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Declarations & Statements






On 11th September 1973 a military coup ended democracy in Chile, President Allende died in the Moneda Palace and a prolonged State of Siege was established. The following day, the four commanding generals of the armed forces and the police established a Military Junta and General Pinochet was designated its President. One of the first strategic tasks was to make the country governable. For this purpose, the new government did not need to beg for popularity or to seek electoral support. They had achieved absolute power. However, to last as long as Pinochet intended, the military regime had not only to neutralise the opposition, but completely to destroy it. This was a formidable task considering that more than 40 percent of the voting population had supported Allende's Popular Unity and 30 percent had supported the Christian Democratic party. To bring some 70 percent of the population to their political knees, Pinochet used the old methods of arrest and torture, and innovated by employing a new sinister variation - the "disappearance" of political enemies. Terror may not have been more than a technical demand to accomplish the task in hand, but it required steely determination, implacable tenacity and a total lack of moral scruples. For this, Pinochet found the right man: Colonel Manuel Contreras.

Two decades later, on 30th May 1995, Manuel Contreras was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for his participation in the assassination in Washington D.C. of Orlando Letelier, former Minister in the Allende's cabinet.[2] Today, he is still a prisoner in Chile, one of the very few military officers ever convicted for crimes committed while serving for the military dictatorship. Contreras is not a happy man, and has complained of having been abandoned by his former boss. He has made clear that everything he did was carried out under the authority of Augusto Pinochet. As he may still play an important role in the Pinochet affair, Remember-Chile wishes to remind its readers of this important actor in the drama of Chile. In this section we will publish significant documents and testimonies on this individual. We start with this adaptation that we have made of Chapter 5 of the book Assassination in Embassy Row, by Saul Landau and John Dinges (1980) published by Pantheon Books, A Division of Ramdom House, Inc.


TWENTY YEARS BEFORE, the building at Tejas Verdes had been an elegant resort hotel where wealthy Santiagans relaxed by the sea. In October 1973, a naked prisoner lay strapped to a bare metal cot in the former music room. The Army School of Engineers had replaced the vacationers years before, but people still called the barracks Tejas Verdes - the Green Roofs. The Maipo River flowed beneath the spacious terraces, carrying the pulverised black stone of the Andes the last mile to the Pacific. Beaches the colour of ashes and charcoal stretched from the mouth of the river north to the port of San Antonio.

Antonio Moreno - the name is false to protect him - screamed many times that day but remembered thinking that no one would hear because of the soundproofing. No one, that is, except the half- dozen men watching the interrogation. An army patrol had picked up Antonio in Santiago and brought him here. On the parrilla - the electric grill - the soldiers had tortured him until he named several rightist intellectuals as Soviet undercover agents, and now they were torturing him because his confession had been a lie.

The stench of faeces filled the room. His soiled pants and body had remained unwashed since his arrest three weeks before. A soldier retched as he moved the electrode from an eyelid to Antonio's penis. Between jolts of electricity, Antonio fixed his eyes on the face of a bulky man in the uniform of a lieutenant colonel who leaned against a wall watching intently, clinically. The horror of the experience etched this face in Antonio's memory, and later, having survived, he would recognise the heavy jowls, impenetrable black eyes beneath drooping lids, and look of tired contempt. He would learn the man's name: Lieutenant Colonel Juan Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, regimental commander of the Tejas Verdes army base.

Naked Ambition

Contreras, at forty-four one of the youngest colonels in the Chilean Army, would later become its youngest general. But he did not seek power through rank alone. Port San Antonio and the Tejas Verdes regiment provided a base to build upon until he would stand next to power itself.

The son of a middle-class, social-climbing military family, Contreras was in his final year at the Chilean military academy when one of his future victims, Orlando Letelier, entered as a lowly plebeian. Early in his career, Contreras attracted the attention of one of his former academy professors, Captain Augusto Pinochet. The two, young officer and his mentor, became close friends, and Pinochet crowned their friendship by standing as godfather[3] at the baptism of one of Contreras' children.

As a major, Contreras spent two years - 1967 through 1969 - at the Army Career Officers School in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. While in the United States he joined the Lions Club at Fort Hunt, Virginia, a membership he would proudly continue in Chile's chapter of Lions International. And he opened an account at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which proved convenient later on.

