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Murder Charges Dredge Memories Of Dark Era In Chile


The ghosts of the brutal military coup in Chile are still surfacing more than 40 years later. This week, three more people were charged in connection with the 1973 torture and murder of the popular Chilean folksinger Victor Jara.


VICTOR JARA: (Singing in foreign language).

BLOCK: Victor Jara is among the best-known victims of the U.S.-backed coup. And his music was banned afterwards by the military dictatorship that deposed Chile's socialist president, Salvador Allende, and brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.

Thousands were killed or disappeared, and these latest charges show that the dark legacy of those years is still very much present. Luis Andres Henao with the Associated Press has been writing about this, and he joins me from Santiago. Luis Andres, let's talk first more about the folksinger Victor Jara and why he was targeted, taken prisoner and ultimately killed in 1973.

LUIS ANDRES HENAO: Victor Jara was a popular Chilean songwriter. He was a professor and theater director. As you mentioned, just days after Chile's bloody 1973 military coup, he was dragged down to the basement of an indoor stadium in the capital, Santiago, that had been converted into a detention and torture center. The new government considered Jara a member of the Communist Party - an enemy.

Now, Jara's killing inside the concrete walls - inside of that locker room in the statement is long remembered as one of the most brutal crimes of the dictatorship. Agents tortured him and shot his body with at least 44 bullets as a warning to those who challenged Pinochet's authority.

BLOCK: Now, as we mentioned, three more people have now been charged in Chile this week - former military officers and an ex-army prosecutor. They join eight others former army officers who've been charged over the last few years. Why are these charges coming out now?

HENAO: Well, the government estimates that about 3,095 people were killed during the Pinochet's rule, including about 1,000 who were forcibly disappeared. And most deaths were investigated. Some 700 military figures and civilian collaborators have been tried, and about 70 have been jailed for crimes against humanity.

But it's important to note that Pinochet died without standing trial, you know. Even after he left power in 1990, he was in charge of the armed forces, and many feared his repression. So it wasn't until the early 2000s that most cases began to be investigated and prosecuted, and the information now has been called a milestone by Jara's widow.

BLOCK: Now, along with the criminal charges that we mentioned there in Chile, Victor Jara's widow has also filed a civil lawsuit here in the United States. It's against the Army lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Nunez, and it alleges that he actually ordered the torture of Victor Jara and killed him. It's an interesting question because as I understand it, Barrientos lives in the United States. He's in Florida. He's now a U.S. citizen. What's his response been to that?

HENAO: That's correct. Barrientos has denied all involvement. He says that he wasn't there, and he didn't even know who Jara was at the time of the coup. Now, the judge representing the Jara family and Jara's widow have requested Chile's government to follow formal extradition requests so that he faces trial along with the others, but that has not happened yet.

BLOCK: Is Victor Jara still a powerful symbol in Chile after all these years?

HENAO: Victor Jara continues to be a powerful symbol in Chile - yes, very powerful symbol in Chile. The infamous Chile stadium where he was killed has now been renamed Victor Jara Stadium and has become Chile's largest homeless shelter. And there's a plaque dedicated to Jara there marking the spot where dead bodies were piled up during the dictatorship. And that plaque is really powerful. It has a carved image of Jara, including some lines of the last thing he wrote while in captivity there. And he said, how hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror - horror in which I'm living - horror in which I'm dying. He's definitely seen as a martyr of this brutal dictatorship and as a powerful symbol of freedom.

BLOCK: Well, Luis Andres Henao, thanks very much for talking with us.

HENAO: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Luis Andres Henao is a correspondent with the Associated Press based in Santiago.


This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.