The Savage Detectives

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In the early ‘90s the PDI (Police Investigation Department) opened up a small unit, the Homicide Squad, to trace and pursue civilians and military personnel involved in crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. In her latest book Cazar el Cazador (“Hunting the Hunter”) the journalist Pascale Bonnefoy tells the story of the unit that caught Manuel Contreras, Osvaldo Romo and Eugenio Berríos, among others. It’s a fascinating and little-known angle on the Chilean transition to democracy.

By Diego Zúñiga
Photos: Alejandra Fuenzalida

They were nervous.

It was raining in droves as they arrived in Puerto Montt that 17 September 1991. They had one aim: to arrest the retired General Manuel Contreras, Mamo, ex-director of the DINA, who at the time, when the transition to democracy was still recent, had a lot of power. Which is why they were nervous.

Manuel Contreras junto a Augusto Pinochet.
Crédito: Alejandro Hoppe

They were a group of detectives from the Homicide Squad who had been told about the operation that morning: they were to travel to Puerto Montt and take a car to Contreras’ estate in Fresia, 70kim away. He was wanted for the murder of the ex-Chancellor, Orlando Letelier.

But it wouldn’t be an easy job. There were many informants along the way and the previous night they’d had to proceed extremely carefully just to be able to confirm that Contreras was even at home.

He’d be detained the next day.

But the details of the operation wouldn’t be in the press. It all took place under a cover of silence, an uncomfortable silence from the moment that, on the 18th September 1991, the detectives entered Contreras’ estate, escorted by soldiers armed with AKAs – soldiers who were ordered to protect the ex-director of the DINA.

The conversation with Contreras was tense. He was defensive and his tone of voice became increasingly defiant: “I’m not going with you”, he said, “I’ll go how I want to (…) I’ve already informed General Pinochet that I’ll leave here tomorrow morning at 8”.

The detectives gave in to Contreras’ demands, and the next day he travelled by car to Santiago, accompanied by members of the Homicide Squad.

Mission accomplished.

That was the beginning of a story about a group of detectives who would hunt down the civilians and military personnel linked to the crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship years. It’s a story that played out in the shadows, far from media attention, about a small group of anonymous men who caught, among others, Miguel Estay Reyno (“Fanta”), Eugenio Berríos and Osvaldo Romo. A little-known story that took place during the transition to democracy, it is at the heart of Cazar el Cazador, a surprising and rigorous investigation by the journalist and professor at the Institute of Communication and the Moving Image (ICEI), Universidad de Chile, Pascale Bonnefoy (1964), published a few months ago in Debate.

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“I was looking for a subject for a book and I wanted to move away a bit from human rights issues. I’d researched and written about that, looked at it from lots of different angles. I like history, subjects that are historical, and then this came up: for many years I’d been going to declare to the Human Rights Unit for a variety of different causes, because of research I’d done, so I knew all about this group of detectives and the work they do”, says Pascale Bonnefoy, sitting in her office at the ICEI, where she’s head of the School of Journalism.

She was thinking about it, looking for a subject for a book, and the subject was right there in front of her.

“My idea had originally been to do a portrait of the actual squad and what they do. But, as I’m rigorous in my research, I went back to the beginning and discovered not only the origins of the actual squad, but it also made me re-read the whole transition to democracy seen through the lens of the Police Investigations Squad, which was fascinating. It was really interesting to see the “B” side of the transition”, explains Bonnefoy, who has for many years written about Chile’s recent history. In 2005 she published Terrorismo de Estadio. Prisioneros de guerra en un campo de deportes (“Stadium Terrorism: Prisoners of War in a Sports Stadium”), an investigation which won her the award Escrituras de la Memoria from the CNCA, and which was extended and re-edited in 2016.

In some ways her life is defined by the 1973 military. She was living in the US at the time as her father was legal advisor for the nationalization of the copper industry at the Chilean Embassy during the Allende government.

“When companies started to sue the Chilean state my father was sent as legal advisor to defend the Chilean state. We were there when the coup happened and we stayed there. Relatives of ours were tortured, taken prisoner, or exiled”, remembers Bonnefoy, who returned to Chile in 1986 and soon started to work at the Chilean Commission for Human Rights. She’d studied international relations, she gave English classes and she was drawn to journalism. Whilst living in the US she’d subscribed to a South American magazine which she continued to receive once she was in Chile. And one day, without daring to hope too much, she thought: “I’m in Chile, I’ll write something about the country and send it to them”.

Which was how Pascale Bonnefoy’s career in journalism began.

She wrote one article, then another and another, until one day she decided to study journalism.

These unexpected beginnings marked her professional career, and while she has written extensively in the Chilean press (La Nación Domingo, El Periodista, El Mostrador, Contacto) she is above all known for her writing in international publications. She has collaborated with The Washington Post, researched and produced foreign documentaries and TV programs, and today she is the assistant correspondent for the regional office of The New York Times, where she writes regularly. Her latest text was published at the end of March, an article about the eleven soldiers condemned in the Rodrigo Rojas de Negri case.

