National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Beginning in 1983, the National Commission Against Torture courageously worked to end the mistreatment of prisoners and detainees by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

Summary of Event

On September 11, 1973, a military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte overthrew the constitutionally elected Chilean government of Marxist president Salvador Allende. Revolutions and coups;Chile The Allende presidency had polarized Chile. Terrorism from the political left and right had undermined the democratic traditions of the nation. Poor economic management on the part of socialist planners, resistance to government policies by Chilean industrialists, agriculturalists, and businesspeople, and economic pressure against the Allende regime by the United States had created turmoil in the country. Inflation soared, real personal income declined, and shortages of basic commodities afflicted the nation. The coup left Allende dead in the presidential palace, the military in power, and Chile under a regime of torture and political assassinations. National Commission Against Torture (Chile) Chile;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Chile Torture;National Commission Against Torture [kw]National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses (Jan., 1983) [kw]National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses (Jan., 1983) [kw]National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses (Jan., 1983) [kw]National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses (Jan., 1983) [kw]National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses (Jan., 1983) National Commission Against Torture (Chile) Chile;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Chile Torture;National Commission Against Torture [g]South America;Jan., 1983: National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses[05080] [g]Chile;Jan., 1983: National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses[05080] [c]Human rights;Jan., 1983: National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses[05080] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan., 1983: National Commission Against Torture Studies Human Rights Abuses[05080] Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto Castillo Yáñez, Pedro Henríquez, Raúl Cardinal Silva Allende, Salvador

A superficial calm descended on the country. As many as five thousand opponents of the coup were tortured, executed, or “disappeared,” including leftist politicians, union leaders, and student activists. Fearing for their lives, thousands more went into exile. Pinochet and his supporters promised to rid Chile of the communist menace, claiming that Allende’s supporters had conspired to murder military and political leaders who opposed the Marxists and impose a thoroughgoing communism on the nation. Pinochet claimed that the coup had foiled the plot and that now he would safeguard Chile from the Left. What actually emerged was a military and police state that, by crushing the Allende camp, temporarily won the toleration and sometimes the support of the middle and upper classes.

By 1977, the dictatorship felt secure enough to begin loosening its grip on the nation. In that year, to appease European critics and under pressure from the administration of Jimmy Carter in the United States, Pinochet abolished the Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia (DINA), the infamous security bureau that had been involved in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the regime’s perceived opponents since the coup. Meanwhile, the economy improved, as the socialist measures of the Allende period were reversed under the guidance of a group of University of Chicago-trained economists, who emphasized the free market and monetarist policies of Milton Friedman. The resulting economic recovery won Pinochet further support from the middle class, although unemployment remained above 15 percent and the country’s foreign debt was mounting ominously. To consolidate its gains and legitimate its rule, the regime held a plebiscite on September 11, 1980, in which the new constitution received the approval of two-thirds of the voters. The new charter permitted General Pinochet to retain power until 1989, when an election would determine if he would continue as president until 1997.

The calm imposed by the dictatorship was superficial, and when the worldwide recession of the early 1980’s plunged Chile into a depression, discontent and resistance mounted. The regime had never abandoned its weapons of kidnapping, torture, and assassination. In fact, shortly after abolishing DINA, Pinochet had formally created the National Information Center National Information Center (Chile) (CNI), which carried on its predecessor’s brutal tasks under the broad mandate of national security. Soldiers and police still paid nocturnal visits to suspected subversives or outspoken critics of the regime, who disappeared into the CNI’s interrogation rooms. Under state-of-emergency decrees, the CNI secret police and torturers could hold a detainee incommunicado for up to twenty days before beginning any of the niceties of legal process.

