Torture Under Pinochet

We were peeling beans early on a typically hot January morning in Santiago, Chile. I was sitting in the kitchen with Iris, my host mother during my stay in the capital for thesis research. “If you have time,” she told me, “I want you to see my friend. She was your age when she was arrested. She was young.” After a pause, she continued: “We were in the prison together. We sat on the floor, blindfolded. It was like a barn, you know, like where they keep animals,” she added, so I would understand. I nodded. There wasn’t much to say.

“Come here,” she said, reaching her hand across the table. “Look,” she added, pointing at a long scar on her shoulder blade.

The death of General Augusto Pinochet in December prompted reactions, both international and domestic, from across the political spectrum. Newspapers in all countries covered the event and commented in some way on Pinochet’s legacy. The majority described him as a dictator and related, objectively, the legal challenges he has faced in recent years with respect to human rights violations.

Individual editorials took more polarized positions. Human rights groups and their supporters argued that Pinochet was a murderer and a tyrant, citing statistics that have been printed and reprinted over the past month: 3,000 or more killed or disappeared, “thousands” tortured. Meanwhile, Pinochet supporters offered counterfactuals that claimed many more would have died had Chile continued its “road to socialism.” They told of a government that was collapsing in upon itself without any help from the outside. They referenced the relatively low number killed in Chile versus other countries that suffered similar violations. They said “some repression” could be justified to ensure order in a country facing so many internal and external threats to its stability.

I believe in both sides of this debate. I believe that there is a truth to be ascertained through careful attention to the various facts presented. I also believe that through seeking the truth, there is a compromise to be found regarding the historical legacy of this period. However, debates that seek to ascertain the truth must be informed by the facts.

Pinochet’s humanitarian violations have been euphemized by the media for general consumption. We are presented with words, but not images. We read about “torture” or “disappearance” rather than protracted descriptions of the crimes. This form of synecdoche has become widely abused as it has given the world the luxury of debating the abuses without tackling the reality.

The Report of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture was commissioned in 2003 to create the most comprehensive list possible of those who were imprisoned and tortured for political reasons during the military dictatorship from September 1973 to March 1990. This mandate was vastly different from that of the first Chilean truth commission, The Rettig Report of 1991, which enumerated solely those who had been disappeared or murdered.

Published in 2005, the report greatly expanded on the official version of the extent of repression in Chile. The Commission took testimony from 35,868 individuals who were tortured or imprisoned improperly. Of those, 27,255 were verified and included. An unknown number of victims did not come forward to give testimony. Scholars estimate that the real number is between 150,000 and 300,000 victims.

94 per cent of the verified testimonies include incidents of torture. The short list of methods includes repeated kicking or hitting, intentional physical scarring, forcing victims to maintain certain positions, electric shocks to sensitive areas, threats, mock execution, humiliation, forced nudity, sexual assault, witnessing the torture or execution of others, forced Russian roulette, asphyxiation, and imprisonment in inhumane conditions. There are many individuals with permanently distorted limbs or other disfigurations. For others, the memory of the humiliation is what remains. One man testified, “While they interrogated me, they took off my clothes and attached electrodes to my chest and testicles…They put something in my mouth so that I wouldn’t bite my tongue while they shocked me.”

For women, it was an especially violent experience. The commission reports that nearly every female prisoner was the victim of repeated rape. The perpetration of this crime took many forms, from military men raping women themselves to the use of foreign objects on victims. Numerous women (and men) report spiders or live rats being implanted into their orifices. One woman wrote, “I was raped and sexually assaulted with trained dogs and with live rats. They forced me to have sex with my father and brother who were also detained. I also had to listen to my father and brother being tortured.” Her experiences were mirrored by those of many other women who told their stories to the commission.

The question of whether some human rights can be encroached upon in the interest of national (or global) security is one without an easy answer and it is a question that should and will be debated. Perhaps some human rights will be suspended in tumultuous times. But if you choose to argue that the trauma Chile faced during Pinochet’s reign necessitated “some” repression, do so with a full understanding of what you are defending.

When Iris and I discuss torture, she vaguely refers to how terrible “it” was and shakes her head. She then focuses on telling me about her family and how valuable they have been. In a way, we dance around the ugliness of the crimes just as the media and post-Pinochet debates do. The difference is we aren’t avoiding something unknown, but rather something she knows too well.

Lauren R. Foote ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Latin American studies concentrator in Currier House.