Chile: General Arellano Stark, Leader of “Caravan of Death,” Dead at 94

Photo: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional

SANTIAGO, Chile – General Sergio Arellano Stark, the man responsible for heading the “Caravan of Death” during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), has died at the age of 94 without ever having faced justice for his crimes.

The Caravana de la Muerte, or the Caravan of Death, both refers to a military operation and the group that carried out the operation.

The group was comprised of several army officers and other high-ranking officials that traveled the length of Chile, personally selecting detainees for execution and carrying out the act themselves in most instances. The Caravan of Death is thought to have been responsible for the murders of more than 100 opponents of the 1973 coup.

The Caravan of Death was named as such because the death squad would travel through Chile in a black Aérospatiale SA 330H Puma helicopter, visiting prisons and military bases where detainees were held and then moving onto the next destination.

The crimes committed by this unit were considered especially heinous because the victims had turned themselves in to army officials upon learning they were wanted, and had no prior histories of crime or violence. Most were also beaten, tortured, and specifically shot in areas that caused great pain but were not lethal, leaving the victims to languish until they were finally given the coup de grace.

Following the executions, the victims’ bodies were buried in mass graves in rural, isolated locations across the South American country.

The Caravan of Death was led by General Sergio Arellano Stark, who was assigned to the position personally by Pinochet after the latter had heard of “soft” treatment of political prisoners by provincial garrison commanders.

Since Pinochet said there would be “no mercy for extremists,” the group was tasked with visiting prisons and military bases holding political opponents in more far-flung locations, which meant that the Caravan of Death did not carry out its operations in the capital of Santiago or in Valparaíso, Chile’s second city.

Arellano Stark, whose official title was “Officer Delegate of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the President of the Government Junta,” led the Caravan of Death as it made its way to cities across the north and south of Chile like Antofagasta, Calama, Copiapó, La Serena, Linares, Cauquenes and Valdivia.

Arellano Stark finally faced a lengthy trial in 1999 that was filled with controversial legal challenges and delays, and he was finally convicted in 2008 for his role in the crimes. Regarding his case specifically, he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for involvement in the murder of four people in the central city of San Javier.

However, Arellano Stark avoided any prison time after the legal system’s medical authorities said he suffered from progressive and incurable dementia that stemmed from Alzheimer’s disease.

Appeals were made by victims’ groups to overturn this decision and the process continued until December of 2015 when the Supreme Court definitively ruled that the convicted criminal would never serve any prison time due to his alleged medical condition. As such, Arellano Stark was allowed to return to his home (and later, nursing home) and lived out the rest of his life in freedom.

“The repressor and killer that headed one of the biggest operations of systematic murder died in absolute impunity. Along with being a mass murderer, he was a coward. He always shirked any responsibility and passed on the blame to others and in recent years, he hid behind the mask of his supposed senility,” said Carmen Hertz, a Chilean human rights lawyer and the widow of one of the Caravan of Death victims.

Hertz’s husband, Carlos Berger (who was also a lawyer), belonged to the Communist Party of Chile and was detained in the northern desert city of Calama in October of 1973. He was 30 years old at the time, and he and Hertz, who was 26, had an 11-month-old son. Berger was one of 26 detainees who was murdered on October 19, 1973 when the Caravan of Death arrived in Calama. Some 100 other prisoners nationwide met the same fate at the hands of the group.

A lifelong military man who studied in foreign military installations like the US Army’s Fort Leavenworth, Arellano Stark served as an Armed Forces of Chile delegate in the late 1960s and early 1970s to Spain, then led by the dictator Francisco Franco, and had risen in the ranks of the army.

By the time that Augusto Pinochet was made the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army in late August of 1973, Arellano Stark was one of Pinochet’s closest confidants and became one of the main instigators of the military coup that followed.

On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected leftist Salvador Allende was ousted by the Pinochet-led Armed Forces, composed of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Carabineros (military police). As Allende refused to vacate La Moneda, the national palace, Pinochet ordered the complex to be bombed. Rather than surrendering or being killed by military forces, Allende committed suicide by shooting himself just minutes before the Chilean Air Force bombed the building.

Pinochet, who was appointed to the top position in the Armed Forces less than three weeks before he overthrew the man who gave him that position, then assumed leadership and he ruled until 1990 with an iron fist. Over 40,000 people were victims of grave human rights abuses in the South American country during its 1973-1990 dictatorship, including kidnapping, torture, rape, ‘disappearance,’ and murder, and over 1,000 remain missing. Additionally, some 200,000 Chileans were forced out or fled their country during the dictatorship, with tens of thousands still in exile.

This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. This was all done with the staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States. The program’s purpose was to “eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas,” and to suppress and eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against those dictatorships.

