Rescue May Redeem a Troubled Past for Chilean City
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: October 14, 2010
Elizabeth Espejo visita las tumbas de Copiapó de las víctimas de la Caravana de la Muerte, muerte del general Augusto Pinochet en 1973.
Por SIMON ROMERO
Publicado: 14 de octubre 2010COPIAPÓ, Chile — Though the vuvuzelas have quieted down, this desert city is still basking in the daring rescue of the 33 men trapped deep in a copper and gold mine nearby for more than two months. And for some, the triumph was a striking contrast to another set of events here in Copiapó — also involving its miners — from a much darker time in Chile’s history.
Por SIMON ROMERO
Publicado: 14 de octubre 2010
Copiapó, Chile - A pesar de las vuvuzelas han calmado, esta ciudad del desierto sigue siendo el sol en el audaz rescate de los 33 hombres atrapados en una profunda mina de cobre y oro de las inmediaciones durante más de dos meses. Y para algunas personas aquí, el triunfo fue un contraste con otra serie de eventos aquí en Copiapó - también afecten a sus mineros - de una época mucho más oscura en la historia de Chile.The year was 1973, in the weeks after the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet that ended the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. In the predawn hours of Oct. 17, 1973 — 37 years before the mine rescue, almost to the day — military personnel murdered 16 men near here, including some who worked for Chile’s state mining company.
A squad operating under Brig. Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark executed the men using weapons that included military knives called corvos. Altogether, the unit, which came to be called the Caravan of Death, killed more than 70 Chileans suspected of leftist activities that month.
The murders are now etched in the country’s memory, after a judge in Chile charged General Arellano Stark and several other officers with the killings in 1999. The judge later stripped General Pinochet of immunity from prosecution in connection with the murders and indicted him. General Pinochet died in 2006 at the age of 91 while battling humans-rights charges, including some related to the Copiapó killings.
“What was once a place of tragedy is now a place of hope,” said Mark Ensalaco, a human rights scholar who specializes in Chile at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “What a difference a democracy makes.”
For the relatives of those killed by the Caravan of Death, which flew from city to city on Puma helicopters to carry out the killings using powers that General Pinochet given it under martial law, the rescue of the miners this week shows how much Chile has evolved since General Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990.
“The experience with the 33 miners made us relive every moment,” said Angélica Palleras, 56, a photographer whose brother, Alfonso, was murdered here 37 years ago. “Finding them alive and then rescuing them was like finding my brother again.”
Agustín Villarroel, a saltpeter miner affiliated with the Communist Party, was also killed by General Pinochet’s caravan. He was removed from a prison in Tocopilla, in another part of northern Chile, and taken by truck to the hills with dozens of other political prisoners.
Soldiers killed them and dumped their bodies in a mine there. In 1990, with the return of democracy, the government recovered the remains of four of the victims, including those of Mr. Villarroel.
“The mine rescue this week was so similar to how we rescued our relatives,” said his son, Rodolfo Villarroel, 42, a civil servant here in Copiapó. “They were also down a 600-meter-deep open pit. The only difference is that we didn’t use a capsule to lift their remains. We used a bucket for the few bones we could find.”
The scene this week was much more uplifting. Even before all the miners were rescued, crowds of flag-waving, cheering residents gathered in the main plaza of this city, preparing for the moment when the last of the 33 miners reached the surface.
A stage had been set up for musical performances, and the plaza was decorated with lights and colored garlands. Local newspapers reported that Mayor Maglio Cicardini had even promised to declare the 33 miners honorary citizens of the city, where most of them were later hospitalized.
Residents applauded when ambulances carrying the miners passed by on their way to the hospital. Others cheered at the hospital entrance as each miner was brought in.
Classes in public schools in Copiapó were suspended Wednesday because most children and their families stayed up late to watch the rescue operations — though not everyone got a pass.
“My boss wouldn’t give me leave to go to the mine or even go to the hospital to visit my brother today; I saw everything on TV,” María Rojas — the sister of one miner, Pablo Rojas, and a cousin of another, Esteban Rojas — said Wednesday. “I skipped lunch today so I wouldn’t miss anything on TV.”
But the emotional reactions to the rescue still mingled with memories of the massacre, and Chile’s political shifts over the years served as a backdrop.
President Sebastián Piñera, a conservative billionaire, is the first right-wing leader the country has had in the 20 years since General Pinochet left power, and the nation’s past complicates the way he is viewed here.
“March 11, 2010, the right wing is back at the scene of the crime,” reads a line of graffiti on one of Copiapó’s walls, referring to Mr. Piñera’s inauguration date — presumably spray-painted before his popularity was bolstered by the rescue.
Despite the broad admiration here for the handling of the rescue by Mr. Piñera’s government, some here noted that those responsible for the killings in 1973 had not answered for their crime. In 2008, a judge allowed General Arellano Stark, long retired (who is now 89), to go into medical observation instead of starting a six-year prison sentence, after his lawyers argued that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Relatives of the victims have planned a procession to take place in Copiapó this weekend, making its way from the city’s cathedral to the cemetery.
“It is our historical duty to keep this memory alive,” said Ms. Palleras, the photographer, “and to dishonor the officers responsible for these crimes.”