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The Past, Still Present in Today’s Chile

2013 December 14

Chile: Living in the Present,
Coming to Grips with the Past

On Sunday, citizens of Chile will vote in a presidential election runoff between two childhood friends, Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The candidates’ fathers, both generals in the Chilean military, were friends and neighbors as well. Yet, when the military overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, Alberto Bachelet remained loyal to the constitutional government, while Fernando Matthei joined the plotters. Bachelet died of a heart attack after being tortured in the basement of the Air War Academy, where his old friend Matthei had been appointed Director. The two daughter’s family histories mirror the tensions and contradictions that characterize a Chile still coming to grips with its recent history.

In September of this year, my wife, Emily, and I had the opportunity to visit Chile as part of a delegation organized by School of the Americas Watch. We were there to memorialize the fortieth anniversary Chile 4756BDRof what Chilenos refer to – at least in talking to us Americans – as “our 9/11.” September 11th for the people of Chile is the anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup against the popularly elected president Salvador Allende.

The 17-year dictatorship that followed the coup claimed at least 40,000 victims – that’s the official figure of those known to have been detained, murdered, or “disappeared.” Human rights activists say that hundreds of thousands more were tortured in the years that followed the takeover. An estimated 200,000 Chileans were exiled.

According to the report of the Chilean National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, also known as the Valech Report, more than 1,100 sites “were utilized as centers of detention, torture and extermination.” They ranged from hospitals and soccer stadiums to police stations and private homes. There were more than 250 such sites in the capital, Santiago, alone. We visited several.

Victims in such sites were blindfolded, kept naked, and beaten to the point of broken bones, shocked by being tied to electrified metal-framed beds, hung in stress positions, burned with cigarettes, raped, forced to witness the torture and rape of other prisoners. At least 1,000 were simply “disappeared.”

Casa de Jose Domingo Cañas No. 1367 was part of a circuit of torture centers, in which prisoners were moved about for different levels or types of torture, by different torturers. Some had specialties; here, it was sexual violence, and interrogation of Chile 4418BDRmembers of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left). At least 58 men and women have been identified as having been killed here, or disappeared after being tortured. We were told that, at the time, children in the neighborhood begged their parents to do something about the screams coming from the center. There was nothing they could do then, of course, but many of the present-day neighbors have volunteered to help develop a memorial on the site.

The original house was destroyed by a subsequent owner to prevent its becoming a focus of criminal investigation.  In its place is now a small but elegant modern museum and community center. The shell of the one-time swimming pool remains as well (it was used to torture prisoners with simulated drowning) along with a large, spreading palm tree. “If only it could talk,” says Carolina, the center’s director. Carolina’s own father was arrested by Air Force troops on 9/11/73, when she was 10 years old. He was killed later that month.  She says that her family became “lepers,” but her mother, who had been a professor, saw to it that they were educated nonetheless. “Life has marked me,” she says of her work at the Center. “It has obligated me.”

One of the centers that had the greatest impact on me was Casa Nido 20, in a residential neighborhood of Santiago – perhaps because it seemed so typically and quietly suburban, down to the ornamental weathervane on its chimney. Yet in this small, two or three-bedroom home, the Chilean Air Force operated a clandestine torture center for at least two years. Casa Chile 4188BDRNido 20 is now the “Casa Museo Alberto Bachelet Martinez,” named for the presidential candidate’s father. It is one of a number of torture centers that have been restored as “memory sites” by committees of citizens. Inside, they have replicated some of the mechanisms of torture, including a metal bed frame where prisoners were strapped down and shocked with electrical currents, and a tiny closet where victims were locked up, in extreme stress positions. The torturers played loud music to mask the screams of the tortured. I asked one of our guides whether people in the neighborhood were aware of what was going on inside: he said that no one will admit to having known, “but they always passed by on the other side of the street.”

Our guide at the former Tres y Cuatro Alamos Prison, Carlos, told us that he himself had once been a “guest.” Now he works with an organization that seeks to have it recognized as a national historical site. They’re also trying to locate and register the names of everyone who passed through the facility, and now have about 3,000 out of a potential 6,000 names. Converted Chile 4140BDRfrom a Catholic retreat center, the prison and torture center was run by a Carabiñero officer described as a “psychopath and misogynist famous for his cruelty.” Carlos, who was 28 years old at the time, was held incommunicado and beaten severely – suffering seven broken ribs and a dislocated kneecap. He told us that the other prisoners helped him to survive, “and now I can joke about it.” There was also a fourth unit at Tres y Cuatro Alamos, run by the DINA (secret police). Prisoners who entered that section were never seen again.

We were not allowed to take photographs inside, because part of the complex is currently in use as a prison and rehabilitation facility for young offenders. “The children say they hear things at night,” Carlos told us. He said that, to him, having a youth facility here is “like having a childcare center in Auschwitz.” Yet the center appeared to be humanely run, at least from what we could see. “Life is a great irony,” one of the youth workers told us. “This is still a place of great pain, but we are hoping to transform it.”

As we visited these and other sites, I was frequently reminded that what I was seeing and hearing about is not ancient history. The middle-aged men and women telling us what happened in their country were not describing something they learned about in school; they were talking about their own experiences, the experiences of their families. Everywhere we Chile 4008BDRtraveled we saw posters for the coming election, and were reminded again of the family histories of the two leading candidates.

One afternoon, while eating lunch at a harborside restaurant, we saw an apparition through the offshore mist: the beautiful four-masted sailing ship, Esmeralda. Today it represents Chile at “tall ship” events around the world. Few viewers know that, from 1973 to 1980, it was a floating prison, where more than a hundred prisoners were tortured – in at least one case, to death.

I felt the tension when we were walking the streets of Santiago or Valparaiso on our own. Talking to people in shops, or asking directions on the street, I wondered which of these mostly friendly people supported the actions of the dictatorship; which of them were its victims. Which of them might have turned their neighbor in to the secret police? Which of them spent time in prison, or in internal exile in Patagonia? Who prospered, and who had to flee the country, leaving friends and family behind? When we visited torture centers, tucked away in quiet middle-class neighborhoods, I wondered: what did the neighbors hear? What did they know?

Yet it also occurred to me that these are questions to which many of those who live here know the answers. They know which neighbor or friend turned their father or sister in to the DINA. They know which bank teller, shopkeeper, school teacher was a spy for the secret police. Or maybe they don’t know, and can only suspect…

With the unreconciled past still very much alive in the present, tomorrow’s turnout at the polls, and the choices that Chilenos make about their leadership for the next four years, may have a significant impact on the country’s future.



The military junta headed by Augusto Pinochet held power for 17 years, in part through the exercise of unrestrained violence, torture and murder. In this post I have focused solely on the aspects of our trip related to that reality – and to some extent on the long-term impact of torture on Chilean society. For a broader picture, please see the following posts by Emily Achtenberg, for the North American Congress on Latin America:

In Chile, Remembering 9/11: Reflections
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Recovering Memories
Chile’s 40 Year Anniversary in Photos: Resistance, Past and Present


Asociación de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos / Association of Family Members of Those Killed in Political Executions

Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos / Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared



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