The arrest of Cristian Labbé breathes new life into Chile's human rights struggle

New charges indict one of the most ensconced figures on the Chilean right, and a symbol of the enduring impunity for members of Pinochet's regime. 

Nick MacWilliam
7 November 2014
Calle Londres 38 in Santiago, ex-detention centre of the DINA.jpg

Londres 38, a former detention centre of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), Pinochet's secret police. Despite being an instrumental member of the DINA, Cristián Labbé served as mayor of one of Chile’s most privileged municipalities for 16 years. Wikimedia /Ccos csc. Some rights reserved

When Cristián Labbé lost to Josefa Errázuriz in Santiago’s municipal elections in October 2012, he took it with the grace many people have long associated with the extreme right in Chile. “The winners are hatred, intolerance and a lack of respect,” he said in a press conference. “The Serpent of Paradise is again victorious.”

Labbé, a representative of the ultra-conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) political party, had just been ousted as mayor of Providencia, one of Santiago’s wealthiest districts, after sixteen unbroken years in the position. And he wasn’t happy about it. Asked if he would be congratulating Errázuriz, who had stood as an independent candidate, Labbé said “I don’t do things I don’t want to do or say things I don’t feel. I won’t visit my opponent, as her inexplicable campaign has been one of hate incarnate.”

If it sounded like sour grapes, well, that’s what it was; the words of a man accustomed to having everything, and never being told no. In the two-way race, Errázuriz won 55.93% of the votes compared to Labbé’s 44.07%, more than a 10% margin. Several observers attributed the defeat to Labbé’s close association to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, something which the defeated candidate acknowledged a couple of days later. “If that's the case, it’s a great honour,” he said.

As a high-profile member of the UDI, the corpulent, slick-haired Labbé has always been an outspoken Pinochet supporter. This is hardly surprising considering his background as an army officer during the 1973 coup that brought military rule to Chile, and subsequently as an agent in the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the plain-suited secret police force behind many of the regime’s worst atrocities. The DINA was formed by Pinochet as a means of eliminating left-wing sympathisers and activists not just in Chile, but also in other countries as part of the Operation Condor programme created in the 1970s by an alliance of right-wing dictatorships in South America. In the 80s, Labbé served as both a bodyguard to Pinochet and a spokesman for the authorities.

Now, the slow arm of Chilean justice, which when dealing with issues of military rule tends to move with the speed of the continental landmass separating in the Mesozoic era, has finally reached out to Labbé. On 20 October, he was charged with thirteen counts of kidnapping and homicide relating to his time as a DINA agent. For many it has been a long time coming. Phrases such as por fin (finally) and justicia (justice) spread across social media in Chile following news of his arrest.Among the moneyed sector, support for Pinochet and the economic reforms he implemented, which have maintained wealth and power in the hands of the long-established elite, remains strong. 

Labbé’s long reign as mayor of Providencia began in 1996, six years after Chile returned to democracy. Perhaps more than any other comuna, Providencia exemplifies the changes wrought in the modern Chile: a gleaming, sterile hub of residential affluence and commercial enterprise, where most of the old houses have been razed and replaced by expensive apartment blocks. With the neighbouring districts of Las Condes and Vitacura, Providencia displays the hallmarks of the neo-liberal Eden advanced by the military regime as, in the post-socialist landscape of terror and repression, Chilean markets were opened up to outside investment and national utilities and industries were sold off.

This area of east Santiago leading to the foot of the Andes is today an oasis of wealth, and a conservative stronghold that is economically and socially isolated from the realities faced by the rest of the population. It was here that Labbé was able to forge a lucrative mayoral career in the post-dictatorship in spite of being linked to many abuses committed under military rule. Or perhaps it was this very association that laid the foundation for his repeated re-election as mayor. Among the moneyed sector, support for Pinochet and the economic reforms he implemented, which have maintained wealth and power in the hands of the long-established elite, remains strong. 

In his role as lord of the manor, Labbé was not only unrepentant over military rule, he actively sought to celebrate its impact on Chile, a stance shared among many on the Chilean right. In 1980, the authorities renamed one of Santiago's busiest arteries, Avenue Nueva Providencia, in homage to the military coup. The new name, Avenue 11 de Septiembre, referenced the date the armed forces launched a bloody assault on elected President Salvador Allende and the democratic will of the Chilean people, heralding a campaign of brutality and repression against the population.

For over thirty years, the name Avenue 11 de Septiembre remained a constant act of aggression against the many victims of the regime, with Labbé, as mayor, directly opposed to amending this affront to all those who suffered torture or whose loved ones were killed or disappeared. Upon taking office in early 2013, one of the first things Errázuriz did, although hardly a liberal herself, was reinstall the avenue’s original name. It said much about sections of the Chilean media that Errázuriz’s action was reported as una polémica – a controversy – with little comment on the motives behind the initial renaming.