“I think that nowadays human rights issues are mainly covered in books, and there’s not so much interest in the media of any kind. There’s a frivolity in how the press treats the subject; it’s all old-hat to them. It’s treated as just another subject, but it isn’t: it’s a drama,” explains Bonnefoy. “Unless it makes a big splash it’s considered something that’s part of the past. But there are millions of stories that haven’t been heard. Think about it, there are lots of agents and torturers out and about in the city, in rural areas and villages, living anonymously, which shows that it’s a subject that hasn’t been resolved. In fact, it’s not even something we can call historical, because it’s very much in the present”.

Pascale Bonnefoy began research into the book in 2015. A key meeting was interviewing Luis Henríquez Seguel, a detective who was at the Moneda Palace when it was bombed on 11 September 1973. He was one of the PDI officers in charge of protecting the president, one of the seventeen who stayed as a bodyguard to Allende, following orders from their superior. After the coup he was moved from job to job at the department, until in 1990 he was asked to join Department V of Internal Affairs at the PDI, to look into questions of corruption and discipline at the PDI as the government knew that the help of the PDI would be essential for the transition to democracy. But first they had to clean the place out. In some ways this was the beginning of the unit that would investigate human rights issues.

“It was very important to meet with Luis Henríquez and Nelson Jofré (who were the lead detectives in this story), because they could tell me about other detectives of that period, and I could reconstruct everything. They were a group of very special individuals, kind and really interested in helping, they wanted the story to get out because they were proud of what they’d done and they know their work hasn’t been recognized. They’re modest about having just done their duty, but what they did was important and they took risks to their own safety and that of their families”.

As well as interviewing the detectives and other people who were politically important at the time, Bonnefoy had access to a lot of police documentation, which helped confirm the different stories from their sources and to build the complex political and social background of those years.

Cazar el Cazador is not only a careful investigation into a group of detectives who captured some of the most brutal torturers and accomplices of the dictatorship – and at the same time fascinating material that seems taken straight from film and TV –, it’s also a stunning reconstruction of the 90s in Chile, and a unique perspective on the transition to democracy, because while this small group of detectives was investigating into the activities of the PDI during the dictatorship – investigating their colleagues and bosses – Patricio Alwyn and his government were planning a strategy for bringing human rights violations to justice. These detectives would play a key part in that strategy, especially in counterbalancing the power that the army still had and used to harass the detectives relentlessly throughout the process.

“Almost everyone – or most people – thought that human rights crimes started to be prosecuted from 2000 onwards, or after the detention of Pinochet in London, but I show the opposite, that is, I’m writing up until Pinochet’s arrest,” explains Bonnefoy. She adds “At that time I was very active and writing a lot for the press, but I had no idea that this had been going on. I remember, for example, when Romo was arrested. I remember things about that case that I write about in the book, but I hadn’t really thought about the police work involved. I thought it’d been the efforts of the judges, of the families and the Vicaría de Solidaridad (“The Solidarity Vicariate”).

The Romo case is fundamental to Cazar el cazador. Not only because it’s one of the best chapters of the book, with a detailed reconstruction of how he was tracked down, with the detectives travelling to Brazil where he was found, and the extraordinary manoeuvres of the Chilean government to capture him in November 1992, but also because it had a significant media impact at the time.

“It was a milestone for the PDI: on the one hand it was the beginning of operations that went beyond the analysis of information that they’d been doing for a long time, and on the other hand it was a huge leap forward in terms of quality: they went to Brazil to get him and they brought him back with the support of the government. They managed to ensure that public opinion validated the work that they were doing.”

They got the support of public opinion, but above all they started to gain the trust of some of the human rights groups fighting for justice who had initially treated them with skepticism. It was inevitable: the strategy of the transition to democracy was to get justice whenever possible, but this was of course an anathema to the families of the disappeared. However, Cazar el cazador gives the impression that the Alwyn government did much more in the field than was previously acknowledged, despite having Pinochet, who still had immense power, breathing down their necks.

“I’ve always been extremely critical of the transition to democracy, and I still am. Alwyn could have done things much more radically, rooting out the system and dismantling it, rather than sticking to the legality and Pinochet’s constitution. But that’s what they’d committed to do in the transition that was agreed upon. There was a lot of fear. Investigating this book I realized that a lot more had been done than I’d previously thought, more than I’d suspected.”

Another impression from the book is that there was an internal process of cleaning-out and restructuring the department after the dictatorship, which neither the army nor the regular police underwent, for example.

“Yes, there was an immense internal struggle. I didn’t know much about that, but I know it happened. There was a lot of resistance within the PDI to this group that was investigating the history of the institution during the dictatorship. So the process that the PDI underwent was very intense, and no other armed institution went through the same experience, which is why we have the army and police force that we have today. That’s very clear. All these institutions should have been reformed as soon as there was a return to democracy, and put under effective civilian control. But that didn’t happen. You can see that in the different paths that the institutions  have since taken.

“I think that nowadays human rights issues are mainly covered in books. There’s a frivolity in how the media treat the subject; it was old-hat to them. It’s seen as just another subject, but it isn’t: it’s a drama”.

“I’ve always been extremely critical of the transition to democracy, and I still am. Alwyn could have done things much more radically, rooting out the system and dismantling it, rather than sticking to the legality and Pinochet’s constitution. But investigating this book I realized that a lot more had been done than I’d suspected.”

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