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‘It Became an Obsession’: The Long Search for the Remains of Pinochet’s Victims

As Chile marks 50 years since the coup, women who have scoured the desert for remains of their husbands fear the brutality of the death squads will be forgotten

‘Every time somebody had a lead … we’d head out into the desert once more.’ Violeta Berríos at her home in the city of Calama, Chile.,Photograph: Cristian Rudolffi/The Guardian

For nearly two decades, Violeta Berríos and Victoria Saavedra scoured Chile’s Atacama desert looking for any trace of their missing loved ones. Each evening as dusk fell across the barren plain, they would pile a few small rocks to mark the extent of their search, then turn back into the gloom empty-handed, agreeing to resume the next day.

In the weeks after Gen Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état deposed the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in September 1973, a Puma helicopter landed in Calama, a dusty mining town in the Atacama. Its passengers were members of a death squad that came to be known as the “Caravan of Death”.

On 19 October, members of the group led 26 young men – who had been beaten and tortured – to a hill on the outskirts of the town and shot them.

Berríos’s husband, Mario Arguelles, a 34-year-old member of Allende’s Socialist party, was among them. The youngest in the group, Saavedra’s brother José, was 18.

Their families were informed the next day but no bodies were ever handed over. Eventually, the relatives took matters into their own hands.

“Every time somebody had a lead – a disturbed patch of earth, some clothing or a bone – we’d head out into the desert once more,” says Berríos, who is now 85. “It became an obsession.”

In the late 1970s, Berríos formed a support group for the families of the victims. They would meet weekly, and attendance only dwindled with the arrival of the pandemic. Nine of the women who lost their husbands have died, and others, like Saavedra, have moved away to other cities.

Soldiers and firefighters carry the body of Salvador Allende, wrapped in a Bolivian poncho, out of La Moneda presidential palace after it was bombed during the coup by Gen Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, Chile, 11 September 1973.

Soldiers and firefighters carry the body of Salvador Allende, wrapped in a Bolivian poncho, out of the presidential palace after it was bombed during the coup by Gen Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, Chile, on 11 September 1973. Photograph: AP

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“I call those 26 men my children,” she says, hauling herself uncomfortably on to a red sofa in the tiny home she once shared with her husband. For years she left the front door unlocked, in case he should ever walk back in.

“I never did all of this just for Mario, I did it for all of them, because they all suffered in the same way. We’re a family.”

Remains of 24 of the men have so far been identified, and Berríos is determined to find the last two before she dies.

As Chile marks the 50th anniversary of the coup on Monday, millions of people still carry the aching horror of violence and loss it unleashed.

The country remains bitterly divided, with little common ground among political parties and factions.

On Sunday the leftist president, Gabriel Boric, led a march attended by the families of the disappeared down the Alameda, one of Santiago’s main thoroughfares, which passes in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda.

Black-hooded protesters attacked the rear of the crowd and pelted the palace with stones. Separately, another group arrived at the Cementerio General and set fire to the tomb of Jaime Guzmán, a conservative former senator who played a major role in sculpting the dictatorship’s 1980 constitution.

Boric and all four living ex-presidents have signed a four-point declaration underlining their commitment to democracy, but Chile’s rightwing parties have refused.

Recognition of the past has also proved thorny.

The park for the preservation of the historical memory of Calama, located 13 kilometers from Calama, Chile

The park for the preservation of the historical memory of Calama, located 13km from Calama, Chile. Photograph: Cristian Rudolffi/The Guardian

“There are people who make fun of these things, or don’t believe things about what we lived through,” said Teresa Berríos, 67.

Teresa, who is not related to Violeta but is a member of her victims’ association, joined the Communist party in her early teens, where she met Carlos Piñero Lucero in Chuquicamata, a tiny mining town near Calama.

She fell in love at once, and she was just 17 when she gave birth to their daughter in 1972.

In September 1973, Teresa was stopped by troops in Chuquicamata and taken to a house for interrogation. The soldiers raped her and several hours later she was dumped out on the street, trembling and terrified. Three weeks later, her husband was shot by the “Caravan of Death”.

“I’ve carried this burden for 50 years,” she says. “The only thing I want is for this never to happen again. Because it did happen. And Chile must not lose its memory.”

Teresa Berríos carries a photograph of her husband, Carlos

Teresa Berríos carries a photograph of her husband, Carlos Photograph: Cristian Rudolffi/The Guardian

Last month, one far-right congresswoman caused uproar when she dismissed the sexual violence systematically perpetrated at a torture centre in Santiago as “urban legend”.

