‘They beat you constantly’: Chilean political prisoners reclaim torture sites

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Santiago: Viola remembers the terror of being naked in front of her captors, the blows to her body and the pain. Carlos recounts being barely able to breathe amid beatings that left his ribs broken. For Alejandra, some horrors she would rather not put into words.

Fifty years after a 1973 coup in Chile that ushered in 17 years of brutal military rule and saw some 40,000 people imprisoned, disappeared, tortured or killed, Reuters went with five former political prisoners to the sites of their confinement. The testimonies of three are included here.

Protesters are hit by a police water cannon during clashes at a march marking the 50th anniversary of the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, in Santiago, Chile.Credit: AP

These places have become focal points of shared memory as victims and their families look to gain more control over the past, find out still hidden truths, and seek accountability for what took place during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Carlos Gonzalez was arrested and tortured by Pinochet’s secret police in 1976 at the age of 28. For months he was held in detention centres, including the Tres Alamos and Cuatro Alamos political prison camps in Santiago.

“They beat you constantly. They beat you before asking you anything, you couldn’t breathe,” he told Reuters at another former detention centre, the Clinica Santa Lucia. “Doctors examined us with absolute contempt, they verified blows and injuries and you returned to the cell. Then you were beaten again.”

“Torture is never erased from your mind. And sometimes, not from your body either.”

Women’s rights activists hold signs saying “never again” during a vigil in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday, for the victims of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.Credit: AP

Gonzalez said he had been a union activist and supporter of leftist former President Salvador Allende whom Pinochet had deposed in the coup, but worked in a bank and was no radical guerrilla. “I was not very important,” he said.

According to various official commissions, the total number of victims of the dictatorship is 40,175 people, with more than 1000 still missing. Chile returned to democracy in 1990, though Pinochet himself was never convicted of a crime and died in 2006.

The Valech Commission, which was set up in the 2000s to investigate dictatorship-era rights abuses, established that firing squads, systematic torture, deprivation of liberty in illegal precincts, and violations of human rights had been a “state policy”.

Incorporating testimonies from more than 30,000 people, the Valech Commission found that women were also often the target of sexual violence.

Alejandra Holzapfel was held at a clandestine centre known by police as “Venda Sexy” (“sexy blindfold”), notorious as a place where sexual violence was used as a form of torture and where police agent Ingrid Olderock trained dogs to torture detainees.

Alejandra Holzapfel, who was tortured in 1974 during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, when she was 19, speaks about her ordeal.Credit: AP

Holzapfel was just 19 then and was a militant in the MIR, a far-left armed guerrilla revolutionary group that fought military rule.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to enter that house. I returned once in 1990 to remember it and it was terrible,” she told Reuters, who photographed the 70-year-old outside the estate that is now being converted into a site of remembrance.

“I don’t like to talk about it, I don’t like it because it re-victimises me and hurts me,” said Holzapfel, who said she planned to escape after the emotional intensity of the anniversary by travelling to northern Chile to visit her grandchildren.

“We have spent our lives trying to make people understand that what happened to us is real… the only thing you want is for it not to happen again,” she said.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric, welcoming Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador to Santiago on the eve of the coup anniversary, called for strengthening of democracy in Latin America.

In a joint address on Sunday, Obrador said: “We are united by history, brotherhood and the desire to continue building an authentic democracy”.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric (third from left) takes part in a march remembering the victims of the 1973 military coup. Soon after, sections of the crowd clashed violently with police.Credit: Getty

Their address came hours after a peaceful march past the presidential palace erupted in clashes between civilians and law enforcement. The annual event, composed of relatives of victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship, turned violent when small groups of people “sought to break up the demonstration,” attacked other demonstrators and “brutally violated graves in the general cemetery,” said Boric in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Civilians threw Molotov cocktails at police vehicles and police fired water cannons at demonstrators.

“I categorically condemn these events,” Boris said in the post, noting that he had “proudly” participated in the march. “Their intolerance and violence should have no place in democracy and those who have participated in these acts must face the rule of law.”

In 2019, widespread protests against inequality in the country left more than 30 people dead. Human rights groups have questioned the police response during those protests, which left hundreds of protesters blinded by rubber bullets and tens of thousands of people detained.


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