The dictatorship’s security forces inflicted physical and psychological torture. On March 8, 1982, for example, Enzo Ivan Antonio Riffo Navarette, a young carpenter from Santiago, was abducted by the CNI and tortured for sixteen days. He reported to investigators from Amnesty International that his tormenters beat him and applied electrical shocks to his face, genitals, and anus. At one point, they told him he was to be executed, whereupon a guard pointed a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger. He discovered that the weapon was empty, but the trauma of the mock execution intimidated him. A young woman arrested by the CNI in early 1981 suffered seventeen days of torture. Bound naked to a metal bed, she received powerful electrical shocks on her face, chest, and genitals, and four men raped her. The torturers also told her that her boyfriend had been killed and forced her to lie facing a decomposing corpse. To intimidate her further, the torturers kept her blindfolded almost the entire time she was at the torture center, locked her in a room filled with rats, and threatened to rape her with a dog.

As opposition to Pinochet’s dictatorship mounted and the economic crisis deepened, hundreds of other victims experienced similar outrages. Blindfoldings, beatings, and electrical shocks were routine. Security agents often threatened to torture or rape the detainee’s family members. Many reported that doctors had assisted the security forces, giving the detainees physical examinations on arrival, advising the torturers when to stop to avoid killing the captives, and giving injections of sodium pentothal and other drugs to break down the prisoners’ resistance. Often one security agent acted the part of sympathetic guard, commiserating with the prisoners and encouraging them to reveal any information to avoid additional abuse.

Not all the Chileans could be intimidated. Some possessed such international or moral stature that the regime feared to silence them. They courageously organized themselves to protest the dictatorship’s violation of human rights and to assist the victims of its terror. In so doing, they received support from other nations and from international organizations such as Amnesty International that were also working to end torture and political imprisonment in Chile.

Although many Catholic leaders had strongly opposed Allende’s ideology and policies and welcomed the coup, afterward parts of the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;Chile became a bulwark in defense of human rights. On October 6, 1973, less than a month after Allende’s death, the ecumenical Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile, directed by Catholic bishop Fernando Ariztía Ariztía, Fernando and Lutheran bishop Helmut Frenz, Frenz, Helmut began providing humanitarian assistance to those abused by the regime. Under pressure from the dictatorship, the cardinal archbishop of Santiago, Raúl Silva Henríquez, abolished the committee in late 1975 but then organized the Vicariate of Solidarity the following January to carry on the same work. It gave legal assistance to prisoners, helped exiles, provided medical and psychological care to victims, and issued a broad spectrum of newsletters to publicize the state of human rights in Chile. By helping protect other human rights groups, the vicariate became the focus of moral resistance to the regime.

Meanwhile, Bishop Frenz of the Evangelical Lutheran Church established the Christian Churches’ Social Assistance Foundation Christian Churches’ Social Assistance Foundation[Christian Churches Social Assistance Foundation] (FASIC), which provided medical and psychiatric care for those tortured and imprisoned and their families. FASIC also pressed the regime to exile rather than imprison individuals condemned by the tribunals. Many Lutherans objected to Frenz’s activism, however, and formally separated from the church. This ambivalence also marked Chilean Catholicism.

Other groups also formed. Lawyers established the Chilean Human Rights Commission Chilean Human Rights Commission in December, 1978, in reaction to the regime’s excesses. By the late 1980’s, it had more than thirty-five hundred members, with 128 subgroups spread throughout the country. The National Commission for Juvenile Rights, founded in 1977 in Valparaiso, sought to protect Chilean youth from human rights violations. Activists created another organization concerned with the young in 1979, the Foundation for the Protection of Minors Harmed by the State of Emergency.

Equally important were the heroic actions of individual Chileans in hiding suspects from DINA and the CNI, caring for the tortured, and publicly opposing the regime’s brutality. By 1975, for example, the regime had several torture centers in the vicinity of Santiago. Priests and nuns gave sanctuary to suspects hiding from the CNI and sometimes helped them escape the country. Lawyers volunteered time and expertise to file recursos de amparo (similar to writs of habeas corpus) on behalf of those sequestered by the security forces. Doctors examined and treated those released after interrogation and torture and compiled affidavits attesting to the criminal actions of the police.

