Returning to the Scene of a Crime

Chile Over 30 Years Later

“Speak to the judge’s heart,” the comforting Chilean human rights attorney Sergio Corvalan suggested, after hearing about my continuing pain over Frank Teruggi’s terrible death in September 1973, at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. So I did. It was good counsel.

“Frank was like a younger brother,” I confided to Judge Jorge Zepeda’s staff on August 1 of this year. “I want to tell you about the sweet, nonviolent, idealistic person that he was.” I feel that I was heard by the attentive law clerk taking careful notes.

If I could speak to the judge again, I would add the following: “Frank was a man of peace and an anti-war activist. He was trained in and participated in nonviolent actions. Frank was one of thousands of young people who went to Chile to participate in an historic moment of a country choosing peaceful solutions to its problems. Frank saw himself as part of that struggle.”

On another September 11, 1973, Gen. Pinochet — with the proven support of US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — toppled the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende.

I worked in Chile as a Methodist minister in 1971 and returned this year for the first time. I had been summoned back to testify in the kidnapping, torture and execution of my good friend Frank, whose case is slowly making its way through the legal system.

Two US citizens, Charles Horman and Frank, were executed that September. They were among thousands killed by the Pinochet junta. Tens of thousands were tortured and many were desaparecidos (disappeared), whose families still do not know what happened to them. Horman’s case is more known because of Costa-Gavras’ Oscar-winning film Missing, which portrays his story and also mentions Frank.

Pinochet became Latin America’s most famous dictator — the model of evil.

He exported his state terrorism elsewhere in South America through Operation Condor. Pinochet wounded Chile and its people, though a few wealthy people continue to sing his praise. He did succeed in bringing order with his authoritarian rule. One can still enter some homes and offices in Chile and see photos of Pinochet.

Pinochet’s knife went to the heart and soul of Chile. Many people merely want to forget what happened under Pinochet. But such forgetfulness makes it difficult to build an authentic future based on historic memory.

My recent time in Chile convinced me of two important facts: Frank was not killed by a patrol for violating a curfew, as the military contends, but was executed intentionally at the National Stadium where he had been imprisoned. In addition to that crime, its still ongoing cover-up is a second crime. The brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship and its continued impunity has created what international law considers “a crime against humanity.”

After the judge and his staff met with Frank’s sister — Janis Teruggi Page, who was in Chile for the first time — and myself, articles about our testimony appeared in the daily La Nacion and in the Santiago Times. Our presence seems to have stimulated heightened attention to Frank’s case and moved it forward after so many years of scant activity. The Teruggi case does not stand alone. Work on such high profile cases can help the many other families seeking information and justice, according to attorney Corvalan.

The Chilean press identified four retired generals who allegedly facilitated the killings of Teruggi and Horman: Gen. Augusto Lutz, Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark, Gen. Herman Brady, and Gen. Cesar Benavides. Several Navy intelligence officials who had been monitoring the movements of Teruggi and Horman were also identified.

“We are now receiving a huge amount of new information which should reveal what happened in the National Stadium.” (Corvalan, quoted in La Nacion, Aug. 2)

Pedro Alejandro Matta was one of the many inspiring exiles I interviewed who has returned to Chile. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees wrote the following about Matta in a document entitled, “Prominent Refugees”: “Matta was arrested, taken to two different torture centers…and then imprisoned for over 13 months. He was never brought before a court of law or charged with any crime.” He was eventually granted asylum in the US. After fifteen years in exile and the fall of Pinochet, he returned to Chile in 1991.

Matta took Frank’s sister and me to some of Chile’s notorious torture centers. “I’m going to give you a collective history,” Matta began at Villa Grimaldi, which has since been turned into a peace park. I could tell from Matta’s eyes and demeanor that this trip differed from the others on which he had guided us during the previous week.

“The Chilean coup was one of the most violent events in the history of Latin America,” Matta began. “The bombing of the Presidential Palace spread out over the entire country. Helicopters with machine guns fired on the poblaciones (shanty towns of poor people). The junta declared an internal war on half the population — a search-and- destroy mission against unarmed civilians. This produced a massacre. When the jails were full, military bases were used. Then sports stadiums.” Matta proceeded to give a day-by-day account of torture at Villa Grimaldi, a large private residence that the military took over.

Even with many years as a professional journalist listening to other horror stories, Matta’s details were almost unbearable to hear. The only way I could force myself to listen was to bow my head and take copious notes; I have still been unable to fully read them. In 2000 Matta wrote a booklet, A Walk Through a 20th Century Torture Center: Villa Grimaldi, Santiago de Chile, A Visitor’s Guide, which is available from ten.rtvnull@attam.p.

As I listened to Matta and toured the torture center, I also thought about Frank. Images of his terrible death have returned over the years.

“Impunity” was a word I heard often in Chile; it literally means exemption from punishment. Pinochet established an Amnesty Law in 1978 to protect the criminal behavior of his dictatorship that has made it difficult for courts to convict military or police officials of their crimes. Pinochet’s Constitution still governs Chile.

In December of 2004 — after interviewing 35,000 survivors of human rights abuse — a Chilean commission reported that torture was a habitual practice of the dictatorship. Some of those survivors have entered a bank or other office to find themselves facing their torturer. The names of some torturers are known, but they have not all been charged. Such impunity keeps the trauma alive.

Here in the US our current president and the head of the “Justice” Department take actions that indicate they feel above and beyond the law.

Chile may seem a long ways from the US, and Frank’s execution may seem long ago, but it is important that US citizens pay attention to the matter at this historic and challenging moment in our history. Chile contains lessons for US citizens, including understanding the Iraq War today. By studying Chile, we may better understand what is happening in the US, as our civil rights diminish and torture occurs in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Among the issues raised in Chile today are the following: When to judge and when to forgive? How can a nation deal with collective trauma? Remembering or forgetting? When to seek justice and when to seek peace?

These are not simple questions. It is one thing to think about them abstractly from a distance, another to be in the middle of them.

Restorative justice is what a close colleague of Frank’s in Chile in the early 1970s, Mishy Lesser, who now lives in the Boston area, advocates: “Restorative justice is a set of principles used for addressing conflict and harm. It focuses on what needs to be done to repair harm and who is responsible for that repair. Offenders have personal obligations to victims and the community at large. Restorative practices heal the people and relationships that were violated, and thus they provide an opportunity to offenders to right the wrong.”

Justice is an end in itself. It would benefit the families of those tortured, executed, and disappeared, as well as the society as a whole.

It also deters future tyrants. Authentic justice should not be sacrificed, in my opinion, for a false harmony. It is long past time to bring the generals and others responsible for the deaths of Frank Teruggi, Charles Horman, and thousands of others to justice. Some of their names are known and they should be tried.

Futures must be built upon the past. Though those pasts cannot change, our understandings of them and learning from them can evolve.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.