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Survivors of Chile’s Dictatorship Celebrate Death of ‘Bloodthirsty’ Former Spy Chief

Manuel Contreras "was one of the biggest criminals in history," said one survivor of the Pinochet regime who celebrated with crowds in Santiago upon hearing news of the former spy chief's passing.
August 11, 2015, 12:17am
Imagen por Luis Hidalgo/AP

The Chilean spy held responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Chile's dictatorship was buried on Saturday in Santiago, closing a dark chapter for tens of thousands of people who were unjustly imprisoned, tortured, or executed during the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Manuel Contreras, who headed the once-feared spy agency known as DINA — which kidnapped, tortured and killed scores of civilians during Chile's military dictatorship — died late Friday at a military hospital while serving a combined sentence of 520 years for crimes against humanity.

The 86-year-old former spy had been hospitalized in September 2014 for kidney problems, and his condition worsened gradually since. Contreras' body was cremated Saturday, one day after his death, while his remains were interred in a private ceremony.

A crowd of several dozen people gathered outside the Santiago hospital waving Chilean flags after the death was confirmed by the national prison service. They broke into chants of "Murderer!" and toasted with champagne in paper cups.

However, other Chileans sympathize with the military dictatorship.

"He was one of the biggest criminals in history, one of the most bloodthirsty," Lorena Pizarro, president of a group of detained and disappeared relatives, told VICE News. "Around him there's only pain and tragedy, but also a lot of cowardice, because he never recognized his crimes."

Pizarro's father, Waldo Pizarro, and her father-in-law were detained and disappeared by the DINA while Contreras was its leader. But he did not answer for those crimes.

"He should have faced his sentence like any other criminal, not will all those benefits," Pizarro said, referring to special accommodations in prison for Contreras and other former officers of the dictatorship.

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

Manuel Contreras, center, being escorted by Santiago police in 2005. (File photo via AP)

Born on May 4, 1929, in Santiago, Contreras was a career military man who also helped organize Operation Condor, a coordinated effort formed in the mid-1970s by South America's dictatorships to eliminate dissidents who sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Contreras was among Pinochet's closest confidants early on, but the pair exchanged accusations in their final years. While Contreras alleged his former boss amassed a fortune trafficking drugs to Europe, Pinochet accused the spy chief of acting without his consent in committing the era's worst abuses.

According to an official report, 40,018 people were imprisoned, tortured or slain during the dictatorship, which began after the September 11, 1973 military coup that removed socialist Salvador Allende from power.

Chile's government estimates that 3,095 people were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly "disappeared."

"Yesterday, one of the darkest characters in our history died. He was responsible of crimes, and serious human rights violations in our country," read Chile's unsigned government statement on Contreras's death.

Defending the dictatorship

However, not all Chileans celebrated the former intelligence chief's death, especially those who sympathize with the Pinochet era, like the September 11 association, a group that defends the dictatorship.

"He was a man who gave it all for this country. They make him look like a criminal, like a murderer. But the next generations will realize the truth and he will be remembered as a hero," Juan Gonzalez, president of the September 11 group, told VICE News.

Most of the disappearances occurred during the dictatorship's early years, when Contreras was head of intelligence. His prominence in Pinochet's government waned after the United States sought to extradite him for involvement in the 1976 bombing assassination in Washington DC of Orlando Letelier, who had been defense and foreign relations minister under Allende.

Chile's Supreme Court blocked the extradition, but Pinochet removed Contreras from his post under US pressure and dismantled and replaced DINA. After Chile returned to democracy in 1990, Contreras was indicted in the Letelier case and eventually served seven years for the assassination. He always denied responsibility and blamed the CIA for the bombing.

Contreras was also convicted in the 1974 bombing death of Gen. Carlos Prats, Pinochet's predecessor as army commander, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but hundreds of other cases were still pending against him.

Related: Former Dictator of Guatemala Ruled Mentally Unfit to Face Retrial for War Crimes

Contreras once threatened to open a trunkful of documents that he said would incriminate military officials from Pinochet on down, but never made good on the promise. Other unproven claims included his assertion that 12,000 foreign rebels were in Chile when the coup occurred, and that numerous missing political prisoners were in fact still alive, living under new identities.

In later years, he alleged that Pinochet used an army chemical plant to produce cocaine that was sold abroad and he said drugs and arms trafficking were the main source of the $27 million that the dictator held in secret bank accounts abroad. Pinochet denied the charges and called Contreras a liar.

Because of his poor health and mild dementia, Pinochet avoided trial for abuses by being declared unfit to face charges. He died in 2006.

But there was no escape for Contreras, who police had to shield from hundreds of angry demonstrators pelting him with eggs, fruit and plastic bottles in 2004 as he was taken away to serve a 12-year sentence for the killing and disappearance of leftist Miguel Angel Sandoval.

Contreras mocked prison guards, saying they were only there 'to hold his cane.'

Starting in 2005, Contreras served time in Cordillera, a luxury prison for dictatorship-era officials convicted of crimes against humanity. The government for years was under pressure to shut down the prison, which had tennis courts, barbecues, and a swimming pool for its prisoners.

The prison finally was closed under President Sebastian Pinera's government in 2013, after Contreras gave an interview inside Cordillera ahead of the 40th anniversary of the military coup. Contreras mocked prison guards, saying they were only there "to hold his cane," and claimed that all of the thousands of disappeared during the dictatorship were armed leftists killed in gunfights.

"The impunity that happened here has to stop. Special prisons were built for the military, and they were allowed to keep their status," Pizarro said.

Both Contreras and Pinochet were buried in their formal military garments, and were never demoted by the military.

Once Contreras died, only a handful of close relatives attended his burial.

"It's paradoxical that his family knows the location of his remains, when he stopped many Chileans from knowing the same thing," Mahmud Aleuy, vice minister of interior, told the AP.

Related: Subway Bombing in Chile Provokes Fears Ahead of Coup Anniversary

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Nicolas Rios on Twitter: @nicorios