There was something about the voice of the killer calling in to the late-night talk show that burned into the conscience of the Chilean nation: not just the fact of the multiple murders he said he committed; not just that he said he was only following orders from the CIA-supported Pinochet regime by slaughtering suspected subversives; but the casual tone and bar-room language he used to describe the murders, and especially, the way he said his military unit made the corpses disappear.
“We shot them, and then we dynamited them,” he said. “The bodies disintegrated. There was nothing left.”
What the caller really wanted to talk about was an Italian woman he was banging. That was why he phoned the radio show Chacotero Sentimental (Sentimental Joker) in the first place. “Let’s get back to the Italian,” he said.
But the talk show host, known as “Rumpy,” kept drawing him out like a folksy priest pulling a confession out of a wayward parishioner, and the numbers of the dead mounted, until “Alberto,” as the man called himself, had confessed to killing at least 18 people.
Perhaps it was remorse, or perhaps Alberto thought that after all these years his crimes didn’t amount to much in the grim scheme of things after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973.
That coup, encouraged by the United States, opened the way for savage repression of real and supposed communists. Altogether, according to official counts, some 38,000 were tortured and at least 3,200 civilians were killed. About a third of those “were disappeared,” as the vernacular of state terror puts it.
“What distinguishes this case is that the person talking has described a technique for disappearing people that was never on the record before,” says Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.
It’s known that Pinochet’s soldiers took their victims out over the ocean in helicopters and dropped them into the sea in burlap bags, weighed down with bits of railroad track. It’s known some were burned, and some were buried in unmarked mass graves. But the families of the disappeared, most often, never know what happened at all, and never even know for sure their loved ones are dead. And now we learn some of their corpses were blown to smithereens with dynamite. “It really has touched a raw nerve,” Kornbluh told The Daily Beast.
Pinochet’s reach did not stop at Chile’s borders, and Americans were not immune to his ruthlessness. Journalist Charles Horman was murdered along with others herded into a soccer stadium to be tortured and killed in the early days after the coup. In 1976, on Pinochet’s personal order, regime critic Orlando Letelier and his colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, Ronni Moffitt, were blown up by Chilean agents as the pair drove through Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C.
Years later, in 1986, Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old Chilean-American photographer fresh out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., was arrested during street demonstrations in Santiago, beaten, and burned alive along with a woman companion, 18-year-old Carmen Quintana. When the U.S. ambassador walked in Rojas’s funeral procession, Pinochet’s men turned a water cannon on the diplomat and those around him.
By then, despite years of U.S. complicity with Pinochet, the Reagan administration was finally fed up. In a memo to the president, Secretary of State George Schulz, citing a CIA report about the Letelier murder a decade before, called it “a blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism, one that is particularly disturbing because it occurred in our capital and since his [Pinochet’s] government is considered to be friendly.”
But to bring Pinochet’s rule to an end in 1990, many compromises had to be made. He was allowed to stay as defense minister until 1998, then as a senator, and granted immunity from prosecution. And despite a Spanish effort to detain him and put him on trial in Europe, and indictments eventually leveled against him in Chile, he repeatedly, and successfully, claimed ill health in order to avoid prosecution. At one point, asked if the Chilean intelligence service, DINA, reported directly to him, Pinochet famously replied, “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it were true, I don’t remember.”
So Pinochet, though finally stripped of his immunity and hounded by prosecutors for corruption as well as human-rights abuses, was never convicted of any crime, and died in 2006 at the age of 91 with no sign of remorse.
But some of the young soldiers who participated in Pinochet’s atrocities now, slowly, are breaking what’s been called “the pact of silence.”
In November last year, a former conscript corroborated the story of Carmen Quintana, who had survived the immolation alongside Rodrigo Rojas. The military had rebutted her account with affidavits from the soldiers involved, but the former conscript now said he had been coached to lie in his initial declarations, and then described what really happened.
His lieutenant, he said, ordered the pair doused with gasoline from a jerry can. “The woman I drenched from head to foot, and the man on the shoulders because he was already face down on the ground.” The lieutenant then ignited them both with his cigarette lighter. Afterward, they were thrown in a ditch.
“Alberto,” the man calling in to talk radio last week to talk about his love life, and then about his murders, may also have had pangs of conscience as well as a desire to brag about his love affairs.
He said he is 62, and was a kid just drafted into the army when the coup happened. His unit was assigned to a garrison in the Atacama Desert in the north of the country (best known more recently as the barren setting for much of the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace).
“There, I saw extreme violence; I knew how evil one can be,” Alberto said, sounding lugubrious, if not indeed liquored up.
“I didn’t ask to be there,” Alberto told Rumpy. “It wasn’t my war. You either killed them as soldiers or they sent you away as a political prisoner.”
And then he talked about his love life again. He was involved with a woman whose husband was killed during the Pinochet days, he said. And he knew he had killed him, and he didn’t know how to tell her. So here he was in the middle of the night, telling the world.
Shortly afterward, Chile’s police traced Alberto’s phone to the city of Valparaíso. He’s a bus driver now, real name Rodrigo Guillermo Reyes Ramssy, and he is under arrest. What more he has to tell us about those years of horror will most likely be heard in the courts, not on Chacotero Sentimental.