The helicopter, the silence, the gunshot, the escape – Translation
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- Here’s today’s story.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
I want to start by mentioning a name. Ricardo Palma Salamanca. For Chileans, well, for some Chileans, that name has a special resonance. It brings up memories of a complicated time. And as such, not everyone agrees about who he was exactly.
[Rodrigo Hidalgo]: He had a particular sense of humor. He was a funny guy.
[Rafael Escorza]: An arrogant guy, a little disparaging toward people.
[Ignacio]: First, he has a really nice smile and a really nice laugh. He had this… this big bellowing laugh, but he was still a very shy guy.
[Issa Kort]: A terrorist.
[Roberto Ampuero]: A fugitive from justice.
[Rodrigo Hidalgo]: He had a special sense of humor. An affectionate guy.
[Jacqueline van Rysselberghe]: A person who killed, who is the direct perpetrator of the murder of Jaime Guzmán.
[Rafael Escorza]: The people of el Frente value his actions.
[Andrés Chadwick]: He killed a senator of the Republic.
[Rafael Escorza]: And in a way, you can think of him as a… as a kind of icon.
[Daniel]: Palma Salamanca was part of a radical group: the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez, a group that formed as the armed branch of the Communist Party. When the Party ended the armed conflict with the dictatorship, not all of the Frentistas surrendered their arms. Some, like Palma Salamanca, continued the fight.
And he was good at it. He was cold-blooded. Among his victims, a police colonel and a sergeant. He also participated in a million-dollar ransom kidnapping. His most notorious crime —the assassination of Senator Jaime Guzmán— was in 1991, when Pinochet was no longer president, when the country had officially transitioned to democracy. A half-democracy, of course. A democracy in which Pinochet remained the head of the military and controlled congress. A democracy in which the former dictator enjoyed total impunity.
When Palma Salamanca was arrested in 1992, he was only 22 years old. And he was given two life sentences. And he seemed to be destined to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Until one day in December 1996…
[Woman]: I heard a noise like a plane, and later we found out it was a helicopter.
[Man]: It was like a movie. The helicopter flew down, really low.
[Man 2]: Where were you?
[Man]: I was… I was here sitting with my mom and all of a sudden…
[Woman]: The gunshots, but I didn’t know if the bullets were coming from above or below.
[Daniel]: A helicopter appeared, flying over the maximum-security prison where Palma Salamanca was being held. And, well according to this witness…
[Inmate]: Three guys are escaping. Would you look at that. You know, a helicopter flew over and tatatata, tatatata, tatatata, tatatata. Look how people are cheering because they escaped. Look (cheers and shouts). Look there goes the helicopter. I can see it from here, love, look it’s going over there. With three guys in the air. This is going to be on the news.
[Daniel]: Ricardo Palma Salamanca escaped. Along with three other Frentistas.
And for two decades no one knew where he went.
There are several ways you can look at the story of a life. From many points of view. For some, Ricardo Palma Salamanca is a self-confessed murderer, whose violent acts destabilized a burgeoning democracy. For others, he’s a vigilante, settling the debts of a bloody dictatorship whose crimes had gone unpunished.
This is this mom, Mirna.
[Mirna Salamanca]: He was terribly enthusiastic about everything. I’m referring to his childhood: it was all play. And he had a happy life, happy. He was happy. I say “was” because I don’t know how he is now. You can’t measure the Ricardo of today against the Ricardo of 22 years ago.
I was always calm. You could say I was calm. I did think about him every night. Every night, when it was quiet, let’s say or when talking. He was al… always with me, Ricardo. I never thought that… that I wasn’t going to see him again.
[Daniel]: And that’s the way it was. For more than 20 years, not even Ricardo’s mom knew where he was. Until February 2018, when it was confirmed he was in France.
(NEWS SOUNDBITE)(NEWS SOUNDBITE)
[Presenter]: After two decades without seeing a recorded image of Ricardo Palma, the perpetrator of the murder of Senator Jaime Guzmán and the kidnapping of Cristian Edwards has appeared. It should have been notified by French authorities.
