Chile: The Disappeared of Cuartel Simón Bolivar

Estimados familiares del compañero Ángel Gabriel Guerrero Carrillo

Investigations into the history of Calle Conferencia I and II – a clandestine operation of Direccion de Intelligencia Nacional (DINA) aimed at eliminating members of the Communist Party and Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR), has confirmed the identification of the remains of four detenidos desaparecidos (disappeared). The verification was issued last month, prompting a renewed outrage from relatives with regard to the history of Cuartel Simon Bolivar – an extermination site operated by Brigada Lautaro and Grupo Delfin which remained shrouded in secrecy until exposed by a former DINA agent, Jorgelino Vergara Bravo, in 2007. The investigation’s results, combined with testimonies from former DINA agents, have bequeathed another sliver of dictatorship memory to Chile – the process of dissident extermination and disappearance in a systematic manner ordered directly by Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, head of DINA.

Angel Guerrero, a militant of (MIR), along with three Partido Comunista militants Fernando Ortiz Letelier, Horacio Cepeda and Lincoyán Berríos, were detained by DINA in 1976 and subsequently tortured and murdered. [1] Servicio Medico Legal, a branch of the Ministry of Justice specialising in forensics, released the remains of the victims to their families to conduct memorial services and funerals for the victims during the last days of July. A speech by Guillermo Teillier, current President of the Communist Party, hailed Letelier, Cepeda and Berrios as companeros worthy of Salvador Allende’s memory, describing them as imbued with loyalty and committed to fighting the dictatorship until the very end. Speaking at Guerrero’s memorial service, Washington Guerrero described his brother as motivated to put an end to dictatorship oppression in Chile. Letelier, Cepeda and Berriós were buried in the Memorial del Detenido in the General Cemetery of Santiago, while Angel Guerrero was buried in a cemetery in Puento Alto.[2] In both memorial services, speakers availed themselves of the opportunity to point out certain trends in Chilean history which tend to repeat themselves, notably state violence against students protesting for better education. Closure for the victims’ families was achieved after a 36 year struggle – an achievement in justice somewhat dampened with the reality that other families might never obtain answers to their questions about their disappeared relatives–a fact which was asserted in both memorial services. Relatives called for renewed efforts and a united struggle to trace the rest of the desaparecidos.

Ortiz, a history and geography professor dismissed from his post after the military coup, was ambushed and beaten in Avenida Larrain by hooded people, and driven off in an unregistered vehicle. An unnamed witness later contacted the family to confirm Ortiz’s detention by DINA. [3] Tortured at Villa Grimaldi, a detention and torture facility, and later allegedly transferred to the north of Chile, Ortiz was beaten to death and torched to prevent identification. Horacio Cepeda[4] was out on an errand and meeting another member of the Communist party when he was abducted in a public area in the center of Santiago on December 15, 1976. Reports on Memoria Viva, an archive of human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, speculate that Cepeda’s arrest coincided with that of other desaparecidos detained on the same date. According to investigations into Calle Conferencia, Cepeda was murdered by electric shocks. Angel Guerrero was imprisoned for several months in Villa Grimaldi and was seen by another MIR militant, Rolando Alarcon. Guerrero met his end at Cuartel Simon Bolivar, with stakes driven though his hands and his torso lacerated and left to bleed, according to reports in and Nuestro Canto, who described Guerrero’s death as “a slow extermination”.[5] Lincoyán Berríos [6] was abducted in a public space and his detention falsified by the dictatorship under claims of fleeing to Argentina – a fabrication which was reiterated with regard to the desaparecidos of Operacion Condor.

A reaction to the news on social networking sites, notably Facebook groups relating to memory in Chile, was whether investigations had yielded any other results; namely the possibility of identifying other detenidos desaparecidos. The possibility of identifying other remains is remote. In January 1979, following the discovery of 15 corpses of peasants killed in Lonquen, dictator Augusto Pinochet announced Operacion Retiro de Televisores; an encrypted order to illegally exhume corpses of detenidos desaparecidos from the mine. The corpses were dumped in the sea or else burned in drums. According to DINA agent Erasmo Sandoval Arancibia’s (also known as Pete el Negro) court statement, the Vicaria de la Solidaridad (an organisation affiliated to the Catholic Church in Chile led by Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez) was tipped off by a peasant who had discovered the bodies, but Arancibia asserted, “we got there first”. In 2000, around 200 bone fragments later identified as the remains of Guerrero, Letelier, Cepeda and Berríos were discovered in the mine – overlooked relics from Operacion Retiro de Televisores.

Further details about Cuartel Simón Bolivar emerged in 2007 when the case came under the jurisdiction of Judge Victor Montiglio, also in charge of Calle Conferencia I. Among the victims of Calle Conferencia I was Communist Party member Victor Diaz, who was  tortured, asphyxiated, injected with toxic substances and burned to prevent identification. [7] One hundred and twenty DINA agents were processed by Montiglio for their participation in Operacion Condor – an intelligence operation carried out by right wing dictatorships in the Southern Cone aimed at eradicating socialist and communist support and dissidents. The same agents were also indicted for their role in Calle Conferencia I & II, however many agents remain sheltered under impunity laws. Until 2007 Arancibia worked in Providencia under the patronage of former DINA agent Cristian Labbe, now mayor of Providencia and to this day benefiting from impunity. Arancibia was charged and condemned for the murder of the youngest victim of the dictatorship – a fourteen-year-old boy shot four times in the head, doused with gasoline and burned. [8]

However, Cuartel Simón Bolivar, described as ‘the place where no one got out alive’, remained a secret extermination site until unveiled by Jorgelino Vergara in 2007. Vergara, also known as El Mocito, came from a poor peasant family who, at the age of 15, ended up working as a servant in the household of Manuel Contreras, later head of DINA. Following the military coup, Vergara was trained by the organisation and sent to work in Cuartel Simón Bolivar. His observations and recollections are the subject of Javier Rebolledo’s recently published book, La Danza de los Cuervos: el destino final de los detenidos desaparecidos (The Dance of the Crows: the final destination of the disappeared detainees).[9] Rebolledo describes the desaparecidos leaving Cuartel Simon Bolivar ‘as a package’ – DINA agents disposed of the desaparecidos with impunity.

Operated by Brigada Lautaro and Grupo Delfin, the center was a place of torture, death and disappearances. Extermination orders came directly from Manuel Contreras and executed by Chief John Morales Salgado, head of Brigada Lautaro, who ordered his agents to “make them suffer” – in reference to the detainees. Various forms of murder were carried out by DINA: asphyxiation, electric shocks, cyanide injections, beatings and sarin gas.[10] DINA biochemist Eugenio Berríos, Colonel Eugenio Huber and CIA agent Michael Vernon Townley, an American citizen recruited by DINA and now living under protection in the US, were responsible for the production of sarin gas. Furthermore, it is estimated by School of the Americas Watch that one out of every seven DINA agents was a School of the Americas graduate, taking on roles of torture in various detention centres in Chile.

In the latest developments, former head of DINA Manuel Contreras stands accused of planning and ordering the detention and disappearance of eight Communist Party militants which occurred between 4th and 12th May, 1976.[11]

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.