Chile faces its dark history by tracking down torture centers

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2008 

LONQUEN, Chile — This quiet town nestled in the hills of central Chile has a horrifying history.

In 1978, in a stone oven on the town's outskirts, the Roman Catholic Church found the bodies of 11 poor farmers and four youths who were executed by Chile's military dictatorship. Police had accused the victims of being leftist subversives and arrested them five years earlier, but no charges were ever filed.

After the 15 bodies were discovered, government agents buried them in a common grave, and the site's landlord blew up the oven. However, the oven's ruins, which now are next door to a gated community, have become a memorial for hundreds of people who come every year to honor the victims.

"They sing and pray here, crowds of them," said Eliana Gonzalez, who with her husband runs an almond farm near the oven's ruins. "I think a lot about what happened there. As a mother, I'm pained by everything that's happened."

As Chile and other countries wrestle with whether it's better to exhume their dark pasts or to leave them buried and try to move on, the current, elected government of President Michelle Bachelet, who herself was detained and tortured by the Pinochet regime, has moved to make that black period in Chile's history part of the country's national heritage.

Official estimates have found that the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, carried out the political executions or disappearances of nearly 3,200 people in its campaign to root out opposition leaders and left-wing dissidents. Tens of thousands more were tortured but survived.

Now Chilean officials and human rights activists are working to find more than 800 sites where the country's military government committed its gravest crimes.

The country's Ministry of National Properties has taken on the enormous task of compiling a registry of the dictatorship's detention and torture sites and setting up a "Route of Memory" for interested visitors.

The government plans to build a museum in the capital, Santiago, documenting the dark history. Officials here call the planned 54,000-square-foot facility a Chilean version of the Holocaust museum in Washington.

Such actions have come atop the prosecutions of dictatorship-era officials who coordinated the repression.

"Our idea is this history should be national patrimony," said Romy Schmidt, Chile's minister of national properties. "The physical places are an important part of that history. They keep the history alive. When you're in these sites, you are living that history."

At the same time, the challenge of figuring out what to do with the sites has sparked a nationwide debate about how far Chileans should go to remember what remains a controversial era.

Human rights activists argue that every former torture site should be outfitted with a plaque, statue or other memorial telling Chileans what happened there.

Those sites include still-functioning police stations, abandoned houses and, in several cases, empty lots that the dictatorship's bulldozers cleared of evidence.

The sites even include the downtown building now used by the National Properties Ministry, a former bank office where Pinochet's security forces imprisoned and tortured dissidents.

"Human rights has to be a reality in this country and not just something we do for our external image," said Juanita Aguilera, who was jailed and tortured for her activism.

"Our plan would involve practically all the police stations and military regiments in the country, which could get uncomfortable," she said. "But that would be a meaningful step because it would show the whole government was involved in the abuses."

Schmidt said she sympathized with the activists' argument but countered that her ministry had to proceed carefully and not create new political tensions.

Many Chileans continue to support Pinochet, who died in 2006, and the country's still-powerful military has resisted some attempts to turn facilities into human rights monuments.

Just the creation of the torture sites registry sparked threatening phone calls to the ministry, Schmidt said.

"We don't want to do this by force," she said. "We're looking for a path where we can find understanding. Nobody in this country wants what happened before to happen again, neither on the left nor on the right."


Chiles detention and torture site registry (in Spanish)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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