Manuel Contreras, who headed the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA) from 1973-1977, some of the most repressive years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, has died at the age of 86.
As head of DINA, Contreras was directly responsible for many (though not all) of the worst human rights violations during Pinochet’s regime. In the immediate aftermath of the coup of 1973, he flew around the country, overseeing the torture and “disappearance” of leftists who had been tied to the Allende regime, involved in labor mobilization, or were otherwise “subversive” threats to the regime. In his role in combating leftism and “subversion” in Chile, Contreras and the DINA also worked with the CIA periodically during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Contreras was also a key figure in Operation Condor, in which right-wing authoritarian regimes in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia worked together (sometimes with the collaboration of the United States) to track down alleged “subversives” in each other’s countries, creating an international system for torture and “disappearing” (either in the country in which activists were arrested or being arrested and returned to their home country to meet a similar fate).
The best that one can say about Contreras is that he was among the first to face charges for his actions, and died while serving a 500 year prison sentence. Unlike most Pinochet-era officials, Contreras actually served prison time prior to the new wave of prosecutions that followed Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998. While the 1978 law had amnestied military officials involved in torture, murder, and disappearance in Chile between 1973 and 1978, the law did not apply to international cases. Given Contreras’s leadership in the assassination of opposition figure Orlando Letelier in Washington DC in 1976, a Chilean Court found Contreras guilty and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Shortly after his release in 2001, Contreras was then placed under house arrest, as he faced charges for the numerous deaths he was ultimately responsible for between 1973 and 1977, when Pinochet replaced DINA with the Central Nacional de Informaciones (National Information Center, CNI). While the amnesty of 1978 had created impunity for Contreras and others responsible for human rights violations, the Chilean legal system ultimately ruled that disappearances constituted kidnapping, which was an ongoing crime that fell outside of the time period of the amnesty. In this new legal context, Contreras spent the remainder of his life facing charges and serving time for the torture, execution, and disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, in his time as head of DINA. Between 2002 and 2015, he was convicted in 59 cases of kidnapping and disappearance, and was serving his 500 year sentence (though due to deteriorating health, he spent his last year in a military hospital).
And so it is that one of the remaining key figures in the state-sponsored terrorism, human rights violations, torture, and disappearance from the Pinochet regime has escaped the mortal coil, dying of natural causes after a long life – a privilege he denied thousands of others while he lived.