Patricia Verdugo · Patricia del Carmen Verdugo Aguirre, born November 30 1947; died January 13 2008
re-printed from The Guardian of Feb 29, 2008
I have taken the liberty of re-ordering a small portion of the text.
by David Sugarman
Patricia del Carmen Verdugo Aguirre, who has died aged 60 of cancer, was a leading Chilean activist, author and journalist who risked her life investigating, and promoting public awareness of, the human rights crimes of the regime of General Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990. Her meticulous exposés revealed what had previously been ignored or denied in Chile, and helped to pave the way for judicial proceedings against the former dictator and his henchmen.
In her last years, Verdugo was rewriting De la Tortura NO Se Habla for a younger audience, hoping that it would be used as part of the school curriculum. Her books were widely translated, and her numerous awards included, in 1993, the María Moors Cabot prize, the highest accolade a foreign journalist can receive in the US.
Small in stature, but huge in personality, she was vivacious, charismatic and had a wry sense of humour. She generously allowed me to interview her on several occasions for my books on the struggle to bring Pinochet to justice. She is survived by two sons; her first two children died in infancy.
She sought to ease the traumas of the victims, to help Chileans exorcise the widespread fear that became endemic from the early 1970s, and promote the transition to a fully-fledged democracy characterised by a vibrant public sphere and respect for human rights and Chile’s diversity. “The important thing today,” she told me, “is that these values are passed on to this nation’s youth.”
Of Verdugo’s 10 books, it was the fourth, Los Zarpazos del Puma (The Claws of the Puma, 1989) that became her most influential work – and the most important single example of Chilean investigative journalism to make a difference. It recounts the extra-judicial murder of 75 prisoners by the so-called “caravan of death”, a military unit that travelled the country in a Puma helicopter in October and November 1973, following the coup.
Drawing on wide-ranging evidence, including the testimony of local military commanders, Verdugo uncovered the connection between the cluster of deaths, and found a paper trail that directly linked Pinochet, who ordered the mission, to the crimes committed by his agents. The book, Chile’s all-time bestseller, sold more than 100,000 copies. From 1998, it formed the basis of the first Chilean criminal investigation pursued against Pinochet himself.
Brought up in a solid, middle-class family in Santiago, Verdugo was a precocious child, who reputedly was writing by her third birthday. At her school, the Lyceum 9, she experienced living with people of different social classes, and acquired a taste for student activism. She continued in this vein when studying journalism at the Catholic University of Chile.
When I first interviewed her in 2000, she explained: “I was 16 years old during the 1964 presidential campaign [which brought Eduardo Frei’s reforming Christian Democrats to power with an absolute majority]. With my younger brothers, we went out to stick posters on the poles. There was no fear. We met other children doing the same thing but for other candidates. And we laughed. There was no violence.”
She was deeply traumatised by the abduction in 1976 of her father Sergio, a union leader and Christian Democrat, whose body was found in the Mapocho river, where many of those murdered by the dictatorship were dumped. Confronted with official denial and family scepticism, she overcame her sense of powerlessness and conducted an exhaustive, 20-year inquiry into his assassination. Her 1999 book Bucarest 187 (the address from which he disappeared) was born of this dogged determination. Her research demonstrated how his death had been ordered by an admiral for political reasons; and that he died during “submarine torture”, where the head was repeatedly forced into a container of liquid. Written without hate, it is an outstanding book on the history of the dictatorship.
Shortly after the Pinochet coup in September 1973, Verdugo joined the staff of Ercilla, Chile’s leading centrist magazine, and one of the few periodicals that had remained in circulation. But critical journalism was severely limited. Manuscripts were censored, phones were tapped, and harassment, closure and interruption were everyday occurrences.
During 1974-75 Ercilla adopted a more sceptical tone as its journalists turned into an art form the use of suggestive information and questions to render silences eloquent. A backlash was inevitable. Junta pressure undermined its independence and, in January 1977, Ercilla’s inspirational director, Emilio Filipi, and his reporters, resigned. When Verdugo and Filipi co-founded the magazine Hoy (Today), committed to “truth without compromise”, the junta backed away from outright prohibition, fearing that this would reflect badly on them. Hoy soon became established as Chile’s premier magazine, and an important voice for counter-official truth. Verdugo remained one of its leading writers until 1990.
