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A human rights mystery is solved in Chile

Details emerge about a Pinochet-era murder.

NEW YORK — A Chilean court has uncovered the gruesome details surrounding the death of one of Latin America’s most famous human rights victims, the folk singer Victor Jara. A 4,500-word account of the singer’s death was published last week by the Chilean investigative journalism site CIPER, the day before the court announced murder charges against a former soldier who confessed to participating in the brutal killing in 1973.

The case attracted international attention after the military coup in September 1973 that brought Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to power and overthrew the elected government of Socialist president Salvador Allende. Victor Jara was a leading figure in the flourishing cultural scene during Allende’s 1,000-day presidency from 1970 to 1973. He was a theater director, poet and guitarist whose numerous songs became icons of the Latin American Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Jara was detained with other leftist activists at a Chilean university the day after the Sept. 11 military coup. His bullet-riddled body was found in the morgue four days later. The CIPER account, based on the court’s interrogation of soldiers at the detention center where Jara was held, described the brutal torture to which the folk singer was submitted, and the details of his execution in an interrogation cell. It also tells the story of a valiant government worker who discovered Jara’s body and prevented it from being buried anonymously in a mass grave.

The soldier, Jose Alfonso Paredes Marquez, was an 18-year-old army draftee assigned to guard prisoners in the Chile Stadium, a Santiago sports and performance arena that had been turned into a makeshift prison holding several thousand prisoners. He said Jara was among 15 prisoners brought to an interrogation room in the basement of the stadium. Paredes said he and other soldiers recognized Jara, who had already been severely beaten.

He said a second lieutenant, who was not identified in the court documents, singled out Jara and began to play Russian Roulette, pointing his pistol at Jara’s head and pulling the trigger until it fired. Paredes said Jara fell writhing to the floor. The second lieutenant ordered Paredes and the other guards to fire their weapons at the body to finish the execution. When Jara’s body was eventually found, it had 44 bullet wounds.

The guards were then ordered to shoot all of the remaining prisoners who had witnessed Jara’s execution. The soldiers loaded the bodies in a truck and dumped them on various Santiago streets after curfew.

The court documents cited by CIPER, the first to be based on soldiers' confessions, confirmed an important detail about Jara’s torment that became part of the lore of accounts of the Pinochet dictatorship: Prior to Jara’s death, soldiers smashed the famous guitarist’s hands with rifle butts, leaving them mangled and broken.