Some physicians actively cooperated with the torturers, and the Chilean College of Medicine, the country’s medical association, refused until 1982 to investigate and denounce such abuses. Dr. Pedro Castillo Yáñez, a thoracic surgeon, chose to assist human rights organizations, providing medical care for the victims. The regime had removed him in 1975 as chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Chile because he had publicized the location of secret torture centers and reported that some Chilean doctors were assisting in the torture of detainees. The CNI placed him under surveillance in May, 1981, and then arrested him, along with fellow physicians Patricio Arroyo and Manuel Almeyda. The secret police claimed that the doctors had been involved in the bombing of a naval officers’ club and that Castillo operated a secret clinic for terrorists at his Andean vacation home. The doctors received immediate wide support from Chilean and international human rights organizations, and the pressure secured their release after more than a month’s detention. Later that year, Castillo and other activist physicians launched a campaign to force the Chilean Medical College to discipline members who assisted in the abuse of prisoners.

In 1982, the regime arrested 1,789 people for political reasons, nearly double the number from the preceding year. Within this context, the Chilean Human Rights Commission sponsored a national seminar in January, 1983, to address torture in the country. As an offshoot of that seminar, participants recommended the formation of an organization to deal exclusively and specifically with allegations of torture, and in that manner the National Commission Against Torture was born. Its membership included representatives from a wide spectrum of Chilean society, including religious, artistic, and scientific figures and human rights and labor activists; they chose Pedro Castillo Yáñez as president of the commission.


Creation of the National Commission Against Torture brought the wrath of the dictatorship down on Castillo and some of his associates, but in the long term, the commission, working with other Chilean and international organizations, focused attention on the barbarisms committed by the regime and helped prepare the nation for democracy. When the security forces abducted and tortured a Chilean, the commission publicly denounced the violation of human rights. It organized conferences and seminars and helped mobilize pressure against the regime for the release of individual detainees. The commission also produced and distributed videotapes dramatizing the effect of torture on the victims and on society.

On May 11, 1983, Chileans from all classes and political persuasions participated in a national day of protest. They kept their children home from school and clanged pots and pans in the streets, reminiscent of the homemakers’ protests against the Allende government on the eve of the 1973 coup. Trying to quell the opposition, the regime killed two protesters and arrested two hundred others. A month later, hundreds of thousands joined in another national day of protest, and the following months saw more demonstrations. More deaths and arrests followed.

Security forces cracked down on those suspected of fomenting the demonstrations. particularly anyone connected with two Marxist organizations committed to the violent overthrow of the regime, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. The secret centers of the CNI and other security forces stepped up their activity, and the National Commission Against Torture and other human rights organizations responded courageously.

On November 11, 1983, the crowning protest occurred against the regime’s use of torture and violation of civil and human rights. Distraught over the detention of two of his children and his inability to learn their whereabouts, Sebastián Acevedo Acevedo, Sebastián sat down in front of the cathedral in Concepción and immolated himself. From his ashes came the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture, committed to nonviolent demonstrations. On December 15, two hundred members of the movement gathered in front of CNI headquarters in Santiago, where they were brutally beaten by the police. Undeterred, their protests against the torturers continued.

Pressure mounted on Pinochet to resign, but he refused to relinquish power until 1989. Instead, he declared a new state of emergency on November 6, 1983, which lasted until June 15, 1985. In July, 1985, members of Chilean Anti-Communist Action, a right-wing terrorist group, bombed the head office of the Chilean Human Rights Commission, and shortly thereafter security officers arrested Pedro Castillo and sent him into internal exile on a deserted island in southern Chile, where he remained for three months until released.

Lawyers and judges had no power to coerce the security forces into ending the reign of terror as long as the military supported the dictatorship. Although the demonstrations shocked the armed forces and many officers privately wished Pinochet would step aside, the military refused to overthrow the government. Perhaps if Chilean politicians had offered a viable alternative as a transition to democracy, the generals might have acted. The regime, however, had outlawed political parties, and clandestine organizations were so divided among themselves that they offered no solution to the nation’s crisis. In August, 1985, all the principal political parties agreed to support a National Accord, which demanded an end to dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. In mid-November, 1985, half a million Chileans demonstrated in Santiago against the regime, but still Pinochet clung to power.