Since there had been no war in their lifetime, the Chilean officer corps were classroom soldiers. Their performance as students in special courses abroad, and as professors in Chile's Military Academy and War College, became avenues to promotion. Contreras always finished first in his class, and later took pains to combine key professorships with the command of troops. Though attached to the Engineering Corps, he developed specialities in military history, strategy, and intelligence, in addition to teaching more typical army engineering courses in explosives and demolition.

Just as Pinochet had nurtured him, Contreras supported a number of young officers, captivating them with his superior intellect and engendering a total personal loyalty by his absolutism and authoritarianism. Manuel Contreras strove always to control - people, situations, the future. He had succeeded in dominating his family, his friends, his junior officers, and had carefully orchestrated his steady, rapid rise inside the military. Two things eluded his control. On social occasions, Contreras could not govern his response to people of different classes and views. He alternated between retiring shyness and argumentative bombast. He would get carried away, excoriating communism, women's liberation, and Christian Democracy.[4] He had also failed to master his appetite. His obesity made him angry, and he channelled his anger into the pursuit of power.

Colonel Contreras, now in Prison in Chile because of the assassination in Washington of Orlando Letelier, has declared that he received his orders directly from General Pinochet

Several months before the coup, Contreras received the command of Tejas Verdes, the top military post in the San Antonio area. He had served in that port city for five years in the 1950s and returned, in June 1973, a well known (if less than endearing) figure to the social circles there. He established an iron control over his new regiment, and when the province itself was declared under a state of emergency a few weeks before the coup, Contreras became the effective ruler of the port.

San Antonio was Santiago's closest link to the Pacific. For weeks before the coup the sixty-five miles of highway between the city and its port were almost void of lorry traffic, the road being under siege by striking truckers. Ships loaded with hundreds of tons of wheat languished at anchor in the harbour, while in Santiago President Allende announced that the city of four million would run out of flour for bread in three days. An army convoy could have run the gauntlet of truckers and their bands of opposition - party toughs armed only with small - calibre rifles and pistols. But San Antonio had become enemy territory under Contreras. No ships were unloaded; no convoys organised to bring food to Santiago. Days before the coup Contreras ordered army squads to round up young leftists suspected of preparing armed resistance to the impending coup.

On September 11th 1973, the day of the coup d'état, few shots were fired; the rule of the UP government (Popular Unity[5]) had already ended in San Antonio. Trucks lined up once again at the docks to transport grain to Santiago, but on September 13th the radical dockworkers' union staged a sit-down strike to protest the abolition of job-protection rules by the new military authorities. Contreras invited four union leaders to his office to negotiate on the afternoon of the thirteenth. The next morning, four bullet-riddled bodies were delivered to the union leaders' families in sealed coffins. There were no more strikes in San Antonio.

Other bodies began to be washed up regularly on city beaches. Nurses at the city hospital recognised some of the bodies as persons who had been brought injured to the hospital after the coup, then dragged out at night by military patrols. During the first weeks after the coup, squads of soldiers and civilian collaborators rounded up dozens, then hundreds of UP militants and sympathisers. By the end of September the word had spread that Contreras had established a prison camp at a military storage dump by the Maipo River bridge near the Tejas Verdes regimental headquarters.

People trying to locate missing relatives gathered daily on the steep hill overlooking the camp of two dozen ramshackle wooden barracks. Prisoners being marched to meals or to the latrine could see the people on the hill waving. They could also see the two white cement statues that gave the place its name: "The Hill of the Christ of Maipo." Prisoners arrived daily; many of them brought from Santiago. Smaller trucks transported groups of prisoners to the former resort of Tejas Verdes, a mile away, for interrogation. Officially the prison camp did not exist. There were no prisoner lists, and army officials refused to answer inquiries from relatives. Only the prisoners and their guards set foot inside the camp. Large shipping crates and small shacks housed the inmates. An open trench dug in the sandy ground and lined with planks served as the latrine. There were no washbasins or showers.

"Gentlemen: I am the Law"

San Antonio constituted a problem area for Pinochet because of the strategic importance of the port and the strong UP leanings of its population. Contreras was a godsend who brought a difficult situation under control with speed and efficiency. As pressures built up in Santiago to allow International Red Cross inspections of prisons and the listing of prisoners' names, Tejas Verdes became the destination for prisoners arrested in Santiago and suspected of taking part in organised resistance. Contreras directed particularly methodical and productive interrogations. His information on the resistance, fruit of torture sessions in the Tejas Verdes music room, became the most complete in Chile, surpassing that of the army, navy, and air force intelligence services.