[Daniel]: In large part, what I’m going to tell you today is his story, but it’s not just about him. It’s also about thousands of Chileans. An entire generation. And it’s no simple task to disentangle the origins of political violence. And it’s not easy to understand when exactly a cycle of violence begins either.
But we’re going to try.
So, in 1985, Ricardo Palma Salamanca was 15 years old. He was in his second to last year in school in Santiago, Chile. A very special school.
[Laura]: A very special school. It’s called the School of Latin American Integration.
[Daniel]: This is Laura. That’s not her real name. Because of her political activity, she decided to use an alias. And this is…
[Rodrigo Cid]: My name is Rodrigo. I’m a doctor. I have dogs (laughs).
[Daniel]: Rodrigo Cid. Both Rodrigo and Laura went to school at the Latin American School in those years.
[Rodrigo]: The school consisted of three houses.
[Laura]: An old house.
[Rodrigo]: Big houses that must have been from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
[Daniel]: Big houses that were typical of the neighborhood, a middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. It’s called Providencia. So…
[Laura]: Over on the left side was the playground, and on that playground, there were a bunch of murals that represented different countries in Latin America.
[Daniel]: Different countries because it was precisely that —diversity— that defined the culture of the school. What made it special. Palma Salamanca’s mom, Mirna, was a teacher there.
[Mirna]: At first, it was a very small school. It was well regarded. It was a school created by a group of teachers who set out to make a modest little school. Because there were a lot of foreigners.
[Daniel]: They came from Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela, France, Italy. Some were children of diplomats or someone passing through Chile. When Mirna says “foreigners,” what she really means is that they were children of Chileans who were returning from abroad. From exile.
For example, Rodrigo…
[Rodrigo]: For a large portion of my childhood, I lived in… in Holland, and then Nicaragua, and I came back to Chile when I was 14.
[Daniel]: At another school, a kid like Rodrigo may not have fit in. At the Latin American School, he was normal. Accepted. Just another kid.
I should clarify that even though the exiles were coming back, it wasn’t because the dictatorship had ended. No. Pinochet would remain in power until 1990. But the military regime had loosened some restrictions in the early ’80s and allowed some exiles to return to Chile.
This is Ignacio Iriarte. He was in the same class as Palma Salamanca, and they were good friends.
[Ignacio Iriarte]: A lot of people came from, I don’t know, France, Mozambique, Brazil, from other places, but I didn’t. I wasn’t an exile.
[Daniel]: The exiles tended to be more radical in their political views, of course. Because of what they had lived through. For that reason, this school was also a great option for parents who were members of Leftist parties because, after the coup, public schools and high schools were controlled by the dictatorship. They weren’t such safe places for their children. But at the Latin American School there was a bit of everything.
[Ignacio]: My family was on the Left, but a rather moderate Left.
[Daniel]: Still, he was steeped in a very politicized environment. You could feel it. Laura, for example, arrived in the late ‘80s and remembers her first day very well.
[Laura]: As soon as I go into the classroom, uh, I go to sit down, and I feel a: “Hey!,” and they said right away, “Look! The seats in the front row are for the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the MAPU,” I think. “Here we’re with the MAPU Lautaro, the Frente, and the MIR,” and it was the middle row. So I was a little disconcerted.
[Daniel]: Those were different factions of the Left in Chile at the time. Laura came from another school that wasn’t so politicized. And trying to understand that new reality was hard for her.
[Laura]: So then they told me that the students sat according to political affiliation, something very similar to the logic in prisons, where the cells were also divided by political organization.
[Daniel]: And that’s because there were so many political groups at the time.
[Ignacio]: Most of them were in the Communist Youths; the other half was in the MIR.
[Daniel]: The Left Revolutionary Movement.
[Ignacio]: People from the Socialist Party.
[Daniel]: And the group I already mentioned at the start of this episode: the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez. We’re going to hear more about them a little later on.
[Ignacio]: And people were very entrenched in their ideologies. We were all very ideological.
[Daniel]: This description of the school, this political atmosphere, makes sense if you take into account the reality of the country at that time. The cruelty of the dictatorship. The thousands of deaths and disappearances. The terror and the secret police.
