Photo credit: Kena Lorenzini

By Ramona Wadi

“We dug in the desert and sometimes came across strange bones. We were so frightened during those years that we would bury them again.” The statement by Leonila Rivas Ruiz, mother of dictatorship victim and disappeared Manuel Hidalgo Rivas summarises the intensity of contradictions fluctuating within the relatives of the executed men in Calama. Flowers in the desert – the search for Chile’s disappeared (University of Florida Press, 2013) is a compelling, bilingual narration which disseminates the tenacity of the women of Calama, defying the atrocities of the dictatorship by launching an autonomous investigation and search for the twenty six victims of Pinochet’s Caravan of Death.

Paula Allen has created a harrowing account of the massacres, weaving the anguish associated with political executions and disappearances into a visual and literary narrative. With contributions by writers such as Ariel Dorfman, Peter Kornblugh and the late Patricia Verdugo – researcher and author of books regarding the Caravan of Death, the book provides testimonies substantiated by an overview of research and a multitude of photographs depicting the vastness of the unknown – juxtaposing the immensity of the desert with the resonating silence of dictatorship impunity.

Despite lack of evidence pertaining to acts associated with militancy (Pinochet had stated that the Chilean military was facing thousands of armed guerrillas trained in Cuba) the twenty-six men massacred in Calama were accused of conspiring to blow up the DuPont factory. On October 19, General Sergio Arellano Stark landed in Calama – the final stop in the Caravan of Death massacres, following a trail of terror which encompassed Cauquenes, La Serena, Copiapó and Antofagasta. Colonel Eugenio Rivera Desgroux allowed Stark access to the prisoners for interrogation, receiving notification of their annihilation only a few minutes prior to Stark’s departure from Calama. The men were blindfolded and herded into vans under the command of Colonel Sergio Arrendondo Gonzáles, taken to the outskirts of Calama, mutilated with sabres and shot. Upon viewing the bodies and consulting with the regiment doctor, Rivera ordered a secret burial of the bodies in a mass grave due to the severe mutilation, striving to avoid confrontation with relatives. The official version of the massacres shielded the military from culpability – the men were allegedly shot for attempting to escape from custody and the bodies could not be immediately released to their families for burial. According to Verdugo’s research, Colonel Ariosto Lapostol Orrego insisted that Stark had indicated on a list the prisoners scheduled for the massacre. 




Prompted by the authorities’ silence and refusal to divulge details regarding the disappearance of the twenty-six men, relatives embarked upon a personal quest to recover the bodies – a search which lasted seventeen years. Allen, a photojournalist, embarked upon the journey with the women of Calama. “I wanted to find a body, to help relieve the grief of even one of these women, but I was also frightened that my fingers would actually touch a bone.” Alternating between digging at sites and photographing the struggle for truth, Allen has managed to capture an immense tenacity which reveals the repercussions of Pinochet’s dictatorship, etched within a sliver of memory obfuscated for years. After following various leads and rumours, the location of the mass grave was revealed on July 19, 1990. Years of venturing in the desert, at times stopped by officials for allegedly digging on archaeological sites, had culminated into the discovery of a mass grave in the Vulture’s Ravie near San Pedro, only 15km away from Calama. According to testimony by one of the relatives, “Lying on top of the earth were pieces of skulls, ribs and jaws. The ground was soft in places, and when you walked in it, little bones popped up from the sand.”

The fragments of bones and body parts, as opposed to the expected discovery of bodies still intact, is surmised to have been part of Pinochet’s clandestine plan known as ‘Operación Retiro de Televisores’. Following the discovery of fifteen bodies in an abandoned furnace in Lonquén, Pinochet ordered the exhumation of disappeared victims by the dictatorship, in an attempt to prevent other mass grave discoveries. Bodies were excavated and burned in drums or packed and dropped into the ocean from helicopters. However, the bodies were crushed by heavy machinery, thus leaving fragments of bone in several secret burial sites which allowed for the identification of various desaparecidos.

In the case of Calama, it is estimated that the bodies were exhumed and reburied four times by different military units, prior to being dumped in the ocean, resulting in severe disintegration of the bodies. Only one body remained intact – Luís Contreras León was discovered in a mine in La Tetera. His cadaver was preserved by the temperature in the mine – Contreras was completely identifiable, exhibiting signs of torture and his eyes missing.