In San Antonio, Contreras made the rules that governed life. He dismissed a left-leaning judge and imprisoned her at Tejas Verdes. Since Pinochet and the Junta had announced that no changes would be made in the judicial system, two national court officials travelled to San Antonio to demand that Contreras respect the court's own procedures for the removal of judges. One of the officials reported that Contreras received them in his office and dismissed their complaints. Standing over the two officials, as was his custom during interviews, Contreras said, "Gentlemen, I am the law, and" - putting his hand on his pistol - "this is the judicial system."

Santiago in October 1973 resembled an occupied city. Army patrols in jeeps and trucks raced through the streets, guns at the ready. Felled trees and sandbags protected guard posts around government buildings, public buildings, and police outposts. At night after the hour of curfew, sporadic machine-gun fire crackled. Morning newspapers -those left after the confiscation of all publications, not in line with the new regime - provided daily reports of the number of leftist prisoners killed the night before "while trying to escape."

Colonel Manuel Contreras divided his time between Santiago and Tejas Verdes. He accumulated titles and expanded his power base, muscling in on the territory of several generals but preserving absolute subordination to one man - General Augusto Pinochet. In San Antonio, besides acting as military governor and chief of the emergency zone, he took over the management of the gigantic fisheries complex, EPECH, one of Allende's "social sector" industries conceived as a bridge to a socialist, worker-managed economy. In Santiago, Contreras directed the officers' school and the War Academy and served on the military planning commissions that formulated policy for the government.

The sheer number and prestige of Contreras' many posts, unheard of for a colonel, provided him the power base from which to run the military government's greatest enterprise. In size and resources, only the country's basic industry, copper mining, remained larger. Pinochet had given Contreras the mandate to bring order and efficiency to the gigantic task of eliminating Marxism from the country. He ordered him not to alleviate the violence of the early weeks after the coup, but to intensify, co-ordinate, and rationalise the repression.

The Birth of the DINA

The formal organisation of state terror in Chile began in November 1973 with a decree that created the National Prisoners Service (Servicio Nacional de Detenidos - SENDET). The new institution was ostensibly a bureaucracy to handle the administration of the dozens of prison camps. SENDET set up its offices in the basement of the deserted National Congress building, and the government announced that anyone seeking news of arrested persons should go there.

Buried in the decree was a clause establishing a Department of National Intelligence (Departamento de Inteligencia Nacional)[6], "to determine the degree of dangerousness of the prisoners and to maintain permanent co-ordination with the Intelligence services of the Armed Forces, Carabineros, and Investigaciones." A lawyer working for the newly formed human rights organisation, the Committee for Co-operation for Peace, made an educated guess, which he wrote up in a memorandum, that the department would become a new intelligence apparatus. The acronym of the new agency, he concluded, was DINA.

Colonel Manuel Contreras, the secret director of the SENDET "department" now began to build an organisation with the dual purpose of instilling terror and gathering political intelligence. He got help. CIA station chief Ray Warren had worked with Contreras before the coup. When he heard that Pinochet had given the task of centralising Chile's intelligence agencies to a man of Contreras' proven ability, Warren promised CIA help in supervising the planning and organisation of the new intelligence structure and in training its principal officers. Swiftly, Contreras build DINA into a state within a state. "At the beginning of 1974 [Contreras] had a full set of plans, and six months later he had built an empire," a former DINA agent said. "I thought he was some kind of genius to have built up such a large, complicated apparatus in such a short time - then I found out how much help he got from the CIA in organising it."[7]

Chile's five existing intelligence agencies, organised primarily to gather military intelligence, were ill-equipped for the task of rounding up citizens whose crime was that of having unfashionable political ideals. Other governments, including Allende's, had relied on Investigaciones, the political division of the national detective police, to investigate terrorism and subversion, of which there had been few instances in the country's history until the last two years of Allende's government. In the 1960s, the CIA had encouraged the formation of an intelligence arm of the Carabineros, the national police, but SICAR (Servicio de Inteligencia de Carabineros), as it was called, had remained a truncated and unassertive service.

The army's Military Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar - SIM) conducted operations aimed at potential military threats from outside the country until the 1960s, then, at the behest of the United States military aid program, expanded into counterinsurgency programs.

