Caravan of Death


The Mission

Delegation of the Guilty
A General Resigns
Case History


The Mission

Once the Military Junta had been implanted in Santiago, Augusto Pinochet turned his attention to his commanders outside the capital. In the provincial towns where civil and military officials knew each other and had closer working relations, not all commanders exercised the same iron fist known and feared in Santiago. To ensure that the softer provincial commanders complied with his hard-line policies, Pinochet gave General Sergio Arellano Stark, Brigader General and commander of the Santiago Combat Group, the special mission of establishing "uniform criteria for the administration of justice and to expedite legal trials" of the political prisoners." Pinochet appointed him "Official Delegate of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and President of the Government Junta," granting Arellano authority to act in his name.

Accompanied by a commission of ten Army officers, Arellano traversed the country south and then north from September 30 to October 22 of 1973. The flight of the Puma helicopter of the Army’s Aviation Command with the delegation aboard left a trail of 26 persons dead in the south and 71 in the cities of northern Chile, a chilling tour well deserving of its commonly known name of "Caravan of Death."

In 1999, Arellano explained to Judge Juan Guzman the purpose of the mission entrusted to him:

"Our fundamental concern was that all the accused have an adequate defense. And also that no officer abuse the power of that moment, so as to maintain the good image of the Armed Forces among the civil population."

Despite the stated humanitarian purpose of Arellano’s mission, the facts speak to a different and sinister purpose. With no concern for a guise of legality, as in the case of some War Councils, prisoners were taken out and shot under the cover of night, most of the executions attributed to "attempts to escape."

Retired lieutenant colonel Marcos Herrera Aracena, who spoke with Arellano when the posse arrived October 18, 1973 in Antofagasta where he was military prosecutor for the Army 1st Division testified in this regard to Judge Guzman:

"General Arellano informed me that what Pinochet wanted was to bring an end to the remaining legal processes... In other words, finish with them once and for all."

Olagier Benaventes Bustos, the second in command at the Talca Regiment when Arellano inaugurated his sinister tour there on September 30, 1973, tells of other unstated objectives of the delegation (cited in the book "La Misión era Matar."):

"It seems to me that one of the reasons for the mission was to set a drastic precedent in order to terrorize the presumed willingness of the Chilean people to fight back. But without a doubt, it was also intended to instill fear and terror among the commanders. To prevent any military personnel, down to lowest ranking officers, from taking a false step: this could happen to you!"

Prosecuting attorney Hugo Gutiérrez explains (cited in Prologue of "La misión era matar"):

"Pinochet had a need to correct low sentences imposed on prisoners of war whose sentences had already been handed down. He also needed to sanction military leaders responsible for issuing those lenient convictions, to establish the clear understanding among all members of the Armed Forces that the nation was at war."

Thus, Sergio Arellano Stark’s delegation established the framework for the dictatorship’s foundation by implanting terror in the population and the complete obedience of military officers. In addition to the series of summary executions of prisoners, the following military officers were punished for their "soft" treatment of prisoners:

- In Talca lieutenant colonel Efrain Jaña Giron, constitutionalist officer, in charge of Mountain Regiment N 16 was removed on September 30, 1973 for "failure to fulfill military duties" and replaced by the second in command at that regiment, Olagier Benavente Bustos. He spent two years in prison in Santiago.

- Army Mayor Fernando Reveco Valenzuela presided over the first War Councils of Calama, until late September 1973. On October 2 he was relieved of his position as tribunal president for handing down sentences considered overly lenient by the high command. Reveco was taken to Santiago where he too was found guilty of "failure to fulfill military duties." He was tortured at the Air Force War Academy in Tacna and imprisoned for 15 months.

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Delegation of the Guilty

Who was chosen to form part of the commission and who appointed the participants have been controversial questions. However, criteria for selection become more evident upon examining the characteristics common to this elite group. All members of the Arellano’s mission had proven themselves in military action after the coup, most were members of the Santiago Combat Group under Arellano, and most were known to be cold-blooded military men. In the years following the bloody campaign of the Caravan of Death, the silence they all maintained regarding these events also proved them to be men trustworthy and loyal to their maximum leader Augusto Pinochet.

With the exception of the Puma helicopter pilots, all members of the brigade participated in the tour of duty in southern Chile as well as the northern route, and personally participated in the slaying of the prisoners. The members of the group, in addition to two Infantrymen, were the following Army officers:

- Sergio Arellano Stark, Brigade General and commander of the Santiago Combat Group. Pinochet promoted him General of the Army II Division on December 1, 1973.

