Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-CHILE: New Clues in Ex-President’s Possible Murder

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Apr 16 2002 (IPS) - A new book arrived in shops this week in Chile revealing information about the alleged participation of chemist Eugenio Berríos in the death of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, and about the relationship of this agent of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship with former Peruvian spy master Vladimiro Montesinos.

“Crimen imperfecto” (Imperfect Crime) is being released just as the Chilean Supreme Court of Justice is deciding whether to designate a special judge to investigate the case of Berríos, a scientist who worked for the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), the secret police during the first years of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

Doubt about the possible assassination of former Christian-democrat president Frei Montalva (1964-1970) by the DINA 20 years ago has now been elevated to “presumption”, in legal terms, says the author of the book, journalist Jorge Molina.

Frei Montalva, father of the also-former president of Chile, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), died Jan 22, 1982, in a Santiago clinic as the result of a stomach infection he developed as he was recovering from surgery.

There are suspicions that the infection was caused by bacteria intentionally introduced by agents of the dictatorship and developed by Berríos, who was murdered in Uruguay in 1995, said Senator Carmen Frei, daughter of the late former president, in an address last October before the Senate.

Molina established in his investigation that in 1981 the Bacteriology Institute, a government agency to which Berríos was linked, clandestinely imported botulism toxins and lyophilizators, which allow the processing and disguising of these toxins.

That same year, several of the dictatorship’s political prisoners at the Public Prison of Santiago suffered poisoning, which was diagnosed as botulism, though they had not consumed anything, such as poorly canned foods, that could cause that illness.

This precedent reinforces Carmen Frei’s denunciation that her father had been injected with a bacteria produced by Berríos, who had the means through the Bacteriology Institute (now known as the Institute of Public Health) to develop and disguise toxins.

Gen. Odlanier Mena, a former chief of National Central Intelligence (CNI), known for his dislike of Gen. Manuel Contreras, founder of DINA, also stated that the latter tried to poison him through Berríos, and that the toxin had originated at the Bacteriology Institute.

“I cannot confirm that Berríos killed Frei Montalva, but there are now serious assumptions that call for an in-depth investigation,” Molina told IPS.

“Crimen imperfecto” delves into the life of Berríos, a youth with extreme right-wing political tendencies who became a talented chemist recruited by DINA to develop sarin nerve gas, reportedly to be used in eliminating the dictatorship’s opponents and witnesses to human rights crimes.

Agents smuggled Berríos out of Chile in late 1991 or early 1992 when justice authorities began to investigate his links to the assassination of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, committed in September 1976 by DINA agents in Washington.

The chemist was protected by a network of retired and active members of the military in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, whose connections date back to the coordination of the South American Southern Cone dictatorships repressive forces in the 1970s and 1980s, known as Operation Condor.

But the same ones who were to protect Berríos may have killed him. His body was found on a beach in Uruguay in April 1995 “with two bullet wounds in the head and buried face down, as a symbol of betrayal,” recounts Molina.

Although Uruguayan authorities have not determined who were the actual perpetrators of the Berríos murder, the author of “Crimen imperfecto” says the investigation in Chile into a group of military personnel – most of whom are retired – is very advanced and that they “certainly” know who was responsible for killing the DINA chemist.

The matter involves six agents who belonged to DINA and, once democracy was re-established in Chile, in 1990, were assigned to the army’s Intelligence Directorate, where they were part of the so-called Special Unit.

That unit’s mission apparently was to prevent former agents involved as perpetrators or witnesses of human rights crimes from appearing before the justice authorities, by sending them out of the country or by other means.

“The work of that unit was no more and no less than obstruction of justice,” states Molina.

Retired army major Carlos Herrera Jiménez, found guilty by a lower court for the 1983 assassinations of unionist Tucapel Jiménez and carpenter Juan Alegría, was one of the Special Unit’s members.

“Molina’s book demonstrates how the state transformed a man like Berríos into a killing machine,” said human rights lawyer Jorge Mario Saavedra, prosecutor in the Herrera Jiménez case.

The top military command was involved in Berríos’s fleeing from Chile and in his transit through Argentina and Uruguay, “and they did not hesitate to use their power to kill him later,” Saavedra added.

The chemist and DINA agent was reportedly a cocaine user, which put him in contact with drug traffickers. That served to link him in the 1990s with Montesinos, chief of Peru’s National Intelligence Service (SIN) during the Alberto Fujimori government (1990-2000).

Montesinos, Fujimori’s right hand, allegedly used techniques provided by Berríos to cause the April 2000 death of journalist Gustavo Mohme, editor of Lima newspaper ‘La República’, according to evidence being investigated in Peru, and included in Molina’s book.

 
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