(First published in Mint Press News)
Two recent developments in Chile have reignited the struggle for memory against Augusto Pinochet’s lasting culture of oblivion. On Aug. 7, Chileans on both sides of the political spectrum either lamented or celebrated the death of Manuel Contreras, former head of Pinochet’s National Intelligence Services (DINA).
Contreras’ death ignited a fresh surge of rage and indignation, as the families of the over 3,000 disappeared still face an uphill struggle against the state and the military to uncover details regarding the murder and disappearance of their relatives.
Prior to Contreras’ death, Chilean media had announced investigations into another case from the dictatorship era — the burning of photographer Rodrigo Rojas and student Carmen Gloria Quintana, during a street demonstration on July 2, 1986. On July 21, Judge Mario Carroza ordered the arrest of two former army officers and five former non-commissioned officers, charging them with premeditated murder in the burning death of Rojas and attempted homicide against Quintana. The case in Chile is known as Caso Quemados (“the case of the burned”).
The arrests came on the heels of former conscript Fernando Guzmán revealing the identity of the commander responsible for Rojas’ death. During an interview on Chilean television, Guzmán named Julio Castañer, the head of Intelligence Section II, who, according to Guzmán, was also involved in cases related to the Chilean disappeared.
Rojas, the son of political exile and torture survivor Veronica de Negri, grew up in Washington, D.C. He visited Chile in May 1986, when he was 19, as part of a group who, on the morning of July 2, 1986, attempted to photograph a two-day national strike against the dictatorship in a Santiago neighborhood. The military descended upon the group, capturing Rojas and Quintana.
According to witnesses, including Quintana herself, both were severely beaten by the military, doused with gasoline and set on fire. The military patrol dumped Rojas and Quintana in a ditch on the outskirts of Santiago, where they were later discovered by locals and taken to the hospital. However, officials refused to have them transferred to a hospital that could treat the severity of their burns. Rojas died four days later. Quintana suffered severe disfigurement and received her treatment in Canada, including around 40 operations.
In an interview with CNN Chile last month, Rojas’ mother Verónica de Negri spoke about government complicity in concealing crimes pertaining to the dictatorship, describing former presidents Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos as “criminals who protected Pinochet.”
The Concertación governments — a coalition of center-left political parties that won every election from the time military rule ended in 1990 until right-wing Sebastián Piñera’s electoral victory in 2010 — maintained the pact of silence enforced upon society by Pinochet. Hence, the state and the military were allowed to maintain a veil secrecy over details of execution, torture, disappearances and other horrors perpetrated against Chileans under the dictatorship.
“Lagos,” de Negri told CNN, “attended my son’s funeral to garner support for his presidential candidacy.”
The Rojas’ case: A turning point for the US
A trove of declassified documents reveals the CIA’s role in supporting and even arming violent right-wing factions in Chile to bring about the downfall of democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende’s presidency. With Allende at the helm, Chile was perceived by the U.S. as a country capable of instigating a wave of socialist revolutions in South America and thus extending the Cuban Revolution’s triumph further within the continent.
Acts of economic sabotage, instances of funding violence, and motions of impunity for torturers have all been well-documented, but Rojas’ case presents both a turning point and a contrast in U.S. involvement in Chile.
The declining support for Pinochet during the Reagan administration showed the U.S. as taking a more active interest in the Rojas case, given the U.S. government’s priority of ensuring that left-wing opposition would not create another revolution. The aim was to preserve the foundations enshrined by Pinochet while creating conditions necessary for a possible transition.
Declassified documents from the National Security Archives reveal the extents to which the U.S.-backed dictatorship, on orders from Pinochet himself, would go to ensure evidence and testimony would be silenced. Five days after Rojas died, Chilean chief of police Gen. Rodolfo Stange presented Pinochet with a report that identified the army units responsible for the immolations of Rojas and Quintana, which Pinochet flatly rejected.
On July 14, 1986, Rojas’ murder was the subject of the Presidential Evening Reading, according to a declassified document, and the only time an atrocity committed by the U.S.-backed dictatorship ended up on the agenda — the reason being Rojas’ status as the son of a political refugee residing in the U.S. The document acknowledges the dictatorship’s transmission of false information, such as attempting to persuade the public that Rojas and Quintana were “victims of their own Molotov cocktails.”
Another document reveals that Chilean police were reluctant to continue their investigations into the crime, deciding instead to hand over responsibility for investigation to the army. According to a declassified U.S. Embassy cable, Gen. Stange delivered a single-page report identifying the army patrol unit responsible for the violence inflicted upon Rojas and Quintana to Pinochet on July 11. According to the document, which cites a “reliable source within the Carabineros,” the uniformed Chilean national police force: “President Pinochet told General Stange that he did not believe the report, and he refused to receive the report from General Stange.” Further, an unidentified army official declared that “the case would be resolved within 48 hours,” followed by a notification by the army that “according to the source of the above information, as of yet there is no witness who saw anyone set the youths on fire.”
Pinochet wasn’t the only one to dismiss the case. Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus posted a callous comment that had been uttered by Pinochet’s wife, Lucía Hiriart, regarding Quintana: “Why is this child complaining when she suffered little burns?” Quintana remains scarred for life.
Government intimidation was the source of another declassified document, which showed that Chilean security forces threatened and detained witnesses to change their testimony on what happened to Rojas and Quintana, in order to avoid implicating the military.
While the Rojas case is cited as a reason why U.S. support for Pinochet’s dictatorship declined during the Reagan administration, the mounting protests against the repressive policies of the dictatorship created an alternative hypothetical scenario for the U.S. — that of growing left-wing mobilization against neoliberalism which would ultimately affect U.S interests in the region.
According to Peter Kornbluh, author of “The Pinochet File,” “Reagan admired Pinochet and wanted to go to Chile to personally thank him for ‘saving Chile’ and tell him [Pinochet] that ‘it was time to go.’”
US intelligence played ‘a fundamental role’ in the murders of two American citizens
However, U.S. complicity in torture and violence, the Rojas case and subsequent interest contrasts the official reaction to the deaths of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. The American citizens working and studying in Santiago, respectively, were arrested, tortured and murdered in Chile in 1973, following their investigations into U.S. complicity in overthrowing Salvador Allende.
American interest in the Rojas case did not stem from the fact that the victim was a U.S. resident being immolated. Rather, the State Department was safe to pursue details of the case due to the government’s growing need to detach itself from Pinochet’s systematic abuse of power.
Conversely, the deaths of Horman and Teruggi in the early days of the dictatorship would have been a liability for the U.S., given the involvement in the crime of U.S. military officers stationed in Valparaiso, one of the bases for both Chilean and U.S. coup plotters. In fact, a State Department document clearly mentions the complicity of U.S. intelligence forces in the murders of Horman and Teruggi.
In 2011, Chile’s Supreme Court indicted two former Chilean intelligence officers and U.S. Navy Capt. Ray E. Davis, who headed U.S. military operations in Chile at the time of the coup, in connection with the deaths of Horman and Teruggi.
“The military intelligence services of the United States had a fundamental role in the creation of the murders of the two American citizens in 1973, providing Chilean military officers with the information that led to their deaths,” the ruling by Judge Jorge Zepeda said.
However, the U.S. is said to have not been served with a 2012 extradition request for Davis, who Chilean authorities had long believed was living in Florida. It later emerged that he had been secretly living in Chile, where he died in 2013 without ever facing trial.