Chile murder mystery: Who killed Victor Jara?

AP News
Posted: Nov 26, 2009 2:31 AM

Who killed Victor Jara?

The notorious murder of the popular folk singer _ who became a symbol of resistance after he was tortured and shot to death in the chaotic first days of Chile's 1973 coup _ has never been solved.

The soldiers involved were ordered long ago to carry their secrets to their graves or face a similar fate. Jara's brutal death _ his hands were smashed, head beaten and body pumped with at least 44 bullets _ was meant as a warning to anyone who challenged Gen. Augusto Pinochet's authority during the long, dark years of Chile's dictatorship.

The climate of fear remains, even with two decades of democracy and Pinochet dead and buried. But some facts are finally emerging after 36 years of silence, institutional resistance, blind turns and myth-making about Jara, who was detained in a stadium with 5,000 other supporters of ousted President Salvador Allende.

His struggle and death have been immortalized by everyone from American folk singer Pete Seeger to Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the Irish rockers U2.

Because of the tenacity of his widow, Joan Jara, whose personal appeal encouraged stadium survivors to provide testimony and evidence to the courts, his murder case has regained momentum in the last year. Court investigators have methodically tracked down and interrogated hundreds of aging former soldiers who were drafted into Pinochet's army.

In June, Jara's body was exhumed for a proper autopsy. The family now has the resulting forensics report, the Victor Jara Foundation confirmed Wednesday, and has scheduled a news conference for Thursday. Ballistics and other evidence from the autopsy may help investigators identify who ordered the killing _ and who fired a handgun into Jara's skull that night.

"Where there is a bullet, there is a gun," Nelson Caucoto, Joan Jara's attorney, told The Associated Press. "Behind a draftee is the order of an officer _ we are interested in the officer."

While most former soldiers have refused to talk, one Army draftee, Jose Paredes, has described the murder and named the officers he said were responsible.

Paredes, now charged with Jara's murder, denies firing a machine gun into the singer's dying body. He said he told interrogators that a lieutenant known as "El Loco," the Crazy One, held Jara against a dressing room wall and played Russian roulette until a bullet blasted through the singer's skull.

Paredes described how a superior officer then ordered soldiers to finish Jara off and turn their Sig Sauer machine guns on 14 other detainees to eliminate witnesses inside the stadium, which has since been renamed Estadio Victor Jara as a memorial.

Paredes twice signed declarations describing his sworn testimony. Then, after a group of former draftees found him a lawyer and got him transferred to a military prison, he recanted.

In a lengthy AP interview, Paredes said the investigators put him under such psychological pressure that he would have signed any confession to make them stop. "So I signed _ I sang like a little baby bird."

Paredes said his unit was assigned elsewhere and that he was able to describe Jara's death only because soldiers from another unit told him days later what had happened in the dressing room the night of Sept. 15, 1973.

"They need to investigate higher, to look at the officers," Paredes said. "If they give me an order in a time of war, I have to obey."

Paredes is free pending trial. Caucoto said other evidence suggests the ex-soldier was telling the truth the first time.

Joan Jara says Paredes shouldn't be the only one held accountable for her husband's murder, since he would have been killed as well had he refused orders to shoot.

"I don't think he's guilty," she told the AP. "The guilty ones are Pinochet for giving license to kill and torture _ and all the other people who were part of it and enjoyed it, killing with gusto."

Human rights investigators with the judicial police, acting under the direction of appellate Judge Juan Eduardo Fuentes, still have to interview about 80 former draftees, Caucoto says. A police spokesman said they can't comment while the investigation remains incomplete.

Their main targets are "El Loco" and another officer who used a whip as he swaggered around the stadium, declaring himself to be "The Prince" as he cruelly beat and taunted the detainees.

The process has been particularly hard on Joan Jara, who watched her husband's body being pulled from his grave.

Now 82, she has carried the burden of the Jara case for decades. Surrounded by pictures of Jara and displays of his albums, poems, guitar and poncho at the Victor Jara Foundation, a cultural center in Santiago, her eyes rimmed with tears as she recalled how a morgue worker helped her identify and bury Jara before she fled into exile with their two daughters.

Even if Jara's murder is solved, she says Chile can't achieve justice without addressing all 3,197 people, according to an official count, who were slain for political reasons before Pinochet finally ceded the presidency in 1990.

"There's a tendency to say, and even government leaders say this, that we're working for justice particularly in the emblematic cases," she said. "Victor is an emblematic case. I can have the hope that we can discover the truth and perhaps even achieve justice, that those responsible could be sentenced. But it's not right that so many other cases are left unresolved."


Associated Press Writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.