Ricardo Tobar, a former Chilean navy petty officer, talks to EFE in Santiago on 10 July 2023. EFE/Ailen Diaz

Chilean sailors tortured for opposing ’73 coup wait for justice

Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

A view of navy headquarters in Valparaiso, Chile, on 18 July 2023 . EFE/Adriana Thomasa

Santiago, Aug 2 (EFE).- Dozens of Chilean sailors who tried to prevent the coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in September 1973 continue to demand recompense for the torture and imprisonment they endured for their stand in favor of democracy and the constitution.

Naval vessels docked in Valparaiso, Chile, on 18 July 2023. EFE/Adriana Thomasa

“We were in the concentration camp until May of 1974. Until then, our families didn’t even know if we were alive,” former Petty Officer Ricardo Tobar recounted to EFE.

“The brutality with which they treated us was terrible. Afterward we went to prison to serve the sentences the armed forces imposed on us,” he said.

Tobar and his comrades were accused of belonging to a “subversive” movement within the navy for their efforts to alert the government of President Salvador Allende to coup-plotting by the military brass.

The approach of the 50th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1973, putsch brings back painful memories for Tobar.

“After decades, you re-live everything that happened. In my case, I am receiving psychological attention for night terrors. Sleep is hard for me,” he said.

“We are healing thanks to the struggle for justice, though for now it’s a failure, because we have not achieved anything,” Tobar adds.

Historian Jorge Magasich said that in 1973, most naval officers were “extreme right” and sympathetic to the idea of a coup, while the majority of the lower ranks either supported Allende’s Socialist government or identified as “constitutionalists.”

“From Salvador Allende’s victory in 1970, acts contrary to the government increased among the officers,” he told EFE.

In mid-1973, Tobar and his comrades stationed in the port city of Valparaiso, the site of navy headquarters, came to believe that the military intended to move against Allende on Aug. 8 and they relayed their suspicions to representatives of leftist parties.

Though Aug. 8 came and went without a coup, Magasich said that the threat of a military uprising on that day was real.

The naval high command ordered the anti-coup sailors arrested to prevent their posing resistance when the actual putsch came in September.

Many of the sailors were locked up at the prison in Valparaiso, which would become a center of systematic torture in the weeks following Sept. 11.

“There were civilians among the detainees. Professionals, physicians, who helped us psychologically to restore our morale after the abuses. It was terrible,” Tobar said.

One day, he said, “they put us up against the wall and fired guns and one didn’t know if one was alive or dead.”

The sailors, according to Magasich, were tortured to confess to involvement in a non-existent plan by the Allende government to abolish democracy.

“It was an invention to justify the military mutiny in September,” the historian said.

For the last 15 years, the sailors have been pursuing their tormentors through the legal system, but the process is slow and the elderly defendants may escape justice as a result of “biological impunity,” plaintiffs’ counsel Magdalena Garces told EFE.

“The navy has been difficult to investigate,” she said. “They have always protected their people. Besides, this case is politically complicated, because it certifies that they began the systemic torture against their own people under democracy.”

While Tobar wants the Chilean state to acknowledge the wrong done to him and the other sailors, he also wants “concrete” reparations.

“We were expelled from our military careers when we were on a good path. Recognizing the maximum rank we would have reached, and have payment commensurate with that position, would be a way of doing justice,” he said.

EFE ima/dr