Mass Grave Fills Another Page in Grim History of Chilean Desert Village : Human rights: Bodies found at Pisagua were leftists taken prisoner after 1973 coup. Discovery has renewed debate over conduct of military.


Pisagua is the barren lip of the desert, licked by the sea. Chileans think of it as nature’s prison.

“Be good or you’ll wind up in Pisagua,” parents tell unruly children.

“He’s a bum! Ship him off to Pisagua!” soccer fans bellow at referees.

Reality proved to be much grimmer. A mass grave was discovered at Pisagua in June, containing 20 extraordinarily well-preserved bodies identified as those of leftists taken prisoner after the 1973 military coup.

The desert soil, rich in minerals, mummified the corpses. Clothing and flesh remained intact, with bullet holes clearly visible. Many still wore blindfolds, and their hands were tied.


They had been wrapped in sackcloth, bound with wire. Some sacks were sewn together.

Belisario Velasco of the Interior Ministry said 17 had bullet wounds consistent with firing squads. How the other three died was less clear, but more horrible: Two were mutilated, apparently by explosives, and one was beheaded.

Photographs were published by Chilean newspapers, spurring debate of human rights violations that followed the military takeover.

For Pisagua, it is another chapter in a bleak history.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the town was a bustling port for the tons of nitrate mined in the Atacama Desert. When the boom ended, Pisagua dwindled to about 100 people who survive by fishing and have little use for outsiders.

During political unrest in late 1947, a rightist government turned Pisagua into a concentration camp for about 500 militant Marxists.

Its long-abandoned hospital and theater were ideal for housing prisoners and soldiers. Pisagua’s location 1,200 miles north of Santiago, the capital, made escape by land virtually impossible.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, then an army captain, served for two months as the camp commander. It was his first direct contact with communism, and Pinochet wrote in his memoirs:


“I was much concerned that such pernicious and contaminating ideas should continue to be taught in Chile.”

Despite a formal ban on political activity by prisoners, he said, Pisagua was “a true Marxist-Leninist University where people were trained who would later act as agitators.”

Pinochet also recalled turning away, at gunpoint, a congressional commission that arrived to inspect the camp.

Among the commission members was Salvador Allende, who became president a generation later and was overthrown by Pinochet.

Pisagua was used as a detention center again during a political crackdown on leftists in 1956.

Allende, an avowed Marxist, was elected president in 1970 and clung to power during three years of increasing political and economic upheaval. The coup Sept. 11, 1973, was followed by repression of unprecedented harshness.


Once more, Pisagua became a concentration camp. Military trials were conducted, executions ordered.

“We were isolated from the world until November” of 1973, inmate Francisco Prieto recalled. “This was the toughest period, when the massacres and murders took place.”

Prieto, a 41-year-old Socialist, lives in nearby Iquique and was interviewed there.

Pedro Aravena, who also lives in Iquique, said guards were rotated out of Pisagua to keep them from becoming friendly with their charges. Prisoners were moved frequently from one cell to another to prevent plots to escape, “which was impossible anyway,” he said.

Another former inmate, Alberto Neumann, led authorities to the grave. Neumann had been forced to witness and certify the deaths of five fellow prisoners, whose bodies were tossed into the trench beside half a dozen others.

He was released by mistake in 1974, sought asylum in West Germany and returned to Chile last year.

Neumann said he was ordered to treat other prisoners after brutal interrogations, “but they wouldn’t even give us a strip of bandage, or medication.”


Discovery of the grave has inspired searches elsewhere in Chile, based on unconfirmed reports of bodies or bones spotted in rural hillsides, industrial zones and even in coastal waters.

Pinochet relinquished the presidency March 11 to an elected successor, Patricio Aylwin, but has refused to step down as army commander. A special provision in the constitution prevents Aylwin from dismissing him.

The army issued a statement giving its view of the deaths at Pisagua.

“Looking at things from the perspective of the peace we now enjoy, it may appear that the military reaction was exaggerated, but this overlooks the fact that Sept. 11, 1973, was a military operation, that is a war action,” it said.

Chile was being torn apart at the time by “an internal war, provoked by foreign ideologies,” the army said, and noted that many Chileans supported the coup.

It concluded: “War is never bloodless, and always brings pains, hates, injustices and inhumanities.”

Most politicians responded by saying shooting and torturing prisoners was wrong even in wartime. The influential Roman Catholic Church said the army was trying to “justify the unjustifiable.”