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Prisoner Camp, "Chacabuco"

Antofagasta; Region II

     Chacabuco Camp for Prisoners was installed about 68 miles from Antofagasta in the middle of the Atacama desert. It had been, in earlier times, a small mining town, home to the nitrate mining company, Chemical and Mining Society of Chile (Soquimich). The town had been abandoned since 1938 and served for army military maneuvers. From the first of November 1973 until April 1975 Camp Chacabuco was used to house over a thousand political prisoners - all men. The prisoner sector was demarcated with barbed wire, land mines and watchtowers staffed with machine-gun wielding guards. The prisoner camp at Chacabuco was one of the largest notonly in the region but in the entire country. The prisoners gathered together in this camp came from different military precincts, especially from the first and second regions - as well as from Santiago and Valparaiso. Not only had these detainees been tortured in the diverse places from which they came, but also in transit to Chacabuco - especially those who were transported in freight trains from Iquique, in ships from Valparaiso (the Andalién), and in military trucks from Pisagua.

Chacabuco Prisoner Camp was under the supervision of the Army First Division of Antofagasta, but the guards were rotated from the army, the air force and members of the police force. Many prisoners were freed toward the beginning of 1974, a period in which new prisoners were brought in. The camp began to gradually vacate in July 1974 as prisoners were transferred to different camps in Santiago and Valparaiso (Tres Alamos, Ritoque, Melinka). A tank continuously patrolled the perimeter of the camp, keeping a vigilant eye on it. Testimony also indicates surveillance from low-flying aircraft that passed frequently overhead. According to reports from The Committee For Peace toward the end of 1974: Prisoners lived in adobe passageways formed by ten tiny pavilion-like houses, each of two or three stories housing six prisoners. There was a single shared dining room and no electricity until July of 1974.

Testimonies agree that upon arriving at the camp prisoners were obliged to stretch out nude for hours on the soccer field. It was normal procedure for them to be threatened and kicked or pummeled with fists or rifle butts. Maltreatment was a constant. Living conditions, as judged by those who testified, were menacing and uncertain in the extreme. According to reports presented before the Valech Commission, the bad living environment included: degrading eating conditions and constant harassment. On the slightest pretext, detainees were pulled out into the intemperate nights where they were left until morning in the intense cold of the desert. Or, at other times, during the day, they were forced to stand permanently under the scorching rays of the desert sun.

It is important to note: ex-prisoners report that the arbitrariness of punishment was itself a constant source of psychological torture. Those in charge would invent reasons for interrogation - supposed plans to escape or some kind of sabotage by the prisoners. And it is certain from testimony that action was constantly threatened against the families of the detained.

Ex-prisoners reported experiencing additional pressure upon being subjected to intense working days consisting of military type exercises and a regimen of forced labor, labor that had no utility or sense. It is equally certain from reports that there were prisoners who were kept separated for long periods from the rest in a regimen with more severe abuses. Others were subjected to continuous interrogations accompanied by torture. Reports indicate that many prisoners were regularly kicked and struck with blunt objects such as the butts of rifles. Simulated executions were also staged. Some ex-prisoners reported having been taken from this location toward Antofagasta to be interrogated while undergoing torture and beating by the director of that military zone. Others were interrogated while being beaten at the camp by civil agents as well as agents of the Military Inteligence Service (SIM).


Eye-witness accounts:

Testimony of Sadi Renato Joui Joui (from his book "Chacabuco and Other Centers of Detention," 1994):  "...the desert, it looked big and extensive, the heat grew ever more intense; our progress was slow. We could not talk. The caravan kept on for more than an hour when we began to see a high chimney that indicated the presence of the old Chacabuco nitrate mining offices of Anglo Latauro (an English Company). We came to some high walls and entered through a great opening. Some tanks came along side the buses and pointed their canons at us menacingly. We became so nervous we actually trembled with fear. The buses stopped in front of some fences. As they counted us, the police turned us over to the Army."

