From Perpetrator to Victim:
The Case of Eugenio Berrios Sagredo

By Maxine Lowy with collaboration from Joanna Klonsky


From Perpetrator to Victim

Cases in which Berrios is implicated
The Poisoning of Political Prisoners
The Death of Eduardo Frei Montalva
The Assassination of Orlando Letelier


From Perpetrator to Victim

The systematic repression exercised as state policy for the objective of installing fear for psychosocial control of the population was the scaffolding that sustained 17 years of dictatorship in Chile. The professional tormentors of the DINA and its successor, as of 1977, the CNI, state agencies that put that policy into practice, had no qualms about inflicting extreme pain or of degrading the dignity of other human beings. And when one of their ranks softened his hand or threatened to break the code of loyalty, they had no scruples in converting their former colleague into victim.

However, that was not the case of Eugenio Berrios, who once boasted that he could cause death with a single drop of the substance he developed in the DINA chemical lab. Nor did he have compassion nor did he show any sign of repentance.

Attorney Fabiola Letelier is emphatic in this regard: there is no indication that the former DINA ex agent was willing to cooperate in court.

In Eugenio Berrios, the combination of an arrogant personality with loquaciousness when under the influence of alcohol made him become a risk for former repressive operatives who remained in active military service in the early years of the new transitional democracy in Chile.

This was a risk factor that exploded like a suicide bomb, converting Berrios, the perpetrator into victim.

Eugenio Berrios studied chemistry at the University of Concepcion, where during a brief period of time he joined the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), only to abandon it when a woman rejected his amorous intentions. Humiliated, Berrios left Concepcion to complete his degree at the University of Chile in Santiago and turned virulently against MIR. There he met Michael Townley, a US citizen, and both joined the ultra right organization Patria y Libertad. After the military coup, both Townley and Berrios joined the DINA as civilians.

In order to carry out Project Andrea, the grand program of the DINA to manufacture lethal chemicals, Townley traveled to the United States, England and Europe to obtain the substances needed to set up the lab.

Attorney Fabiola Letelier indicates:
Those substances were sent to him from outside Chile and arrangements had to be made with customs officials to avoid having to pay taxes. The DINA plans this project meticulously and Berrios was key to this process. These plans were carried out with participation of other Chileans who now live in the United States.

The chemical laboratory was set up in a house the DINA bought in the wealthy neighborhood of Lo Curro, in which Townley and his wife lived in the upper story. There, Berrios experimented with sarin gas that causes death through neurological paralysis.

According to Samuel Blixen, author of the book Crime in Uniform:
Corruption and Impunity in Latin America, Berrios proposed that the DINA produce the gas in sufficient quantity so as to use it in combat, before launching artillery missiles. It could also be used to cover up executions, concealing the criminal intent. And the involvement of Eugenio Berrios was not restricted to manufacturing chemical substances in the lab

According to Alvaro Varela, attorney for the family of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, Berrios personally administered sarin gas to several victims, such as the case of DINA agent Manuel Leyton May 29, 1977, who died suddenly of an apparent heart attack at 20 years of age.

Therefore, he is also a material author of these crimes.

Fabiola Letelier describes Berrios.
He was an impassioned member of Patria y Libertad. His career clearly shows that he was frankly a fascist. Berrios made contact with a group of Italian terrorists who came to Chile. He even formed an association with those Italians who committed acts of terrorism in different parts of Italy, and the DINA provided the group with an apartment. It was a shadow business that had the appearance of a sporting goods store. Later they participated in the failed assassination attempt against Bernardo Leighton in Rome. It reveals the connections the DINA had with ultra rightist groups. Berrios was not only a chemist; he was an ideologue.

Cases in which Berrios is implicated

On January 31, 2003 the Full Supreme Court of Chile appointed Judge Alejandro Madrid to continue the inquest Judge Olga Perez had begun. The court organized the case as Rol 7981 into three files:
File A investigates the responsibility of Berrios in the assassination of Orlando Letelier, committed September 21,1976.

File B involves the strange circumstances related to the death of former president of Chile Eduardo Frei Montalva and the poisoning of political prisoners, both in 1981.

File C involves the connection between Berrios and Spanish diplomat Carmelo Soria, murdered in July 1976.