Seeing as he freely admitted it was "a great honour" to be associated with Pinochet, it follows that Labbé would have granted a similar pledge to other military officials. One such figure is Miguel Krasnoff, a soldier and ex-colleague of Labbé in the DINA. Along with DINA Director Manuel Contreras, Krasnoff was convicted of multiple charges related to the torture and disappearance of left-wing opponents of the regime. The DINA also orchestrated the car bombings that killed ex-Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires in September 1974, and Orlando Letelier, Chile’s Interior Minister under Allende, and his assistant Ronni Moffitt in Washington DC in 1976. Both men had remained loyal to Allende’s Popular Unity government and were therefore considered threats to the regime, even in exile. The bomb in the US capital, ordered by Pinochet and carried out with the collusion of the CIA, provoked none of the reprisals meted out to subsequent terrorist acts against North American interests. Today, both Krasnoff and the octogenarian Contreras are in prison having received sentences totalling hundreds of years. 

In November 2011, as mayor, Labbé staged an event to mark the re-edition of a book entitled Miguel Krasnoff: Imprisoned for serving Chile. In the face of public and political opposition and criticism from human rights organisations, the book launch became a cause célèbre of the right. Among those invited to the event was President Sebastián Piñera, who declined to go but sent a letter expressing his "best hopes for a successful event" and "an affectionate greeting for those attending the homage". The government subsequently said Piñera had not authorised the letter, signed by a lackey, to be sent. Given Piñera’s role as the figurehead of a right-wing coalition intrinsically linked to the military regime, few were convinced by the denial. Several months later the Chilean Treasury found that Labbé had "exceeded the current legal framework" by using public funds to stage the homage to Krasnoff but no action was taken. The right had once again stuck its collective middle finger up at the rest of society.

But now that society waits with baited breath to see what will happen next. For decades, Labbé and his cohorts have derided regime victims and the struggle for justice. Evidently, the murders of thousands of people have not warranted one iota of self-reflection when it comes to safeguarding personal interests. While in many countries suffering under totalitarian and repressive regimes a change in government has forced officials to withdraw from the public sphere, the political and financial clout of figures such as Labbé, and the Chilean courts’ impotency in pursuing them, has heightened the sense of injustice. It is indicative of a system that, while democratic in structure, still funnels power and control into the hands of the same elite that prospered so greatly under Pinochet. The long-running Mapuche land conflict in Southern Chile and 2011’s immense student protest movement show that many of the old inequalities and hierarchies remain entrenched.While in many countries suffering under totalitarian and repressive regimes a change in government has forced officials to withdraw from the public sphere, the political and financial clout of figures such as Labbé, and the Chilean courts’ impotency in pursuing them, has heightened the sense of injustice.

Yet with Labbé’s participation in human rights abuses long suspected, why has it taken this long for a case to be built against him? Furthermore, how was Labbé able to not only evade justice, but do so from the position of mayor of one of Santiago’s wealthiest municipalities? To victims of the dictatorship and their families, Labbé’s hold on political power has been a cruel mockery of their struggle to gain justice for the crimes committed under Pinochet. It was indicative of a system which grants impunity to the repressors and is a major obstacle to the truth and justice campaign.

The case against Labbé centres on abuses allegedly carried out at the Tejas Verdes concentration camp in the port city of San Antonio, but he has been implicated in numerous other cases of human rights violations. One of the most infamous relates to the 1973 massacre of fifteen people in the southern town of Liquiñe, located in Chile’s strikingly picturesque lake district. The killings were retribution for a raid by the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR) on a local police station in the early hours of 12 September 1973, the morning after the coup, as militants sought to seize weapons that could arm the resistance. Pinochet invoked the Brigada Especial Antiguerrilla taskforce, also known as the Black Berets (boinas negras), with the order to wipe out the rebels. Some 300 military personnel, among their number the 24-year old paratrooper Cristián Labbé, descended on the lake region under the codename Operación Leopardo.

Allende’s government had expropriated several large estates belonging to wealthy individuals and transferred them to social cooperatives of rural workers, indigenous families, political activists and foreign converts to the socialist cause. On 10 October 1973, the military detained several men from one such occupation, at the Complejo Forestal y Maderero Panguipulli, before executing them that same night and throwing their bodies in the River Toltén. Occupied estates such as the Complejo embodied the changes realised in Chile under socialism, and as such were targeted by the armed forces in the coup’s aftermath. Between October and December 1973 the killings continued in the region as the Chilean right, via Pinochet’s death squads, wrecked vengeance on those who dared challenge its historic grip on power.  

The following year, Labbé became an instrumental member of the DINA. As the regime's chief apparatus of state repression, the DINA oversaw an extensive network of infiltrators, informants and detention centres, including the secret prisons at Villa GrimaldiCalle Londres 38 and the Simón Bolívar barracks, named with grim irony after South America’s great liberator. Thousands of Chileans were physically, emotionally and sexually tortured in these clandestine, state-run centres, and many subsequently killed and disappeared. The DINA was able to permeate all levels of Chilean society and became a perpetual menace that helped subjugate an already-traumatised population. Labbé’s role as a high-ranking DINA official and instructor, where he worked closely with the subsequently-jailed Miguel Krasnoff, was only confirmed in 1999 when La Nación newspaper published a declassified document from 1974 in which Manuel Contreras requested passports for several agency personnel, including Labbé. 

