Decades later, Chilean folk singer's accused killer goes on trial ... in Florida

In the bloody days after a military coup in Chile, a folk singer and poet named Victor Jara was marched to a soccer arena in the nation’s capital, where he was held for days in the dark tunnels of the National Stadium.

Eventually he was shot — 44 times in all. Jara’s wife was later summoned to the morgue in Santiago and asked to identify her husband.

Decades later, the man accused of killing Jara — whose music, words and fate long ago cemented his status as a national hero — appeared Monday in a Florida courtroom where a murky chapter in Chile’s history is being resurrected.

Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez was indicted along with eight retired Chilean military officials four years ago in the folk singer’s 1973 death but  has never been extradited back to Chile to stand trial.

Now Jara’s family has forced Barrientos into a U.S. federal courtroom, where he will face civil accusations that he was the gunman who killed the singer.

An eight-person jury will decide whether he’s guilty or innocent, though he cannot be imprisoned in the U.S., even if found guilty. He can be found liable only for damages. Jury selection began Monday. 

“The importance of this case is twofold: Up to this point nobody has been held accountable in the murder of Victor Jara,” said Dixon Osburn, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, which — along with a New York-based law firm — is representing Jara’s widow.  “And it will be a clear attempt to pull back the veil on what happened at the stadium in Chile during those days — and that has incredible importance to the people of Chile.”

“It is our belief that Barrientos was the triggerman,” Osburn said.

Barrientos, who moved to the U.S. in 1989, lives in Daytona Beach.

Walking with a cane and assisted by her daughter, Jara’s 89-year-old widow, Joan Jara, took the witness stand Monday and talked about her husband’s final days.

"I was very, very afraid for him because his life had been threatened so much," she said. "My life was cut in two, and my children's."

Mark Beckett, another attorney representing Jara’s survivors, said he would call Chilean civilians who lived through the coup and army conscripts who heard the screams and the gunshots, and who were forced to help carry bodies out of the stadium.

"The conscripts will testify that Barrientos bragged about shooting Victor Jara in the head and showing off the gun he used to do it with," he told the jury.

Jara, whose poems and songs about the common man struck a chord with his countrymen and influenced musicians including Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, was rounded up at a time when thousands suspected of having communist affiliations were being hauled off to jail in the first few days of the CIA-backed military coup that ousted Socialist President Salvador Allende, as Gen. Augusto Pinochet began his 17-year reign of terror. Rather than surrender, Allende shot himself.

But what exactly happened to Jara in his final hours has remained a mystery for decades.  

“The last time I saw my husband, we were sitting in our living room, listening to the radio as a brutal military dictatorship took over Chile,” Joan Jara said in a statement before the trial began. “More than 40 years later, my daughters and I are still seeking justice.

“The importance of this trial does not end with my family, but it extends to all who have spent so many decades searching for answers about their loved ones who were tortured, disappeared, or killed at the hand of the Pinochet regime.”

The accused killer’s back story is nearly as murky. Though he was indicted in Chile in connection with Jara’s death, it’s unclear whether a formal extradition request was ever filed and, if so, what became of it.

“As a matter of policy, we generally do not comment on extradition-related matters,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, said in an email.

Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and an expert in international human rights law, said the two nations haven’t ratified a new extradition treaty since 1900. She said a new one was finally drafted in 2013 and it passed through the Chilean legislature the following year. But the same draft has sat in the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations untouched, she said.

“Nobody has any idea when it will be pushed out of the Foreign Relations Committee,” she told The Times. “They’ve been extraordinarily slow in getting things like this done…. There’s no reason why that’s sitting there for two years. It’s crazy.”

Roht-Arriaza, who wrote a book titled “The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights,” said the Department of Justice could be hamstrung by the treaty ordeal, unable to accomplish anything until the new extradition treaty is approved. She also noted that Chile, to some degree, has changed the way it deals with these cases — by not ignoring them anymore.

“A lot of Barrientos’ codefendants have been prosecuted,” she said. “The fact that he escaped and has lived in the U.S. rankles a lot of Chileans.”

While he was being held at the soccer stadium, where thousands of others were reportedly beaten, tortured or killed, Jara is said to have written a poem about the violence and chaos he was witnessing. It was later smuggled out into the city.

“You song, you come out so poorly, when I have to sing of the terror,” he wrote.

Saying the authorities carried out their actions with precision, he wrote: “Blood is like medals for them. Slaughter is an act of heroism.”

Neuhaus is a special correspondent.


UPDATES:

4:08 p.m.: This article was updated with new details of the trial.

This article was originally published at 9:21 a.m.

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