The Poisoning of Political Prisoners

In December 1981 nine political prisoners in the Santiago Public Prison (Carcel Publica), all of whom were held in the same section of the prison and shared a kitchen, became seriously ill with botulism. Two prisoners Victor Corvalan Castillo and Enrique Garrido Ceballos died as a result of food poisoning. The presence of the botulism bacteria was not previously known in Chile.
In November 2002 attorney Hector Salazar filed a criminal complaint for the intentional poisoning of the prisoners. According to Salazar, the inquest found that the bacteria entered Chile via Brazil in diplomatic pouch and was delivered first to the Health Ministry Bacteriology Research Institute, and then to the Army. Salazar speculates that the chemical laboratory where Berrios worked was probably the final destination for the bacteria and that "the political prisoners were used as guinea pigs.";=view&id;=1576&Itemid;=

The Death of Eduardo Frei Montalva

The family of Eduardo Frei Montalva had its doubts whether the former president (1964 to 1970) really died a natural death in 1982. However they had to wait 20 years for a judicial inquest to reach the conclusion, beyond a doubt, that he was murdered.

The clue that opened the court investigation was found in a book that Mariana Callejos, the former wife of Michael Townley and also a DINA agent, published in 1995.

The book Siembra Vientos describes a conversation Callejas had with Eugenio Berrios in the chemical lab that operated in the basement of their house in Lo Curro. Berrios showed her a small vial, and commented, "With a single drop of this liquid I can make an undesirable disappear." In a footnote, Callejas says she recalled that comment upon learning of the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva. Mid 1981 was a particularly active time for the Lo Curro lab.

Attorney Alvaro Varela explains:
That laboratory was in a pitch of activity, with the delivery of certain bacteria in the period prior to the death of President Frei Montalva. We focus our prime suspicions on the production of substances that may have been used to cause the death of Frei, that originated from this laboratory.

In 1980 former President Eduardo Frei Montalva became a forceful voice of opposition to the military regime. On the occasion of the 1980 plebiscite to legitimize the Constitution drafted to institutionalize the military regime, Frei headed a political rally against the Constitution at the Caupolican Theater, from which emerged the first organized political activities in opposition to the dictatorship. Also in 1980 a group of union leaders was brutally repressed and jailed when they unveiled their Letter of Chile (El Pliego de Chile), a petition addressed to the Military Junta, demanding basic rights.

Eduardo Frei and public employees union leader Tucapel Jimenez led solidarity rallies for the imprisoned leaders. They also participated in meetings with representatives from different parties, including the Communist Party, who met together for the first time. The dictatorship responded by expelling from Chile four members of the group that had protested the jailing of union leaders: Jaime Castillo, Carlos Briones, Arnaldo Cantuarias and Alberto Jerez. Once again former President Frei reacted, by issuing public statements and was a powerful public opponent of the regime.

The judicial inquest found evidence that intelligence agents had Frei under constant surveillance during this time. Both his office and home telephones were tapped. An infiltrator, a trusted chauffeur, noted where Frei went, who visited him and the license plate numbers of their vehicles. The agent informed his superiors when Frei became ill and was hospitalized in November 1981 due to a hernia.

He recovered from surgery but a short time later he again required hospitalization. Frei died January 22,1982. Tucapel Jimenez was murdered the following month.

The involvement of Berrios in the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva is still under investigation by Judge Alejandro Madrid. However, elements of proof suggest that Berrios entered Frei's hospital room. A former Air Force official testified that a nurse at Santa Maria Clinic told him he saw someone enter the hospital room and rub a substance into Frei's wound. However, this third party testimony is still in the category of hearsay.

Judge Madrid discovered that without either the authorization or knowledge of the Frei family, an autopsy was performed. Immediately after Frei died, two doctors and a Catholic University Hospital official entered the room and locked the door behind them. Witnesses have testified and the autopsy report has confirmed that the three individuals remained in the room three hours. In that span of time they removed the vital organs with the exception of the brain, and injected a substance to preserve and embalm the body.

Attorney Alvaro Varela (interviewed by Memoria y Justicia in July 2005) explained that the embalming fluid prevents detection of bacteria.
We believe this action by doctors from Catholic University Hospital was intended to conceal and cover up the presence of lethally infectious bacteria.The investigation suggests that material authors of the murder were Army intelligence agents, specifically chemical lab staff. We know two military intelligence agents worked undercover as doctors at the hospital. Elements of proof establish the suspicion that death was caused by the involvement of third parties who applied some kind of substance produced by military intelligence.

In late 2004 the court ordered the exhumation of Frei's remains and forensic specialists took samples from his body. The samples were sent to a FBI laboratory in the United States. In May 2006 the forensic specialists issued a DNA analysis that failed to reach a conclusive determination regarding the presence of bacteria. However, in August 2006 the doctor who supervised the first hernia operation performed on Frei admitted the death was unexpected and that a foreign chemical substance was likely the cause of death.

