Who Killed Víctor Jara?

August 25, 2008

On May 15, Chilean judge Juan Eduardo Fuentes found former colonel Mario Manríquez guilty of the murder 35 years ago of Víctor Jara, the legendary Chilean folksinger, songwriter, actor, director, poet, political activist, and teacher. Following the other 9/11—the bloody 1973 coup d’état, led by Augusto Pinochet and supported by the United States, against the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende—Manríquez was put in charge of the makeshift prison at the Estadio Chile, where Jara and thousands of others were held, many of them tortured and murdered. Manríquez is awaiting sentencing while the judge is attempting to determine who else was directly responsible for torturing and killing Jara.

Here is what we know about the circumstances surrounding the death, the discovery of the body, and the struggle to identify the murderers:

Jara was detained on September 12, 1973, at the State Technical University (UTE), where he worked. Along with hundreds of students and colleagues, he was forced to jog with his hands behind his neck to the stadium, six blocks away. Witnesses report he was beaten at the time of his arrest and en route to the stadium, where an army officer recognized him.

“Bring that son of a bitch over here to me!” he ordered a soldier, according to Boris Navia, a law professor at the UTE who was arrested with Jara.

The officer’s helmet was pulled down to his eyes. Over one shoulder hung a machine gun. On his chest was a hand grenade. On his belt, a pistol. His face was painted. He wore dark glasses. And he stood with his black boots spread wide.

“Don’t treat him like a young lady, damn it!”

The soldier, following orders, struck Jara in the back with the butt of his rifle, sending him sprawling face forward to the ground.

“Fuck your mother!” the officer started to rant as he began kicking the well-known and popular songwriter who now lay at his feet. “You’re Víctor Jara, asshole! You’re the Marxist singer. Your songs are pure shit! I’m going to teach you how to sing Chilean songs that aren’t Communist, you son of a bitch!” Jara’s hair and face were soon covered with blood and one of his eyes swollen shut.

Then Colonel Manríquez showed up. With him, under guard, was Danilo Bartulin, one of Allende’s doctors. Jara was made to join Bartulin, and the two of them were led to an underground walkway. There, according to Bartulin, they were beaten “from seven in the evening until three in the morning.” Then their tormentors were called away to help deal with the arrival of a new group of prisoners. It was at that point that they managed to join their companions in the stadium’s tiers of seats. There they remained until Saturday, September 15.

That day, around noon, word reached Jara that a number of prisoners were to be released. He responded by scrounging two sheets of paper and a pen from Navia and starting to write. After a time two soldiers appeared and signaled for him to follow them. Jara passed the two pieces of paper back to Navia as he rose to go. On them was a poem. The poem, untitled but popularly known as “El Estadio,” later made its way to the outside world and became famous.

The soldiers took Jara to a broadcast booth, where he was again badly beaten. Later, recalls Carlos Orellana, another of Jara’s colleagues arrested at the UTE, Jara had managed to tell him that one of the prisoners was acting as a spy for the soldiers. In other words, Orellana has said, even after Jara had been tortured and had good reason to believe that he wouldn’t make it out of the stadium alive, his concern was for the welfare of others.

After his brief encounter with Jara, Orellana and other prisoners were transferred to the Estadio Nacional, another sports stadium in Santiago that had been converted into a concentration camp. On their way out of the Estadio Chile they saw Jara’s body. It was riddled with bullet holes and piled together with other bodies in the foyer of the stadium.


Joan Jara, Víctor’s widow, first brought charges against those who tortured and murdered her husband in 1978. However, for three reasons—a decree issued by the military that year provided amnesty to its members for actions carried out in the aftermath of the coup, fear of how the military would react to prosecutions, and the resistance of many Chileans to opening old wounds—nothing came of her action or others like it. But in August 1999, when Nelson Caucoto, the lawyer for the Víctor Jara Foundation, which Joan founded (www.fundacionvictorjara.cl), once again filed a lawsuit against her husband’s killers, the climate had changed dramatically.

This effort led to Manríquez being charged in 2004 with Jara’s murder, and his conviction in May. But after that conviction—in which Manríquez is identified as having had “command responsibility,” but not as having pulled the trigger or directly beaten Jara—the judge declared the case closed, provoking a public outcry. In May, the Jara Foundation delivered a petition signed by more than 12,000 to the Chilean Supreme Court, demanding that the case be reopened. That, together with the fact that many more former stadium prisoners have come forward offering to testify, led to the judge agreeing on June 3 to continue the investigation into Jara’s torture and murder. Already, a key suspect has been identified: Edwin Dimter, who some believe was an especially brutal guard whom prisoners referred to as “the Prince.”

How important is it to bring these people to justice, 35 years after Jara was murdered? Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone who tortured and killed a loved one sipping tea in a café while knowing that pickpockets and prostitutes are serving time in jail. Chile will only become a healthy democracy again when everyone in the country is confident that wearing or having once worn a military uniform won’t give them legal impunity.

That is one argument. Others think it is more important to move up the chain of command than down. “Who killed Víctor Jara?” The superficial answer, according to this point of view, is that most likely it was a soldier from a poor or working-class background. The more substantive answer is, the people at the top of the chain of command, a chain that in this case leads all the way from Chile to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Jara’s murder is emblematic of the lengths the United States is willing to go to overthrow even peaceful, democratic governments it considers threats to its interests. The military junta in Chile was not out just to kill a man. Rather, acting as an agent of the Nixon White House and the most reactionary force within Chile, it was out to kill the idea that democratic socialism was a possibility. But as the songwriter Holly Near points out in her song titled “It Could Have Been Me,” it failed:

The junta broke the fingers on
Víctor Jara’s hands
They said to the gentle poet,
“Play your guitar now if you can.”
Víctor started singing but they brought his body down
You can kill that man but not his song
When it’s sung the whole world round.

It could have been me, but instead it was you
So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two.
I’ll be a student of life, a singer of songs
A farmer of food and a righter of wrong.
It could have been me, but instead it was you
And it may be me, dear sisters and brothers
Before we are through
But if you can sing for freedom
Freedom, freedom, freedom
If you can sing for freedom, I can too.

That is exactly the sentiment echoed at political rallies and other events when someone yells, “Víctor Jara!” and others respond, “Presente!” Yes, Víctor, you are here in our hearts as we search for your killers and struggle for human rights everywhere in the world.

Paul Cantor teaches economics at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He worked in Chile as a journalist from 1971 to March 1973, returning shortly after the September 11 coup as a witness to its aftermath.

Tags: Victor Jara, Chile, music, justice, human rights

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