Chilean Gothic

A few years ago right at this time of year, when I still lived in Santiago, Chile, I was walking home and listening on my ipod to the Snap Judgment Halloween broadcast about true ghost stories. 

The sunset on the Andes mountains was blood red. Shadows lengthened and the night descended, As I turned to walk up the street, absorbed in the podcast, my heart skipped a beat as I stumbled upon what looked like a dead body on the sidewalk. It turned out to be two jumbo bags of garbage wrapped in black plastic.

Then I realized I had taken a wrong turn and absent-mindedly walked up a street parallel to mine. I was  next to the high wall of a cloister, one of the few remaining in the city. There’s a small chapel guarded by gates edged by the tops of trees from an inner garden. Only a few elderly nuns live there. But I am told that the courtyard houses a well-populated cemetery waiting to receive them.

I continued up the street, still listening to Snap Judgment’s stories of haunted houses and the ghosts with unfinished business who inhabit them.  Suddenly, I was seized by a strange sensation. A chill. An uneasiness that pierced me like a cold wind.

I looked up to see that I was walking past the condominium at Simón Bolivar 8800. It looked like any other condominium in my neighborhood, with identical houses lining a driveway and an automatic gate, Everything looked familiar but I felt surrounded by strangeness. I could tell I was in the presence of ghosts, and not only through my earphones.

I realized that I was standing on the sidewalk of what was once the Cuartel de la Brigada Latauro, where, in the mid-1970s, Pinochet's secret agents killed some 200 opponents of the military dictatorship. The location of this singular house of horrors was one of the last to be discovered after the fall of the regimine because nobody came out alive.

It wasn’t until one of those agents -- a teen recruited to serve coffee and clean up bloodied cells -- told his story that the site was pinpointed. Just two blocks from my house.

Today, ordinary houses stand on grounds where were men and women were tortured and killed, some allegedly poisnined with sarin gas. Their bodies were stuffed into plastic bags and dumped into mine shafts or dropped from helicopters into the sea. Until the testimony of agent Jorgelino Vergara, known as “El Mocito” (The Busboy), these men and women were among the “disappeared" who had been snatched off Santiago streets by men in dark glasses and never heard from again.

Vergara was an orphan from the countryside, sent as a boy to work as a servant in the home of the head of the secret police and later “promoted” to similar duties at the extermination center. When other agents accused him of committing murder during his stay in Simón Bolivar, he claimed instead to be a victim, broke the pact of silence and testified -- unrepentant -- in horrific detail about operations within the center and the fate of its occupants.

In the years since these revelations, neighbors like myself have had to come to grips with the fact that our placid streets were once the path of the death march to the extermination center from the Villa Grimaldi detention/torture center, a few kilometers away. Former secret police chief Manuel Contreras is locked up nearby, but most of the 60 agents accused of human rights violations on the basis of Vergara’s testimony continue to walk our streets.

But even before these details past came to light, neighbors spoke of the condominium as the “condemonio” (“with the devil”), a place where wailing voices were heard and neighbors preferred not to question the comings and goings of unlicensed cars with darkened windows.  Human rights defenders and the victims’ relatives  hold candlelight vigils at the gate and call for justice and memorials. But not all the neighbors want to be reminded of the spirits with whom they share their homes. Memorial plaques hung on the condo gate, like the one in the photo, are torn down as soon as they are posted.

In the aftermath of Chile’s military dictatorship, where memory is imperative to counteract impunity, the neighbors of Simón Bolivar street are still haunted by the past.