Pisagua Prison Camp

The First Executions

The Second War Council

Discovery of the Mass Grave

Judicial HIstory of the Pisagua Case
(Attorney Abogado Adil Brkovic)

Connection to Pinochet

The Pisagua Model for Execution

Where the Case Stands Today



Pisagua Prison Camp

The history of Pisagua Prison as a detention center for war prisoners - captured in "wars" against foreign as well as internal enemies of Chile - dates to the late 19th century when Peruvians taken prisoner during the War of the Pacific were confined there. In 1956 Carlos Ibañez del Campo became the first Chilean President to employ the site as a place of torment for other Chileans declared enemies of the State. Some 17 years later, Augusto Pinochet would once again destine Pisagua Prison for that same purpose in northern Chile.

On September 18, 1973 an estimated 50 persons arrested in Valparaiso in the days following the military coup desembarked at Pisagua from the merchant vessel 'The Maipo.' The few residents of the old port of Pisagua and the common prisoners incarcerated at the jail had already been transferred to Iquique.

The three-story building that forms the main section of the Pisagua Camp came to vastly exceed its capacity with the internment of approximately 500 prisoners transferred from the Telecommunications Regiment of Iquique, from various police stations in the Region of Tarapaca, as well as the prisoners detained in Valparaiso. Women were lodged in the old theater. Up to 30 people were enclosed together in cells of four by ten meters. Unlike the Peruvian prisoners of the late 1800s, these were all civilians — political prisoners — who were treated as if they were prisoners of war.

The commanding officers at Pisagua Prison Camp were Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Larraín Captain Sergio Benavides. As of the day of the coup, Army General Carlos Forestier Haensen became Chief of the Zone in State of Seige for Tarapaca Province as well as Commander of the Army’s Sixth Division, the highest ranking military officer with authority over the events that occurred at the Pisagua Prisoners Camp.

Numerous survivors have testified to the brutality experienced by prisoners, who were routinely subjected to torture. In particular, Commander Larrain was known for his cruelty, which a former prisoner attributes to "an irrational hatred of all of us who were held there."

Three War Councils were convened at Pisagua, in addition to the one the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report describes as the "illegal and alleged Council known only by Decrees of October 11 and 12 of 1973." All together, these War Councils processed a total of 147 people.

The Military Justice Code establishes a procedure and structure for Military Courts in time of war. However, the War Councils convened at Pisagua, directed by Larrain with Mario Acuña Riquelme as Military Prosecutor, shared a characteristic common to the majority of War Councils convened after the coup. These War Councils functioned with complete disregard for their own regulations, outside the bounds of law, and with no respect for fundamental due process rights of the accused.

Between September 29, 1973 and June 1974, 26 persons from the Pisagua Prisoner Camp, were executed. The circumstances of two of the executions at Pisagua are described below.

(See List of the Pisagua Executions and Disappeared Prisoners - in Spanish)

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The First Executions

Extract from the criminal complaint filed by the parents of conscript Michel Selin Nash

According to testimony of persons who were prisoners at the time, before 9:00 AM, September 29, 1973, the "prisoners of war" camp commander Lieut. Col. Ramon Larrain ordered the nearly 600 prisoners to stand at attention outside their cells.

According to accounts of former prisoners at Pisagua, Larrain was accompanied by Captain Sergio Benavides and Lieutenants Contador, Figueroa, and Ampuero. After roll call, Larrain asked for six volunteers to paint a building. Then he said that another six people were needed to install some concrete columns. These six were not volunteers. Each officer chose one person, even though in the cases of Cañas and Guzman, these prisoners asked to be allowed to stay and other prisoners offered to take their place.

Contador chose Cañas even though he had been operated on before his arrest and had trouble walking. Ampuero chose Guzman, who they went to look for because he had not come out of his cell for roll call. Benavides selected the Army conscript Michel Nash. Larrain personally took Lizardi. Figueroa took the two Navy cadets Juan Calderon and Juan Jimenez. The latter, employees of the Customs Investigation Department, had arrived on September 18 from Valparaiso on 'The Maipo' as prisoners of the Navy, along with 300 other political prisoners of that institution.

