Copa América 2015: The Dark Side of Estadio Nacional

By Rohan Chatterjee @RohanChatterje1

On Saturday, all eyes in Latin America turned to the Copa América final in Santiago, Chile. The tournament hosts, Chile, beat Argentina from spot kicks in the Estadio Nacional as La Roja booked their place in the history books by winning their first Copa in its 99- year history.

As is customary in Chilean football, the entire country was abuzz with excitement as 47,000 expectant fans crammed into the Estadio Nacional, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere. That is, all except for one small section at the stadium’s north end, just behind the goalmouth, which in the midst of all the commotion remained hauntingly silent and empty. Here, a collection of weathered benches were illuminated in pale yellow lighting, serving as a sombre reminder of a much darker past, for both the stadium and for Chile.

Events in Chile shook the world on 11 September 1973 as tanks rolled into downtown Santiago, surrounding the Presidential Palace. A military coup had been launched by General Augusto Pinochet -supported by US and UK governments- to overthrew the democratically-elected left-wing President, Salvador Allende. Following that fateful day, Chile went on to endure 17 brutal years of dictatorial rule where some 3,065 people were killed or disappeared and a further 37,000 are officially classed as victims.

The stadium, spiritual home to Chilean football and thus an integral part of the country’s identity, has hosted some notable games including the 1962 World Cup Final. But, in 1973 it was transformed into one of the hundreds of camps where Pinochet’s political opponents were rounded up, tortured and killed. It was by no means the only place which felt the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime: as former prisoner, René Castro, puts it: “the stadium became a synonym for the cruelty of Pinochet”.

Varying estimates claim that anywhere in the region of 7,000 to 40,000 people were detained and tortured over an eight- week period as the stadium became a makeshift concentration camp for Pinochet’s junta. Today, official records state 41 prisoners were murdered while interned; however many believe the number to have been in the hundreds.

Wally Kuntsman, President of Human Rights Organisation, ANEXPP (Organisation for ex-Political Prisoners), detailed some of the atrocities carried out: “Every part of the stadium was used in detaining prisoners, torturing and killing them. Even the pitch was used to shoot people… that includes the gardens where women were raped, repeatedly… there are at least two or three eyewitness accounts of very old men hanging from the trees for hours at a time.”

Prisoners were forced to sleep outside, given routine beatings as well as denied food, water and bathroom access. The dressing rooms were converted into torture chambers where prisoners were subjected to interrogations, electric shocks and sexual assaults.

The national team coach of that time, the German Rudi Guttendorf, (he fled the country because of his relationship with Allende) claims a wall he installed for free-kick practice was used to line up, and shoot, some 100-200 people.

Among those killed was the legendry Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. At the time the authorities claimed he died in a car crash; however multiple eyewitnesses place him in the stadium. Another, American journalist, Charles Horman, had been taken by the military on suspicion of collecting information of US backing for the coup. Horman was executed in an unknown part of the stadium and his body is buried in one of the stadium’s walls.

The Estadio Nacional, however, could not remain a makeshift prison indefinitely and returned to its intended purpose on 9 November 1973, though not without further controversy.

Prior to the coup, Chile had been preparing for their final 1974 World Cup qualifying game against the Soviet Union after the first leg ended scoreless in Moscow. The winners of the match would earn a place at the finals in Germany the following year. After watching events unfold the Soviets threatened to boycott the game, labelling the stadium ‘a place of blood’.

FIFA dutifully promised to investigate claims and closed their investigation, giving the game a green light to proceed. The USSR, true to their word, forfeited their place. With no opponents, FIFA decreed Chile must score to claim the victory needed so the players lined up in a half-empty stadium, waving to fans, before scoring in an unguarded net. On the field that day, Carlos Ceszely, famous for refusing to shake Pinochet’s hand, later said, “[the] team did the most ridiculous thing in history. It was a worldwide embarrassment”. Even today, a terrible football match is known as a ‘Pinochet’: a horror show before a full house.

During their inspections, FIFA’s delegates failed to find anything that should stop the game. Jorge Montealegre, recalled events: “they kept us down below, hidden in the locker rooms and in the tunnels…we were kept inside, because there were journalists following the FIFA officials.” Fellow detainee Felipe Agüero, believes “they [FIFA] only cared about the grass, they knew we were there, they just weren’t looking”.

This March, Chile celebrated 25 years of a return to democracy after 17 years under Pinochet, who was never held accountable for crimes committed during Chile’s darkest years. Even today, the country is battling to remove his legacy with many monuments, buildings and streets -including the main southern highway- bearing his name.

In recent years, the Estadio Nacional, has played a more progressive role in the country’s transition to democracy and the reconciliation process.

The stadium, in 1987 as Pinochet’s grip on power began to loosen, hosted Pope John Paul II who celebrated mass and labelled the edifices as “a place of pain and suffering”. In a more practical role, the stadium was used as a polling site for the 1988 elections that signalled the end of dictatorial rule. Again, symbolically, the building which was so central to the beginning of the dictatorship was used to celebrate the victory of the first democratically elected President, Patricio Aylwin, which ceremoniously closed Pinochet’s era.

Today, the stadium continues its role in remembrance of the violations carried out by the dictatorship. In addition to the unchanged benches, there are further memorials to the victims within the grounds. A group of former political prisoners have also put up large black-and-white photos from the time detailing conditions they endured. Furthermore, every year on the coup’s anniversary thousands of people light candles in remembrance.

Natalia Riffo, Chile’s Minister of Sport, speaks of the importance the stadium has in the process: “to see the stands illuminated for Chile’s first match in the Copa America was moving”. “The Estadio Nacional is much more than a sporting venue. We have to have the responsibility for marking this stadium as a memorial site,” she continued. Wally Kuntsmann and ANEXPP are also working to publicise the stadium’s history. “This policy of state terrorism was perpetrated by Chileans against Chileans…these sites are the proof that this happened”.

Thankfully, the Estadio Nacional is now a place for celebration and excitement. A sentiment ex-prisoners have been fairly unanimous in sharing is a desire to preserve the stadium for people to enjoy. Wenseslao Carreño, a member of the Union of Ex-Political Prisoners of Chile (UNExPP) says the group has no problem with the tournament taking place because it helps “to remember what happened”. René Castro recalls how, when he was held in the stadium, he could “remember some of the other prisoners talking about going to games there”. Now, though, for him, “it is a place for football. People have fun there”.

During the final, while the packed stadium watched on, above the empty wooden benches a banner held a sober reminder to Chile, and the world, of what occurred within the very same walls.

The solemn message read: ‘A people without memory is a people without a future”.

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