El Patio

Digging up Chile’s brutal past

El Patio Three elderly gravediggers lovingly maintain the peaceful cemetery in the centre of the Chilean capital of Santiago. However, they are haunted by a dark and bloody secret. Following General Pinochet’s violent military coup in 1973, they were compelled to surreptitiously bury the bodies of thousands of executed political prisoners. Now a demonstration calling for justice shows that the past will not allow itself to be concealed.

“At the morgue the walls, floor, and ceiling were covered with worms”, say the old gravediggers. “You had to pick your way between the corpses.” For months following the ferocious coup these men worked through the night to dispose of the victims of Pinochet’s murderous regime. “It was continuous for three months… because sometimes they found corpses in hidden mass graves. And they still find them! And they’ll continue to find them”.

A light illuminates an enormous board of silhouetted faces. Gravedigger Lelo is visibly moved by the sight. “I’m so horrified by what I’ve seen. There’s so much people don’t know about…” Supported by the CIA, the Chilean military overthrew the ruling Socialist government in 1973. What followed was an indiscriminately violent regime, which tortured and murdered thousands of political prisoners. Lelo was a young gravedigger at the time. He helped buried thousands of anonymous victims, whose remains are still unidentified to this day.

People are still afraid to publicly discuss what was perpetrated under the military dictatorship. Rogelio relays that only the day before somebody had warned him. “’Be careful what you say. It could cost you. You might get shot down’… So I started thinking. Because there are some mean people around.” The continuing fear has allowed the past to be untouched, but the memories of those lost have lived on in the hearts and minds of their friends and families. Today many Chileans are clamouring for history to be revisited. “There’s no justice! There’s no truth! Impunity is all there is!”, chant the marching protesters.

Their calls have been answered. “In the streets families are shouting ‘truth and justice’. Our job is provide the judges with scientific reports so that the trials can go forward and justice be obtained”, says the Director of the Forensic Institute. Using DNA analysis teams of scientists are identifying remains and returning them to their loved ones. Carlos Guzman’s family crowd around a table. A human skeleton has been assembled upon it. Finally, they are able to pay their respects to the man they lost 40 years before.

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