And the fact that a lot of these young people and their families had lived under Pinochet’s iron first. They had lost people close to them. Some of them had spent years in exile, with everything that entails. Being a radical made the most sense. Besides, well, they were young.
[Ignacio]: There were a lot of teenage hormones in the air, ready to put it all on the table to put an end to the dictatorship.
[Daniel]: That’s the context. Now the events.
So. That year, 1985…
[Ignacio]: It was March… March 29th at eight in the morning. We were starting class.
[Mirna]: And I left for school to start the… the school hours.
[Rodrigo]: We were in class, early in the morning.
[Ignacio]: We had PE, gymnastics, right on the school’s patio.
[Mirna]: And I got out two or three blocks earlier, and I was meditating there.
[Ignacio]: And then all of a sudden, we heard a police helicopter passing overhead. Very low, very low, it was like: “Hey? What happened?” Like in Vietnam. We dropped to the floor. I remember perfectly.
[Daniel]: Friday morning. A helicopter flying over a school in a residential neighborhood in Santiago. Weird. Even in the political climate of the dictatorship, it was weird.
[Mirna]: It all… It all happened so fast.
[Ignacio]: A helicopter flying so low, almost as low as the roof of the school.
[Rodrigo]: It was circling the school.
[Mirna]: It was all like: 1, 2, 3.
[Rodrigo]: It was very conspicuous. Everyone heard it…
[Mirna]: Passing ‘round…
[Daniel]: And then:
[Rodrigo]: A long silence, and after the silence, you could hear a gunshot.
[Ignacio]: We felt like a metallic strike, like: pyah!
[Mirna]: Shouting and running around. I don’t know.
And when I get to the corner, I see that they’re throwing someone onto a bus, or rather a car, we’ll say, a person.
[Daniel]: Mirna could see it clearly and realized that, actually, they were loading two men into the car. She recognized them.
[Mirna]: And I looked, and it was a teacher. It was a guardian and… and a teacher.
[Daniel]: Guardian. In other words, a parent at the school: José Manuel Parada. And the teacher was Manuel Guerrero.
[Mirna]: And they threw them in the truck and drove off.
[Rodrigo]: We started to piece things together and we started to talk. And immediately we thought of it as an act of repression.
[Daniel]: It all probably took place in barely a minute.
[Rodrigo]: The helicopter. The silence. The gunshot. The escape.
[Daniel]: A guardian and a teacher kidnapped. Another teacher who had tried to prevent the kidnapping suffered a gunshot wound. Inside the school, sheer terror. From the second floor, some of the students saw the scene unfold.
[Mirna]: And those kids screamed with fear, with horror, with… I don’t know.
[Daniel]: On the patio, several students were frozen still, laying on the floor after the gunshots, including Ignacio and Palma Salamanca, who were in one of the more advanced classes in the school.
[Ignacio]: A teacher comes running and says: “Everyone in the classroom. In the classroom.” And they quickly explained to us that there had just been a kidnapping at the entrance to the school, that a teacher had just been shot and that they were taking him to a doctor right that minute, and that two people had been kidnapped by a few passing cars.
[Daniel]: Inside the Latin American School, they were panicking.
[Ignacio]: Fear of what was going on there. Not understanding anything. I don’t know. And they told us, “Look, you’re the oldest class…”
[Daniel]: “You have a special job. Listen closely: go to the other classrooms. Talk to the younger kids while the teachers have a meeting.” “Go,” their teacher says, “Explain to them what has happened.”
And then he sent another group to Mr. Guerrero’s cubby, the teacher who had just been kidnapped. He gave them pretty clear instructions:
[Ignacio]: “Take everything there is out of there and burn it because we’re probably going to be raided by the police. They’re going to come and raid the school.”
[Daniel]: At that time, no one knew what could happen. They were working with very little information. Ignacio remembers that…
[Ignacio]: I went to talk to a class with my classmates. We went two by two to the younger classes. I mean, we were 15 and they were 13.