She went on to contribute to many other critical magazines and, in recent years, freelanced for the national television station and La Segunda newspaper. She also taught at the University of Chile’s school of journalism. Throughout much of her life, she worked with women’s groups to improve their position in Chile’s macho society.
Her first book, Detenidos – Desaparecidos: Una Herida Abierta (The Detained and Disappeared: An Open Wound), co-authored with Claudio Orrego, analysed evidence that directly linked the Pinochet regime to human rights crimes. It first appeared in 1980, at the height of a junta-inspired effort to silence opposition views. Publication was deferred indefinitely when government officials “lost” the manuscript and were therefore unable to approve it. It none the less had a huge impact, circulating clandestinely until the abolition of censorship in 1983.
Her next book, André de La Victoria (André from La Victoria, 1985), devastatingly documented the death of André Jarlan, a priest who died in a hail of bullets when police shot at the parish house in the working-class district of La Victoria during the suppression of an opposition demonstration. In a symbol of solidarity, Verdugo gave away hundreds of copies of the book to the brutalised locals. Quemados Vivos (They Burned Alive, 1986) told the story of two young men caught by soldiers who sprayed them with petrol and set them on fire.
There was an additional controversy around The Claws of the Puma when General Arellano Stark, named in the book as Pinochet’s official personal commander of the death squad, sued Verdugo for libel. The Chilean courts threw out the case, declaring that it had “no merit”. But following its publication, the incessant threats against her subsided – the dictatorship could not risk another high-profile assassination.
In 1999, Judge Juan Guzmán, Pinochet’s Chilean nemesis, indicted the five army officers who led the caravan of death, and soon after Pinochet’s return from London, where he had been placed under house arrest pending an unsuccessful attempt by Spanish lawyers to extradite him for murder, Guzmán ruled that there were sufficient grounds to revoke his senatorial immunity. This, in turn, enabled Guzmán to indict the former dictator in January 2001; while he escaped conviction on health grounds, many of his subordinates did not. An English edition of Verdugo’s book – Chile, Pinochet and the Caravan of Death (2001) – updated and expanded the original. Guzmán told me that it had proved indispensable, and it is now compulsory reading for students at the military school.
Verdugo’s next book, Operación Siglo XX (Operation Twentieth Century, 1990) told the story of the attempt to assassinate Pinochet in 1986, and the repression and reprisals that ensued. The book was co-authored with the distinguished human rights lawyer Carmen Hertz, who represented many of the complainants in the caravan of death case. Among Pinochetistas, it was an article of faith that Pinochet’s rise to power was, if not an act of God, then at least one of selfless duty. Verdugo challenged this on several fronts, thereby contributing to a diminution of Pinochet’s standing, even among his core supporters.
On the 25th anniversary of the coup, she published another bestseller, Interferencia Secreta (Secret Telephone Tapping, 1998). This includes an annotated transcript of secretly recorded radio conversations between Pinochet and his fellow officers during the attack on the presidential palace on September 11 1973. The exchanges demonstrate that even confronted with a besieged and defeated enemy, they were intent on waging an “invented war” without mercy.
In Allende: Cómo la Casa Blanca Provocó Su Muerte (Allende: How the White House Led to His Death, 2005), drawing on documents declassified by the Clinton adminstration in Washington, Verdugo detailed the active American role in aiding and abetting the downfall of President Salvador Allende and its covert support of the Pinochet dictatorship, which had been airbrushed out of the Pinochetista version of history.
Despite 15 years of democratic government, Chile had failed to recognise and provide remedies for the torture victims of the dictatorship In. her final book, Verdugo attempted to break this silence. She was inspired by the 2001 case of the political scientist, Felipe Agüero, who after 30 years, publicly named his torturer. Verdugo focused on Agüero’s case to illustrate the suffering of thousands of political prisoners. “We are creating a very ethically deficient country … We need to distinguish good from evil,” she said. She brought together a group of psychologists, political scientists, lawyers, sociologists and human rights activists to convert torture into a moot rather than mute subject with De la Tortura NO Se Habla (2004) (Torture Isn’t Talked About).
This edited collection demonstrated that the use of torture by the dictatorship was systematic and generalised. The book prefigured the findings of a national commission created by President Ricardo Lagos which, in November 2004, established that agents of the Pinochet regime were responsible for at least 28,000 cases of torture, and that torture was state policy and commonplace for political detainees.