"...at Chacabuco concentration camp under the direction of the Army, we were again victims of inhumane, degrading and humiliating treatment on top of constant threats and intimidation both physical and psychological. Immediately upon being confined behind electrified barbed wire fences and under high watchtowers, the commander in chief of the camp, captain Carlos Minoletti Arriagada, made us come together in formation in an open space and ordered us to remove all our clothes, spread out our belongings on the ground, and wait thus immobile for his inspection. Captain Minoletti, demonstrating his brutal power and impunity to commit any outrageous offense, carried out these inspections assaulting each detained citizen with offensive treatment, insults and calumnious statements, punctuated with physical blows and humiliating comments. At the end of his inspection, which took hours under the hot sun and desert air, we were made to stand in formation again so that he could humiliate us once more with false accusations, calumnies and every kind of threat. With the air of a divine judge, he notified us that we were there  "for the foul acts you've committed and were thinking of commiting." Personnel from the Army and from the Air Force took turns watching the camp, putting into effect the arbitrary regimen of captivity for the citizens detained there. Other officials who meted out inhmane treatment were: captain Santander and captain Alexander (or Alejandro) Ananías. Captain Santander, who bragged of being Pan-American champion sharp shooter and threatened the prisoners as potential targets, on more than one occassion made us eat under an enormous spread of heavily armed soldiers pointing their firearms directly at our heads. On another occassion, he abruptly interrupted the lunch hour to make us stand in formation without any specific reason. Again, he brought us together to reprimand us humiliatingly and accuse us falsely of defacing the walls with politically motivated markings. And, as always, pilots of the Air Force, in combat aircraft, made daily low-flying passes over the camp provoking restlessness and fear among the inmates..."

"..in Chacabuco I was forced to gather up my own feces with my hands....On top of which I was struck with a stick on the soles of my bare feet merely because my second name is Augusto." (Valech Comission)

"..standing all day under the hot 104 degree (fahrenheit) sun, and at night they made us run in order to feel the cold of the desert." (Valech Comission)


Criminals and Accomplices: Captain Alejandro Ananías (Army); Captain Carlos Minoletti Arriagada (Army); Captain Santander (Army).

Sources of information: Informe Rettigg; Informe Valech; Coordinadora de Ex-presos Politicos de Santiago: "Nosotros los Sobrevivientes acusamos" ("We the Survivors accuse") Book: " La Represion Politica en Chile: los Hechos" ("Political Repression in Chile: the Facts"); Daily Newspapers: "Punto Final;" "Fortin Mapocho;" " La Nacion;' " El Siglo;" Chipnews.com; Books "Chacabuco y Otros Centros de Detencion" (Chacabuco and Other Centers of Detention:" "La Represion Politica en Chile" (Political Repression in Chile;" Archivo memoriaviva.com


La Nacion

Monumento nacional

Jorge Montealegre is a poet, writer, and above all, an upstanding man - irreproachable, I'd say. He was a prisoner with me at Chacabuco when the Pinochet dictatorship began to extend its cruel hand. Jorge was then nineteen.

As a political prisoner, he wrote poems and then, when he had recovered his liberty and was exiled, continued writing like a condemned man. He recently published the book, "Frazadas del Estadio Nacional." ("Blankets of the National Stadium.")

I'm going to quote a few lines where he describes what happened the 9th of November 1973, now thirty years ago, when those interned at the stadium were told they were to be moved to Chacabuco: "They put us on buses, threatening us for the umpteenth time, and assigned three soldiers with machine guns to watch over us. There were also caretakers from the stadium that looked stupefied, impotent. with large gleaming eyes. We went out in a caravan toward Valparaiso. Crossing the city, we saw hundreds of handkerchiefs that barely reached out the windows. The police had cut off the streets. Many jeeps and military vehicles were part of the convoy. Once on the highway, helicopters appeared. We carried the stadium in our memories. So we were going to Chacabuco. It is not easy to let go of the stadium. It stays here inside."

Exploits of Filistoque: Mario Benavente, professor, philosopher, master in political sciences, holder of classes for forty years at the University of Concepcion, was also sent to prison. From being a notable educator, the dictatorship turned him into a dangerous extremist. Detained by "Investigations" in the public jail and in the Regional Stadium in Concepcion, he was then passed to Chacabuco, camp Melinka of Puchuncaví and to Tres Alamos. More than twenty months deprived of liberty and then exiled to Sweden.