Other relatives had to contend with fragments of their loved ones being returned to them, after undergoing tests to confirm the identity of the desaparecidos. The book details the turbulence associated with receiving body parts “… a lot of severed fingers, and a left boot with toes in it,” pieces of jawbone, scraps of clothing and shrivelled skin. The difficulty of accepting fragments, however, was challenged by another experience, that of relatives waiting to receive the remnants of their loved ones only to be informed that the tangible evidence had corroded during testing, leaving relatives to contend with the confirmed executions and the lack of a relic to bury and mourn.

The magnitude of division within Chilean society is vividly expressed in the narrated testimonies. “Pinochet created a new class of Chileans – relatives of the executed and disappeared. We are the disposable class.” The statement is also reminiscent of Steve J Stern’s research, meticulously presented in his memory trilogy of Chile. The implied ramifications are endless, coercing a nation into further societal erosion due to the complicity in concealing criminal evidence fortified by impunity.  Judge Guzmán initiated investigations into the Caravan of Death, which allowed investigators to trace criminal liability to Pinochet. Impunity, however, would shield Pinochet from responsibility, together with the alleged dementia rendering him unable to recall details of the atrocities.  

It is worth recalling that participants in the Caravan of Death were rewarded with further opportunities to perfect their macabre inclinations – Colonel Marcelo Moren Brito became the director of the notorious torture centre Villa Grimaldi. Major Armando Fernández Larios, Colonel Sergio Arredondo Gonzáles and Brigadier Pedro Espinoza Bravo took part in clandestine operations and targeted assassinations within Chile and abroad.

As the book so poignantly elucidates, the struggle for memory and its divisive complexities are central to interpretations of truths derived from judicial investigations and testimony of former participants in the massacre. Within each testimony lies a sliver of doubt tainted with false hope, as relatives question the feasibility of dumping executed detainees into the ocean and contemplate the possibility of discovering other desaparecidos in the vast deserts of Chile. For the ‘disposable class’, certainty remains an abstract, tarnished with arrogant statements such as that of Pinochet’s son describing the dictatorship victims as ‘not human beings, they were beasts,” and the lack of accountability which has allowed countless torturers and executioners to escape any semblance of justice. Without lessening culpability, the book also serves to empower the victims through renewed efforts to establish and consolidate collective memory, shifting the dynamics of the dictatorship through a depiction of human rights violators overshadowed by the memory of the Calama victims.

 

Name  Age at execution Year(s) of identification
 Mario Arguellez Toro 34  1995 
 Carlos Berger Guralnik 30 2005 (unofficial)
 Haroldo Cabrera Abarzúa 34 1990 (fingerprint), 1995
 Jerónimo Carpanchai Choque 28 1995
 Bernardino Cayo Cayo 43 2011
 Carlos Escobedo Caris 24 1995
 Luis Gahona Ochoa 28 1995, 2011
 Daniel Garrido Muñoz 22 2011
 Luis Hernández Neira 32 1995, 2011
 Rolando Hoyos Salazar 38 1995, 2011
 Domingo Manani López 41 2005 (unofficial)
 David Miranda Luna 48
 Hernán Moreno Villaroe 29 1995
 Luis Moreno Villaroel 30
 Rosario Muñoz Castillo 26 2010
 Milton Muñoz Muñoz 33 1995
 Víctor Ortega Cuevas 34
 Rafael Pineda Ibacache 24
 Carlos Piñero Lucero 29 1995
 Sergio Ramírez Espinoza 29
 Fernando Ramírez Sánchez 29 1995
 Alejandro Rodríguez Rodríguez 47 1995, 2011
 Manuel Hidlago Rivas 23 2011
 Roberto Rojas Alcayaga 36 1995, 2011
 José Saavedra Gonzáles 18 1995
 Jorge Yueng Rojas 37 2010

 Flowers in the Desert. The search for Chile’s disappeared.  by Paula Allen and Foreword by Isabel Allende is published by Florida University Press (2013).

Flowers in the Desert. The search for Chile's disappeared

Flowers in the Desert. The search for Chile’s disappeared

Author: Paula Allen

Publisher: Florida University Press, 2013.

 

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