Unlike in several European countries, there is no law in Chile that penalises denial, justification, minimisation or celebration of the serious human rights abuses perpetrated under the dictatorship.

Soldiers supporting the coup led by Gen Pinochet take cover as bombs are dropped on the presidential palace

Soldiers supporting the coup led by Gen Pinochet take cover as bombs are dropped on the presidential palace. Photograph: Enrique Aracena/AP

Earlier this year, lawmakers from Boric’s coalition presented a law in congress that would penalise such denials with prison sentences of up to 61 days.

Yet views on what occurred on 11 September 1973 remain polarised.

At the end of May, a survey by the pollster Mori found that 42% of respondents believed that the coup “destroyed democracy”, while 36% saw it as the moment Chile was “freed from Marxism”.

Among those aged between 18 and 35, the poll found that an alarming 41% said they knew little or nothing about the coup.

“A lot of us were born with fear and things you didn’t talk about,” said Constanza Michelson, a psychoanalyst and writer. “That didn’t go away overnight, and we are still stuck with that. In Chile, memory is tied to the idea of justice and what remains unresolved.”

During the dictatorship, more than 40,175 people were victims of political executions, forced disappearances, political imprisonment or torture. Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 but never served any jail time for his alleged crimes before he died under house arrest in 2006.

The remains of only 307 “disappeared” people have ever been found, with search efforts largely carried out by families of victims, and lingering “pacts of silence” among the perpetrators.

However, on 30 August, Chile’s government announced its national search plan, under which the state will assume responsibility for locating missing victims for the first time.

Alongside the psychological trauma of the Pinochet years, the dictatorship also left behind an economic model, which remains in place.

“The greatest impact of the dictatorship was to impose the neoliberal economic model the US so wanted to see put in place in developing countries,” said the historian Gabriel Salazar. “The Pinochet regime’s socioeconomic model instilled individualism, competitiveness and a lack of trust in Chilean society.”

And despite fitful attempts at reform, the dictatorship-era 1980 constitution, which enshrined the model, remains in place.

Although more than 800 dictatorship-era cases have worked their way through the courts since the return to democracy, many Chileans are still waiting for closure.

A memorial to the missing detainees, located inside the municipal cemetery of Calama

Memorial to the missing detainees, located inside the municipal cemetery of Calama. Photograph: Cristian Rudolffi/The Guardian

One afternoon in 1991, word reached Violeta Berríos that new fragments had been uncovered by the desert wind. She rushed to the site 13km outside Calama, where ribs, skulls and knuckles poked out of the ground.

The judge overseeing the case was furious that the group had gone ahead and excavated without supervision. “But these were our loved ones,” she says. “What were we supposed to do? We just kept digging. We’d finally found them.”

After DNA testing by laboratories in Austria, Berríos was handed a phalange bone, a rib and two bits of tendon belonging to her husband in 2018. Teresa received a tiny fragment of Carlos’s cranium to bury in the cemetery in Calama.

“It’s so hard to think that this is Mario,” Berríos says, holding out an empty palm. “I knew Mario. He had a name. And you’re saying this is him now? That isn’t closure. I can’t accept it.”

The bare earth where the bodies were dumped was eventually ringed by a large concrete memorial in 2004, with a pillar representing each of the 26 victims.

Violeta Berríos at her home in the city of Calama

‘I think it’s my last chance.’ Violeta Berríos at her home in the city of Calama. Photograph: Cristian Rudolffi/The Guardian

But it was not until 2020, after 47 years of aching silence, that eight former soldiers were charged with carrying out the executions by a Santiago court.

The inquest found that the bodies had been moved at least twice, accounting for the disintegration of the brittle skeletons. It assumed that the unidentified bodies had been dumped in the ocean.

The largest trace they have ever found of the 26 men was a femur.

“That’s not justice,” Berríos says. “[The accused soldiers] lived free and in peace for most of their lives alongside their families. Our loved ones were imprisoned, tortured and murdered with their lives ahead of them.

“Of course this isn’t a game of football where you win or lose. But who’s won here? They have.”

The Chilean armed forces declined a request for comment.

In February this year, 89 boxes of human remains were found in a waterlogged basement beneath the University of Chile’s medical faculty. Berríos and her group are hopeful that they could hold the key to finding out where the remaining two members of the 26 are.

“I think it’s my last chance,” she says heavily, lighting a cigarette between trembling fingers. “I need to know where they are before I die. And more importantly, I need others to care too.”