Colonel Benavente reveals that his former subordinate, Captain Antonio Palomo Contreras, participated in secret missions to eliminate political prisoners.
"Yes, and it was Palomo who had the orders to make them disappear, using his helicopter. Some of these bodies were dropped into the ocean; others were thrown on the high peaks of the Andes. Palomo should remember this perfectly well."
There are still more nauseating secrets to be unravelled from the Pinochet's period, that veritable Pandora's box. The latest came to light in the Chilean paper La Tercera of 25th June 1999 which published declarations of retired Colonel Oglanier Benavente that are very damaging for two retired Chilean generals, both under arrest; Augusto Pinochet in England and Sergio Arellano Stark in Chile. The former does not need introduction. Arellano Stark was the infamous officer who, shortly after the coup of September 1973, presided over a delegation which went to different provinces to put pressure on commanders who were considered to be excessively lenient in handling the defeated Allende's supporters. Arellano Stark's delegation, known as the Caravan of Death, illegally executed 72 political prisoners in October of 1973, a deed that heralded the sinister character of the newly born regime.
Colonel Benavente, now 70 years old, was then the Governor of Talca Province, 150 miles south from Santiago, the capital of Chile. "I have nothing to hide," he said, thus breaching a tacit pact of silence regarding the atrocities committed during the Pinochet era 1973-1990. For the first time, an ex-army officer has confirmed the method used in Chile to eliminate political prisoners. An undetermined number of disappeared detainees were dropped from helicopters during the military dictatorship. Colonel Benavente revealed that his former subordinate, Captain Antonio Palomo Contreras, participated in secret missions to eliminate leftist prisoners.
Captain Palomo, as Benavente's subordinate, never found any difficulty in disclosing to him "all the crimes". Palomo belonged to the Air Command of the Chilean Army based at the Tobalaba airport, on the outskirts of Santiago. He was also one of the pilots of the Caravan of Death, and told Benavente that he participated in the "disappearances and killings" of prisoners in Santiago's Tacna Regiment and was in charge of the secret disposal of the bodies.
Remember-Chile offers its translation of Colonel Oglanier Benavente's testimony.
(Photo: Alex Moreno)
How did you meet General Arellano-Stark?
I met him on 30th September 1973, when he arrived by helicopter at the garrison in Talca, along with a delegation from Santiago. It wasn't normal then to have helicopters landing in the town of Talca. The Regiment's Commander, colonel Efrain Jaña wasn't present, so I tried to introduce myself to Arellano-Stark but I was stopped by three officers: Marcelo Moren Brito, commander Sergio Arredondo and the copilot Antonio Palomo. They wore military fatigues and carried grenades, pistols and submachine guns. Antonio Palomo had been sub-lieutenant in my unit - a quite correct person.
What did Arellano-Stark say to you?
He asked me what the situation was like in Talca. I answered: "Perfectly normal my General. All quiet here". We had no problems because the previous week we had executed German Castro by firing squad. He was the former governor of Talca, and his case had been the hardest problem. Arellano-Stark came with the preconceived plan to remove Jaña from his post of regiment commander, since he was very friendly with General Carlos Prats [Pinochet's predecessor as Head of Chilean Army], who had also been a commander in the region. He then proceeded to get rid of Jaña and put me in charge of the regiment and the government of Talca.
Did he have the authority to give these orders?
He had the authority, but he did not exhibit it to me, and I did not demand it from him. I was only a commander and he was a very imposing general.
Did he have the authority to review trials and to pronounce death sentences?
That was a trick, because the delegation did not include any lawyer. The deaths were illegal, since Pinochet could not have delegated the function of executing people to Arellano-Stark. He exceeded his authority.
What is the basis of your statement?
I know perfectly well the Cauquenes' case. Arellano-Stark spent the whole afternoon in the Military Club. From there the shootings were perfectly audible.
Arellano-Stark wanted to strengthen the authority within the Army and produce a change of direction. He caught four people from a list he had. When he left Talca, on the same Sunday 30th, he told me he was going to Cauquenes, but he did not do so.
Immediately afterwards, I rang Commander Castillo and told him: "Look, Arellano-Stark is going there, he has caused havoc in Talca". In half an hour they were prepared to receive Arellano-Stark, but he proceeded to the South and on Thursday 4th he arrived in Cauquenes, causing further havoc there.
Did you know anybody in the Caravan of Death? You said that copilot Palomo was sub-lieutenant in your unit
Palomo arrived as the copilot of Arellano-Stark. He belonged to the Air Command of the Army, but only went to the Southern region. He did not continue to the North because he usually served General Pinochet; he was his personal pilot. He used to be a sub-lieutenant in my unit - a very correct person. He used to tell me all about the crimes. Many corpses were taken to the Air Command in Tobalaba. Palomo received from there his orders to make them disappear. But he did not give me details.
Where were they dropped? Into the sea perhaps?
Certainly. All the officers and commanders knew that. An example: while in Talca I received two former Allende's bodyguards. Our orders were to send one of these guys to the Tacna Regiment in Santiago. I knew that he was doomed on arrival there; he was going to face the firing squad. So I sent him to Santiago escorted by members of the Civil Police. Some days later his relatives arrived. I told them to go to the Ministry of Defense, a sort of white lie.
Were those the bodies that used to arrive at Tobalaba?
Yes, and it was Palomo who had the orders to make them disappear, using his helicopter. Some of these bodies were dropped into the ocean; others were thrown on the high peaks of the Andes. Palomo should remember this perfectly well.
When you were in charge of the garrison in Pisagua, did they ever tell you where bodies could be buried?
Once a gravedigger told me that they had buried corpses in the cemetery, near the main gate.
Would you agree today that the whereabouts of the disappeared prisoners should be known?
Of course, but the military will never say anything.
There is no oath in that respect. But it happens that they did not kill them together, nor at the same time. The remains are all over the country. There are places that became known, but the army does not allow access to anybody.
There were also disappeared prisoners in Talca, and the DINA was active there
Until my last year there, 1975, nothing like that happened. The local DINA was in its infancy.
Why did the prisoners have to be executed?
No, no, the only one we executed was that kid Castro. We shot him within the garrison at midnight. The following day we took the body to the cemetery's mortuary, and the next day we buried it.
Who gave the order?
I was appointed president of the court-martial, where with other four officers the appropriate sentence was decided.
How have you come to terms, after all this time, with the fact that you gave an execution order?
It's difficult it was very tough at that time. On the 11 September 1973 [the date of Pinochet's coup] the [Allende's] Governor of Talca went to the garrison, took a lorry full of explosives and went up the mountains to blow up the dam. This was an impossible task, but with all the upheaval one thought it was possible.
Interviewer: Pedro Vega
Translation and Introduction: Remember-Chile