Pinochet declared that he would step aside only if defeated in the constitutionally mandated referendum in 1989. In that election, a majority of Chileans voted to turn him out of office. The dictatorship ended, and the Christian Democratic candidate, Patricio Aylwin Azócar, was elected president. Pinochet, however, retained control of the military until 1998. National Commission Against Torture (Chile) Chile;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Chile Torture;National Commission Against Torture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International. Chile, Evidence of Torture. London: Author, 1983. Presents the results of AI’s 1982 investigation conducted in Chile. The report includes the victims’ paraphrased accounts of their torture as well as medical and psychological assessments of the veracity of the allegations. The investigators concluded that torture continued to be a serious problem in Chile.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassidy, Sheila. Audacity to Believe. London: Collins, 1977. A moving narrative by an idealistic young British doctor arrested and tortured by DINA in 1975 for giving medical treatment to a wounded Marxist leader. Her account provides a graphic view of life for female detainees and the heroic charity of priests and nuns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Confessions of a State Terrorist.” Harper’s 270 (June, 1985): 15-17. Excerpts of an interview with Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, a member of the Chilean air force’s intelligence service who fled Chile after becoming disgusted with his participation in torture and murder. His description of the psychological impact of such crimes on the perpetrators is harrowing. When interviewed, Valenzuela was hiding in France, convinced that Chilean secret operatives would soon kill him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Marc. Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir. New York: Verso, 2001. In his youth, Cooper was a translator for Allende until the socialist president was overthrown in 1973. This “anti-memoir” offers insight, albeit with political bias, into Pinochet’s Chile.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Labin, Suzanne. Chile: The Crime of Resistance. Richmond, Surrey, England: Foreign Affairs, 1982. Originally published in French in 1980, this work defends the Pinochet regime on the grounds that if the country had fallen under communist control, the repression would have been much worse. An interesting if not altogether convincing counterweight to the other listed works, it focuses on the coup and the first years of the Pinochet dictatorship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. The final chapter, “Dictatorship,” lays out in detail how the regime’s use of torture fit into the context of its other policies. Also provides a good explanation of the pressures on the government that enabled activists to form the National Commission Against Torture and other human rights organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Politzer, Patricia. Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet. Translated by Diane Wachtell. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. Presents a series of interviews conducted in 1983 and 1984 with a variety of Chileans, from Pinochet enthusiasts and a soldier to a clerical radical, a union activist, and a woman from a squatter neighborhood. The book is impressionistic but gives a vivid picture of life under the dictatorship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Brian H. “Old Allies, New Enemies: The Catholic Church as Opposition to Military Rule in Chile, 1972-1979.” In Military Rule in Chile: Dictatorship and Oppositions, edited by J. Samuel Valenzuela and Arturo Valenzuela. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. For many years, the Catholic Church and the Chilean military had supported each other because of their mutual interest in maintaining peace and social order. Smith describes the Church’s growing opposition to the regime, evolving into such activities as the Vicariate of Solidarity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stover, Eric. The Open Secret: The Torture and the Medical Profession in Chile. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1987. Report by the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the AAAS based on the author’s investigations in Chile during 1984 and 1985. Straightforward and easily digested, it concludes that a number of Chilean physicians cooperated in the torture of detainees and that the Chilean Medical College refused to investigate or discipline them until 1982.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Timerman, Jacobo. Chile: Death in the South. Translated by Robert Cox. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Imprisoned and tortured by the Argentine military during the “dirty war’’ of the 1970’s, journalist Timerman offers moving witness to the trauma of Chile, based on his visit to the country in the mid-1980’s. Most chapters conclude with a “testimony,” citing a victim’s account of torture and suffering at the hands of the dictatorship.

Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay

Chilean Military Overthrows Allende

Medical Group Exposes Torture in Greece and Chile

Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia

United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture

Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists

United Nations Issues Principles of Medical Ethics

Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations

Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule

Categories: History