The other 9/11: Chile marks coup's 40th anniversary

In a country still divided over Pinochet and the past, a renewed call for justice

An activist of Chilean Human Rights organization 'Detained and Disappeared People' looks at photos of victims at a ceremony at Villa Grimaldi, which was used as a detention and torture center during the dictatorship (1973-1990) of Augusto Pinochet, in Santiago, on September 10, 2013.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States 12 years ago, that infamous date was synonymous with another assault against democracy: the military coup that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 and installed a brutal 17-year dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.

Chile commemorates the most tragic day of its modern history Wednesday, culminating a week of remembrances dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the coup.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera on Monday, during a visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, criticized the coup but said it was a "predictable outcome" after "violations of the rule of law" under Allende's government.

The center-right leader said he wanted close the "wounds" opened by the Pinochet regime and reaffirmed his government's promise to create "a culture of tolerance and respect for human rights."

"We have to remember," Piñera told local media outlets, "because when we forget, sometimes we commit the same mistakes."

More than 3,200 people were killed or disappeared by the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990. An additional 40,000 people survived political imprisonment and torture. At least 262 people have been sentenced for human rights violations in Chile, according to figures from Amnesty International.

Declassified documents show that the Central Intelligence Agency supported the military coup, with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger playing a key role in the military plot.

Piñera also criticized Chile's judicial system for being complacent about the dictatorship. Last week, Chile's supreme court, in an unprecedented statement, admitted neglect during Pinochet's rule. Supreme Court President Ruben Ballesteros said the court recognizes that "judges did not do enough during the time" and that the Supreme Court "did not exercise any leadership."

Former president Michelle Bachelet, who is running for a second term as president under the center-left New Majority party, on Monday visited Villa Grimaldi, perhaps the most notorious complex used by Pinochet's secret police to interrogate and torture political prisoners.

Bachelet and her mother, Angela Jeria, were tortured at the complex in the weeks following the coup.

"Today I return as a survivor of Villa Grimaldi," Bachelet told the Chilean daily La Tercera. "The families of victims and I hope that we can build a country that's capable of progressing in a more peaceful, just and egalitarian manner."

Bachelet also called for a full investigation into the human rights abuses committed during Pinochet's rule, and an end to impunity, adding that Chileans have a right to find out what happened to all victims.

Bachelet's father, Alberto, likely died of a heart attack following months of torture after being arrested by military forces, according to forensic reports.

Earlier Monday, thousands of protesters, many carrying photos of family members killed or disappeared by the military regime, marched through the streets of Santiago. Upon reaching La Moneda, Chile's presidential palace, roughly 1,000 people laid down on the ground in remembrance of the 1,200 people who were disappeared during the dictatorship.

After the two-hour march, police subdued protesters with tear gas and water cannons.

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