disappeared keep asking the same question: Where are they? They have tirelessly walked up and down the country looking for their loved ones; they have searched  rivers and mountains, empty mines and secret mass graves.”

- Survivor Tito Tricot, letter to The Guardian, 8 April 1999 [9]

In 1998, Pinochet faced his first criminal indictment for  violations of human rights.  In a move that would transform the landscape of international justice, the Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzón initiated a case against Pinochet under the legal doctrine of universal jurisdiction. Judge Garzón issued a warrant for Pinochet’s arrest for a range of abuses committed against Spanish and Chilean citizens.  In defiance of the international arrest warrant, Pinochet traveled to London for a medical visit.  To the world’s surprise, England acted on Spain’s extradition request and placed the ailing former dictator in custody. [10]

The British House of Lords ruled that Pinochet did not enjoy head of state immunity; in the end, however Britain declared Pinochet medically unfit to stand trial and released him to Chile. The foreign office's decision notwithstanding, the floodgates to prosecution were now open. At the time of his death in December 2006,  Pinochet faced over 300 criminal charges in Chile. However, he died on December 10, 2006, without ever being convicted. [10]

In 1998, CJA supported the Pinochet extradition case by collecting testimony from Chilean exiles in the U.S.  At this time, CJA learned of the presence on U.S. soil of Armando Fernández Larios—one of the perpetrators of the Caravan of Death—and successfully brought a case against him. 

» Read more


[1] 'The Rettig Report': Report of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación or the “Rettig Commission”), 1991. Available at: http://www.usip.org/files/resources/collections/truth_commissions/Chile90-Report/Chile90-Report.pdf  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[2] 'The Valech Report': Report of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisón Politica y Tortura, "Valech Commission"), 2004. Available at: http://www.comisionprisionpoliticaytortura.cl/listado_informes.html Accessed August 28, 2009. See also Commission of Inquiry: Chile 03, Truth Commissions Digital Collection, United States Institute of Peace. Available at: http://www.usip.org/resources/commission-inquiry-chile-03  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[3] The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, John Dinges, New York, The New Press, 2004.

[4] Memoria y Justicia, "In Focus: The Caravan of Death". Available at: http://www.memoriayjusticia.cl/english/en_focus-caravan.html  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[5] "Lifting of Pinochet's Immunity Renews Focus on Operation Condor: Operation Condor Documents Indicate 1976 Terrorist Attach in Washington Might Have Been Prevented", National Security Archives, June 10, 2004. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB125/index.htm  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[6] Archive and Documentation Center for the Defense of Human Rights  (Centro de Documentación y Archivo para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos). Available at: http://test.aladin.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/terror/terror_s.shtml Accessed August 28, 2009.

[7] "Los Archivos del Horror del Operativo Cóndor",  Stella Calloni, Equipo Nizkor, 1998. Available at: http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/doc/condor/calloni.html  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[8] The Observer, London, November 29, 1998.

[9] 'Did we deserve to be savagely tortured? It was before 1988, yes, but it was pure horror': An open letter to Jack Straw, Tito Tricot, The Guardian, Thursday 8 April 1999. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/apr/08/pinochet.chile  Accessed August 28, 2009.

[10] The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights,
Naomi Roht-Arriaza, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.