Navy intelligence operated almost exclusively in the port cities of Valparaiso and Talcahuano. The Air Force Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia de la Fuerza Aerea - SIFA), smaller than SIM, undertook with relish the job of repression. Under the leadership of junta member General Gustavo Leigh, SIFA operated throughout the country and gained a reputation as the most brutal of all the organisations carrying out arrests and detention. Until DINA.

The Help of the CIA

The intelligence services were responsive to their respective hierarchies and engaged on all levels in inter-service rivalry. Pinochet, on the advice of the CIA, asserted the need for a full-scale secret police that was under his personal command, independent of any military structure and charged with the co-ordination of the other intelligence agencies. Other secret police agencies set up for the same purpose, South Korea's KCIA, Brazil's National Information Service, and Iran's SAVAK - all parented by the CIA - provided models for Contreras' organisation. He obtained technical and training manuals from the CIA. He handpicked officers to lead his elite corps from among lieutenants and captains at the War Academy, and recruited soldiers who had gained experience at Tejas Verdes. Some officers were sent to Brazil for training. Some $40 million to finance the organisation was obtained through the ingenious device of bleeding funds from the EPECH fishery and then borrowing money from the Central Bank to cover the firm's losses. The losses were officially blamed on mismanagement under the Popular Unity regime.

In January and February 1974, with recruitment still incomplete, Contreras' DINA began to operate on a small scale, even though it had as yet no legal existence. Human rights workers at the Peace Committee began to notice an upswing in the number of arrests to almost 250 people per week and to detect a chilling change in methods. Contrary to earlier practice, men in uniform seldom participated in arrests. Those conducting the arrests arrived after curfew, wore civilian clothes, and refused to identify themselves. They blindfolded their victims and threw them into the canvas-topped backs of pickup trucks without license plates. Often a young woman took part in the arrests with a team of four or five men.

The military government did not admit DINA existed until the publication in June 1974 of Decree 521, the official junta law creating the Directorate of National Intelligence.[8] Contreras' appointment as director of national intelligence was not made public. Decree 521 contained three secret articles, numbers 9, 10, and 11, that subordinated all other intelligence services in the country to DINA and gave DINA agents unlimited power to raid and search houses and take prisoners without charges. Technically, DINA was subordinate to the four-man government junta. In practice, all DINA operatives, even those originally from other branches of the armed forces, took orders only from Contreras, and Contreras took orders only from one man: General Augusto Pinochet.

DINA covert operations, under the command of Colonel Espinoza, had five sections: Government Service, Internal, Economics, Psychological Warfare, and External (Foreign Operations). The Government Service and Internal sections, the largest and most secret divisions, concentrated on control of opposition forces in the government bureaucracy and in the population as a whole.

Purges immediately after the coup had eliminated thousands of persons identified as members of leftist parties from the universities and government services. But the regime's rulers considered every government office a spawning ground for sabotage and conspiracy, every government employee a potential security risk. Radical and Christian Democratic party members virtually monopolised middle-level government jobs. Many had welcomed the coup but could be counted on to oppose the military as soon as the plan to dismantle Chile's democratic system became evident.

A Very Efficient Service

Informants, called soplones - whisperers - provided the only method of instilling fear of discovery and arrest in potential opponents in lower-level and middle-level government bureaucracies. DINA took over a large complex of offices in downtown Santiago, out of which it began to run the vast network of government spies, many of them volunteers or part-time employees. Each informant had his or her case officer; each case officer filed reports to the section chief of DINA's estimated 20,000 to 30,000 informants, over half of whom held strategic positions in government offices throughout Chile. Contreras counted on a multiplier effect to increase the network's effectiveness. The mere suspicion that the person at the next desk might be working for DINA was sufficient to extinguish griping and political discussion in government offices.

DINA's Internal Section had the dual task of extirpating the remaining pockets of organised leftist resistance and enforcing the government ban on all opposition political activity. A formidable assignment, since Contreras regarded the 40 percent of the voting population who had supported the Popular Unity as enemies of the Pinochet government and the 30 percent who had supported the Christian Democratic candidates as potential enemies. Contreras decided to begin his systematic assault with an attack on the far left, the movement with the weakest roots but the largest reputation for courage, conviction, and determination. MIR (Movimiento lzquierdista Revolucionario), the leftist revolutionary movement, had gone underground before the coup and continued to attempt to rally their followers to armed resistance. Next would be the Socialists and the Communists. Finally - but not until late 1975 - Contreras would turn his terror apparatus on the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church.