[Daniel]: Imagine it. Fifteen-year-olds having to explain to 13-year-olds the horrors that had just taken place. There’s no script for something like that. Ignacio doesn’t remember very well what he said. He just remembers that the plan was to calm them down. To keep them from leaving the classroom.
In order to understand the other task — burning Mr. Guerrero’s documents — you have to understand the context of Chile under Pinochet.
Before reporting this story, that wasn’t something that had occurred to me, but in one interview after another, that image came up again and again. A family, in a desperate moment, burning documents. To save themselves. I heard it from Laura.
[Laura]: So, my dad told me, “No, get all the magazines, the letters, we’ll just burn everything”, thinking the police could come looking for us at any moment.
[Daniel]: From Rodrigo:
Did you burn documents or…?
[Rodrigo]: Yes, more than once. Magazines, pamphlets, banners, etc. Yes.
[Daniel]: From a Chilean exile named Patricia.
[Patricia Montes]: In the first days of the coup, my mom burned all the books. All the books. There were none left.
[Daniel]: And I heard it many, many other times. So many that I formed an image of Santiago in those years: one of a grey, mournful capital dotted with little bonfires, each one a product of terror, thousands of families destroying their secrets.
So, the scene they described at the Latin American School was already familiar to me. Recognizable. In times of danger and tension, the reaction was to set fire to anything that could give you away. Maybe the only surprising thing about that morning at the Latin American School is that they left such a delicate task to a group of panicked 15-year-olds.
[Ignacio]: Burning documents without even knowing which one to burn. So we burned everything we could find.
[Daniel]: Ignacio remembers being with Palma Salamanca, with a group of his classmates, all of them in the school’s bathroom, burning the teacher’s papers. According to Ignacio, they went into a kind of frenzy. A desire to burn everything. A need.
[Ignacio]: Our own notebooks. We had a few… a few that said things like: “JJ CC. Communist Youths,” so we tore them up. We were panicking, burning this stuff in the bathroom.
[Daniel]: He also remembers his friend burning his notebooks, which he had drawn the logo of the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez on.
[Ignacio]: Other people scribbled out the “JC,” and we wrote the “PS,” and others wrote “MIR.” Geeze… and of course, I remember him pulling out of his notebooks anything that mentioned the “FPMR” or anything related to politics.
[Daniel]: And so, that morning in March 1985, in the bathroom of a school in Santiago, Ricardo Palma Salamanca, a teenager, was burning his notebooks.
The most trust-worthy and widely listened-to radio station among opponents of the regime was Radio Cooperativa, and it didn’t waste any time getting the news on the air.
[Journalist]: A few moments ago several individuals shot a teacher and kidnapped another as well as a parent from an educational establishment in the community of Providencia in Santiago. The events took place at the School of Latin American Integration…
[Mirna]: It was very… very hard when the parents started coming, crying, shouting, desperate, scared.
[Daniel]: The son of one of the men who had been kidnapped, Manuel Guerrero spoke with Radio Cooperativa from the school, very bluntly:
[Son of Manuel Guerrero]: There are two possibilities which are… which are the two possibilities, the most likely scenarios. The best-case scenario is that they throw him out of the country. And if not, they’re going to kill him, plain and simple.
[Daniel]: And something happened that might sound very strange.
[Rodrigo]: We camped out in the school.
[Daniel]: Many of the students decided to sleep at the school that night.
[Rodrigo]: It was… it was very thrown together. Meaning, we didn’t, didn’t… but we stayed there.
[Mirna]: The kids offered to stay there that night with… with some of the single teachers.
[Rodrigo]: And someone brought a TV and a Betamax, and we watched movies.
[Mirna]: It all looked like something out of a movie.
[Daniel]: An act of resistance.
[Rodrigo]: They put a… a big canvas out front that said: “They took them from here. And here is where we want them back.”
[Daniel]: Which is what everyone at the Latin American School wanted.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
So, a spectacularly violent act, in broad daylight, in a residential area in the capital of Chile.
In other words, an act designed to sow terror.
