Hector Salgado was only 16 years old when he was detained and tortured in a Chilean military prison. Today, with the help of his wife Marianne, he is making a documentary film of his quest to confront each of the military officers who abused him. He hopes not only to draw attention to the hundreds of people who “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime, but to find some kind of personal closure as well.
Mother Jones: Tell me about the events leading up to your arrest.
Hector Salgado: I was in a student organization very much in support of Salvador Allende’s policies. Especially at that time the working class was very well-organized. It was known in the country that [his hometown, Tomé] was a pro-Allende town. When the coup d’etat happened, everybody who was an Allende supporter started protesting the coup. We heard that people from a [pro-Pinochet] group called Patria Libertada were seen hiding dynamite. When we saw the coup d’etat coming, we decided to hide the dynamite from them. We never used anything; we never had any intention of using it. We hid it so well that not even they were able to find it. The military knew later on about the dynamite because they started to look for it, and look for the people who had been taking it away.
MJ: So you were arrested for stealing the dynamite?
HS: We knew that they were looking for us, not only for the dynamite but because we had been protesting the coup d’etat. They went to my house, they started breaking down the door, looking for explosives. Then they told my mother that I was going to get back in an hour. They took us to different concentration camps that they were putting together in a hurry, because it was a month after the coup d’etat. My group was called “los chicos malos” by the military. The first two and a half months, that was the worst. When I arrived [in the U.S.] I went to a Navy hospital, and they found out that I had broken ribs. In prison, I lost one of my teeth. My nose was broken. The interrogations were systematic, and their main goal was to break you down. You didn’t know the time of day; you lose the concept of time. A couple of times they put me in front of the firing squad, they made the whole show, a line of people with their rifles. In other interrogations they would hold a gun to my head.
MJ: When were you finally released?
HS: I arrived in New York in 1976 and stayed in a hotel in Brooklyn with Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. In 1981, I decided to come to Berkeley, California. There were always rallies and fundraising events to help the [Chilean] political prisoners. We raised money for the disappeared.
MJ: What led you to decide to confront military personnel on camera?
HS: One day my wife and I were talking about this story that’s been with me forever. Since I left Chile I’ve been taking notes and trying to remember things. In 1998 when Pinochet was arrested in London, that was the first time I thought that justice was possible and maybe things could change if somebody does something. I decided to be more active. Another friend told my wife, why don’t you put together a documentary about Hector’s story?
MJ: Where did you begin?
HS: The first time I was able to go back to Chile, I went around and I tried to find everything I could about that time. I went to a church group that was helping political prisoners. I was lucky to find a document that was put together by the Navy that had all our names and the things we were accused of doing. That is the basis of this investigation. In 1998 I decided to do a more formal thing, and follow up, and make the list. There are 20 names. We began the confrontations in 2000. We’ve been going to Chile every year for the past five years, to film.
MJ: What do you hope comes of this project?
HS: My intentions are to confront them, but not in a violent way. My intentions from the very beginning have been to create a dialogue. For me it’s hard to understand why they had to torture and kill people. Why did they have to kill kids. I’ve been trying to understand the rationale for all of this. When I have approached them, that has been my intention. They don’t want to talk. They want to forget everything. They want me to continue with my life and just forget the past. I tell them, I can’t forget the past. This is my story. This is what I went through, and I don’t want to forget.
MJ: Do you get nervous before confrontations?
HS: I was really, really nervous and really afraid to be abused again by them. Because I fear them. When I decided to do this and go to Chile and confront them, I looked for help and thank god I found help here in the Bay Area. I went to an organization that helps people who have been tortured. They suggested therapy, which I’d never done before. It was the first time that I was able to talk about these issues with some professional people. I explained my situation and said this is what I want to do, to find out more.
MJ: Why do you wear a suit to each confrontation?
HS: My therapist suggested I go there looking like a very successful person. It’s not the same when you go in jeans and t-shirt as when you go in a very nice Italian suit. The story of the suit is more like, in the village when people go to war, they wear metal armor. I wear the suit to protect me. It’s been really effective. They really see you different when you are supposedly a successful person.
MJ: What are the retired military officers like today?
HS: They live very well. Some of them are still active in the Navy. They try to say “I was receiving orders, why don’t you talk to this guy.” The classic line is “forget about it.”
MJ: Other than taping the confrontations, you’re also taking legal action.
HS: Judge Guzman, who was the main prosecutor of Pinochet when he was allowed to go back to Chile, was invited by the law school of Berkeley. I approached him, and it was a very exciting moment for me. This guy represented the judicial system of Chile. I said, I want to have an investigation, I want to press charges. It was even more exciting because nobody was abusing me. Nobody was threatening me with anything. I was able to present him all the papers. And he asked me for whatever else I had. The following year I went to Chile and I went to his office, and I did a formal deposition that was taken by his secretary.
MJ: Have charges been brought against any of the military officers?
HS: After that they started interrogating people. Guzman was doing, like, 600 cases by himself. The judicial system doesn’t want to put Pinochet on trial. It was Guzman—the only one who was doing the work. He was obsessed with finding justice. But they made his life impossible. He couldn’t continue. But other judges took the different cases. The one that took the case, he asked all the people that I mentioned in my deposition to go for an interrogation. But those people were first asked to go to the Navy. Basically they coached them there in what to do and what to say. And then they went to talk to the judge. They got one guy to take the blame for everything. He was detained for a couple of days, and then he was set free because he was sick, and then he died of cancer.
MJ: Most recently, you returned to Chile during the presidential elections to track down the military judge who sentenced your friend, Fernando Moscoso, to death. Tell me about the confrontation.
HS: I knew where [the military judge] was going to cast his vote, so I had to wait for him from 7 in the morning until 2 when he showed up. He looked at me. He didn’t recognize me. I told him I was there because I wanted to ask him why he changed [Fernando’s] sentence from jail sentence to death. He said I was confusing him with somebody else. Then he remembered the faces. He said, Oh those poor kids. He did recognize that he was in charge of the war tribunal. But he didn’t accept the charge that he sent them to death.
I started trying to make some kind of dialogue with him, and he was very nervous. He wanted to leave. It was difficult for him because it was a public area and there were a lot of cameras. It’s a place where a lot of politicians and ministers go to cast their vote. It’s a rich part of town. It wasn’t easy for him to run away because there were other people filming him—two national TV channels. I talked to him for five minutes maybe. When I saw he was going to continue going out of the place, I didn’t want to stop him or confront him in a more forceful way. I asked him if he’d be willing to give me an interview, and he asked me for my cell number. I gave it to him. That was January 15. My plane was leaving the 18th. I called for the next three days but he didn’t return my phone calls.