To bring some 70 percent of the population to their political knees, Contreras resorted to the old methods of arrest and torture, to which he added a new wrinkle: disappearance. The shock troops of Contreras' army, the Brigades of Arrests and Interrogation, were teams of five or six persons under the command of a captain or major. With names borrowed from Chile's Indian past, like Antumapu, Pehuenche, Peldehue, each brigade operated a security house whose location changed frequently. The arrest squads, in civilian clothes, brought prisoners to the DINA houses for torture and interrogation. Those who fell into the DINA category of "incapable of rehabilitation" were wrung dry of information - sometimes by months of interrogation - then taken away by a special brigade and made to "disappear".[9] DINA issued no warrants; it processed no official arrest records; no bodies were brought to the morgue; no death certificates were filed. The list of "disappeared" grew by fifty persons a month in 1974.

The campaign succeeded: Chile's population became terrified. In a speech in September 1974, Pinochet declared the country to be "an island of tranquillity" in a world of violence. However, not all high-ranking members of Chile's military establishment were pleased by the tranquillisation techniques that Contreras was applying to the civilian population. The DINA network functioned not only to control opposition but to influence policy along lines favoured by Contreras. DINA demanded, and received, a quota of top-level policy positions in each government ministry. The ministers themselves - many of them generals - began to feel threatened as DINA assumed the shape of a shadow government run personally by Contreras. His tactics grated on even the most callous of the other generals, though probably more out of feelings of rivalry than for humanitarian reasons.

SIFA, the Air Force Intelligence Service, had also initiated a campaign against MIR in 1974 under the direction of Colonel Edgardo Ceballos Jones, whose men made wide use of torture. As Contreras began to assert his power consonant with DINA's secret charter to control the other intelligence services, prisoners released by Ceballos were picked up by Contreras' men and re-interrogated under torture, and then often "disappeared." Ceballos, human rights activists reported later, began to hide his prisoners from DINA and arrange with human rights organisations to place them in asylum in foreign embassies so that DINA could not murder them.

Spring Clean of the Army

Army General Oscar Bonilla, the interior minister with a reputation for dynamism and populism, became Contreras' first declared enemy. At a meeting of the cabinet in mid-1974, Pinochet brought in Contreras to report on the theft of documents from the desk of one of the ministers. The report blamed the theft on leftist infiltrators in the ministry, and it was used by Pinochet and Contreras to justify stiffening of DINA control inside the ministries. General Bonilla, addressing his subordinate officer Colonel Contreras, asked for a show of evidence that leftists had stolen the missing documents.

Contreras, according to one of those present, refused to provide further information and remarked pointedly that "certain things can't be said in front of strangers." Bonilla, enraged, turned to Pinochet, but Pinochet backed Contreras.

General Sergio Arrellano, nicknamed by leftists "the Butcher of the North" because of his tour of prisons in the north of Chile a month after the coup that resulted in summary executions of seventy prisoners, protested directly to General Pinochet. In a letter to Pinochet in November 1974, Arellano complained that Contreras, his subordinate in rank, had refused to answer his inquiries on behalf of prisoners' families. The letter described Contreras' DINA as a "Gestapo" and asked that the abuses be corrected before the situation became uncontrollable.

Pinochet heard the protests, received the letters of complaint, and placated individual generals, but he did not waver in his support of Contreras. Instead, he passed on to him the names of the dissenting officers. DINA penetration and surveillance inside the military was stepped up.

Terror and Economy

Contreras also had a special interest in the plans being implemented by the government's team of economists, many of whom had received graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and were devotees of Dr. Milton Friedman. The two government ministries dealing with the economy were the only ones in civilian hands, and were least subject to direct military control.