In order to understand what had happened, the gruesome logic behind these kidnappings, we have to go back a little. To August 1984. Six months before the attack at the Latin American School. That’s what I proposed at the start of the episode: trying to understand where political violence comes from. As if it were possible to find a point of origin.
[Andrea Insunza]: I’m Andrea Insunza. I’m a journalist and director of the Center for Investigation and Publications at Diego Portales University.
[Daniel]: I spoke with Andrea, who, along with her colleagues, has done extensive investigations into the Pinochet era, and what that repression meant for so many Chileans.
And Andrea told me that the case of the kidnappings at the Latin American School iss connected to another story of political violence in Chile, specifically, that of a 28-year-old man named…
[Andrea Insunza]: Andrés Valenzuela, who they called Papudo.
[Daniel]: Papudo was a member of the Directorate of Intelligence for the Chilean Air Force and was part of a secret group called the Joint Command.
It’s important to note that at that time, very few people outside of the most elite circle of collaborators in the dictatorship knew about the existence of this group. There were other security groups with connections to the dictatorship, repressive groups, but this one, in particular, was top secret. The Joint Command was basically tasked with the violent repression of the Communist Party.
[Andrea]: That was the grand mission that the Joint Command set out to complete. And they did.
[Daniel]: In August of ‘84, Papudo…
[Andrea]: Arrives at Cauce Magazine, which was an opposition magazine, and asks to speak with the journalist Mónica González.
[Daniel]: Papudo wants to make a confession to her…
[Andrea]: He tells her he’s tired of the smell of death, that he still smells death throughout his day. And… and basically, he can’t live with that burden.
[Daniel]: And well, one thing was very clear to Papudo…
[Andrea]: When he approaches Mónica González and gives this interview, that the most likely outcome is his own death, right? For him to be arrested and killed by his brothers in arms.
[Daniel]: Because what he wanted to say was explosive: he wanted to say what he knew about some of the missing persons. In detail. With…
[Andrea]: The victim’s names.
[Andrea]: How they were tortured.
[Daniel]: How they execute them.
[Andrea]:How they burn the bodies.
[Daniel]: How they throw some of them into the sea.
All the things he had seen and done. All the things he wanted to stop doing. The moment he goes to the magazine, Papudo becomes a deserter, the first one to acknowledge the regime’s systematic practice of detention and forced disappearance, which up that moment the dictatorship had made a great effort to deny.
You can’t underestimate the importance of Papudo’s testimony. So much so that González and Cauce Magazine decide to reach out to a human rights organization: The Vicariate of Solidarity.
[Andrea]: An organization under the Catholic Church which basically is committed to taking reports from families who lost a relative at the hands of security services.
[Daniel]: People who have been arrested, disappeared, tortured, beaten. Executed.
[Andrea]: It is the great archive of violations of human rights committed in Chile.
[Daniel]: As such, the Vicariate was an organization that made the Pinochet regime very uncomfortable. With one important distinguishing factor: since it was affiliated with the Church in a country that’s as Catholic as Chile is, it was protected. Shielded.
Or at least it felt that way.
With Papudo’s testimony in hand, Mónica González goes to the Vicariate. No organization in Chile was better equipped to verify what he was confessing.
And well, José Manuel Parada, the parent who would later be kidnapped in front of the Latin American School, was working at the Vicariate. And this is the start of the connection between Papudo’s testimony and the kidnappings that would occur six months later.
[Andrea]: The Vicariate, as I said, was very concerned about their work being very professional.
[Daniel]: In part because they depended on that reputation. They weren’t activists or political actors. They were lawyers, social workers, psychologists, sociologists, researchers, etc. Their role was to investigate and report the regime’s human rights abuses, as well as provide the victims and their families with psychological and legal support.
They did that without participating in political activities as an institution per se. But, in light of Papudo’s confession, there was no way to avoid breaking even their internal norms. For example, it was clear that Papudo had to leave the country.
[Andrea]: Then a few weeks go by in which he’s still in Chile, hiding in different places that the Vicariate, precisely because of their ties to the Church, is able to provide. In general, we’re talking about… about religious sites.
