The Chile Files Redux

As extradition hearings begin in Britain over the fate of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the US prepares to declassify even more government documents relating to its complicity in the dictator's brutal regime. This batch could prove even more damning than those released three months ago.

| Tue Sep. 28, 1999 3:00 AM EDT

Sept. 11 was the 26th anniversary of the military coup which brought the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to Chile for 17 years. It was part a sad day, part celebration.

Sad because each year the date brings back all those horrific memories of unnecessary bloodshed and the end -- at least temporarily -- of 130 years of democracy in Chile. But this year there was a new, happier twist: Pinochet is now under house arrest in Britain awaiting extradition to a Spanish court for his leadership of state-sponsored genocide, terrorism, and torture. Britain began formal extradition hearings this week; the extradition will go forward unless Britain succumbs to pressure from Chile's government to free Pinochet as a humanitarian gesture because, Chile claims, the 84-year old Pinochet is too sick and frail to stand trial.

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Three months ago, the United States government finally made a contribution to the global chorus of Pinochet condemnation by releasing previously classified US documents about Chile. These documents give unique insight into events in Chile from the day of the coup through 1978. This was a period in which the vast majority of the worst human-rights violations were committed, and conveniently for Pinochet and his followers, all of the crimes they committed during this same period are not prosecutable in Chile, thanks to a 1978 amnesty law decreed by Pinochet himself.

Another set of US documents pertaining to Chile is expected to be released next month, this one focussed on the three-year period before the coup. During this period, the Nixon administration steadfastly worked to destabilize the socialist government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and to foster the military coup. The second set of documents is expected to make the Nixon administration's efforts much clearer than ever before.

Earlier this year, President Bill Clinton apologized for the long history of US support for decades of right-wing governments in Guatemala that were responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 indigenous persons in that country. Some human rights organizations now urge -- if only for the sake of consistency -- that former President Richard Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ought to join President Clinton in apologizing for the role the US government played in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 1990s an official study was conducted by Chile's civilian government indicating that a total of 2,095 executions and death by torture occurred during Pinochet's military regime, and that 1,102 people had been "disappeared" by government forces and are presumed dead. Further, many thousands of Chileans were tortured and jailed, and more than an estimated 50,000 Chileans fled into exile during the Pinochet reign.

Although the US documents released so far are severely redacted, they do offer illumination of two interesting and previously murky aspects of the US government's involvement in Chile in during this period.

First, while the US government had full knowledge of the human-rights atrocities committed by the Pinochet government in the years that followed the military coup, the documents clearly show that it looked the other way and actually increased its military, economic, and other forms of support to Chile.

Second, the documents notably give an inside view of the workings of the DINA, Chile's secret police agency. The DINA was the principal instrument of the Pinochet dictatorship's murder and torture of leftist opposition organizers in Chile and abroad. The documents concerning DINA and its human-rights violations should provide useful assistance to Judge Baltasar Garzon's case in Spain, and to the more than 30 lawsuits currently filed against Pinochet in Chile.

In the first year of the dictatorship, for example, it is conservatively estimated that at least 50,000 persons were arrested and interrogated. And by Dec. 1974, according to another previously classified State Department cable, Chile had held as many as 30,568 people as political prisoners at the detention centers. Many of the detainees were tortured at these centers. A Feb. 5, 1974 Defense Department report describes the DINA system of interrogation techniques, or torture techniques, as "straight out of the Spanish Inquisition and often leave the person interrogated with physical body damage."

In his defense of Spain's extradition request at the British extradition hearings this week, attorney Alun Jones explained some of the methods of torture utilized during the Pinochet era. Victims were often beaten with sticks, given electric shocks to their genitals, hung by their wrists, submerged in water, interrogated naked, made to stand up for days, subjected to "Russian roulette," and bitten by dogs, said Jones. Many victims, he said, had to listen to other victims' cries and were threatened that their own children would be tortured.

"The allegations against General Pinochet do indeed constitute some of the most serious allegations of crime ever to come before an English court," Jones told the court.

A Jan. 31, 1975 CIA intelligence report shows that Pinochet was certainly aware of the DINA tactics: "There has been increasing criticism within high levels of the Chilean government regarding ... DINA," it says. "Several army generals have approached President Augusto Pinochet and presented corroborated accounts of torture and mistreatment of detainees by the DINA."

John Dinges, a correspondent in Chile for the Washington Post and Time magazine from 1972 to 1978, says that in his research he has come across evidence that the CIA not only was aware of what DINA was doing, but that it also provided key advice and support to DINA efforts. Dinges says, for example, that the CIA provided manuals of instruction and procedure when the DINA was first formed.

"We know that in Guatemala there was also actual technical help from the CIA in how to go after leftists. There are other examples in Latin America where this comes to mind. Our assistance for police aid programs in the region is notorious. We have even come across how-to-do-it torture manuals provided by the military's School of the Americas," says Dinges.

The U.S. support for the Pinochet government despite its human rights violations is evident in other ways among the documents. A Dec. 5, 1973 Defense Department memo shows that the Pentagon urged the approval of export licenses for the "direct commercial sales" or "government cash transactions" of lethal weapons to Chile. In particular, 2,500 M-16 rifles, 1,600 submachine guns, and gear to outfit 25 special counterinsurgency "basic units."

Chilean Congressman Juan Pablo Letelier, a son of Orlando Letelier, an Allende ally who was killed in a car-bomb in Washington, D.C., says the Clinton administration has an historical opportunity.

"The Clinton administration can strengthen its ties with Latin American governments by now completely disclosing the US record of covert intervention in the region. It is always good for the truth to be known, no matter how painful it will be," says Letelier.

It may also be time for the U.S. government to convene a " truth commission" to study and expose their aid during the Cold War to repressive governments throughout of Latin America. 

James Langman is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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