Life under Pinochet: “We still don’t know what happened to my brother”

Gloria Elgueta's brother Martin was detained by Pinochet’s political police and held in Londres 38. Years later, a campaign is underway to turn the notorious house of torture into a memorial site.

Hardly a day goes by when Gloria Elgueta doesn’t think about how her brother Martin may have spent his final days. He was detained by Pinochet’s political police and held in Londres 38, a colonial building five blocks away from their family home. After years searching for justice, Gloria joined other relatives in a campaign to turn the notorious house of torture into a memorial site to remember those who lost their lives.

There’s one memory Chilean activist Gloria Elgueta will never forget of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. Everyday for a fortnight she would walk five blocks from her family home in the centre of Santiago and stand and stare at an old colonial house known as Londres 38. The elegant façade belied the horrors taking place inside. This was one of Pinochet’s detention centres of choice: a place of torture and death. She suspected her brother, Martin, a student, was inside and there was nothing she could do.

In July 1974, members of the DINA (Pinochet’s political police) came knocking on their door and, simply, took him. They never gave an explanation for the arrest or brought any charges against him.

Almost immediately after Martin’s arrest, Gloria and her mother joined hundreds of others whose loved ones had been taken to unknown locations. It was a desperate pilgrimage to public offices, tribunals, and independent organizations, looking for help and information regarding the fate of their relatives.

“We knew we had to ask – we needed to know. We went to the health services and the morgue, thinking that we would find him dead. It was a pretty much pointless pilgrimage because we didn't get any response regarding where he was. Everybody in authority would constantly say that my brother had not been detained,” she said.

The first clue that Martin was being held in Londres 38 came from one of the few activists who survived imprisonment and been released.

“We know he was held there for around 15 days. We spoke to one of the other detainees and they had seen him inside.  We think that he was there until early august. After that we didn't have any other testimonies from people who were held with him. What we were able to establish is that during that period, detainees were transferred in groups, killed and their bodies, hidden.”

For many not knowing where there loved ones were or what was happening was a heavy burden to bear.

“I know relatives who went to Londres 38 and knocked on the door - but it achieved nothing – they were threatened. One woman even went with a priest to try and find out if her grandson was held there but they too were turned away. Knowing your loved ones may be inside and not being able to cross that door - it’s just unthinkable.”

Nobody knows exactly how many people were held at any one time in Londres 38. However, human rights organizations estimate that as many as 2,000 could have been detained during the time it functioned. At the time Chile was largely a country in denial.

“People around Londres and all other detention centres knew that things were happening there but people were afraid to talk,” Gloria said to Amnesty International. “There was a very clear fear amongst most people. My mother, , would talk openly about my brother and what was happening and people would pretend they were not listening.”

While the whereabouts of most of those detained are still unknown. Some did survive. Martin’s arrest was the second time her family had been targeted.

Two months before Martin was arrested, Gloria’s older brother, Raimundo, was also taken by the military and held because he had allegedly broken the country’s strict curfew. He was eventually released in November 1976 having survived torture and ill treatment. But for Gloria - not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about the fate of her brother Martin.

“I think the worse thing is the still not knowing. Even after 39 years we still do not know what happened to my brother. You think about the violence he may have suffered, his death, not knowing, not having all the information is something very complex for me. But the most difficult thing is the lack of justice in Chile.”

Gloria believes that even though some positive steps were taken in the past few years to ensure those responsible for the thousands of killings, disappearances and torture during Pinochet’s regime face justice, impunity is still the norm.

Her and her family still ignore what happened to Martin and where his remains are. No one faced justice for the crimes he suffered.

“I think the result of the search for real justice is failing. What we know is very general; we don't know the truth about each individual case. We know that they are missing and that they were killed but the full information required by the courts to establish who was responsible is lacking. There’s a veil of secrecy around all of that, facilitated by a lot of complicity. Even now we know there are archives of information about those cases.”

Since Pinochet was ousted in 1990, the notorious colonial building of Londres 38 has been turned into a fitting memorial for those who were tortured and lost their lives.

“It’s important to me and the other relatives of those detained in Londres 38 that they are not forgotten. By making this into a memorial it’s a way to turn the dreadful repression, persecution and horror of what happened into something positive. It’s a chance to turn our experiences into something we can share with others.”

This article is republished in partnership with Amnesty International

Martin Elgueta (left). Photo: Amnesty International
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”