Contreras set up his own economics section in DINA to monitor and keep under control the unrest and discontent among low-income groups and labour unions. But Contreras disagreed with the economic model being implemented and shared the view of political leaders such as PL chief Pablo Rodriguez, who favoured a corporativist model combining authoritarian government and benevolent, populist economic policies toward the poor. Contreras' staff of eighteen economists made DINA's Economics Section into a two-edged sword, threatening both the opposition parties and unions and the "Chicago Boys'" monopoly in junta economic policy-making.[10]

The economic team that guided the junta's fiscal policies did not at first perceive DINA's methods as a threat, only as a slightly unsavoury necessary evil, which was to control the opposition long enough for the new economic model to take root. They saw the tangible reality of rampant inflation, not the abstraction called Marxism, as Chile's number one problem in 1974. The economic managers were businessmen, acting in a rarefied world where the contingencies of international finance counted more than ideological preferences. Contreras, on the other hand, took ideas much more seriously. He was committed, not to replace one economic system with another, but to replace one set of ideas with another. Physical terror required its psychic complement.

DINA's Psychological Warfare Section operated in close liaison with the government's Directorate of Social Communications (Dirección Nacional de Comunicaciones Sociales - DINACOS), the office in charge of press censorship, supervision of foreign correspondents, and pro-junta propaganda campaigns inside and outside Chile. A second-level post in DINACOS was reserved for a Contreras appointee.

Looming behind DINA's vast apparatus and various departments was an inner circle. Called the General Command, it contained between thirty and forty men that Contreras trusted not only for their total personal loyalty to him but as dedicated professionals in a common cause. Military officers whose primary loyalty was to their own service did not enter the General Command, no matter what their rank. The General Command knew the whole of Contreras' plan and the details of daily activity in the five sections. Everything else remained compartmentalised. The thousands of men and women who drew DINA paycheques, who arrested, tortured, interrogated, and killed, knew only what Contreras decided they needed to know for their assignments.

Contreras designed this structure to impose absolute personal control on every aspect of DINA's work and to undercut the natural tendency of bureaucracies to create vested interests and private power enclaves. Only total devotion to Contreras and to DINA's crusade as he defined it opened the way to advancement and responsibility.

Extraterritorial Capability

Other DINA operations, so secret that no one outside the General Command knew their full scope, had as their target the Chilean military itself and enemies in foreign lands. The exiles and what Pinochet had branded the "international Marxist campaign" against his government required countermeasures. In response to this new and growing problem, Contreras, in mid-1974, organised his fifth and last division, the "External Section."

Underlying the DINA structural division of labour between Internal and External sections was the concept that the war against communism was a holy crusade without battle lines, boundaries, or physically distinguishable enemies. There were no aggressor's divisions poised on Chile's frontiers, no tangible threat that Pinochet could counter with regular military procedures. Only DINA had the men and methods to counterattack; only DINA could develop the capability of striking the enemy in the protection of his foreign dens. Contreras called this "extraterritorial capability."

The president of Mexico had welcomed the top leaders of the Popular Unity and offered them his capital city as a virtual seat for exile operations. Allende's widow, Hortensia Bussi, accepted the Mexican government's invitation and settled there with her youngest daughter, Isabel, surrounding herself with many of the most able UP leaders. Another pocket of prominent exiles, Christian Democrats as well as leftists began to organise an anti-junta movement in Rome, Italy. Venezuela's Social Democratic President Carlos Andres Perez, an Allende friend and ally in Third World causes, opened his country to a flood of exiles. Caracas became a central meeting place for UP and Christian Democratic leaders, some of whom moved clandestinely back and forth from Chile.

Argentina represented a special threat in Contreras' eyes. It shared over 2,000 miles of mountainous border with Chile and had a burgeoning guerrilla movement. It also sheltered by far the largest group of Chilean exiles in 1974. One man was of particular concern to General Pinochet. General Carlos Prats, his predecessor as commander in chief of the army, was living and writing his memoirs in Buenos Aires. Prats represented the constitutionalist line in the Chilean military, presumably still attractive to some generals after the coup. He had been the greatest obstacle to the coup before September 11th, and remained in Pinochet's eyes the most important threat to the unity of the Chilean military. In Buenos Aires, Prats was a mere two-and-a-half-hour jet ride from Santiago.

An atmosphere of violence hung over Buenos Aires like thick smog. President Juan Peron had died in July and a state of virtual civil war had followed. Combined left-wing Peronist and ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, the Trotskyist People's Revolutionary Army) forces, estimated at 10,000, controlled most of two provinces. Perón's widow and vice-president, Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, had taken over the presidency with a coterie of right-wing advisers and turned the running of the country over to a Rasputin-like figure, José Lopez Rega. A terrorist organisation calling itself the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) claimed credit for a wave of assassinations of prominent left politicians and intellectuals. Later investigations established that AAA was a blanket name for a variety of rightist terror squads organised by Federal Police Chief Alberto Villar at the direction of Lopez Rega.