The Death of Carmelo Soria

Berrios is also believed to have played a role in the death of Carmelo Soria, a Spaniard with diplomat status at CELADE. A DINA operative abducted Soria in July 1976, and brought him to the house in Lo Curro, where Soria was tortured and murdered. It is thought that Soria was subjected to sarin gas in the chemical laboratory run by Berrios, before breaking his back. Soria's body was found in his car submerged in the San Carlos Canal.

The Assassination of Orlando Letelier

Attorney Fabiola Letelier explains that the initial plan to assassinate her brother Orlando Letelier involved the use of the sarin gas Berrios produced:
Sarin gas was brought to the United States but no one knows what happened to it or where it is. The United States was very interested in sarin gas because it is easily transported; in fact, it is believed to have entered the United States in a Channel N 5 perfume vial.

The initial plot to assassinate Orlando Letelier utilizing sarin gas was discarded. The first act of international terrorism on US soil was carried out by a car bomb DINA agent Michael Townley manufactured from parts he purchased in a Washington DC Sears Roebuck and a Radio Shack store. Letelier and Ronni Moffit died when Townley activated that bomb, planted under the car, on September 21, 1976 in Washington, DC.

Letelier was Chilean Ambassador to the United States and also served as Foreign Relations Secretary as well as Defense Minister under the government of Salvador Allende. After the coup he was arrested together with other Popular Unity government officials at La Moneda presidential palace. He was held over a year, initially with fellow former government collaborators at wind swept Dawson Island in far southern Chile and later in another prison camp, until international pressure compelled the Pinochet regime to release and expel him from the country. From Caracas where he reunited with his family, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C invited him to form part of its staff of progressive researchers. His access to the parliaments of various countries earned him many allies in his vocal campaign against the dictatorship of Pinochet. The Military Junta perceived Letelier as a threat and ordered the DINA to assassinate him.

In October 1991, Santiago Court of Appeals Judge Adolfo Bañados subpoenaed Berrios to testify in the Letelier assassination investigation. As a civilian, Berrios was not bound by the oath of silence and secrecy that military officials maintained as a code of loyalty among them. According to attorney Letelier, the proceedings led by Judge Madrid indicate that the probable motive the Army Intelligence Administration had for removing Berrios from Chile was to prevent him from responding to the subpoena to testify in the Letelier case.

The Abduction and Murder of Berrios

Attorney Alvaro Varela describes Berrios as a man "out of control." He was an alcoholic and when he drank too much in restaurants, he would shout, "I am Pinochet's chemist!" In the view of military intelligence, he had become a liability, in light of the confidential information he knew and might tell. That is why they decided to take him out of the country.

Varela adds, "The court proceedings reached a very important conclusion just two years ago. Not only was he taken out of Chile; he was kidnapped and kept 10 days in the basement of a military intelligence unit, the DINE, before being taken to Uruguay."

On October 26, 1991 Chilean military in collaboration with Uruguayan military officers took Berrios to Montevideo, Uruguay, stopping first in Rio Gallegos, Argentina.

In 1991, the DINE created a unit for the specific mission of getting Berrios out of Chile. Active duty military officers who comprised the unit were:
Former Army Intelligence Director, General Hernan Ramirez Rurange
General Eugenio Adrian Covarrubias Valenzuela.

Other military personnel who participated in the kidnapping and murder of Berrios were the following:
Captain Pablo Rodriguez Marquez
Raul Lillo Gutierrez, civilian
Noncommissioned officer Marcelo Sandoval Duran
Noncommissioned officer Nelson Hernandez Franco
Noncommissioned officer Nelson Roman Vargas
Lieutenant Jaime Torres Gacitua
Lieutenant Mario Cisternas Orellana

In April 2006 retired general Hernan Ramirez, former Army Intelligence director, testified before Judge Madrid that Augusto Pinochet "knew perfectly well who Berrios was." Ramirez affirmed that the former dictator ordered him to get Berrios out of Chile and "to take him to Uruguay and protect him there."

Fabiola Letelier states: "Judge Madrid reached the conclusion that the motive the Army had for taking Berrios out of Chile was to prevent him from testifying about the Letelier case before Judge Banados."

Despite an extradition order Bañados issued through Interpol, Berrios lived in Montevideo over a year with a false passport under the alias of Manuel Antonio Morales Jara.

According to Blixen, "high ranking military, police officers, and diplomats chose to ignore the absence of Berrios that had the characteristics of the political disappearances that had been a key element of military government policy guided by the National Security Doctrine."