- Lieutenant Colonel Sergio Arredondo Gonzalez, Arellano’s Chief of Staff of the Santiago-Central Combat Group. After the Caravan tour of duty, he also was promoted, to the director of the Infantry School.

- Mayor Pedro Espinoza Bravo, at that time of the Army intelligence department, became DINA secret police operations chief. He served less than six years in prison (from June 1995 to January 2001) for his role as intellectual author of the assassination of former Foreign Relations Minister Orlando Letelier.

Captain Marcelo Moren Brito became commander of Villa Grimaldi, the notorious torture and concentration camp, where many disappeared persons were last seen alive.

- Lieutenant Armando Fernandez Larios, of the San Bernardo Infantry School became a DINA operative who served time in U.S. prison for his role in the assassination of Orlando Letelier and is linked to other assassination attempts outside Chilean borders. He was convicted in the United States to 27 months in prison.

Juan Chiminelli Fullerton, mission logistics coordinator, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He worked in the DINA’s foreign operations department.

- Mayor Carlos Lopez Tapia, executioner, became Director of the Metropolitan Division Intelligence, which operated from Villa Grimaldi.

- Antonio Palomo Contreras, helicopter pilot during the swing through the south, was signaled in the year 2000 as one of the personnel who piloted helicopters from which political prisoners were hurled into the sea.

- Emilio de la Mahotiere Gonzalez was copilot in the southern leg of the Caravan and pilot during the tour through northern Chile.

- Luis Felipe Polanco was copilot and executioner in northern Chile.

(See Witness Reveals Details of the Caravan of Death’s Stop in La Serena)

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A General Resigns

On October 18, 1973 Arellano arrived in Antofagasta. While he was spending the night at the home of General Joaquin Lagos, commander of the Army 1st Division and zone chief in State of Siege, his group was in the process of killing fourteen prisoners. Disregarding hierarchy and operating behind the back of Lagos who was his superior officer, Arellano set in motion the massacre planned for Antofagasta with collaboration from the local Military Intelligence Service and several officers subordinate to Lagos. At the time of the events not only was Lagos commander Army 1st Division but was also designated Governor of the province after the coup. Upon request of Arellano, Colonel Adrian Ortiz Gutmann, an officer under Lagos, made available two trucks for taking out the prisoners that night.

Fifty-six persons were executed in Lagos’ jurisdiction: 16 in Copiapo on October 17, in Antofagasta 14 were executed on October 19 and 26 were machine gunned in Calama in the early hours of October 19. The military men exercised particular brutality, often slicing prisoners with machetes before shooting them. When asked why he did not return the bodies to the corresponding families for burial, General Lagos explained that he was too "ashamed" for relatives to discover how Army officers had barbarously slaughtered the 14 men. (See List of Persons Executed by the Caravan of Death)

Not until the morning of October 19, after Arellano had taken his leave, did Joaquin Lagos learn what had happened that night. Some 28 years later, recalling that moment on national television, Lagos remarked:

"I felt hurt, powerless and angry ... that a criminal action of this nature that had been committed in my jurisdictional zone and behind my back."

That same day he requested a meeting with Pinochet who had stopped momentarily in Antofagasta on his way north, and asked him to accept his resignation. Lagos remembers that after he denounced the executions, the commander-in-chief picked up the telephone to call Arellano in Iquique. When he failed to locate him, Pinochet left the following message

" ‘Tell general Arellano not to do anything more.’ "

It is believed that Lagos’ denunciation brought a halt to the spiral of murders.

On November 1, 1973 Pinochet returned to Lagos the report he had prepared about what had happened in his zone, ordering him to omit all reference to what Sergio Arellano Stark had done as his Official Delegate. In 1999, retired general Joaquin Lagos acknowledged that he had been compelled to alter the report. He also revealed that he had taken the precaution of keeping the original document rejected by Pinochet. More than 27 years later, thanks to the foresight of Lagos, the two documents could be compared. Lagos indicated that on the bottom of the page listing the persons executed, Pinochet ordered him to erase the phrase "under orders of the Delegate of the Commander-in-chief" and place his own signature. In that way, Lagos could be held responsible for the crimes committed in his jurisdictional zone.

