Officers Arrested in 1986 Burning Death of U.S. Student in Chile
Chilean army officers in custody over 1986 attack on activists burned alive
A mother’s 29-year quest for justice
Washington D.C., July 31, 2015 – General Augusto Pinochet refused to accept a police report identifying his own military as responsible for burning two teenage protesters alive in July 1986, according to declassified U.S. documents posted today by the National Security Archive. Pinochet’s action initiated a high-level cover-up of the infamous human rights atrocity known as the case of “Los Quemados”—the burned ones—which killed 19-year old Rodrigo Rojas de Negri and severely disfigured 18-year old Carmen Gloria Quintana.
The cover-up, which lasted almost three decades, included kidnapping and intimidation of witnesses and pressure on Chilean judges and lawyers, according to top secret White House, CIA and Defense Department records.
Yesterday, a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of an Army officer and four members of his patrol, in addition to seven others detained last week, for dousing Rojas and Quintana with a flammable liquid, setting them on fire and dumping them in a ditch to die, following a street protest against military rule on July 2, 1986. Both initially survived; but Rojas, sequestered by the military in a clinic with inadequate facilities, died from burns over 60 percent of his body four days later.
Only five days after Rojas died, according to a detailed State Department cable, General Rodolfo Stange, chief of the Chilean police and also a member of Pinochet’s ruling junta, presented him with an investigative report identifying the army units responsible for the atrocity. “President Pinochet told General Stange that he did not believe the report, and he refused to receive the report,” according to the declassified cable.
Stange subsequently provided the report to one of Pinochet’s deputies, Army vice-commander Santiago Sinclair, who promised an investigation “within 48 hours.” Instead of acting on the report, however, Sinclair oversaw intense efforts to silence witnesses and bury evidence, according to a soldier who recently broke his years of silence..
“One eyewitness was briefly kidnapped, blindfolded, and threatened if he did not change his testimony,” the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported in an intelligence assessment classified TOP SECRET RUFF UMBRA. “Some members of the government will quite likely continue to intimidate the witnesses in order to persuade them to change their testimony, thereby clearing the military.” According to a heavily censored CIA intelligence report, titled “Government of Chile Pressure to Drop Investigation and Prosecution of Rojas Case,” regime officials intimidated judges and lawyers and intervened to stall legal efforts in the courts to bring those responsible to justice.
The case of Los Quemados received significant attention in the United States because Rojas was a resident of Washington D.C., where he lived with his exiled mother, Veronica de Negri. President Ronald Reagan received a secret briefing paper on the atrocity, which stated that Chile’s own intelligence service “has fingered Army personnel as clearly involved.” The murder of Rojas “drove the final wedge between Washington and the Pinochet regime,” according to The Pinochet File, written by National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh, and contributed to Reagan’s decision to withdraw support for the regime and press for a return to civilian rule.
According to Kornbluh, who obtained the Rojas documents for his book, the U.S. records could bolster the testimony of witnesses in Chile and provide evidence in the upcoming prosecution. “Carmen Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas, who I watched grow up in Washington, deserve legal and historical justice,” he noted. “The declassified U.S. records can advance both international memory of the victims and, after so many years, legal accountability for the atrocity committed against them.”
Read the Documents:
Shortly after Rodrigo Rojas died, the U.S. embassy transmitted a detailed and excruciating report on the events that led to his death at the hands of Chilean army units. The cable summarizes how he and Carmen Gloria Quintana were detained, beaten and burned, and then abandoned for dead in a ditch. Interviews with doctors who tried to treat Rojas revealed that their efforts to transfer him to a hospital for better treatment were blocked by the Chilean military.
Drawing on a high-level informant in the Chilean Carabineros (police service) the U.S. embassy transmitted the conclusions of investigators that Chilean army officers were responsible for setting Rojas and Quintana on fire and leaving them for dead. The source shared detailed information on the futile efforts by the head of the Carabineros, Gen. Rodolfo Stange, to get Pinochet and his subordinates to investigate the army’s role in the atrocity. Pinochet refused to receive the report from Stange, and subsequently denounced Rojas and Quintana as “terrorists” killed by their “own Molotov cocktails.” The events described in the cable suggest that the cover-up of the crime emanated from the highest levels of the Pinochet regime—General Pinochet himself.
In the weeks following the death of Rojas and burning of Quintana, DIA sources shared information about efforts to intimidate witnesses, which included kidnapping and threats. The intelligence indicated a concerted effort to cover up the Chilean military’s responsibility for this human rights crime.
Here, the CIA reports on efforts by Pinochet’s subordinates to pressure judges and lawyers “to stall and dismiss” the case against military officers in the Rojas murder. More than two-thirds of the document is redacted, suggesting that the CIA is withholding detailed insider intelligence on the cover-up and who was involved—information likely relevant to the current Los Quemados investigation and prosecution in Chile.
This report reflects the only known time when a specific human rights crime in Chile was included in the evening briefing papers of the President of the United States. Reagan is informed that “an investigation by Chilean intelligence has fingered army personnel as clearly involved,” even as General Pinochet is publicly claiming the victims were terrorists killed by “their own molotov cocktails.”