Arellano Stark was there from the beginning, having taken part in several secret military meetings in 1972 and 1973 that plotted the possible overthrow of Allende, and the latter knew this and wrote in several documents (that were later declassified) that Arellano Stark should be demoted because he was “seditious” and “plotting a coup.”

Later, on the day of the actual coup, Pinochet assigned Arellano Stark as the leader of the combat groups that would be placed in central Santiago around the national palace. Arellano Stark then plotted and carried out the systematic murders of several of Allende’s aides and confidants and he headed the most repressive operations in the capital during the first three months (September, October and November) of the dictatorship.

Simultaneously, Pinochet tipped Arellano Stark, whose nickname among military peers was the “big, bad wolf,” to head the Caravan of Death in September of 1973.

The following month, the flights and subsequent murders began, and what Arellano Stark ordered had to be done; Marcelo Moren Brito, a member of the Caravan of Death who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013, said that Arellano Stark was “tough and inflexible” as the head of the group and operation and that “his word was law.”

After the operation ended, Arellano Stark ascended to Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. He eventually retired in January of 1976 amid rumors of friction with Pinochet (and Manuel Contreras, head of the notorious state police DINA) and became wealthy as co-owner of a major plumbing fixtures company and also entered the banking sector.

The dictatorship officially ended in 1990, but democracy did not return before Pinochet and many other Armed Forces officials took measures to protect themselves in the aftermath. Those individuals greatly benefited from the Amnesty Decree, a law installed by Pinochet in 1978 that prevents any figures from facing justice due to crimes committed during the dictatorship.

In the case of Arellano Stark, the first attempt at to bring him to court was made by Hertz, the widow and human rights lawyer. The Amnesty Decree, however, was applied immediately and the case was thrown out. Several more attempts to file a case again were made in 1990 following the return of democracy but they produced the same outcome.

Finally, he was brought to justice in 1999 due to the hard work of Chilean judge Juan Guzmán and Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. The two men applied the law of Universal Jurisdiction, which allows those accused of human rights abuses to be tried outside their native country when the country in question does not try the accused due to amnesty laws or decrees of some sort.

Thus, Garzón secured the arrests of the suspects while Guzmán uncovered another loop: even though the Amnesty Decree still has legal value today through Article 93 of the Chilean Penal Code, which stipulates that “criminal and judicial liability is extinguished” in various cases using vague wording and statutes of limitation, Guzmán circumvented it using wording.

The way specific cases, including that of Arellano Stark, have been carried to trial have been as crimes against humanity, a charge that does not have a statute of limitations, thus circumventing the Amnesty Decree. Furthermore, the cases concerned victims whose bodies were never found, so Guzmán successfully argued that those victims’ cases are still ongoing as there was never any closure.

Pinochet died in 2006 before he could face justice due to his years of filing appeals based on senatorial immunity and a variety of health reasons, but Arellano Stark, along with many others, stood trial for the crimes in Calama. He was found guilty, but due to the aforementioned appeals on grounds of dementia and other ailments, he never served a day in prison for his crimes.

The case highlighted how difficult justice is to achieve for the victims’ families and rights groups. The suspects charged and punished through the mechanism of human rights violations, approximately 270 suspects (of which just over 60 are imprisoned), are done so as individuals and not as part of a greater military and governmental scheme, and the sentences have often not reflected the severity of the crimes committed when compared to sentences given to civilians for similar crimes like murder and kidnapping.

Most of the suspects have been tried at sympathetic military courts due to their background but again, not tried as part of a military scheme but as individuals, and many of the judges and prosecutors that have overseen the very small number of cases in civilian courts have been intimidated and have received death threats.

Furthermore, those that have been convicted were initially sent to the now-closed Penal Cordillera in eastern Santiago, a controversial minimum-security prison built in 2005 that housed several Pinochet-era officials and was called a ‘luxury hotel’ by opponents of its existence as it featured computers with Wi-Fi access, cable television, radio, a tennis court, swimming pool, lush gardens and an open barbecue area. The prisoners have now been moved to Punta Peuco, another military prison at the northern edge of Santiago, which is not as comfortable as the Penal Cordillera but is still quite lush by prison standards and houses only those dictatorship-era criminals, not general population convicts.

Those still searching for answers about their friends of family members feel that the existence of the Amnesty Decree is a spit in their faces, especially in a nation where many sectors of politics have reaffirmed their commitment to respecting human rights and justice. A bill to abolish the Amnesty Decree was brought forth by incumbent President Michelle Bachelet in September of 2014, but it has been languishing in Congress without progress since then.

This issue in Congress is indicative of the general political divide in Chile: for the right, the legacy of the dictatorship is a question of “forgiving” and “looking toward the future” while the left asks for a proper clarification of the atrocities committed and amnesty laws revoked, as has been the case in neighboring Argentina.

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