Chile 50 yrs: US scars from 9/11/73


VIDEO/Al Jazeera/Youtube
Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, left, greeting US Secreatary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976. IMAGE/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For the few remaining women of Calama in Chile’s Atacama desert, September 11 holds a terrifying meaning. They understand the pain of watching forensic investigators meticulously scour through particles of dust, seeking to retrieve the tiniest fragments of lives brutally taken from the world. They know what it means to face devastating absence, knowing the bodies of loved ones will never be returned.

But their loss has nothing to do with the attack on New York’s twin towers.

Fifty years ago, in the early morning of Sept. 11 1973, a U.S.-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet began with Chile’s military taking control of strategic locations in the capital city Santiago, including the main radio and television networks. At 8.30am, a declaration was broadcast that the military was now in control of the country.

While the elected president, Salvador Allende, refused to concede power in what turned out to be his farewell address, Pinochet’s undemocratic forces surrounded the presidential palace. A few hours later, the centre of Chilean democracy was bombed by a fighter jet and set ablaze. Allende died from gunshot wounds the same day.

Chile under Pinochet would become the experimenting ground for an economic project that inspired both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and went by the name of neoliberalism. But it was also an experimenting laboratory for the torture and enforced disappearance of human beings.

During the 16 years of Pinochet’s reign, 1,100 people were officially registered as “forcibly disappeared”. Only 104 bodies were ever found, although local communities put this figure much higher. Some were abducted due to their political associations and beliefs, others for sexual abuse. And some were just randomly selected to send the message that nobody was immune to the threat of vanishment.

Since 2017, I have co-directed the State of Disappearance project, which researches and promotes better understanding of this form of violence that haunts many societies when they seek a transition to peace.

The 50th anniversary of Chile’s day of terror is a key date in the annals of human suffering, in part because Pinochet’s rise to power marked the start of the modern era of disappearance as a political and organised crime technique.

Techniques Honed in the U.S.

The strategy of disappearance is so shocking and difficult to comprehend because the violence is rationalised, professionalised and calculated. It is never random, even if its targets appear to have been arbitrarily selected. Its currency is emotional fear that infects the population like a virus, creating a climate of suspicion and betrayal.

While the modern era of state-led policies of disappearance developed through the countries of South and Central America, the techniques were honed at the School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a U.S. Defense Department training facility at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.

For 21 years, South American countries were subject to a covert campaign of political repression and state terrorism coordinated by the C.I.A. and characterised by frequent coups and assassinations. During the darker chapters of this Operation Condor, policies of violence against the U.S.’s ideological leftwing enemies spread throughout the continent’s southern cone like wildfire.

Military generals and officers from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and later Brazil all trained at the infamous U.S. facility, learning the most effective strategies to destroy opposition and govern their people by instilling a culture of everyday fear.

Some estimates put the number of enforced disappearances directly linked to this operation at around 80,000, including a staggering 30,000 bodies taken from the streets of Argentina. While these included known activists and prominent spokespersons demanding social justice and reform, others who only had a very tentative opposition to the military junta and its neoliberal aspirations were among the victims.

Indeed, the terms “disappeared” and “disappearance” first entered the political lexicon during Argentina’s dictatorship of the mid-1970s, when the state – backed by the U.S. in its so-called “dirty war” – kidnapped and killed those it perceived to be a threat to its operations and ideological foundations, literally disappearing their bodies.

Beyond the official remit of Condor, the same ideologically driven violence extended throughout the Americas, leaving no country untouched. In Colombia, the government’s victims’ unit has registered more than 45,000 victims dating back to the 1970s, although another government database puts the number of missing above 110,000. While, as in Argentina, many victims were disappeared by the Colombian state and associated right-wing paramilitary organisations, this was compounded by use of similar tactics by leftist guerrilla organisations and narcotrafficking cartels.

Operation Condor was thus at the heart of a wider security project through which the violence of disappearance became a normalised practice. While not part of the official programme, more Colombian military officials trained at the School of the Americas than any other nation.

In many cases, the disappeared would vanish without any witnesses to their abduction. People were swiftly taken from the streets and thrown into cars – in Argentina, Ford Falcons became a symbol of terror – or stolen from their beds in the solitude of the night.

Often, this would be followed by blanket denials, even that a person had actually disappeared, by those in power. But as events in Colombia and (more recently) Mexico have shown, there is sometimes a need to return a mutilated body to “remind” people of the likely horror.

In the infamous case of 43 student teachers who went missing in the Mexican state of Guerrero in 2017, the brutally tortured body of another student teacher, Julio César Mondragón Fontes, was discovered the next day. The whereabouts of his fellow students are still unknown.

As I have written elsewhere, what especially marks out this violence is the way the fight for truth and memorialisation for the missing has become a key battleground. Yet even leftist leaders such as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s president since 2018, show limits to what the state is willing to concede, as noted by his recent exoneration of the military which, according to the victims’ families, had played an integral role in this forced abduction.

Beyond the spectacle of violence, there is a deeper reason why disappearance is so effective as a political and psychological strategy. Psychologically, it plays into the most primal of human fears: to vanish without a trace. It induces what the academic Jean Franco called a “triple deprivation – of body, of mourning, of burial”.

In the act of disappearing life, not only is there a denial of justice that requires the reappearance of victims’ bodies for a crime to be proven. There is also a denial of the political process that demands negotiation with past tragedies so the future can be steered in a better direction.

This is what makes disappearance a true crime against humanity: it is a form of violence that makes it hard to restore something of the human condition. Not only does it deny a person the most basic right to belong to the world, it creates an economy of terror that lives on in the minds of relatives and friends – a form of “future violence”. 

Trained in Psychological Warfare

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