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Chile: Víctor Jara’s Alleged Killer Faces Legal Challenges In U.S.

January 22, 2014
Slain singer-songwriter Victor Jara remembered in a Santiago mural (Wikipedia)

Slain singer-songwriter Victor Jara remembered in a Santiago mural (Wikipedia)

History may finally be catching up to a former Chilean Army officer – and long-time resident of the US state of Florida – who allegedly played a lead role in the 1973 murder of famed Chilean singer-songwriter Víctor Jara.

Four decades after the iconic musician’s death, suspect Pedro Pablo Barrientos Núñez will finally be forced to explain himself in a court of law, albeit not in Chile – where he has a pending warrant for his arrest – and not with any immediate threat of jail time hanging over his head.

In early September, a California-based human rights organization called the Center For Justice and Accountability (CJA) named Barrientos in a civil suit filed before a US district court in Jacksonville, Florida. The suit – which was submitted on behalf of Jara’s widow and two daughters – accuses the Chilean-born soldier of arbitrary detention; extrajudicial killing; and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The complaint claims Barrientos “not only led, with other Chilean army officers, the arbitrary detention and brutal torture of Víctor Jara, but also personally participated in the execution of Víctor Jara on or about September 15, 1973 and then ordered his subordinates to repeatedly shoot Víctor Jara’s corpse.”

The CJA submitted the lawsuit just days before Chile commemorated the 40th anniversary of the 1973 military coup that toppled then-President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) and unleashed a tidal wave of repression against supposed left-wing subversives. Chile’s top army commander at the time, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, consolidated power soon thereafter. During Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, state agents murdered and/or disappeared at least 3,000 civilians and tortured more than 27,000, according to a pair of hallmark government reports issued after Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

Jara, who also worked as a theater director and university professor, was one of thousands rounded up shortly after the Sept. 11 military takeover and transported to a makeshift Santiago prison camp in what was then known as the Estadio Chile. The stadium has since been renamed in Jara’s honor. Investigators believe Jara was separated from the main group prisoners and tortured over the course of several days. His lifeless and discarded body was discovered on or around Sept. 19 near the city’s Cementerio Municipal.

The CJA lawsuit describes Jara as “a widely popular Chilean folk singer and democratic activist in his country, whose music and political beliefs the dictatorship of General Augusto Ugarte Pinochet…viewed as a threat to its fledgling regime.”

The “horror” of not knowing

Jara’s widow, Joan Jara Turner, 86, was able to identify and later retrieve the body thanks to the timely intervention of a sympathetic civil registry clerk named Héctor Herrera Olguín. Fearing for their safety, both Herrera and Jara Turner later fled the country. Jara Turner has said on repeated occasions that her experience – as devastating at it was – would have been worse had she never been able to confirm her spouse’s death.

“I consider myself one of the lucky ones in the sense that I had to face in that moment what had happened to Víctor,” she explained in a September interview with the syndicated US news program Democracy Now! “I could [later] give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment — and not the horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one. That happened to so many families, so many women who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.”

Jara Turner, a British-born dancer who first moved to Chile in the 1950s, returned to Santiago in 1983, well before the Pinochet dictatorship ended. A decade later she set up a foundation dedicated to uncovering the truth behind her famous husband’s murder. Hindered by a wall of military secrecy, the endeavor has been painstakingly slow. The Fundación Víctor Jara, nevertheless, continues to collect evidence and lobby for legal action against the perpetrators of the gruesome crime.

Russian roulette

The foundation’s perseverance appears to finally be paying off. Late last year, the investigating judge currently handling the case, Miguel Vásquez, issued indictments and arrest warrants against eight ex-Army personnel accused of direct involvement in Jara’s murder. Among those charged was Pedro Barrientos, who reportedly moved to the US in 1990, just as the Pinochet regime was ending.

A key witness in the case, former Army conscript José Paredes, claims then Lt. Barrientos used his sidearm to play Russian roulette with Jara, eventually discharging a bullet in the singer’s head.  Barrientos then ordered Paredes and another soldier to turn their machine guns on Jara, according to the conscript. Autopsy reports on the victim’s corpse, which was exhumed in 2009, seem to corroborate Paredes’ story.

Barrientos denies the accusations. Last year, in a brief exchange with Chilean television reporters who tracked the ex-solider down at his home in Deltona, Florida, Barrientos claimed he has never even been inside Estadio Chile. “And I didn’t even know there was a singer named Jara at that time,” he said.

Vásquez is hoping to eventually prosecute Barrientos in Chile. In order to do so, however, the investigating judge must first gain access to the ex-soldier, who – thanks to his status as a naturalized US citizenship – is currently out of reach. Chile’s Corte Suprema de Justicia approved an extradition request for Barrientos in late January. So far the US State Department has made no indication when or if it will honor that request.

Raising public awareness

In the meantime, the CJA has taken it upon itself to make sure Barrientos has even more pressing legal concerns to contend with. Given that the organization’s suit is civil, rather than criminal, the ex-soldier does not risk any jail time. But he could eventually be forced into an expensive payout. The CJA and Jara’s family members say their main goal is to raise awareness about the case and thus encourage US authorities to send Barrientos back to Chile. The principal “aim,” Jara Turner told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, “is to reinforce the extradition petition, which was approved by the Chilean Supreme Court and is now in United States territory. It’s somehow to support that and to appeal to public opinion here in the United States.”

Another possibility is that the civil case against Barrientos could eventually land him in hot water with US immigration authorities. Immigration cases, unlike civil lawsuits, do carry the possibility of jail sentences – as Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran soldier and later Massachusetts resident, can attest.

Two months ago, Montano was sentenced to 21 months in jail after pleading guilty to US immigration violations. Among other things, the now 71-year-old Salvadoran military man admitted he lied about his military past when applying, on repeated occasions, for US residency papers. The case was followed closely by the CJA, which has been pursuing Montano for his alleged involvement in a 1989 massacre in El Salvador.

Like Barrientos, Montano also has an extradition request hanging over his head. A Spanish judge is hoping to prosecute the latter for the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. Five of the six priests were Spanish citizens. The two cases differ in that Barrientos, unlike Montano, has US citizenship. In order to obtain that citizenship, however, Barrientos may also have lied about his military past. If that were ever proven to be the case, US immigration authorities could presumably revoke his citizenship, punish him with jail time, and/or deport him back to Chile.

“The fact that the man responsible for the torture and death of Víctor Jara has been living freely in the United States shocks the conscience,” the CJA’s executive director, Pamela Merchant, explained in a September press statement. “Human rights abusers should not be able to enjoy safe haven here without consequence.”

(This article originally appeared October 2013 in LADB)

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