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Inside the dictatorship



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Declarations & Statements



I left Chile with my young family on 21st September 1976. My friend Carlos was not at the airport for a farewell - he had been detained seven weeks before. We had discussed, on a couple of occasions, exile as an option, but it was never the right time. As doctors, each of us had a job, Carlos in a small peripheral hospital administered by the Roman Catholic Church, myself in an independent institution. It seemed possible to survive and resist, and we would kid ourselves about the apparent randomness of the actions of the secret police.

Denial is a well-known psychological defence-mechanism, particularly when both reality and facing reality are unbearable propositions. However, when Carlos was caught on the same day as our common friend Iván Inzunza, also a medical doctor, I knew that this time the blow was well-aimed, and that my family and I should leave Chile as soon as possible. When our plane was flying over the Atlantic Ocean my wife and I gave a sight of relief and drank a toast for our freedom. We allowed ourselves to forget for a minute our friends left in Chile, thinking that our children were not any longer in danger of suffering the fate of Carlos' children. It was a short-lived comfort. We took one of the papers brought on board during a fuelling stop in Rio, gave a glance to the first page and freeze. There, big-lettered Portuguese titles hit us with the news that a car-bomb explosion had dismembered the body Orlando Letelier, Allende's last Defence Minister, in Washington!

It was August 4, 1976, at four o'clock in the afternoon, when Carlos Godoy Lagarrigue, aged 39, left the San Bernardo Hospital by car. He had just finished his daily ward round and was as usual on his way to his outpatient clinic in La Granja. It is only 15 minutes by car from the hospital to the clinic, although the road passes through the densely populated outskirts of Santiago. He never arrived. Somewhere along the way, he vanished and has not been seen or heard of since. His wife and children waited at home that evening, and continued to wait for years and years.

Needless to say, Carlos' wife and family did their utmost to trace him, appealing to the police, the courts and government ministries. Social and family contacts gave them access to national figures of the highest rank, but all was in vain. Nobody knew or was willing to say where he was. International organisations, including medical ones, took up his case and interceded on his behalf.

I had known Carlos for over twenty years. He has many personal qualities of which I could write. I would like to single out just one, his passionate devotion to the underprivileged. When he first qualified in 1964, he went immediately to the rural district of Melipilla. The hard life of the poor peasants of the region was a challenge to him, their poor social and economic standards constituting insurmountable disadvantages in their struggle against illness and disease. In six years, by combining medical care and a crusade for improved social conditions for the impoverished inhabitants, he achieved remarkable success. He managed to reach more than one hundred thousand peasants with a basic health care program based on free medical and dental care delivered from many new rural posts. The program was based more on organisation and enthusiasm than on better resources, and largely depended on Carlos' personal charisma. During that time he was also head of the Obstetric Department in the District Hospital, and gave himself time to write a book on his experience in the organisation of rural medical services.

In 1970 another doctor and social leader, Salvador Allende, was elected President of Chile and in the following year introduced an extensive range of social reforms, including a progressive National Health Programme. The new government enlisted the help of many doctors, among them Drs Godoy and Inzunza, the former in the Department of Rural Medicine of the NHS, the latter in the Directorate of Public Employees Medical Service. From that position, Dr Godoy was able to secure new funds to bring about improvement in health care for rural areas. He launched a comprehensive national health plan for those regions, promoted a more efficient use of medical resources, emphasised preventative health measures and created posts for paramedical staff where only doctors had been employed before. Hundreds of young midwives, nurses, dentists, health visitors, social workers and others were appointed to form professional teams led by young doctors who began to put into practice his ambitious scheme. I recall the efforts of Carlos to ensure fair selection procedures, which he achieved by establishing a standard assessment that took into account, above all else, the qualifications and professional experience of candidates. He was scrupulously fastidious in defending the rights of right-wing professionals that other less even-handed officials may have been tempted to pass over. For the first time ever, full employment for all those qualified in medical and related fields was achieved.