Witnesses have testified before Judge Sanchez Marre (who investigated the discovery on June 2, 1990 of a mass grave near the locality of Pisagua) that the prisoners never attempted to escape. They were forced to run while a group of military men whose weapons included a 30-point machine gun set up from a Jeep, shot at their backs.

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The Second War Council

The October 31, 1973 edition of the daily newspaper, El Tarapaca reported the firing squad execution of four prominent provincial Socialist Party leaders. According to their account, the motive for the execution was the supposed participation of the prisoners in a plan to bring about a civil war in Chile and to incite rebellion in the Armed Forces. The article also noted that "the executed prisoners were judged in conformance with regulations set forth in the Military Justice Code."

It took 17 years to uncover the truth about that War Council: Military Prosecutor Mario Acuña Riquelme leveled false charges against the four Socialists, denied them the option of defending themselves, and proceeded to order their execution. With the finding in June 1990 of a mass grave at the perimeter of the Pisagua cemetary, retired Army captain Juan Sinn Bruno, who served as Military Prosecutor for that War Council, revealed that the night of October 29, 1973 superior officers ordered War Council members to change the pre-determinded sentences of 10 years in prison to death penalty sentences. The only element of proof used to support the convictions was the prisoners' alleged confessions, which were obtained as the result of systematic torture.

In the statement that forms part of the complaint filed in September 1999 with the Court of Appeals, attorney Carlos Sottile Messineo recalls:

"... it was difficult to have access to my clients [four of the six accused]... and I only gained access to the court record late in afternoon of October 26, 1973, when the War Council had been convened for the following day, causing a blatant impediment to my ability to fully study the charges. This situation compelled me to work in conjunction with the other two defense attorneys throughout all that night and into the early hours of the next day, October 27."

Both Prosecutor Juan Sinn Bruno and defense attorney Carlos Sottile Messineo attempted to convince the Council not to impose the death penalty. The arrival at Pisagua the day before the War Council of an Army chaplain and a military physician led Sottile to presume that sentences for capital punishment would be issued. Sottile recalls:

"This situation motivated me to tell Commander Larrain... that it was preferrable to impose convictions of 50 or even 100 years in prison rather than the death penalty because the dead cannot be resucitated and sooner or later there would come a time when the War Council trials at Pisagua would be the subject of an historic investigation.’ The Commander turned to me and replied that it was clear that I was on the opposing side but his conscience was completely at ease because he had been advised by the Military Prosecutor and in any case, he would not sign anything contrary to the Military Justice Code."

Efforts by the auditor and the defense attorney to save the prisoners were to no avail. The four Socialist leaders were shot at 6:00 AM the next morning. Their bodies were not among those found in the mass grave discovered in 1990 and remain disappeared to this day. The individuals executed by the Second War Council were:

Rodolfo Jacinto Fuenzalida Fernandez, 43, Socialist Party regional secretary, who was arrested September 11, 1973 in his home.

Juan Antonio Ruz Diaz, 32, Socialist Party member and Iquique customs employee, who presented himself voluntarily to the Telecommunications Regiment.

Jose Demostenes Rosier Sampson Ocaranza, 33, Iquique municipal government public relations officer, who voluntarily presented himself to Iquique police on Septiember 21, 1973.

Freddy Marcelo Taberna Gallegos, 30, Director of the Regional Planning Office in Iquique and Socialist Party member, who also voluntarily presented himself to the Telecommunications Regiment on September 16, 1973.

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Discovery of the Mass Grave

On May 31, 1990 the Vicariate of Solidarity filed a complaint with the Pozo Almonte Criminal Court. The action denounced illegal interrment in the northwestern perimeter of Pisagua Cemetery and led to a judicial investigation. Information provided by witnesses of the executions at Pisagua) from September 1973 to June 1974 provided the clues as did several local people who knew about the existence of a clandestine grave. (See Doctor Alberto Neumann's declaration.)

On June 1, 1990, magistrate Nelson Muñoz convened at the site accompanied by an anthropologist, an archeologist, a chemical engineer, court officials, excavators and witnesses. During that initial day of work, they unearthed human remains from an ancient period of time, evidence of a pre-Colombian burial ground. The next day, June 2, upon excavating another area, the mass grave was found. In the same place along a slope facing the ocean where they were shot, the prisoners, stuffed into burlap sacks, had been flung into a mass grave, then, covered with lime and dirt. (See Pisagua Grave Site Map)

Eventually, 20 bundles were unearthed in the pit, which measured 2.10 meters wide, 11 meters long and 2.00 meters deep. The salt that impregnated the sand preserved the bodies as they were when the men were brought before the firing squad, hands tied behind their backs. The clothes they wore the day of the execution were intact, as were their blindfolds. The indisputable evidence of the impact of bullets represented a clear condemnation of Pinochet and the regional military commanders of the time.