[Daniel]: Convents. Churches. All to protect him. Papudo was a witness to wrongdoing and the dictatorship was already looking for him. They already knew he had defected. At that time, Mónica González was already being followed and receiving veiled threats. And here I should mention that I tried to speak with Mónica, but she denied my request for an interview.
According to Andrea, everything having to do with Papudo was handled with a great deal of discretion in the Vicariate, and it was Mónica González who reached out to José Manuel Parada to verify the confession.
[Andrea]: He was in charge of the unit that processed all the reports that were coming into the Vicariate and was trying to discover how they intersected, you know? Looking for patterns.
[Daniel]: And it’s during this process that Parada realizes that he knows someone who can corroborate this information about the Joint Command. A teacher at the Latin American School, Manuel Guerrero, who had been arrested and tortured in the ‘70s. And Parada…
[Andrea]: Realizes that Manuel has probably been in the hands of precisely this new unknown organization, called the Joint Command.
[Daniel]: In other words, Manuel Guerrero probably knew firsthand what Papudo had confessed.
[Andrea]: So José Manuel, with Manuel Guerrero and people within the Vicariate, started to analyze Papudo’s testimony at several levels.
[Daniel]: Meanwhile, Papudo was in hiding and the Vicariate was preparing his exit from the country. Getting fake documents, planning his route across the Andes. Organizing with the people who would receive him in Argentina. A whole process that went well beyond the strict that the Vicariate had always maintained. It’s understandable, of course. They had never been a witness like Papudo.
[Andrea]: So, what starts to happen is that the dictatorship realizes that the Vicariate has in its hands a testimony from an agent containing detailed, relevant information.
[Daniel]: About their practices, the disappearances, about places where people were being detained and tortured. And…
[Andrea]: In November of ’84, Pinochet declares a state of siege and prohibits Cauce and other, we’ll say, opposition magazines from being published.
[Daniel]: He declared this state of siege precisely to prevent the publication of the Papudo interview. But it didn’t work. The interview was published in December, outside of the country, in Venezuela. And early in 1985 in Chile, an extensive statement by Papudo in which he confesses and details his crimes is published.
The impact was brutal. With Papudo’s testimony, the existence of the disappeared detainees under the dictatorship was confirmed for the first time. So all this takes us to what we’ve already discussed, the events at the Latin American School, on March 29th, 1985, an act of State violence in broad daylight.
[Andrea]: By that time, the analysis team at the Vicariate, and José Manuel and Manuel in particular, had managed to get access to a lot of information and that started putting agents of… of the secret service at risk.
[Daniel]: That is to say, it was decided that Parada and Guerrero were too dangerous.
So, let’s get back to the Latin American School. Let’s remember the kidnapping took place at nine in the morning on a Friday.
In the streets of the capital of Chile, of course, no one had any information about them. And they suspected the worst.
[Rodrigo Cid]: And then, the next day, still at school, we heard that they had turned up.
[Andrea]: The bodies are found around noon on Saturday, the 30th in Quilicura.
[Ignacio]: With their throats cut in a ditch off the exit from Santiago near Arturo Merino Benítez Airport, which at the time was called Pudahuel Airport.
[Andrea]: Two farmers find it. Then they take it to the Institute for Legal Medicine, where they have to confirm that it’s them.
[Radio Chile Archive]: News of the appearance of three bodies west of Santiago is causing profoundly dramatic scenes as the identities of the victims have not yet been reliably verified.
[Andrea]: And there’s no high-level authority at the Institute of Legal Medicine who is able to go out and deliver that information. A third-tier official comes out, opens the door and confirms that it’s José Manuel and Manuel.
[Daniel]: José Manuel Parada’s wife, Estela Ortíz, made a statement to the media in front of the Institute of Legal Medicine. She knew what the regime was like. Her father had been arrested and disappeared in 1976. Now she had just learned that she was a widow and was left alone with four children. The youngest wasn’t even two years old.
