Commentary

A human rights mystery is solved in Chile

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NEW YORK — A Chilean court has uncovered the gruesome details surrounding the death of one of Latin America’s most famous human rights victims, the folk singer Victor Jara. A 4,500-word account of the singer’s death was published last week by the Chilean investigative journalism site CIPER, the day before the court announced murder charges against a former soldier who confessed to participating in the brutal killing in 1973.

The case attracted international attention after the military coup in September 1973 that brought Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to power and overthrew the elected government of Socialist president Salvador Allende. Victor Jara was a leading figure in the flourishing cultural scene during Allende’s 1,000-day presidency from 1970 to 1973. He was a theater director, poet and guitarist whose numerous songs became icons of the Latin American Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Jara was detained with other leftist activists at a Chilean university the day after the Sept. 11 military coup. His bullet-riddled body was found in the morgue four days later. The CIPER account, based on the court’s interrogation of soldiers at the detention center where Jara was held, described the brutal torture to which the folk singer was submitted, and the details of his execution in an interrogation cell. It also tells the story of a valiant government worker who discovered Jara’s body and prevented it from being buried anonymously in a mass grave.

The soldier, Jose Alfonso Paredes Marquez, was an 18-year-old army draftee assigned to guard prisoners in the Chile Stadium, a Santiago sports and performance arena that had been turned into a makeshift prison holding several thousand prisoners. He said Jara was among 15 prisoners brought to an interrogation room in the basement of the stadium. Paredes said he and other soldiers recognized Jara, who had already been severely beaten.

He said a second lieutenant, who was not identified in the court documents, singled out Jara and began to play Russian Roulette, pointing his pistol at Jara’s head and pulling the trigger until it fired. Paredes said Jara fell writhing to the floor. The second lieutenant ordered Paredes and the other guards to fire their weapons at the body to finish the execution. When Jara’s body was eventually found, it had 44 bullet wounds.

The guards were then ordered to shoot all of the remaining prisoners who had witnessed Jara’s execution. The soldiers loaded the bodies in a truck and dumped them on various Santiago streets after curfew.

The court documents cited by CIPER, the first to be based on soldiers' confessions, confirmed an important detail about Jara’s torment that became part of the lore of accounts of the Pinochet dictatorship: Prior to Jara’s death, soldiers smashed the famous guitarist’s hands with rifle butts, leaving them mangled and broken.

The accounts also explained for the first time how Jara’s body was identified and saved from an anonymous mass grave. Most of the hundreds of people executed in the days following the military takeover were taken unidentified to the Santiago morgue and buried in mass graves. In Jara’s case, a government worker assigned to the morgue that day told the court he was alerted by a coworker that one of the 300 bodies piled in the courtyard looked like the famous singer. The official, Hector Herrera Olguin, whose regular job was as a clerk in the Civil Registry, which administers Chile’s identity cards system, located the body and at great personal risk took fingerprints from the singer’s broken hands. He then went to his office in the Civil Registry and pulled the file for Victor Jara’s identity card, which include finger print records.

After confirming it was Jara, Herrera Olguin then drove to Jara’s home and informed his wife, Joan Turner, that her husband had been killed. He drove Turner back to the morgue, where, according to his description, she was able to find her husband’s body and embrace him for the last time.

The Jara case was one of the thousands of unsolved murders committed by the Chilean military after Pinochet’s coup. A special judge was appointed to investigate Jara’s murder several years ago, but closed the case in 2008 without identifying those responsible for the murder. The case was reopened due to pressure from the public and from Jara’s widow, and the judge for the first time located and interrogated the soldiers on duty in the stadium.

Paredes, the soldier who was the first to confess to participating in the shooting, said he had kept his role secret for 35 years, not even telling his wife. He is charged with premeditated murder and is being held in a maximum security prison in Santiago.

Victor Jara’s most famous song, Te Recuerdo Amanda (I remember you Amanda), was a ballad celebrating the love of his absentee laborer father for his mother, Amanda, who died when he was 16. Victor Jara was 40 at the time of his death.

John Dinges is the co-founder and former co-director of CIPER , which is a nonprofit news organization financed by the Chilean media company COPESA and contributions from the Open Society Institute and Ford Foundation. CIPER began operations in 2007 and in its first year was the winner of the New Journalism prize conferred by the Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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