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Wheels of Justice Turn for Chile’s Deadly ‘Caravan’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In October 1973, when Augusto Pinochet was making his mark on Chile, death rode a puma through the sky.

The Puma helicopter carried a six-member army squad led by a general who was a special emissary of the dictator himself. These men roamed the north, massacring political prisoners--at least 72 victims in all. The “caravan of death” became a symbol of the regime’s thuggish swagger and murderous efficiency.

Even fellow soldiers were horrified. Gen. Joaquin Lagos, then a regional commander in the city of Antofagasta, later recalled: “A general of the republic had been my guest for a few hours and . . . ordered the murder of 14 prisoners, prisoners who had in their majority surrendered voluntarily, trusting in me. What a barbarity, massacring 14 defenseless prisoners behind my back!”

The general’s outrage, expressed in a subsequent interview and court testimony, was extraordinary for the fiercely insular armed forces. The accounts of Lagos and other courageous officers make them star witnesses against the former dictator in a criminal case that has advanced further than most Chileans ever imagined.

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If, as expected, Chile’s Supreme Court issues a ruling this week to strip Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity, the senator-for-life will face prosecution as the mastermind of the caravan of death. The charges center on 19 people who were never found, making their disappearances unsolved kidnappings that are not covered by Pinochet-era amnesty laws.

Many Chileans don’t believe that Pinochet, 84, will ever stand trial. They predict more of the protracted legal and political maneuvering that has marked his judicial odyssey since late 1998, when he was arrested and detained in Britain. Authorities there sent him home in March on grounds of ill health, and before being tried here he must undergo legally required tests to determine his mental competence.

Nonetheless, Pinochet’s foes would consider it a triumph for democracy if the high court decided there is enough evidence to prosecute him for the caravan of death. The 27-year-old case offers unusually strong evidence suggesting direct links between systematic atrocities and Pinochet, who once said that not a leaf moved in the nation without his knowledge.

The murderous episode also is emblematic of a regime that used violence to send terrorist messages. In this case, according to a journalist who investigated it, the message was aimed at Pinochet’s own military as well as a society with a tradition of democracy and respect for the law.

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“I believe the caravan of death was the foundational act of the dictatorship,” said Patricia Verdugo, whose 1989 book, “The Slashes of the Puma,” has become valuable evidence for a special magistrate investigating the former dictator.

“Pinochet was announcing to the nation and the left that the dirty war had begun,” Verdugo said. “Second, he was making the armed forces close ranks behind the new regime. The military had been trained to respect the law. . . . The caravan of death caused total terror among the military.”

Bloodthirstiness and Displays of Honor

In fact, the story of the caravan of death adds shades of gray to the often black-and-white portrait of the Chilean military as goose-stepping sadists. The bloodthirstiness of the death squad contrasts with displays of honor by officers such as Gen. Lagos, who denounced the atrocities to Pinochet. Or the commander who saved a Communist mayor’s life by hiding him in his office a few feet away from the executioners who went through a jail roster and checked off victims.

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Verdugo’s book, which will soon be published in English by the Dante B. Fascell North-South Center at the University of Miami, begins after the coup of September 1973. It was a time when Pinochet, the chief of the newly installed military junta, needed to assert his power because he had been a latecomer to the plot to bring down President Salvador Allende.

There is little dispute that Pinochet dispatched Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark on a special mission with an official letter granting him extraordinary powers. Arellano was accompanied by a colonel, a major and three other handpicked officers who would become legendary for their bloody exploits. All five of these subordinates later joined the feared National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA, and two were ultimately convicted of the assassination in Washington of a leader of the Chilean exile community.

Their destination was the arid mining country of northern Chile, a stronghold of Allende’s leftist Popular Unity coalition.

Despite the ideological violence that had wrenched the democracy apart, the towns of the north remained relatively calm. A civilized, even friendly, rapport existed between military officials and leftist government officials, transcending political differences.

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Witnesses described the arrival of the Puma in the provinces as both ominous and tragicomic: Arellano’s men emerged from the helicopter in helmets and battle gear, fanning out in combat stance on the runway, weapons at the ready. They were greeted by puzzled local troops in everyday uniforms, sometimes accompanied by an army band.

“Perhaps you don’t realize that we are at war!” Arellano snapped at Cmdr. Efrain Jana after arriving in the central town of Talca, according to Jana’s account in the book.

“I don’t know what war you mean, General,” Jana replied. He was soon court-martialed, jailed and sent into exile for being soft on local “subversives.” He was one of several officers who endured disgrace, the ruin of their careers and even torture after run-ins with Arellano.

Even if the “enemy” was defenseless and largely imaginary, the officers in the north soon realized that the visiting general’s private war was deadly serious. Citing orders from Pinochet to “accelerate” military judicial proceedings against political prisoners, the squad summarily executed leftist leaders who had been jailed on often flimsy charges. Many were either awaiting trial or serving minor sentences when they were hauled out of their cells.

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In the town of Calama, local soldiers were forced to participate in the massacre of 26 prisoners in the hills. The enlisted men came back in shock, some of them vomiting, describing how Arellano’s men killed the victims slowly, mutilating them with daggers and machine gun volleys.

Many of the victims had turned themselves in voluntarily. Mario Silva, a Socialist Party leader and director of the federal small-business administration office in Antofagasta, was at a meeting in Santiago, the capital, at the time of the coup. Although the Mexican Embassy offered him asylum, the stocky 38-year-old declined and returned home.

“He said he had nothing to hide,” his son, Mario, said in an interview last week. “There was a different dynamic in the provinces--he knew the military chiefs socially, they saw each other at public events. He didn’t think that things would be too bad.”

The military notified the family Oct. 19 that Silva had been executed, and it turned his body over for burial. The charges supposedly involved a plot against the authorities, but no trial ever took place.

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Memories of Soldiers With Painted Faces

At least the Silvas had a corpse to grieve over. Other victims simply joined the ranks of the “disappeared.” Among them was Benito Tapia, a Communist leader of the miners union in the mountain hamlet of El Salvador. Tapia, 32, went underground after the coup and was eventually arrested. He was in jail in nearby Copiapo when the caravan of death arrived Oct. 16.

Jessica Tapia, his daughter, was 7. She didn’t see the helicopter, which caused a commotion in the mining village. But she distinctly remembers soldiers with painted faces ransacking her house and carting away papers and photos.

By then her father was dead--shot while trying to escape, according to an official version that was disproved by investigations. Jessica’s mother spent the next 25 years searching for some sign of his remains.

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The years of anguish may result in poetic justice, however. If the military had turned over the corpses, the killers would qualify for amnesty laws enacted by Pinochet for killings by the military before 1978. Arellano and other members of the caravan are being tried for kidnapping, a crime considered ongoing by the courts here as long as the victims are missing.

Pinochet could end up in the same predicament because he personally dispatched Arellano on the grim mission, although the former dictator’s lawyers argue that he did not order the crimes and is not legally responsible for them.

Realizing that Tapia’s disappearance could be a key to Pinochet’s downfall, the family has experienced a profound change of heart.

“At this moment, I don’t want them to find my father’s remains,” Jessica said. “We can wait another 10 or 20 years. I am not devout, so the eternal rest of his soul is not a concern for me.”

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