Lost in Fresia

The following is an excerpt from The Investigative Brigade: Hunting Human Rights Criminals in Post-Pinochet Chile by Pascale Bonnefoy Miralles, available now from your favorite bookstore.

Lost in Fresia

The rain poured down in torrents, and wind whipped against the small Cessna plane suspended in the black of night in flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt. The four passengers on board bounced around like Ping-Pong balls, joking and squirming childishly to calm their nerves. Eduardo Giorgi, their pilot from the Investigations Police of Chile (PICH), scolded, “Quit clowning around!”

The trip was short but filled with tension. Former detective Héctor Silva recalls that the aircraft, buffeted by gusts of wind on its approach, nearly plunged to the ground as it came in for a landing at Puerto Montt’s Tepual airport.

“Mamo is haunting us,” Silva thought. “He doesn’t want us to get there.”

It wasn’t the stormy southern weather that was putting the detectives’ nerves so on edge. They had a great deal at stake: their unpredictable mission was to find and detain retired general Manuel “Mamo” Contreras Sepúlveda, the former chief of the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the military dictatorship’s first arm of repression.

It was September 17, 1991, and the detectives—each trained in the investigation of homicides—were about to embark upon a daring venture.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s words, pronounced at the end of 1989, months before he relinquished the presidency—but not power—still resonated.

“Lay a hand on one of my men, and the rule of law is over!” he warned any and all future civilian government leaders. Manuel Contreras, the object of the detectives’ search, had been Pinochet’s right-hand man, the one who gave a report to the general, and to the general only, every morning. Contreras was the one who with great efficiency directed the dirty work of the dictatorship’s first years. And Contreras, no less than Pinochet, still retained an aura of untouchability.

Thinking back on the flight, now retired detective Nelson Jofré recalls, “I don’t believe, at that moment, that we had sized up what it all meant. We knew the matter was delicate, and we went from being calm one moment to nervous the next. Between this and that joke, we just went with the flow. It was a kind of therapy.”

They were traveling to Chile’s southern region to arrest and detain the country’s once second-most-powerful man, and no one knew how their journey would end. They hadn’t taken anything special with them, only their badges and standard-issue handguns.

As for a plan, they didn’t have one.

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Pascale Bonnefoy Miralles is an investigative journalist based in Santiago, Chile, and associate professor of journalism at the University of Chile, Santiago.  

Russ Davidson, a distinguished translator, is curator emeritus of Latin American and Iberian Collections and professor emeritus of librarianship at the University of New Mexico.