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A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order
Social Justice Debates, February 12, 2013

The Víctor Jara Case: Justice in 2013?

J. Patrice McSherry*

In 2012 and 2013 there have been important developments in the case of Víctor Jara, the beloved Chilean folk singer and songwriter who was tortured and killed in the Stadium of Chile after the 1973 military coup in that country. The murder of Jara was one of the earliest and most infamous crimes committed by the military junta. Jara was detained at the Universidad Técnica del Estado in Santiago along with hundreds of other professors and students and taken to the stadium, which held thousands of supporters of the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende. There Víctor was viciously tortured. He was subjected to electric shocks and beatings with blunt instruments, and his hands were broken. According to recent testimony, he was finally shot in the head and then his body machine-gunned. The autopsy showed 44 bullet wounds. According to official government investigations carried out in the years since the dictatorship, some 3,000 Chileans disappeared and some 28,000 people were tortured under the bloody regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973 to 1990).

Víctor Jara was a founder of and major figure in the cultural phenomenon of Chilean New Song (la Nueva Canción chilena), a musical movement that was an organic part of the larger social and political struggles of the 1960s in Chile. These combined movements transformed the political and cultural fabric of Chilean society. The New Song musicians incorporated ancient Latin American instruments (especially indigenous flutes, pipes, and stringed instruments such as el charango). They blended traditional Latin American folk songs and rhythms with modern forms of harmony and poetic lyrics that spoke movingly of the burning social and political issues of the day. Víctor was a mentor and an inspiration for younger members of the New Song movement, including the well-known groups Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani. The New Song music was part of a rediscovery of the indigenous and popular cultures of the region, contributing to a new sense of Latin American identity and a new set of values of popular power, solidarity, and social justice. Víctor Jara was also a renowned theater director, poet, and Communist Party militant. His songs spoke stirringly of the lives of the poor, denounced injustices and massacres, and communicated the vision of a new, socially just future. Many of his emblematic songs (such as “Plegaria a un labrador” and “Te recuerdo Amanda") are known worldwide and continue to be sung today.

Chile’s popular movements succeeded in electing Salvador Allende of Unidad Popular (a multiparty coalition) to the presidency in 1970. Allende served for 1,000 days, attempting to reduce social inequalities and create “a Chilean path to socialism” through constitutional processes. Despite enormous popular support from Chile’s poor and working classes, Allende faced protracted opposition from conservative political parties, the upper classes, and large sectors of the armed forces. Moreover, the Nixon administration, fearing the example of a democratically elected socialist, had been deeply involved in covert attempts to prevent Allende from taking office. After those attempts failed, Washington imposed an economic embargo on Chile (Nixon famously told his aides to “make the economy scream”) and the CIA maintained a secret program known as Track II to undermine Allende and stimulate the armed forces to carry out a coup.

The Jara case dragged on for many years without progress. The recent advances are the result of decades of tireless work by Joan Jara and by the Víctor Jara Foundation, supported by many Chileans and foreign nationals. Víctor’s body was exhumed in 2009 after the family presented new evidence. A former conscript was arrested and charged. Several months later, the family and the Víctor Jara Foundation organized a massive three-day wake and “funeral” ceremony for the singer, to celebrate his life and work. Thousands of people of all ages and all walks of life, students, workers, and political leaders, attended to celebrate his legacy. Led by Joan Jara, thousands walked along with the funeral procession to the cemetery for his reburial. Víctor Jara’s memory lives on in Chile, within the artistic and musical communities, among young people, and in the broad public, as a symbol of struggle and resistance. There are regular events and concerts dedicated to Víctor in Santiago, from working-class barrios to elegant theaters, and his face appears in murals and on posters throughout the city.

Judge Miguel Vasquez took over the case in January 2012. In December 2012, the court issued an order for the arrest of eight former military men. Two, retired lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Núñez and retired colonel Hugo Sánchez Marmonti, were charged with suspected homicide. Barrientos had moved to Florida in 1990, after the transition from military rule, and had become a U.S. citizen. He has denied involvement. Both of these officers were graduates of the School of the Americas and held high-ranking positions in the stadium. Six other military officers--Raúl Jofré González, Edwin Dimter Bianchi, Nelson Hasse Mazzei, Luis Bethke Wulf, Roberto Souper Onfray, and Jorge Smith Gumucio--were charged with complicity and arrested in Chile. The judge called for the extradition of Barrientos and in January 2013 the Chilean Supreme Court authorized the extradition request, which was sent to Washington, D.C.

“There has been a slight window of hope since the exhumation,” Joan Jara told me in January 2013:

There is concrete evidence now: Víctor’s identity was legally confirmed and it was established that his death was a homicide. There is ballistic evidence. There have been a number of judges in the last 40 years. The interesting thing is that the new judge is not from a human rights background; he is a criminal judge. This has produced different results. The investigative work of the police has produced enormous results recently. Former conscripts are beginning to talk about what they witnessed. They had been seriously threatened over the years and they had been living in fear. The investigation has produced witnesses who saw these officers in the stadium, even though they deny it.

Joan Jara explained that part of the recent progress in the case is also thanks to journalistic efforts. There was an important breakthrough when journalists from Chilevisión tracked down Barrientos in Florida for a television documentary, which aired in 2012. The documentary, “Quién mató a Victor Jara," included testimony from a former conscript, José Paredes, who for the first time on camera accused Barrientos of being the one who shot the brutally tortured Jara at point-blank range in a “game” of Russian roulette with another officer. The documentary inspired the judge to take his investigation deeper. He asked the FBI to interview Barrientos, and the FBI subsequently took a legal declaration from the Chilean.

All the suspected officers served at the Tejas Verdes army base, a notorious center of military plotting and subversion against the constitutional government of Allende. The base was directed by Manuel Contreras, a colonel who later became chief of the fearsome Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate) or DINA. DINA was the Gestapo-like secret intelligence organization created after the coup, with assistance from the CIA, that carried out the vast majority of disappearances and specialized in torture. Tejas Verdes was converted into a clandestine concentration camp--one of many created by DINA and the regime--where political prisoners were held in secret and brutally tortured. Manuel Contreras soon became a key commander of the multinational, covert intelligence network known as Operation Condor. Condor was a cross-border system to “disappear,” torture, and assassinate political opponents. It was set up in the 1970s by the military intelligence apparatuses of six military states--Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil--also supported by the CIA.

The case of Víctor Jara is a crucial one in Chile’s long battle against impunity. Chileans have not forgotten their national artists, heroes, and martyrs. Despite years of repression, the dictatorship could not erase Víctor Jara from the historical memory of the country. But Chile’s political system, despite important steps toward redemocratization, is still impaired by a lack of justice and accountability, and by political institutions implanted by the Pinochet regime to prevent full democracy. International attention is important in this case, which continues to test the limits of the Chilean judicial system and challenge the structural legacies of the dictatorship.

For further information see the Foundation’s site (in Spanish): http: //www.facebook.com/pages/Justicia-para-Víctor/136598893151849.

Look for an upcoming article on the Jara case in the print version of Social Justice.

Víctor’s image appears on a banner at a huge musical event in August 2011
in support of quality public education, a demand of the massive student movement.

Mural in front of the Víctor Jara Foundation headed by Joan Jara, 2012.

Víctor Jara’s gravesite in July 2012, with flowers and donated guitars.

J. Patrice McSherry with Joan Jara, January 2013.

* J. Patrice McSherry is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Latin America and Caribbean Studies Program at Long Island University. She has spent considerable time in Chile since 2011, working on a political history of the New Song movement in the political and social context of the 1960s. All photos © J. Patrice McSherry.