In September 1973, general Pinochet's coup d'etat resulted in the prohibition of political parties, trade unions and community organisations; Parliament and town councils were closed down; military vice-chancellors were appointed to the country's universities and the Ministry of Health was taken over by the Air Force. All bodies dealing with social programmes were dissolved - in the eyes of the military, they were mere instruments for the dissemination of communism. The world was shocked by the tragic killings that took place throughout the country and the medical services were decimated by the terrible fate suffered by those doctors sympathetic towards the deposed government. Twenty-one medical doctors were killed by the dictatorship between 1973 and 1976[1]; of the country 6,000 doctors, more than 500 were imprisoned, most of them without trial or even the bringing of charges.

Immediately after the military take-over, Carlos was expelled from the NHS and prohibited from practising professionally in state hospitals. His house was forcibly entered and its contents searched. But he never showed any sign of panic or despair. Carlos decided to stay in Chile, and believing that he could not be allowed to work as a medical doctor any longer, he bought a loom, installed it in his garage and started to experiment in producing textiles. Carlos was proud of his ever-improving craftsmanship, and would not stop talking about his experiments with textures and colour combinations. Unfortunately, he was not a very good businessman, and gave away his products at a ridiculous price.

But a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. When in 1974 the Archbishop of Santiago offered him a modest position as a medical assistant in the parish hospital of San Bernardo, a southern district of the capital, he took the offer with alacrity. Within months we came to see in Carlos the same dedicated and compassionate clinician we had known before, earning the love and admiration both of the hospital staff and of the whole community.

However, the situation was far from rosy. In a conversation we had probably in March 1976, Carlos told me that certain sources had intimated to him that secret police agents were at work within his hospital and that he had received a friendly warning to be careful. His popularity and sociability were interpreted equivocally and he was considered politically suspect. The situation in the country was extremely insecure for such people. Disappearances were frequent and the denunciations of grave violations of human rights in Chile at the American States Organisation and the United Nations were backed up by well grounded and widening documented evidence. The weeks before his disappearance he was worried by threatening phone calls he had had at home. He thought he was followed, had seen strangers near his house, and the rumours in the hospital continued. One day, all of a sudden, everything ceased, and two days later he was kidnapped.

The detention of Carlos was never officially admitted. The sole response of the authorities was to deny all knowledge of his whereabouts. The family applied for a writ of habeas corpus, but the Home Ministry and the Police responded they did not have any detained person with that name. The case reached the Supreme Court that confirmed there was no case to consider. His wife learned that she could not have access to his current account - it had been frozen due to "superior orders", and even today, more then twenty years later the situation has not changed. Even his old Citroen 2CV vanished for good.

Carlos wife's ordeal is typical of the experience of so many others. She turned to the Law, the Courts, the Police, influential people, the Roman Catholic Church, medical organisations, international bodies, finding always a wall of silence, denials, false information, mockery and betrayal. In 1976 the Military Junta itself responded to the United Nations that both Carlos Godoy and Iván Insunza had requested visas to travel to Canada, which was promptly denied by the Canadian Embassy in Santiago.

Carlos' family was connected with Mrs Alicia Godoy, the wife of one of the four generals who formed the ruling military Junta. She informed them that Carlos had been in the secret camp of Four Alamos since August 1976, and that soon the situation would be clarified. On the basis of that information, the family initiated criminal procedures against the secret police DINA. The Court officially summoned DINA agents, but they never attended and the trial was officially dismissed years later.

I do not know what happened to Carlos in captivity, but from the well-known patterns of operation documented about DINA's methods, it is not difficult to imagine his ordeal and his death. Carlos Godoy, and his colleagues Iván Insunza, Eduardo González, Carlos Lorca, Enrique Paris, Jorge Klein, and so many others belonged to a generation of medical doctors attempting to bring the benefits of modern medicine justly and equally to all social sectors. As many other Chilean victims, they paid with their lives for their loyalty to the oppressed and the underprivileged, and for their commitment to social reform and justice. It is disturbing to think that today.


  1. Porque fuimos médicos del pueblo (1993) Comisión de Solidaridad con Médicos Objeto de Represión. Ediciones Chile-América CESOC.

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