When called to testify before Judge Juan Guzman, both Pinochet (January 23, 2001) and Arellano (1999) affirmed that responsibility for the killings lay with the regiment directors, an implicit reference to retired general Joaquin Lagos. Despite their maneuvers to evade their responsibility, on June 1999 Guzman indicted Caravan of Death members including their Arellano and in 2000, accused Pinochet as abettor of the crimes.

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Case History

Attorneys: Juan Bustos, Carmen Hertz, Hugo Gutierrez, Eduardo Contreras, Alfonso Insunza, Hiram Villagra

The Military Junta’s Decree Law N. 5 created a new interpretation of article 418 of the Military Justice Code, in which state of siege became synonymous with state of internal war.

Eduardo Contreras, a plaintiff attorney in the case, explains this was intended to: "...justify the war councils and avoid fair trials in civil courts. The intent was to give themselves license to kill. What the Junta did not realize was that in doing so, it was already laying the groundwork for its future condemnation in court."

By invoking the War Statutes, as of September 11, 1973, Chile’s Military Justice Code came into effect, but also the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit summary executions of war prisoners. Since the Supreme Court’s 1998 recognition of the preeminence of the Geneva Conventions, not a single crime has been subjected to the amnesty law. This was one of the factors that made possible the achievements gains in the Caravan of Death case. (See Avenues and Obstacles to Justice)

Key moments in the case

January 22, 1998
The first criminal complaint was filed against Augusto Pinochet for the crimes committed by the military delegation headed by Sergio Arellano Stark. The family of lawyer Hector Mario Silva, executed Antofagasta, filed the complaint on October 19, 1973.

June 25, 1998
The Association of Relatives of Executed Political Prisoners of filed the second complaint in connection with the Caravan of Death Calama for the abduction and murder of 26 persons in Calama October 19, 1973.

June 8, 1999
The Santiago Court of Appeals indicted five members of the Caravan of Death - Sergio Arellano Stark, Marcelo Moren Brito, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, and Sergio Arredondo Gonzalez- for the abduction and homicide of 19 persons.

August 8, 2000
The full Supreme Court, in a vote of 16 in favor and 4 opposed, confirmed the removal of congressional immunity from Augusto Pinochet, due to probable cause of his involvement as author, accomplice or abettor in the Caravan of Death.

December 1, 2000
Judge Juan Guzman indicted Augusto Pinochet as coauthor of the crimes of aggravated abduction and first degree murder committed by the Caravan of Death in La Serena, Copiapo, Calama and Antofagasta. The ruling included 18 executed prisoners whose remains had not been found and 57 whose remains were located, identified and given to their families.

July 9, 2001
The Sixth Chamber of the Court of Appeals ordered the temporary and partial dismissal of lifetime Senator Pinochet, despite his refusal to be submitted to fingerprinting. The ruling leaves Pinochet out of Judge Guzman’s investigation of the homicides and abductions with which he was charged in the Caravan of Death. The Appellate court founded its decision on the new Code of Criminal Procedures which exempts an accused from sentencing on account of dementia or madness. Plaintiff attorneys filed a Motion to Vacate as, the Code of Criminal Procedures was not yet in effect at the time the court ruled. A final say on this motion as well as a subsequent Motion of Inapplicability is still pending from the Supreme Court.
(See Letter from Dr. Luis Fornazzari, and Consideraciones Biblicas y Juridicas

July 1, 2002
The Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court dictated definitive dismissal of Augusto Pinochet. In a 4-1 vote
the judges found that conditions of dementia incapacitate Pinochet, rendering him unfit to stand trial. The judgment was the high court's reply to the motions to dismiss on grounds of errors of law filed by the plaintiffs after the Court of Appeals ruling of July 9, 2001, temporarily dismissing procedure against Pinochet on account of dementia or madness.
The Supreme Court's ruling cites medical expert exams as proof that Pinochet suffers from mild to moderate dementia. The ruling ventures beyond the medical expert report, however, in affirming that Pinochet's mental condition is incurable. On account of his alleged mental problems Pinochet is not in condition to exercise due process rights and stand trial, the judgment states.
In hearings held May 16 and 22, 2002 plaintiff attorneys Eduardo Contreras and Juan Pavin argued that the application of the new Code of Criminal Procedure was contrary to law, as this new Judicial Reform is not yet in force in the Santiago Metropolitan Region. This had constituted the basis for the motions to dismiss. They also argued that the medical expert reports fail to confirm Pinochet is either demented or insane, for which reason they sought that the ruling be repealed and new medical exams conducted. Defense attorney Pablo Rodriguez again argued that Pinochet is innocent of the crimes charged against him. He sustained that the Appeal Court ruling is founded on a modern and current interpretation of procedural regulations, for which reason the decision should be upheld.

