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Death of Pinochet's Secret Police Chief Uncovers Chile's Unhealed Wounds

Detenidos desaparecidos en Chile durante la dictadura de Pinochet. rosario gonzalez

Disappeared detainees in Chile during Pinochet's dictatorship. PHOTO: Rosario González (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The recent death of Manuel Contreras, chief of the feared National Intelligence Directorate—the secret police under the administration of Augusto Pinochet responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering thousands of people between 1973-77—reminded Chile that the wounds of the military dictatorship are still far from being healed.

In 1973, Pinochet overthrew socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, marking the beginning of a military dictatorship that lasted 17 years. During that time, more than 3,000 persons died and tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured.

After Pinochet, Contreras was the regime's second most powerful man. In 1993, he was condemned by the Supreme Court of Chile to 526 years in jail for 75 kidnappings, three murders, two illegal association felonies and a minor abduction. He was serving his sentence at the Punta Peuco prison until he was taken to the Military Hospital in Santiago because of health issues. He died on the night of August 7, 2015 after a long and painful 10 months.

The Chilean Gendarmerie announced his death with a press release that surprised some in its use of terms that are still controversial in the country, such as the adjective to describe Pinochet's rule: “dictatorship” versus “military regime”.

Well done Chilean Gendarmerie calling Manuel Contreras “prisoner” and using “dictatorship” on the press release announcing his death

As soon as the news broke, several dozens of people staged a protest in front of the hospital with flags and chants of disapproval against the high-ranking military officer.

The demonstrations soon turned into festive celebrations in parts of the country's capital city.

NOW: People celebrating the death of Manuel “Mamo” Contreras in Italy Plaza

On Twitter, people expressed conflicting opinions regarding the celebrations, condolences, and the meaning that Contreras’ demise could have for a country still struggling to make peace with its past. The news created such an impact that the hashtag #mamocontreras (“Mamo” was Manuel Contreras’ nickname) became a number one worldwide trending topic.

There's nothing to celebrate when such a sinister criminal like Manuel Contreras dies and takes with him so much information about human rights violations and disappeared detainees’ whereabouts

I see idiots asking for a minute of silence for Manuel Contreras. Weren't 42 years of silence from the military enough?

Right as Manuel Contreras himself predicted, he didn't die in jail. Cry motherfucker communists!

Celebrating the death of a torturer and murderer don't make us communists. Know that.

Interesting human rights tribute: people who lost their loved ones celebrating the death of someone. Oh, well…

The widest contrast in the discussion was the condolences versus the rejection of Contreras.

Contreras died an oppressor, genocidal, coward, infamous man with a title of General  that shames the army and the society.

Sinister, cruel, inhuman assassin. Let he be remembered as the beast who planned and executed tortures and disappearances of thousands.

He was sentenced to 530 years in jail and it wasn't because he was nice. He was a cruel and bloody murderer. Don't ask for respect for a motherfucker.

Thank you for your services to Homeland, my condolences to the Contreras family. May Manuel “Mamo” Contreras rest in peace.

May General (r) Juan Manuel MAMO Contreras rest in peace. “We didn't kill anybody who wasn't a terrorist when they were fighting us”.

Mamo Contreras has passed away. A soldier who died fulfiling his only duty: saving his homeland.

Some shared thoughts on the roads that could lead to the country's reconciliation. The independent Congressman Tucapel Jiménez, son of the union leader murdered during the military dictatorship for opposing the regime, said on an interview for the television network TVN:

Los que representamos la defensa a los Derechos Humanos no podemos celebrar esta muerte, eso es lo que nos diferencia de esta gente. Pero no quiere decir que esté triste.

Contreras podría haber muerto más en paz y ayudando a la verdad. Con él se van a la tumba muchos datos relevantes para conocer el paradero de muchos Detenidos Desaparecidos.

Ojalá esto sea un punto de inflexión y hayan militares que rompan el pacto de silencio y entreguen información. Conocer la verdad y hacer justicia da la tranquilidad y si el país quiere sanar el alma, ese es el camino.

Those of us who defend Human Rights cannot celebrate this death, this is what separates us from these people. But that doesn't mean I am sad.

Contreras could've died in more peace and helping the truth. Lots of relevant information about the whereabouts of several disappeared detainees went with him to the grave.

I hope this is a turning point so that soldiers will break the vow of silence and hand over information. Knowing the truth and serving justice brings peace and if the country wants to heal its soul, that's the way.

On the other side, journalist Francisco Mendez offered a more critical vision of what this event means in his column “Manuel Contreras, foreman of the interests of a group who denies him“:

Pensar que una vez que él muera todo el pasado se irá con él es ser ingenuo y no conocer a Chile y lo que algunos están dispuestos a hacer con tal de mantener sus intereses, sus ideas. El Mamo fue un trabajador de quienes hoy todavía disfrutan de una economía que fue impuesta con tal de aniquilar a todo el que pensara distinto u osara en cuestionar las eternas estructuras de poder en nuestro país. (…)

(…) Separar este personaje del interés particular de un sector es mentirle a la gente. Ponerlo como una muy fea anécdota en nuestra historia es no entender debido a qué intereses surgió. Es seguir negándole a la todos los chilenos, sin importar su clase, cuál es la verdadera razón por la que aún estamos mirando hacia la dictadura y por qué nos costará mucho dejar de hacerlo si es que antes no hay un sinceramiento histórico de quienes tuvieron y tienen el poder hasta el día de hoy.

To think that once he's dead all the past will go away with him would be naive and shows an ignorance of Chile and of the lengths some are willing to go to keep hold of their interests, their ideas. Mamo was an employee of people who still enjoy an economy designed to annihilate anyone who thinks differently or dares to question the eternal structures of power in our country. (…)

(…) To separate this character from the particular interest of a group is to lie to the people. To situate him as an ugly anecdote in our history is to misunderstand the interests that created him. It is to continue to deny to every Chilean, regardless of social class, the real reason we are still looking back to the dictatorship and why it will cost us a lot to stop doing it, unless there's an honest review of history from those who had and still hold power up until today.

Finally, amid the different opinions, there were hopeful conclusions like these:

Your death only leaves us with the commitment to work for a Chile where there can never exist again someone like you…

Some are cheerful, some other mourn the death of Contreras. I am neither sad nor happy: I look to the future, without hating or loving the past

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