The bodies corresponded to persons who had been executed, including prisoners who military officials claimed to have released. However, the remains of some of the persons executed in 1973 did not appear in the pit, and excavators found bodies of other prisoners whose deaths had never been officially recognized.

Of the persons whose executions had been recognized by authorities but were not in the mass grave, seven corresponded to the Socialist Party leadership of Iquique executed by order of the War Council of October 29, 1973. Nor did the mass grave contain the remains of three other persons executed under the guise of a false escape. These missing remains led to a search throughout the perimeter of the Pisagua Cemetary and the judicial investigation headed by Sanchez Marre.

The Sanchez Marre investigation was interrupted by a jurisdictional challenge from the military courts. The case was transferred to the Seventh Military Court of Arica, which applied the amnesty law to close the proceedings in 1992.


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Judicial History of the Pisagua Case

(Based on an interview with attorney Adil Brkovic)

The executions at Pisagua have been the object of several judicial investigations. The first criminal complaints were filed by the families of individuals who military officials claimed to have freed, but who were, in fact, never seen again.

It is not coincidental that this group of families was the first to file legal actions. With the exception of the six persons alleged to have been released from the prison, military officials formally acknowledged the executions carried out at Pisagua. General Forrestier informed the local press of all executions, attributing them to different causes. He would say, ‘these people were executed becuase they attempted to escape," or ‘these were condemned to death by a War Council." The public was informed and there was a certainty as to the deaths of these people. With these six cases there could be no political justification. Everyone knew they had no political ties, but rather were connected to black market trade.

These families were the first to file criminal complaints demanding an investigation into the fate of their loved ones, who according to military officials had been set free. None of these complaints filed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, led to investigations.

During the course of the investigation conducted by Sanchez Marre, not a single Army officer who had been at Pisagua was asked to testify. Nevertheless, the investigation constituted an important source of information and formed a legal basis for the criminal complaint filed in 1998 with Judge Juan Guzman at the Santiago Court of Appeals.

In 1998 attorneys Adil Brkovic and Alfonso Insunza initiated proceedings by filing two criminal complaints against Augusto Pinochet on behalf of Michel Nash and Freddy Taberna, respectively, both executed at Pisagua. The cases aim to, first, locate the bodies not yet found, and, second, bring to light criminal participation in the deaths.

Attorney Adil Brkovic indicates:

If we compare the investigation conducted by Sanchez Marre with the investigation Judge Guzman is currently conducting, one fundamental difference can be noted. While the Sanchez Marre investigation failed to establish penal responsiblity, Juan Guzman determined involvement and indicted three people, at least in relation to the charge of abduction, that is, the disappeared persons. General Forrestier was indicted, as was former Military Prosecutor Mario Acuña (who died in prison) and Miguel Aguirre Alvarez, a member of the Military Intelligence Service who participated in these events.


Connection to Pinochet

Attorney Brkovic describes the relationship between the events at Pisagua and the former Commander-in-chief Augusto Pinochet as direct as the link between Pinochet and Sergio Arellano Stark, who led the Caravan of Death.

"It is an institutional relationship. As Commander-in-chief Pinochet is the hierarchical superior of Arellano Stark. At the time, Arellano Stark was a delegate of Pinochet. Forrestier was also Pinochet's judicial delegate for the zone. From a legal standpoint, a clear and direct line exists between Forrestier and Pinochet. We asked the judge to indict Pinochet as abettor and accomplice but the judge disagreed. I plan to ask again for elimination of immunity for Pinochet once all witnesses have testified.

Arellano Stark did not execute anyone at Pisagua. He did not execute anyone in Iquique either. Arellano Stark acted as a delegate of Pinochet with a mandate to execute persons in territorial jurisdictions where commanders did not carry out the mission. In the case of Forrestier, he carried out every detail of the instructions he had received. What is the connection between the two? The connection is that both belonged to an aparatus of "justice" known as the " jurisdictional area command." Arellano Stark and Forrestier put into practice the criteria of justice handed down by the highest echelons of the military government. At Pisagua we have been able to establish precisely what that criteria for execution was."