During 1992, Berrios lived on Buxareo Street in Montevideo, constantly guarded by Chilean military. In November 1992 he was transferred to a property of Captain Jaime Torres Gacitua, in Parque de Plata, Uruguay. On November 11, 1992, Berrios made a telephone call to the Chilean Consulate and requested documents he needed for returning to Chile. The same year Berrios escaped from the house in Parque de Plata, and sought help from a local police station. Berrios begged the police officers to help him, explaining that he had been abducted and that Augusto Pinochet wanted to kill him.

The Uruguayan police permitted Berrios to be examined by Dr. Juan Bautista Ferrari Grilli. During the medical exam, Berrios insisted that he was victim of abduction and that his life was in danger. Police turned him over to Lieutenant Colonel Tomas Cassella, Chief of Counter Intelligence Operations. Berrios continued living like a prisoner another three months. He was executed on the beach in El Pinar, Uruguay. He was killed when he openly exposed his intention to return to Chile.

His skeletal remains, discovered more than two years later in April 1995, showed evidence of skull fractures due to two bullets. DNA tests confirmed the remains corresponded to Berrios.

The Investigation of the Berrios Case in Chile

On January 1, 2003, the Sixth Criminal Court of Santiago requested the extradition of three Uruguayan military officers. (ROL 7.981-OP). On January 31, 2003, the Chilean Supreme Court appointed Judge Alejandro Madrid Crohare to the investigation of the homicide of Eugenio Berrios. Madrid requested authorization from the Montevideo court the case to question the following Uruguayan militar personnel:

Soldier Tomas Cassella Santo
Soldier Eduardo Radaelli Coppola
Soldier Wellington Sarli Pose
Police Chief Helvio Hernandez Marrero
Naval Officer Hugo Cabrera Villareal
Police Officer Ramon Rivas

On March 31, 2003 Judge Madrid traveled to Uruguay to interrogate these individuals. Cassella stated that a Chilean official called Julio Concha introduced Berrios to him as Tulio Orellana. Radaelli stated that he had no recollection of the Berrios abduction, affirming that he was in Brazil during the time of the episode. Hernandez testified that Berrios told him he produced biological weapons that were sold abroad. In July 2003 Madrid initiated another stage of the investigation, related to the possible involvement of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in the kidnapping and murder of Berrios. Pablo Rodriguez Grez, longtime defense lawyer for Pinochet, sustained that Pinochet was not fit to stand trial on account of health conditions.

Judge Madrid also sought information on the possible participation of the following individuals in obstruction of justice, illicit association, falsification of passports and malfeasance:
Former Military Prosecutor General Fernando Torres Silva
Army Colonel Enrique Ibarra
General Hernan Ramirez Rurange
Gladys Schmeisser, widow of Berrios

On April 8, 2006, retired colonel Tomas Casella, Colonel Wellington Sarli and Capitan Eduardo Radaelli were extradited to Chile, enabling Alejandro Madrid to indict the three Uruguayan military officers for illicit association and kidnapping of Berrios.

On May 10, 2006 Judge Madrid deprived Augusto Pinochet of his prosecutorial immunity, on the basis of probable cause of participation of the former Army Commander in Chief in the abduction and murder of Berrios.

On October 12, 2006 the full session of the Santiago Court of Appeals voted 16 to 3 to approve the removal of immunity. It was the most decisive vote to for deprival of immunity that was ever produced in the courts.

Less than two months later, on December 10, 2006 Augusto Pinochet died.


The death of Berrios is not an isolated case. It is directly related to the murders of important officials in Chile. It reveals the persistence of de facto powers and how the governments of Chile and Uruguay have been complacent even in democracy in protecting individuals who committed crimes during dictatorship.

In the book, The Transition to Authoritarian Electoral Regimes in Latin America, James Petras and Steve Vieux state:

The Berrios episode suggests the persistence of Operation Condor. It is evident that still now this network allows the military structure of both countries to ignore their national governments, evade judicial prosecution and commit crimes in other countries. It implies that the relations between military that facilitated the assassination of General Carlos Prats during his exile in Argentina as well as the murders of 100 other Chilean exiles persist even today. The years of electoral democracy have not succeeded in breaking the military network nor limit the extraordinary discretionary authority and autonomy the Chilean military enjoys.

The story of the abduction and murder of Berrios indicates that forced disappearance and political assassination continued after the emergence of democracies in Chile and Uruguay, when Augusto Pinochet was still Commander in Chief of the Army


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