DINA's agent[11] made contact with members of Milicia, an AAA affiliate, which specialised in reprinting Nazi tracts in Spanish and promoting anti-Semitism. The group co-ordinated its underground terrorist operations through a branch of SIDE (Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado), the Argentine military intelligence service. The mission was simple: to kill Carlos Prats. The Argentines agreed to help, but told him he would have to wait a few days. While he waited, five Peronist leftists were kidnapped and killed between September 21 and September 30.

General Prats, a Military Officer too Constitutionalist

General Prats nevertheless felt safe in Argentina. He had served there as military attaché in 1964 and 1965 and had developed close friendships with Argentine colleagues over the years. He and his wife, Sofia, lived in the affluent Palermo district in a comfortable apartment with a twenty-four-hour guard. He kept in contact with his friends in the Chilean military through letters carried back and forth by trusted friends. Some of the letters saddened him. They described Pinochet's campaign to discredit him in the military, the orders to remove his picture from the walls of regiments where he had served as commander. His correspondence increased, Prats told friends, as more of his former colleagues began to look to him to express their disillusionment with Pinochet's megalomania.

Prats had begun to write a book about his experiences as army chief under the Popular Unity government. In the manuscript he argued that military intervention in politics would cause the destruction of Chile's military institutions and explained his adherence to the "Schneider Doctrine" of defence of the Constitution. In his book, he answered the charges that by serving in Allende's cabinet he had taken sides in the political battlefield. He revealed for the first time that he had entered the cabinet only after seeking and receiving authorisation by secret ballot of the corps of generals. DINA agents reported to Contreras about Prats's writing. Some of Prats's letters fell into DINA hands, and rumours abounded about the spectacular revelations contained in the manuscript.

The Prat's operation involved many people. In view of the general level of violence in Argentina and the co-operation of Argentine intelligence in the project, the DINA's agent operated without taking extreme security measures; his orders did not include them. In Buenos Aires, a police official passed a message back to DINA not to delay the mission any longer because so many people in police circles knew about it that they might have to take action to prevent it.

A few weeks before his death, a man imitating an Argentine accent had telephoned Prats: "General, I'm calling to tell you that a Chilean army officer has travelled from Santiago to Montevideo. He intends to hire a group of persons to kill you. The only way to stop the operation is for you to make a public statement saying that you are not plotting against the military junta." Prats, recognising the false accent, said to the caller, "Go ahead and talk like a Chilean." The caller refused to identify himself, but talked at length, begging Prats to break off all contacts with Chilean military personnel and to leave Argentina. "It was a warning, not a threat," Prats said when he related the incident to friends.

Uneasy about the growing chaos in Argentina, Prats had applied at the Chilean Consulate for a new passport so that he could travel to Europe to look into job offers there. On September 29, the application was still snarled in red tape. Prats and his wife spent that day relaxing with friends. They drove to a farm a few miles outside Buenos Aires for a country, lunch, then returned in the early evening to attend a movie with Chilean friends Ramón Huidobro and his wife. After the film, the two couples went to Huidobro's home for coffee and two hours of conversation.

Shortly after midnight, Prats and his wife drove back to their apartment building. Prats turned into the driveway and got out to open the garage door, then got back in the car to pull into the garage. At that instant a bomb, attached under the floor, exploded. Prats was blown out through the open door, his right arm and leg torn off. Sofia Prats was burned to death in the car. The bomb blast blew parts of the car onto the balcony of a ninth-floor apartment.


