“This is different from Argentina,” a Chilean human rights lawyer told us in Santiago in the week before the Pope’s dramatic visit in early April. In Argentina, he said, thousands were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the military dictatorship during the late 1970s. The “disappeared,” and members of their families who were denied information on their whereabouts and their fate, suffered acutely. But only a small minority of Argentines had direct experience of the repression, and many were largely oblivious of the cruel practices of the dictatorship.
In Chile the number of people murdered by the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1977—in the military regime’s first and most unrestrained stage—was comparable to the number killed in Argentina later in the decade. What is different about Chile, the lawyer said, is the scale: in a country of about twelve million people, hundreds of thousands have been arrested in political cases, and many of them have been severely tortured during detention; scores of thousands have had their homes invaded by troops conducting house-to-house searches, and many have had their possessions destroyed in the process. Tens of thousands have spent years in exile for political reasons—that is, they didn’t just flee but they were banished from their country, or prohibited from reentering it. Untold numbers, moreover, have been shoved, kicked, bludgeoned, tear-gassed, or drenched by water cannons during street demonstrations or during aggressive patrols in city neighborhoods that are considered hostile to the regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
In the proportion of its population that has been directly victimized, Chile resembles the ravaged nations of Central America more than it resembles Argentina. But, of course, Chile is also quite different from those countries. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been fighting wars during the past decade. But in the thirteen and a half years since the military coup led by General Pinochet, opposition to his rule has been largely nonviolent. It is true that a small armed group seeking the violent overthrow of the Pinochet regime emerged some three years ago; Pinochet has tried to suggest that many of his political opponents are linked to this violent movement. But the only real war in Chile has been between the armed forces and peaceful and unarmed citizens.
Of all the methods of repression practiced in Chile, perhaps none so clearly reveals the characteristics of a government at war with its own citizens as the allanamiento. An allanamiento is a raid on a poor or working-class neighborhood (a población) of Santiago or another city. Troops go from house to house (or from shack to shack in the poorer poblaciones) and pull out all the male occupants between the ages of about sixteen and sixty. Usually starting before dawn the raids are announced by the sound of low-flying helicopters overhead. Troops who take part include units from several different branches of the armed and police forces—apparently in an effort to ensure that each component of the military regime …