Relatives of the "Disappeared" Protest

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Relatives of the "Disappeared" Protest


By: Martin Bernetti

Date: September 11, 2005

Source: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images.

About the Author: Martin Bernetti's photographs have been published by the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. Based in Quito, Ecuador, Bernetti travels internationally, teaching photography in addition to working as a photojournalist.


On September 11, 1973, the government of Chile was taken over in a military coup staged by the army's commander in chief, 57-year-old General Augusto Pinochet. The elected president, Salvador Allende Gossens, was attacked in La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago; air strikes against the building led to its quick capture by Pinochet's forces. Allende either committed suicide or was killed that day, and Pinochet took control of the country.

Allende, a Socialist elected in 1970, had angered social and economic conservatives with policies that included "land reform," in which he intended to seize all land holdings larger than 80 hectares [100 acres]; nationalization of industries such as copper mining, steel, and banking; and gender equality reform. Allende had nationalized more than 90% of all industry by the end of his first year in office, angering foreign investors and triggering intense interest from the United States. U.S. military forces had helped train Chilean military officers, with CIA support; by the time Pinochet staged his coup President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were firmly behind him.

During Pinochet's first 8 years in power, from 1973 to 1989, more than 40,000 citizens were rounded up in anti-leftist campaigns and held in the National Stadium or other torture centers. Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch document cases of electroshock applied to genitals, rape of women by trained police dogs, beating, mutilations, and attacks on small villages in which every able-bodied man was rounded up and executed. Up to 4,000 people disappeared; most of the desaparecidos were former Socialist party workers, leftist sympathizers, university professors, labor organizers, and family members.

During Pinochet's rule two forms of silent, but public, protest emerged. Women, largely from the lower economic classes, used arpilleras (tapestries that show scenes of daily life), to tell stories of disappeared persons, violence against villages, and oppression. These were a silent protest against Pinochet, and women gathered in churches, meeting halls, and private homes to weave these works of dissent.

Mothers and wives also performed traditional dances such as "La cueca," the Chilean national dance, in public squares; they danced alone as a form of protest, and to remember the desaparecidos. In 1987 Sting recorded the song "They Dance Alone," with lyrics that included: "It's the only form of protest they're allowed /I've seen their silent faces scream so loud." The song brought worldwide attention to the missing and their families' struggle to find answers about their loved ones' fate. In 1989, following increasingly violent and public opposition, a plebescite intended to rubber stamp another eight-year term for Pinochet returned a majority of "No" votes. Free national elections followed, and an overwhelming majority chose Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, who became president in 1990.



See primary source image.


Following Aylwin's ascent to the presidency, Pinochet made himself senator for life, and remained commander in chief of the armed forces until 1998. Although requests for information about torture victims and desaparecidos had been constant throughout Pinochet's rule, the demand increased with Aylwin's election. In 1998, when Pinochet traveled to England for medical care, international cries for his arrest led to a Spanish court's ruling that he could be tried for war crimes against Spanish citizens caught up in the 1973 coup.

On October 17, 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London. The following August the Chilean minister of defense created a commission to investigate human rights abuses in Chile during his rule. In January 2001 the commission revealed the fate of approximately 180 of the desaparecidos; little or no information was available for the rest. Another investigatory body, the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture identified more than 27,000 torture victims. In 2004 the Chilean government announced a reparations payment plan, giving torture victims approximately $2,500 and children born in or detained in prison up to $6,800 in a lump sum.

Between 1998 and 2004 Pinochet's status in Spanish, English, and Chilean courts bounced from "medically unfit" to "adequate to stand trial"; in 2005 he was indicted once more in Chile. As of this writing he is nearly 90 and being held under house arrest; his trial is still pending.



Agosin, Marjorie. Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile, 1974–1994. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York: New Press, 2004.

Timerman, Jacobo. Chile: Death in the South. New York: Knopf, 1987.


Amnesty International. "Chile—Torture: An International Crime." <> (accessed May 8, 2006).