  1. This article is an adaptation, by Remember-Chile, of Chapter 5 from Assassination in Embassy Row by Saul Landau and John Dinges (1980) published by Pantheon Books, A Division of Ramdom House, Inc. The book was also published in Spanish under the name Asesinato en Washington El caso Letelier (1982) by Lasser Press Mexicana, s.a., Mexico D.F. [Note by Remember-Chile]
  2. In September 1976, Chilean opposition leader and former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his U.S. secretary were killed by a car bomb while in Washington, D.C.
  3. In Chile, the godfather enters a special relationship with the baby's parents; he becomes a compadre, i.e. a special friend, almost a relative. The role brings with it privileges and obligations towards the whole family and establishes a code of loyalty between the parties. [Note by Remember-Chile]
  4. A middle of the road political party of the middle classes and sections of the working class, the Christian Democratic Party governed Chile in the period 1964-1970 (President Eduado Frei Montalba). As part of the Concertación coalition, this party has been in government again since 1990 (Presidents Patricio Aylwyn, 1990-1994 and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, 1994-1999). [Note by Remember-Chile]
  5. The Popular Unity was a coalition comprising several political parties from the centre (Radical Party) to the left (Socialists and Communists). The alliance, with a platform that promised an acceleration of the land reform and full nationalisation of copper mines, basic industries and communications, won the presidential election in 1970 with about 37 percent of the vote, and Congress backed the elected President Salvador Allende overwhelmingly against his rightist opponent, former President Alessandri. At the general election of March 1973 the coalition increased his electoral base to 43 percent. Six months later the Chilean road to socialism abruptly ended with Pinochet's coup d'etat. [Note by Remember-Chile]
  6. Decree 517, published in Official Gazette, December 31, 1973.
  7. The source said he was not aware until 1975 and 1976 of the extent of the connections between DINA and the CIA. He said he saw "manuals of instruction and procedure" provided by the CIA. The relationship reached its zenith around the time of Contreras' visit to Washington in August 1975, when he was received by General Vernon Walters, deputy director of the CIA, at CIA headquarters. The relationship cooled, the source said, in early 1977 as a result of the change in CIA top personnel under the Carter administration. The issue of human rights and the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations, so far as he could observe, had no influence on CIA-DINA ties in late 1976.
  8. Decree 521 described DINA as a "professional technical organ, directly dependent on the governing Military Junta, whose mission will be the gathering of all information on the national level from various fields of activity for the purpose of producing the intelligence necessary for the formulation of policies, planning, and the adoption of measures needed to preserve National Security and development of the country."
    Secret article No.11 said DINA was the "legal continuation of the commission designated DINA, organised in November 1973" by the SENDET decree. The secret clauses were never published in Chile, although texts of the articles were leaked to human rights workers in 1975 and then distributed clandestinely.
    In an interview, Air Force General Gustavo Leigh, a member of the junta until 1978, said DINA activities were never submitted to consideration in junta meetings and that he had withdrawn all air force officers from DINA in 1976 because of disagreements with Contreras.
  9. Several mass graves discovered in Chile in 1978 and 1979 contained the remains of persons executed by Carabineros and other services, not DINA. The bodies of the DINA victims have never been discovered. It is likely that they were disposed of at sea, thrown from helicopters after the stomach cavity was slit to prevent flotation, a tactic borrowed from United States forces in Vietnam. DINA officers with access to the DINA card file on prisoners knew which prisoners had been selected for disappearance. Samuel Fuenzalida, a former DINA official now living in Europe, testified about the system in Bonn, West Germany, in connection with a civil suit. If a prisoner had the term "Puerto Montt" - a south Chilean city - on his card, Fuenzalida said, it indicated that the prisoner was to be killed on land. Another term, "La Moneda," was used to indicate that the prisoner "was to be killed by being dropped from an aeroplane into the sea."
  10. The DINA economists also supervised a battery of accountants and bookkeepers engaged in devising a secret internal budget and payroll facilities, with elaborate mechanisms for laundering millions of dollars of secret funds. Several hundred businesses that had come under state control during the Allende government were returned to private ownership in 1974 and 1975. Some of the firms, however, were turned over to Contreras, who used them to generate funds for DINA. EPECH, the San Antonio fisheries complex, and Cemento Melon, Chile's largest cement manufacturer, were the largest DINA-controlled firms.
  11. Michael Vernon Townley was the DINA's agent in charge of this operation. His terrorist career includes participation in the assassination of Jose Tomas Rodriguez, a security worker in March 1973 (before the coup) in Concepcion. He was then a member of the fascist group Patria y Libertad, an organisation that was working in the overthrow of Allende. Later, in September 1975 as an agent of the DINA, he participated in the assassination attempt of the Christian Democrat Chilean politician Bernardo Leighton in Rome, and in the car-bomb assassination of the former Chilean Ministry of Defense Orlando Letelier in September 1976 in Washington DC. [Note by Remember-Chile]

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