An apparition: extraditing Victor Jara’s suspected killer

The struggle to bring one of the protest singer’s suspected killers from the USA back to his native Chile will remind Chileans of the struggle to extradite and try Pinochet himself. And while Jara’s case helped to draw attention to ‘disappearances’ under the regime, hundreds of families still have no answers

Carlos Labbé
8 February 2013

On Wednesday 30 January the request to extradite Pedro Pablo Barrientos, an ex-lietuenant of the Chilean army, was made official in Santiago. Barrientos is charged with being one of the eight participants in the killing of the Chilean singer-songwriter Víctor Jara, which took place at the national stadium in Santiago on 16 September 1973, in the first days of General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship.

This is a milestone in the history of the South American country’s relations with the US as much as it is a milestone for justice: in Chile, extradition orders issuing from the criminal justice system are rare. Nor is it common for extradition cases to reach notoriety, and much less if they involve the country’s second-largest trading partner. The wide renown of Víctor Jara’s work – as a musician, folklorist, theatre director and political activist under the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende – has been elemental in his case; but so has the intensive campaigning of his widow Joan Jara, who has been helped by her US nationality. Above all – one would hope – the sheer brutality of the testimonies that were collected about the crime have been decisive: ‘the second lieutenant started playing Russian roulette with a revolver that he held pressed against the singer’s forehead. Then came the first fatal shot into his skull. The body of Víctor Jara fell sideways to the ground. […] The second lieutenant ordered the conscripts to fire machine-gun bursts into the artist’s body. […] According to the autopsy report, the body of the singer had received around 44 bullet wounds.’

Victor Jara with his wife Joan Jara and kids

Victor Jara with his British-born wife Joan Jara, and their daughters Amanda (top) and Manuela [Flickr/ttzitziki, Some rights reserved]

Public opinion around the case will depend on what interventions the government of tycoon Sebastián Piñera is prepared to make into the Chilean judicial system. Piñera’s cabinet, and its ideological stance, are controlled by ministers who worked for Pinochet’s dictatorship and who are currently active in the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union) – a powerful, ultraconservative, antimarxist, Catholic political party linked to the neoliberal economic elite of Chile that has been driving the politics of the country since the mid-1980s. A possible precedent came in 2007, when a group of millionaire Chilean businessmen with heavy investments in Peru mobilised their lobbyists to prevent a trial to extradite, from Santiago to Lima, the ex-president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, who was accused of fiscal fraud, genocide and crimes against humanity during his government. At that time, Chile was governed by the socialist Michelle Bachelet.

The extradition case of ex-lieutenant Barrios will become emblematic not just because it is a challenge to the ever-dubious independence of Chilean bureaucracy – which has unswervingly consolidated the political structure installed by Pinochet’s ideologues in their Constitution of 1980. The possibility of establishing who killed Víctor Jara also offers catharsis, and a voice – the voice of the left-wing singer – to the families of the more than 1,500 ‘disappeared’ detainees whose bodies have not been found, nor killers identified.

In the extradition case of ex-lieutenant Barrios, you can still hear an echo of the cowardly agreement between the Chilean government of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This allowed Pinochet to avoid extradition from London to Madrid, and thus also a trial for the murder of Carmelo Soria and other Spanish citizens killed during Pinochet’s rule. That extradition case may have been the sole opportunity to try and sentence one of the main intellectual agents of the more than 3,000 cases of humans rights violations committed in Chile between 1973 and 1990. Instead of this, the international community created a precedent for the effective confirmation of the Universal Jurisdiction of Human Rights. And the Chilean justice system took note of the extradition proceedings, which had given no results in trials for the murders of Carlos Prats and Orlando Letelier, nor for the attack on Bernardo Leighton.

Su cabeza es rematada/ Por cuervos con garras de oro/ Como lo ha crucificado/ La furia del poderoso.’ (‘Crows with golden claws/ Flock about his head/ Oh how the fury of the powerful/ Has crucified him.’) This is from the song ‘El aparecido’ (‘The appeared one’ or ‘The apparition’), which, on his album of the same name released in 1967, Víctor Jara dedicated to the recent death of Ernesto Che Guevara. Faced with the evidence of the unjust execution of the Argentinian-Cuban guerilla in a Bolivian forest, the musician preferred to celebrate the evidence of a body fallen in combat. Forty years after the unpunished murder of Víctor Jara, the potential extradition of one of his eight possible killers will prove again that it is easier to judge the physical agent of violations of human rights – even if they live thousands of miles away – than their intellectual authors, who continue to live in the same country, exercising more boldly than ever the political will not to leave a single trace of their crimes.

Translated by Ollie Brock


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