Still Missing in Chile
In September 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup that he did not survive. General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship followed. Who overthrew Allende, why, and what explains his death, remain hotly contested issues in legislative and judicial proceedings in Chile, the United States, and Spain. Some blame the Nixon administration, the CIA, and/or the Pentagon, while others cite Chilean actions, especially Allende’s bad politics. Some allege that American-controlled Chilean military officers assassinated Allende, while others believe he took his own life. This coup represents Exhibit A to those who take a prosecutorial attitude toward the United States government when writing the history of American foreign relations. According to National Security Archives researcher Peter Kornbluh, “Chile remains the ultimate case study of morality — the lack of it — in the making of U.S. foreign policy.”
The Church Committee investigated the coup in 1975, finding “no hard evidence” that the CIA had done it, and professional historianshave convincingly rejected narratives that reduce this event to the agency’s covert operations, too. Meanwhile, Chileans subjected Allende’s remains to three autopsies. La Nación, Chile’s official newspaper, published the latest results, including a ballistics report, in July 2011. This report reconfirms, beyond any doubt, that the president committed suicide. He sat down, placed his AK-47 on the floor, pointing it up under his chin, and fired two rounds. The Chilean Supreme Court finally closed the case last January.
This closure notwithstanding, angry allegations against the United States persist. One interpretation, a conspiracy theory, alleges that the shadowy “Milgroup,” the American military mission in Chile, not only engineered the coup under cover of the annual UNITAS naval maneuvers, but that it assassinated Allende — and then executed two Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.
These allegations became deeply embedded in popular imagination in Chile, the United States, and several other countries through an oft-cited book, Missing: The Execution of Charles Horman, and the Oscar-winning Hollywood film by the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. The man behind this is New York attorney Thomas Hauser.
According to Hauser, Captain Ray Davis (USN) commanded not only Milgroup, but the Chilean armed forces as well. Thus he was among the most powerful men in Chile, second only to the American ambassador. Davis’s subordinate, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryan directed the Chilean Navy from his offices in Valparaíso, which was where both men were when the coup began on 11 September.
Hauser recounts how the Chilean Army stormed La Moneda, the presidential palace, that day, the first officer inside firing six rounds into Allende’s abdomen before another soldier approached the president’s body and fired a machine gun into his head.
Meanwhile, American citizen Charles Horman and his friend Terry Simon were visiting Viña del Mar. Confined to their hotel, they found Arthur Creter, a U.S. Navy covert operator, who bragged, “We came down to do a job and it’s done.” He also met Davis and Ryan, who proudly recounted all they had done while driving them back to Santiago — all this simply because they recognized Horman as a fellow American. But Davis soon changed his mind and ordered Horman’s execution, which the Chilean military intelligence services duly did.
Hauser claims he learned this from Simon. She escaped Horman’s fate because Davis was sexually interested in her, and she was somehow able to return to the safety of the United States to tell her tale.
He also cited interviews with Rafael González, a civilian Chilean intelligence operator seeking asylum. González claimed only to have translated during Horman’s interrogation, reporting that “Horman was killed because he knew too much. And this was done between the CIA and the local authorities.”
Someone in this chain of reporting fabricated much of this narrative, as the most recent autopsy made undeniably clear.
Hauser and others rejected the first autopsy because the Chilean military and police supervised the proceedings. It became more difficult to continue dismissing it after Chileans transitioned to civilian rule. A new government exhumed Allende’s body, reinterring him in Santiago’s Cementerio General in 1990. Several officials, including a medical doctor, examined the president’s remains and reported a head injury consistent with the first autopsy’s findings. They saw no other wounds. Análisis, a leftist Chilean magazine, urged Chileans to reconcile themselves to this and move on, to no avail.
Numerous historians, still under Hauser’s spell, breathed new life into his narrative after British authorities detained Pinochet in fall 1998, the Clinton administration declassified over twenty thousand documents, and Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) instructed the CIA to disclose “All activities of officers, covert agents, and employees of all elements of the Intelligence Community with respect to the assassination of President Salvador Allende.”
Chilean courts leapt into action, reopening the investigation into Allende’s “assassination” and more. Last month, a Chilean judge indicted Davis, posthumously, for having a fundamental role in creating Horman’s death. The judge accepted Hauser’s argument that Chilean military intelligence officers could never have executed Horman without Davis’s instructions. Some are interpreting this as, finally, official vindication of Hauser’s narrative. Thus it will likely continue. Unfortunately, without more imaginative researchers, and without Chilean records or honest testimony from González and his superiors, we may never reconstruct why Chileans targeted Horman, what happened during the interrogation, and why they killed him.
Hauser’s fantastic narrative shares the same distortions that mar much of the writing on U.S.-Latin American relations. It exaggerates American influence in Chile, and badly mischaracterizes the two countries’ military relationship. It assumes that the United States functions as the prime mover in all things anticommunist, with actors such as Allende and the Chilean officer corps representing either tragic, powerless victims or mindless puppets. It fails to even consider alternative scenarios, such as Chilean intelligence officers’ possibly targeting Horman on their own, and for their own purposes. Indeed, it refuses to appreciate the dictatorship’s xenophobia in its early years, when it detained not only American, but British and Spanish citizens, among many others, and brazenly assassinated former Allende officials in Argentina, Italy, and the United States. That is, this narrative remains blind to the fact that Chileans, above all the dictatorship, had their own agendas and were acting.
James Lockhart is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Arizona. He specializes in U.S.-Latin American relations. He will defend his dissertation, “Reimagining Chile’s Cold War Experience: America, Britain, and Chile, 1945-1970,” this fall.
Photo credit: Jorge Barahona Ch.