[Estela Ortiz]: They’ve killed my husband. The day will come when everyone one of them is going to pay for every one of their crimes. Let there be no doubt about it. As long as I have a single drop of blood left in me, I will avenge them. I don’t want anyone else to suffer what I have suffered. This is too terrible. We have to change this country once and for all. How long are they going to communicate with murders? How long will they continue killing our people? How long will we allow so many murders? So much crime? So much torture in this country? How long? Chileans, my fellows, my countrymen, please rise up. Don’t allow them to keep on killing our people. Please, please, let us demand justice once and for all.
[Daniel]: It was all too brutal. Too violent. They were known in Chile as The Slit Throats. José Manuel Parada, Manuel Guerrero, and a third individual. A communist militant, publicist, and illustrator named Santiago Nattino, who had been kidnapped the day before Guerrero and Parada.
But it wasn’t just the fact that these three men were killed, it was the way they killed them that had an impact on people. Andrea remembers it well.
[Andrea]: I was ten years old at the time. And I remember that day perfectly. No one came to get us from the patio. They were all glued to the radio and when they learned that their bodies had been found in Quilicura, it caused an enormous shock. I saw my… my aunts crying. I heard someone scream. I remember that too: asking my parents what “throat slitting” was.
[Daniel]: The case of The Slit Throats left its mark on two generations.
[Andrea]: Because it marked my parent’s generation, which was José Manuel and Manuel’s generation. But on top of that, since it’s a crime that occurs outside of this school, it marks the next generation.
[Daniel]: And that’s how it was.
Let’s remember the boy at the Latin American School burning his notebooks marked with the insignias of radical leftist groups. That young man, Ricardo Palma Salamanca, who witnessed the kidnapping of a teacher and a parent at his school.
Remember the political context of the moment: the serious reports that were coming into the Vicariate, the risks they took on when they investigated torturers.
Well. Him. Ricardo Palma Salamanca at 15 years old. From a left-leaning family. At four years old saw how the authorities raided his house. His mom and his dad both lost their jobs after the coup, both for political reasons. He grew up in the shadow of the dictatorship and went through some difficult years. His sisters, both of them older, were both militants with the Communist Youths. One was arrested by the police. The other was kidnapped by security forces and tortured. Both, luckily, survived.
The teacher and the parent weren’t so lucky. They were found with their throats slit.
Palma Salamanca’s life was like something out of a movie — literally, out of a movie. They’ve made a few that were inspired by him. They’ll probably make more.
Well, my version of that movie would maybe start with the scene at the School of Latin American Integration. A young witness of violence chooses a life as a member of an armed group opposing the dictatorship. But he enters right as the country is transitioning to a kind of democracy. He enters right as the struggle is starting to lose the logic it had before. He enters right as that group he admired so much, the Frente, whose logo he drew on his school notebooks, had lost its mystique.
My movie would include this scene with his mom.
[Mirna]: All of a sudden, one day he tells me — I don’t know what we were talking about… I don’t really remember — “Mom,” he says, “I joined the Frente.”
[Daniel]: The Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez. Palma Salamanca was 18 years old.
[Mirna]: Oh, I was completely frozen. I was completely frozen.
I said: “Ok, po. The most I ask of you… the most I ask of you, and I’m begging you, is prudence. Prudence with yourself and the people around you. You can’t go stomping around like a crazy person when you belong to a group that I don’t think is crazy.” Because I admired those people for forming that group.
And no, he said: “Don’t worry. I’m still new… I’m still a kindergartener,” he said.
[Daniel]: But we know he didn’t stay in kindergarten.
In May of 1990, three months after the official end of the dictatorship, Palma Salamanca, at 20 years old, put on a school uniform, and along with a fellow Frente member, he killed Luis Fontaine, a police colonel .
Fontaine, I should say, was already retired, but he hadn’t been just any cop. No. He had been the director of the intelligence division of the police that committed the crime of The Slit Throats. Taking into account what had happened at the Latin American School, we can say that killing Fontaine dressed in a school uniform adds a touch of irony to a political assassination.
