On June 13, just one day after the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub, legal proceedings began in Orlando, Florida, in a unique case of another major atrocity, committed far away and over four decades ago: the execution of the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara following the September 11, 1973, military coup in Chile. After two weeks of dramatic and painful testimony presented by Jara’s family, other victims, and former soldiers in a civil case in federal district court, a jury has found a former Chilean lieutenant, Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, liable for the torture and murder of Jara. Barrientos was ordered to pay the Jara family $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
The stunning verdict is generating headlines around the world—particularly in Chile, where Barrientos has already been indicted in absentia for killing Jara. The outcome of the US trial marks another historic milestone in tenacious legal efforts—including ones outside Chile—to hold officials of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime accountable for human rights crimes that date back to the first days after the coup. Indeed, the Jara case brings renewed attention to the presence of Chilean human rights criminals living in the United States, and renewed pressure on the Obama administration to expel Barrientos to Chile where he can be formally prosecuted in criminal court, judged, and sentenced.
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At the time of his murder, Victor Jara was Chile’s leading political troubadour, universally recognized for such folk songs as “Te Recuerdo Amanda” and “Plegaria a un Labrador.” His signature song, “Manifesto,” became a veritable anthem of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I don’t sing for the love of singing, or because I have a good voice. I sing because my guitar has both feeling and reason. It has a heart of earth, state his lyrics. My guitar is not for the rich, no, nothing like that. My song is of the ladder we are building to reach the stars. For a song has meaning when it beats in the veins of a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his songs. Bruce Springsteen has called Jara “a great inspiration” and paid tribute to him by singing “Manifesto” during a concert in Santiago several years ago.
On the day of the coup, Jara left his family and went to the State Technical University, where he worked as a theater professor, to help defend the campus against a military seizure. He and several hundred students were detained the following day; Jara was taken to the Chile stadium, which the military had quickly transformed into a massive detention and death facility.
Court documents presented in Chile by lawyers for the Jara family quoted one former soldier, José Paredes, who witnessed Barrientos and other officers beating and torturing Jara. “After that,” testified Paredes, “Lieutenant Barrientos decided to play Russian roulette, so he took out his gun, approached Victor Jara, who was standing with his hands handcuffed behind his back, spun the cylinder, put it against the back of his neck and fired.” Jara then “fell to the ground.” To cover up the execution, soldiers then riddled his body with 44 gunshots and dumped it on the street. At the trial in Orlando, another soldier, in testimony videotaped in Chile, said that Barrientos “used to show his pistol and say ‘I killed Victor Jara with this.’”