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Copiapó: Sadness Amid Celebration

2010 October 17

Amid Celebrations, Chile Marks a Grim Anniversary

The world may have forgotten, but the families have not. Amidst the worldwide celebration over the rescue of 33 trapped miners, some in the mining town of Copiapó nurse bitter memories.
…..Exactly thirty-seven years ago today, on October 17, 1973, troops under the command of General Sergio Arellano Stark massacred 16 men, many of them also miners,  during a campaign that became known as the “Caravan of Death.” They were executed —many of them slashed to death with “corvos,” the curved fighting knives popular with Chilean special forces — and dumped down a mine shaft. The bodies of four were recovered only in 1990, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Rodolfo Villarroel, son of one of the murdered miners, was five at the time. In a recent interview by Simon Romero for the New York Times, Villarroel described the scene:

“The mine rescue this week was so similar to how we rescued our relatives. They were also down a 600-meter-deep open pit. The only difference is that we didn’t use a capsule to lift their remains. We used a bucket for the few bones we could find.” 

In the weeks after the U.S.-backed coup by General Augusto Pinochet – and operating under his orders – the death squad murdered more than 70 Chileans, flying from town to town in Puma helicopters.
…..In the eyes of many Chileans, there has never been an adequate accounting for the crimes of the Pinochet era. Though stripped of impunity Pinochet himself died at 91 before ever being convicted on charges which included the Copiapó killings. A judge allowed General Stark, now 89 (photo at left), to be put under medical observation instead of serving a 6-year prison sentence.*
…..Chile’s current president, Sebastián Piñera, is the first right-wing leader since the end of the dictatorship and, as the Times article notes, despite the euphoria over the rescued miners this complicates the way he is viewed by Chileans. Romero observed a spray-painted message on a wall in Coriapó that refers to the date of Piñera’s inauguration: “March 11, 1010: The right wing is back at the scene of the crime.” His Times report concludes with a quote from Angélica Palleras, whose brother was also among those killed by Stark’s unit:

“It is our historical duty to keep this memory alive, and to dishonor the officers responsible for these crimes.” 

* The San Francisco based Center for Justice and Accountability did successfully sue Pinochet operative Armando Fernandez Larious for torture, crimes against humanity, and murder in connection with the “Caravan of Death,” winning a 4-million dollar verdict against him in a Florida court. The verdict was upheld on appeal and represented, as CJA says, “a powerful vindication for the survivors of Pinochet’s regime. The trial marked the first time any Pinochet-era perpetrator has been tried in the United States, as well as the first jury verdict for crimes against humanity in the United States.”

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