Several other cases implicated Labbé in an ever-growing number of human rights violations under military rule. In 2003, he was summoned to give evidence to a Chilean court after an ex-lieutenant, Arturo Bosch González, identified him as having helped orchestrate the Liquiñe massacre. Labbé claimed he had only followed orders during Operación Leopardo, and no further action was taken. A year later he threatened to sue the Metropolitan Governor Marcelo Trivelli after regional authorities said he had participated in crimes of lesser humanity. In early 2005, he was obliged to face in court five ex-detainees of the Tejas Verdes detention centre in San Antonio, where he maintained he had spent only a handful of days in the capacity of physical instructor and denied having encountered any prisoners. In 2006, La Nación reported that the ex-president of state-run fishing company Arauco, Anatolio Zárate, who was also a member of the Socialist Party and an associate of Salvador Allende (the deposed president was godfather to Zárate’s brother), had testified to having been interrogated by “a lieutenant who was one of the main torturers...I know he was called Lieutenant Labbé, although I don’t know his first name.”

And on it went. In 2010, Labbé was summoned to give evidence to the Interior Ministry’s investigation into human rights violations during the dictatorship’s Operación Colombo,which led to the disappearance of 119 dissidents. He chose to go on the offensive, saying, “the terrorists are the sainted doves who have transformed themselves into intellectuals. Their supporters can become Presidents of the Republic while we military officials are on the bench of the accused. The military will not tolerate this, believe me, and if this cannot be, we will not live in peace.” The underlying threat to his words seemed to play to the deep-rooted fear that the military could one day retake control of the country. Throughout this litany of investigations and denials, Labbé remained ensconced in his position of public office, as mayor of one of Latin America’s most privileged municipalities.

There were also cases which, were they not so callous, seemed to be based in some sort of parody of right-wing values. In 2013, a man named Harry Cohen Vera accused Labbé of having tortured him in 1973 for the crime of sporting a ‘revolutionary and hippy look’, i.e. of having a beard and long hair. Cohen was a non-politically affiliated electrician when he was arrested in Valdivia by the same anti-guerrilla unit that had been sent by Pinochet to flush out the Liquiñe insurgents, and arrived in the region with the scent of blood in its nostrils. According to lawyer Roberto Ávila Toledo, Cohen decided to make the accusation after becoming enraged by Labbé’s repression of student protestors in 2011’s campaign for universal free education. The mayor invoked water cannon and teargas to dislodge student activists from occupied schools and publicly insulted those behind the movement. “If Labbé had stayed quiet, kept a low-profile, nothing would have happened and there would be no lawsuit because Cohen had forgiven him, “said Ávila Toledo. “But seeing (Labbé) in the media making declarations against the student movement angered him and led him to make these charges.”

Perhaps the most bizarre story about Labbé concerns his unwavering adoration for the grand wizard himself, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Or rather, it concerns the general’s daughter Jaqueline. In 2012, a document declassified under the US Freedom of Information Act, sent in 1987 to the US embassy in Santiago by regime spokesman Federico Willoughby, affirmed that Labbé had fathered a child with Jaqueline. While an illegitimate baby could prove a potential thorn in the staunchly conservative backbone of pinochetismo, it would ensure Labbé’s own legacy were forever entwined with that of the dictator he so revered. It would also help explain Labbé’s unfathomably iron-like grip, pre-2012, on public office in the face of so many accusations. Like virtually everything involving Labbé, however, the baby rumours were denied.

Now, finally, after years of claim, counter-claim, allegation, investigation and–for the victims of the military and the DINA–profound frustration, is Chile really about to bring one of its most reviled politicians to justice? The new charges of kidnapping and homicide relate to the Tejas Verdes detention centre, where Labbé claimed in 2005 to have merely been giving PE classes. At the centre of the charges is evidence from Samuel Fuenzalida Devia, a low-ranking soldier in 1973 and one of the first people to have broken the code of omertá surrounding the military. The charges are the latest in a series of blows to have struck the Chilean right, still reeling from its election defeat late last year that saw it replaced by Michele Bachelet’s centre-left coalition at the first opportunity. Since then, there have been financing scandals and further accusations of abuses against public officials. Yet the Labbé case feels like a landmark. Having strutted across Chile’s democratic arena with the conceited arrogance of a lascivious peacock–unrepentant, uncompromising and seemingly untouchable–Labbé now faces being called to account over the many crimes he is alleged to have committed.

For the first time in a long time, there is genuine cause for optimism in the human rights movement in Chile, particularly if the charges against Labbé herald a new determination from Bachelet, herself a victim of the dictatorship, but whose previous government–like its predecessors in the post-dictatorship–accomplished painfully little in the truth and justice campaign. But securing a conviction will not be easy, as the Chilean right will undoubtedly rally to throw its financial and political weight behind the continuous exoneration of the architects of Pinochet’s dictatorship. It has little other choice. For the hope among human rights activists, torture victims and Chilean society as a whole must be that one high-profile conviction could spark a chain reaction of further trials, as the guilty reveal their secrets and implicate fellow conspirators. For now, at least, there is hope on one side and fear on the other. The snake has been bitten. 

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