He authored a notable book: "Contar Para Saber." ("Tell So You Can Know.") From Chacabuco, he describes the following episode on page 53: "All the programed activities by the detainees carried the seal of rebelion. The poem, the song, the weekly show, school, sports, the circus - these were some of its expressions. Filistoque was a peculiar person. Ruddy, oversized and strong. His permanent smile went with him into every corner. When he laughed, he revealed his four powerful teeth, two above and two below. The others were beaten with rifle butts by the torturers.  He was generous and always ready to help. And he was appreciated by everyone. He knew his limitations. A man of the people, of humble origin, he enjoyed conversing with those more cultivated than himself. No one knew his real name. And that suited him just fine: he could put on another personality and feel important.He was badly tortured because he had penetrated the security group of the PS and Altamirano. For some reason he declared that he lived on sheer luck. We do not know how or when, he was named chief in charge of forming a guerilla band from the inmates. He accomplished it after long sessions. He went out to march one day with his band beyond the encampment which gave the impression that it was an attempt to escape. A truck with soldiers armed to the teeth went out to find them.The band was disolved, and they were punished ignominiously. Filistoque, remaining in prison garb to the last, was moved from Chacabuco to other prisons and finally expelled from the country. He settled in England."

What was Chacabuco like?: In 1984, when the dictatorship was at its height and no one dared raise a voice, it was clearly an act of defiance when the magazine 'Today,' managed by Emilio Filippi, dared publish a book that might open wide the doors of the hated prisoner camp at Chacabuco. In that adventure, I went along without hesitation, risking liberty and (why not?) even life. The book, "A Voyage Through Hell" told baldly how some ten thousand prisoners lived at the old nitrate mine.

What was Chacabuco like? The fenced in sector, which was where we lived and suffered, was more or less six blocks long and three wide. There were pavilions for workers and for employees. All houses were constructed in pairs and made of adobe with roofs of zinc ore. By day each house was an oven, and by night a refrigerator. When we arrived, the door openings had no doors, the windows no window panes. The sack-cloth that had been tacked up only let the wind have its way. Large latrines were improvised with showers and lavatories. Toilets consisted of two or three large irrigation ditches with tablets across for the feet.

It was here that the Chacabucan prisoners lived. But it was made more bearable because of the Council of Elders, named by the inmates themselves. They created medical services, judicial and social assistance, libraries, rooms for artistic groups and a wall diary. We were a correct and upstanding people."

To what end these memories that assault and touch? This past Friday, at 7:00 pm, in the hall of honor of the old National Congress, there arrived from every corner of Chile the prisoners who had passed through Chacabuco. Talks were given, a sea of tears were shed, hugs were exchanged, and they asked that the old nitrate mine, the hateful concentration camp, be turned, by whatever means, into a national monument.I think that is just.


Diario El Siglo

 Ex political prisoners from Concepción: "Defeated.....Not vanquished."

The auditorium of the University of Concepción, completely filled by a deeply moved public, was the stage on which Mario Benavente Paulsen and his wife, Nimia Jaque Peña read from their testimonial accounts in their books "Tell So You Can Know" and "The Tree That Sprouted Sons," published by each in costly editions paid for by themselves as a contribution to the "historical memory" of the brutal, fascistic repression in Chile and the dignity and fortitude with which its "political prisoners" faced it, among them the narrators.

There were innumerable brief testimonies from their own lives and those of other ex political prisoners from the "camps" of reclusion and torture at Chacabuco, Puchuncaví, Los Alamos (preceded first by periods at the barracks at Isla Quiriquina and Estadio Regional de Concepción). Then there was the account of the little girl, daughter of an imprisoned mother; the vision of Nimia from the patio of the jail at Penco of her son who had climbed a tree in the adjoining park in order to catch a glimpse of her over the wall.

Eight of the ex con women appearing in her accounts were present at the event.

The attorney for Human Rights, Nelson Caucoto, a former student at the University of Concepción, opened the procedings with an anticipated exposition of advances regarding the progress of the prosecution by the co-authors against those who were accomplices or who helped cover up crimes against humanity in Chile.

At the event, promoted by the Teachers' College of Concepción, he introduced to the authors the national director, Olimpia Riveros, who had, in fact, engaged with them since before the events of '73 in leftist activities and professional and political struggles. Teaching colleagues Patricia García and Alberto Carrasco also accompanied her in the mission.

Benavente and Nimia brought the event to a close, he signaling that the ex political prisoners "were defeated....but not vanquished," and reaffirming their decisions regardless of the exoneration of their superiors, the maltreatment, torture and long exile. He stressed how the courses and varied studies and literary competitions at camp Chacabuco expressed the dignity with which they faced their confinement.

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