The Pisagua Model for Execution

"Pisagua is like a small laboratory of everything that took place in Chile during that time," explains attorney Brkovic.

"The first national criteria of the Junta can be discerned from the Pisagua investigation. This was to eliminate people considered militarily dangerous. In other words, the first targets were people of the MIR or Socialist Party members who also belonged to MIR, as well as military personnel who leaned towards the left. On October 10, 1973 the public service employees and their directors were executed. Next, the leadership of leftist parties were executed."

"The Junta used this criteria to determine targets for elimination during practically the entire decade of the 1970s. A pattern of executions existed nationally. The guidelines were: execute the militarily dangerous, execute the public service employees, and execute the leadership of leftist parties."

"It is not a coincidence that on September 29, 1973 in four out of five parts of Chile people decided to escape on the same day and all of them died. Or on October 10 people tried to escape in Iquique, Antofagasta, Punta Arenas and Osorno - and all of them died. At Pisagua people were executed on September 29, October 29 and November 29 of 1973, just in time to prepare monthly reports. 'This month we killed four. Today we killed five.' That is how it worked on the national level whereever Pinochet’s jurisdictional delegates followed orders as the judicial aparatus of the military. But in some places, the delegates ignored the orders and that’s where Arellano Stark went with his Caravan of Death."

"At Pisagua a Military Prosecutor, a corrupt and criminal individual, and the Army Intelligence saw to it that the orders were obeyed. They would say:

'We had guidelines to eliminate the militarily dangerous. Who were those people here? Juanito and Pedrito. We invented a false escape attempt for them. Then, we were told to kill public service directors. But the public service directors had not done anything wrong. Let’s kill them and say a War Council sentenced them. Next we were told to kill the Socialist Party leadership. Fine, let’s call a War Council and give them a lawyer for appearance. And what can we do to make them confess to crimes they did not commit? Let’s torture them.' "

"At Pisagua people were not tortured to make them confess. They were tortured to sign a blank confession form. The signed confession form constituted the major argument that the Prosecuter presented to the War Council, to obtain a predetermined sentence."

"The best proof that it was all a farse can be seen in the actions of Arellano Stark, He had no concern for legality. They razed the table to the ground. They had no qualms at all. If they had to execute someone, then they went ahead and executed him. If they had to concoct an escape attempt, then the prisoner was made to escape. And if the sentences handed down by the War Councils had to be changed, they simply changed them."

"The psychosis of Pinochet to see a potential enemy even in the State Defense Council attorney (because he was legal counsel to the Provincial Governor, who was a leftist) was extreme. But Forrestier went right ahead and obeyed every order he received. And I want to indict them for those homicides. I don’t want them to go scott free with those murders."

"On another aspect of the case, we have also sought to locate the bodies still missing from Pisagua executions. Some six or seven investigations have been conducted in the attempt to locate bodies, but we have not found them. The most recent information we have received is that in 1980 the bodies of the six people we are looking for were removed from the mass grave."


Where the Case Stands Today

I believe that Judge Guzman considers the Caravan of Death case exhausted. He devoted the major part of his time to that case. He also considers the second case complete in terms of determining responsibilities, that is, the Pisagua case. Guzman’s primary objective has not been to indict those responsible for giving the orders, those in charge, such as Forrestier and the Military Prosecutor Acuña. I believe Guzman's choice has been to avoid affecting Army officers who were at Pisagua at that time and who materially carried out the orders to execute prisoners. We do not share that point of view. We, the plaintiffs, are trying to establish the criminal responsibility of each one of the officers at Pisagua. We have never prosecuted conscripts and we have no intention of doing so. Other Army officers do bear direct responsibility and we need to clearly determine exactly what they did.

At this time Judge Guzman is working on cases related to Operation Colombo, Villa Grimaldi, David Silberman, Caravan of Death and Pisagua. In my personal opinion, all these cases are related. Although different people are executed in different locations, the authors coordinated the crimes. Therefore, all these crimes comprise a single criminal act, a mega crime, that extends from the day of the coup until at least 1978.

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