Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: 31 Years After Victor Jara’s Death, Justice May Be Done

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Dec 9 2004 (IPS) - More than 31 years after the murder of singer-songwriter Víctor Jara in Chile, the possibility has opened up that justice will finally be served, after a judge ordered the prosecution of a retired army lieutenant colonel Thursday.

Judge Juan Carlos Urrutia brought charges against retired officer Mario Manríquez Bravo, the commanding officer in the prison camp into which the Estadio Chile, the stadium in Santiago, was converted after the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d’etat that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

In the stadium, which was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara last year, the internationally renowned folk singer was shot to death on Sept. 16, 1973, three days after his arrest. During those three days, he was “brutally beaten and tortured,” according to the indictment.

“Today is a happy day for Chilean culture,” said human rights lawyer Nelson Caucoto, who represents British choreographer Joan Turner Jara, the singer’s widow. “Víctor Jara remains an irreplaceable icon in the artistic history of Chile.”

Víctor Jara, who was killed just a few days before his 41st birthday, was one of the highest-profile victims of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Witnesses said that before he was shot and killed, Jara was subjected to atrocious torture. For example, all of his fingers were broken so he could never again play the guitar, as he continued to sing “Venceremos” (We Shall Overcome), the hymn of the Popular Unity, the governing leftist coalition led by Allende.

The dictatorship systematically denied that Jara was killed by the security forces, and the military courts refused to investigate, invoking the March 1978 amnesty law, which covered human rights crimes committed up to that time.

Legal reforms put into effect since the restoration of democracy in March 1990 allowed a number of pending human rights abuse cases to be transferred from military to civilian courts.

The judge’s decision to prosecute Manríquez is also a consequence of the judiciary’s gradual adoption, since the mid-1990s, of the view that the 1978 amnesty cannot be applied until a legal investigation has been completed and a sentence handed down.

According to a 1991 truth commission report, 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by the dictatorship. Tens of thousands were also tortured, like Jara.

On Nov. 28, socialist President Ricardo Lagos unveiled a report by a commission on political prisoners and torture containing personal accounts from 28,000 former political prisoners who were tortured during the regime.

Urrutia stated that during his questioning of Manríquez, he came across probable cause to charge him for Jara’s murder.

“He was the highest-ranking officer at that moment” in the stadium, and thus “provided the means with which the homicide of Víctor Jara was committed, or at least witnessed it without taking part,” wrote the judge.

Urrutia further stated that Jara had died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds, “presumably from automatic weapons,” and that his body, together with those of others murdered there, was left for a period of time in the entranceway to the stadium.

“His body was subsequently removed from the stadium and thrown with the bodies of another five individuals in the vicinity of the Metropolitan Cemetery (on the southern edge of Santiago), near the railway line,” according to the statement.

The judge specified that one of the other five bodies was that of Littré Quiroga, a high-ranking socialist leader who was the head of the state railway company at the time of the coup.

Caucoto praised the judge’s efforts as an example of the advances that can be made in the cause of human rights “when there are highly dedicated judges who act professionally and diligently.”

Jara, like most of the prisoners held in the stadium, was detained just after the coup by the troops that occupied the State Technical University (now the University of Santiago de Chile), where he worked in a cultural promotion programme.

Sources from the Víctor Jara Foundation, run by his widow, told IPS that the name of the commanding officer of the stadium detention centre had been kept secret for 31 years.

In August, Caucoto wrote to Judge Urrutia, asking him to question Pinochet and three other men who were army generals in 1973 – Sergio Arellano Stark, Herman Brady and Ernesto Baeza – to obtain the name of the officer in charge of the prison camp. It turned out to be Colonel Manríquez.

Jara is known worldwide as one of the leading figures of the Chilean Nueva Canción (New Song) movement, which combined traditional Latin American folk music styles with modern and often political lyrics. The movement emerged in the 1960s, led by singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, who served as an inspiration and guide to Jara in his musical career, before she took her own life in 1967.

As an artist, Jara worked closely with the Chilean musical groups Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani. Both groups had ties to the Communist Party of Chile, as did Jara himself.

Jara was born on September 28, 1932 in the small town of Lonquén, near Santiago. His father, Manuel, was a tenant farmer. His mother, Amanda, sang and played the guitar – which she taught Víctor to play as well – and was the inspiration for one of his best-known songs, “Te recuerdo Amanda (I Remember You, Amanda).

His success as a singer-songwriter overshadowed an earlier career in the theatre, which he embarked on in 1963 as the assistant to Uruguayan director Atahualpa del Cioppo on a production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

In her biography of Jara’s life, “Víctor: An Unfinished Song”, published in 2001, his widow recalls the last poem Jara wrote, on scraps of paper that were smuggled out of the stadium.

In the poem, he described the torture to which he and his fellow political prisoners were subjected. He also paid homage to Allende, who apparently committed suicide during the coup, and he issued a call for hope:

”There are five thousand of us here/in this small part of the city. We are five thousand. I wonder how many we are in all/in the cities and in the whole country?

”Six of us were lost as if into starry space. One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed/a human being could be beaten.

”The other four wanted to end their terror – one jumping into nothingness, another beating his head against a wall, but all with the fixed stare of death…

”The blood of our President, our compañero, will strike with more strength than bombs/So will our fist strike again!

”How hard it is to sing/when I must sing of horror. Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying….

”…silence and screams are the end of my song.”

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