Latin America

Chile: Death Squad’s Defiance

Augusto Pinochet with Allende
This undated file photo shows Chile's former president Salvador Allende (R) with his then-army commander Gen. Augusto Pinochet (L) during a ceremony in Santiago. Pinochet overthrew Allende in the bloody Sept. 11, 1973 military coup and ruled Chile with an iron fist until 1990 (Photo: AFP).

Chile’s bitter legacy of political repression during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet has re-emerged to cast a shadow over the nation’s democratic government. Press reports have exposed the continued existence of a feared death squad, Comando Conjunto (Joint Command). In an investigative report published in La Nación (Sept. 8), Víctor Gutiérrez revealed that members of the squad “no longer torture or murder,” but remain active in waging a rear-guard action to frustrate legal efforts to investigate their human-rights violations.

Even as Chilean courts have continued to pursue actions against retired military officers alleged to have participated in the torture and murder of political prisoners, Gutiérrez wrote, a leading participant in the Comando Conjunto asserted that members of the unit still obey “strict orders to lie, deceive, block, and hide evidence.”

In a series of interviews, the anonymous informant identified as “Colmillo Blanco,” or “White Fang” (alleged by El Siglo to be Otto Trujillo), revealed how Comando Conjunto—formed in 1975 as a special unit drawn from all branches of the armed forces under air force oversight to coordinate repression of leftists—has resumed its covert activities. “We have access to economic resources for operatives, surveillance, wiretapping, threats, theft of court papers, bribes, and domestic and international operations—all under the protection and orders of the Chilean air force,” he said.

The air force high command disclaimed any support for the unit, but became embroiled in a public confrontation with the government of President Ricardo Lagos. Commander in Chief Gen. Patricio Rios claimed that the air force had disclosed to the Eduardo Frei and Lagos administrations evidence that Viviana Ugarte Sandoval, the wife of civil aeronautics director Gen. Patricio Campos Montecinos, had served in Comando Conjunto.

Blanca Arthur and Patricio González reported in El Mercurio (Sept. 24), “The government did not mince words” in refuting Rios’ claim, “emphasizing that he bears responsibility for ascertaining the truth about accusations...regarding the hiding of information from the Roundtable for Dialogue,” the panel of military, government, and human-rights representatives convened in the late 1990s to seek an official accounting of murders and disappearances during the Pinochet regime.

La Tercera (Sept. 17) observed that Gen. Campos had to submit his resignation in the aftermath of the published allegations, but that the air force gave “public recognition to his brilliant career.” El Mercurio (Oct. 9) reported that the subsequent arrest of Campos on charges of obstruction of justice has increased pressure on Gen. Rios to stand down as air force commander in chief. (Rios resigned on Oct. 14.)

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the allegations is the chilling account by “White Fang” of the unrepentant attitude of death squad members when they met during the roundtable talks. They “would dispute who deserved the credit for killing the most people,” wrote Gutiérrez. “It was almost like when a group of friends gets together after many years to recall the old days.”

About the sources:
La Nación (government-owned), Santiago
El Siglo (Communist Party weekly), Santiago
El Mercurio (conservative), Santiago
La Tercera (conservative), Santiago