Palma Salamanca would be convicted of this crime, of the murder of a military sergeant, former escort of Pinochet’s. For the murder of Senator Jaime Guzmán and for the kidnapping of Cristian Edwards, son of the owner of El Mercurio, the most important newspaper in Chile. The murder of Guzmán, in particular, is considered one of the more significant terrorist acts of the period. Guzmán was the ideologue of the Pinochet regime, the architect of the constitution, and was on top of that a democratically elected senator.
When he escaped prison in 1996, Palma Salamanca ended up in Mexico where he lived under an assumed name, pretending to be Mexican. And it appears he did a good job. I spoke with several friends who met him there, and no one doubted that he was Mexican.
He lived that way, in secret, until the middle of 2017, when another former Frentista, also living in Mexico with a fake identity, was arrested and accused of kidnapping. Palma Salamanca fled immediately. And he ended up in France, requesting asylum from the French government. The State of Chile sought extradition upon learning this.
In December of 2018, I traveled to Paris, and one night, in a cafe not far from the Place de la République, I spoke with him. I found myself in front of a man in his 50s, with greying black hair. The day I met him, he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He looked like a middle-aged metalhead. I didn’t see him smile in the first hour we spoke.
He didn’t let me record the conversation, and I didn’t try either. I had arrived without a recorder, without a microphone, even without paper, planning to talk to him and convince him to agree to a formal interview, on mic. That’s not how it went. Given his legal situation, he declined. He couldn’t. It was all too uncertain.
But what he told me that night in Paris is more or less what he’s told other journalists, the few he’s spoken with, and for that reason, I have no qualms about sharing it. He told me that he was adapting well to his new life in Paris, learning the language, writing down his memoirs. He was optimistically awaiting the French authorities’ decision on his asylum request. He told me that his plan was to stay in Mexico forever, but he couldn’t. What was most frightening to him was going back to prison. He appreciated, but was not used to all the treatment he was receiving from Chilean exiles in Paris; it was like he was a celebrity. After 20 years of hiding his past, it was strange being the center of attention. It made him uncomfortable.
When I spoke with him, first he threw out any possibility of connecting what he saw that day at the Latin American School with assassinating Fontaine, or his life as a Frentista. He practically laughed in my face. But then, we kept talking, and he thought about it. And he told me maybe. That anything was possible.
It’s literary, I know, to connect his decision to choose a life as a revolutionary to the things he experienced at school as a teenager in 1985. It’s literary, but it’s not outlandish either. We know that violence begets more violence. We know that the political context of time had its own logic: no one imagined that the dictatorship was going to collapse on its own. Almost all of the parties on the Left had their own armed groups. All of them recruited young people like Palma Salamanca. In fact, they depended on them. On young people ready to take on risks that many would refuse. Call it bravery or madness.
That night in Paris, Palma Salamanca told me that Chile was a country that had caused him a lot of pain.
Of course, many other Chileans would say that he also caused Chile a lot of pain.
The last time I saw him was in January 2019.
That was the day French authorities officially rejected the Chilean State’s request for extradition. I had gone to Paris three times to attend the trial and this last time, everything went so fast. The judge read the ruling, and there was a celebratory feeling in the courtroom. Everyone except for the lawyers for the State of Chile cheered.
Palma Salamanca’s group, his lawyers, friends, people close to him, wound up at a cafe a few blocks down from the Palais de Justice. There were exiles from different generations. They talked and laughed, all with wine glasses in hand, happy for him —happy, I should say, for themselves. One of their own had been saved from prison. And that was worth celebrating.
With so many people around, I knew that it was going to be impossible to talk to him. And that’s the way it was. I barely got to exchange a few words with him.
But this time he did smile.
This story was reported and written by me, with research and production assistance by Gilda di Carli. The editing is by Camila Segura and Luis Fernando Vargas. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado and Cristóbal Peña did the fact-checking. Cristóbal’s two books Los fusileros and Jóvenes pistoleros are highly recommended and they were key to helping me understand this period. Besides, they read like novels. They’re very good.
Thank you also to Ana Luz Solís, Hugo Pasarello Luna, Daniela Cruzat, and Laura Fraser. Thank you to Paula Molina and Radio Cooperativa for the use of their archives.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.