October 15, 2008
In the first sentence in the Caravana of death case, the Supreme Court convicted retired general Sergio Arellano Stark to 6 years in prison for the executions of Socialist Party members Teofilo Arce Tolosa, Jose Sepúlveda Baeza, Leopoldo Gonzalez Norambuena and Segundo Sandoval Gómez, on Octobre 2, 1973 in the area of San Javier.

Arellano Stark and his military convoy arrived at the Linares Artillary School where he ordered colonel Gabriel del Rio to execute the four detainees. When the colonel refused, Arellano then ordered military prosecutor Carlos Romero Muñoz to carry out the executions.

The Supreme Court sentenced Carlos Romero Muñoz also to 6 years in prison, and sentenced Mario Cazenave Pontanilla, Jose Parada Muñoz and Julio Barrios Espinace to four years on parole. It also ruled that the Chilean Treasury must pay family members 80 million pesos in damages.

Judges Hugo Dolmestch, Jaime Rodriguez, Carlos Kunsemuller and attorney Juan Carlos Carcamo voted to sentence Arellano, while judge Ruben Ballesteros voted to invoke statutes of limitation.

(See Cordero Report)


Hugo Gutierrez, prosecuting attorney offers his appraisal of the case.

(Excerpt of Interview conducted by Memoria y Justicia February 21, 2002. For full text see Interview with Hugo Gutierrez)

Was the temporary dismissal a judicial solution to a political problem?I believe the temporary dismissal of the Pinochet indictment is a negotiated way out. What happened in the Pinochet trial is the consequence of the kind of political transition we have in Chile. Our country has the degree of justice that the political transition permits us to have. We advanced all we could in the Pinochet case, but we have reached a limit.

The results have been good, although our expectations were much higher. Common sense said that we would not be able to get very far in bringing Pinochet to justice. Pinochet accepted the most indignant way out of all: he ended up as a criminal madman. He failed to weigh this in historic terms. Certainly, it favors him in the immediate future, but in the long term it will hurt him tremendously.

The defense never argued that Pinochet was innocent of charges.That's right. His defense argued he was affected by certain physical and mental conditions that impeded him from facing trial. In the beginning, both in the immunity hearings as well as the criminal trial, but principally in the immunity hearings, the defense always argued that Pinochet was not in condition to physically face a trial. Later, we noted a change in the defense strategy. They looked for a solution tailor-made to fit Pinochet and that turned out to be temporary dismissal for madness and dementia. Pinochet was the sole beneficiary of that solution. The indictments stand for the other defendants and it is quite possible that all of them will be convicted.


Attorney Contreras: Caravan of Muerte is not a government concession

The decision to deprive Pinochet of immunity and the developments in the Caravan of Death case were not concessions from the government. They were the result of years of struggle by human rights defenders, victims, family members of victims and human rights organizations. The strength of the case prevailed despite the lack of judicial independence. It was a surprise for the establishment. I do not believe the achievements of the case were negotiated previously, but that the force of the facts clearly pointed to the criminal responsibility of Pinochet.

Jurisprudence implications of the cases investigated by Guzman

Guzman’s decisions showed that those weak signs that had begun to appear in isolated cases against lower ranking military men could be applied directly to Pinochet and all the crimes committed by the dictatorship. Because the complaints against Pinochet are for all the human rights violations committed by the dictatorship. That the crimes are separated in different court files and labeled Caravana, Calle Conferencia, Pisagua and Villa Grimaldi does not mean these are the only cases.... These are really one single legal action with the dictatorship as defendant. The contribution of Guzman’s investigations is that they test to what extent these new but isolated criteria related to Geneva Conventions, amnesty law, and statutes of limitations, which have been applied in cases against lower military officers, are applicable in confronting the number one guilty party. And the results have been positive.

To learn more about these subjects, we recommend the following books:

"La Misión era Matar: El Juicio a la Caravana Pinochet-Arellano," Jorge Escalante Hidalgo, LOM Ediciones, 2000.

"Pruebas a la Vista ," Patricia Verdugo, LOM Ediciones, 2001


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