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The Soldiers Who Set Two Chilean Protesters on Fire in 1986 Will Finally Face Charges

Twelve former soldiers in Chile's military will face justice after the infamous 1986 immolation case was reopened upon a break in Chilean ex soldiers' "code of silence."

by Nicolás Ríos
Jul 29 2015, 6:36pm

Imagen Luis Hidalgo/AP

Twelve former Chilean soldiers are under arrest and facing charges for setting two young demonstrators on fire during a 1986 protest against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The charges came after Fernando Guzman, an ex soldier who participated in the attack, broke the Chilean military's unofficial "code of silence" regarding past crimes in the dictatorship, and told a judge last week that soldiers were ordered by senior officers to attack and burn the two victims.

Facing the new revelations on "Caso Quemados," as the case is known in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet this week called on the country's military to be transparent with ongoing inquiries into human rights violations carried out during the dictatorship.

Pinochet ruled the South American country between 1973 and 1990, and the case remains a source of anger and disgust in Chilean society to this day.

"I want to reaffirm the calling for those who have information: enough with the silence," Bachelet said on Monday, touching a subject painfully close to her, since she was also detained and tortured by the military regime.

Related: Two Student Demonstrators Shot to Death in Education Protests in Chile

Carmen Gloria Quintana leaves a tribute for Rodrigo Rojas in Santiago on Tuesday, July 28. (Photo by Luis Hidalgo/AP)

During a national strike on July 2, 1986, Carmen Gloria Quintana, then a student, and Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, a photographer, were on their way to a demonstration in Santiago when they were ambushed by military patrol cars.

Soldiers beat the pair before pouring a flammable liquid over them and lighting them on fire. Rojas died of his burns, and Quintana was disfigured.

According to the official account of the events, the two young people were carrying Molotov cocktails, which unexpectedly exploded, causing their injuries. Some hours after the soldiers attacked, the pair were found lying in an irrigation channel in the city's outskirts. Rojas, who had American citizenship, died of his injuries four days later.

'Someone began to pour benzene all over me.' 

Pinochet, who died in 2006, addressed the immolation at the time.

"It's very odd that the jacket the young man wore was not burned on its outer side. The burn was on the inside. It gives me the idea that maybe he was hiding something, it exploded, and he got burned," Pinochet said in a radio interview in 1986.

The "Caso Quemados" incident remained dormant for years, after Chile's justice system closed it in 1993 yielding just one arrest. But on Wednesday, Quintana filed a lawsuit against those responsible for the crime that left her with a severely scarred face.

"We are extending this process to reach all of the existing armed forces' institutional policies that conceal crimes against humanity," Quintana said while she presented the lawsuit.

In a brief interview with VICE News on Tuesday, she recalled how the attack played out.

"They beat us up. Then, they turned me around and someone began to pour benzene all over me. They also sprayed Rodrigo, who was lying on the ground," Quintana said. "In that moment there were two patrol cars, and a third one arrived, adding up to thirty soldiers around us, who then threw fire at us."

Related: Chile's Bachelet 'Redirects Attention' From Corruption Scandals With Call For a New Constitution

In recent days, Chilean police made arrests of the aging ex soldiers in their homes. Another former soldier, Pedro Franco Rivas, also broke his silence and said publicly he was forced to lie about the incident. According to Rivas, the military took all of those involved to a base and hired a team of lawyers to make up the versions of the incident that they would later tell.

Veronica de Negri, mother of the dead American photographer, told VICE News on Tuesday that she expected more arrests in the future.

"I expect new confessions to be made, that the soldiers keep breaking the pact of silence," she said. "My dream is that the highest military officials will be brought to justice. Let's not forget that more than thirty soldiers took part in the event, and half of them are still free."

The reopening of the case came as a notorious member of the regime, of Manuel Contreras, is in delicate health in prison, sparking speculation that he may soon die.

Although unrelated to the 1986 case, Contreras, the former chief of intelligence for Pinochet, is considered one of the dictatorship's worst criminals. He has been sentenced to 505 years in prison for several crimes, including the 1976 bombing assassination of a minister at the Chilean embassy in Washington DC.

Related: Chile Braced for Unrest on Anniversary of Pinochet Coup

Follow Nicolas Rios on Twitter: @nicorios