As much as all dictators are infused with a healthy dose of paranoia, many of them—rightwing and leftwing—are actually pretty innovative with their methods of torture and repression. The idea of torturing or killing someone never crosses most of our minds, but dictators are a completely different breed and they tend to attract violent and often sadistic people to their circles. Often these people are more than happy to come up with new and crazy ways to dispose of their leaders’ political enemies.
This was the case in Chile during most of the 1970s and ‘80s.
In 1973, an American backed coup d’état removed socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende from power and replaced him with a military junta that was controlled by General Augusto Pinochet. Eventually, Pinochet was made president and ruled the country with an iron fist until 1990. There were a lot of Chileans, who supported Pinochet, but there were also plenty who didn’t, and if they let their opinions be known, they were subject to losing their jobs, ending up in prison, or worse…
Going for a helicopter ride!
Yes, you read that right. Pinochet’s regime is believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 political enemies and the torture of nearly 30,000. Unfortunately for the families of many of those killed by Pinochet’s death squads, they were often “disappeared,” which was later revealed to have been due to the death squads using helicopters to do their dirty work.
Pinochet death squads would use helicopters to transport political prisoners across the long, mountainous nation and if the prisoner was deemed too much of a problem, they’d simply throw the prisoner out over the Atlantic Ocean or in the Andes Mountains where they’d never be found.
In 1995, after death squad leader Osvaldo Romo was arrested for his role in the helicopter rides, an interrogator asked if they always threw the victims in the ocean.
Romo replied, “I think it could have happened… Throwing them into the crater of a volcano would be better… Who’d go looking for them in a volcano? Nobody!!!”
Now that’s definitely some crazy stuff only a dictator would think of.
A Military Man from the Start
Many of the dictators in our book failed in numerous professions before becoming dictators, but this wasn’t really the case with Pinochet. Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was born on November 25, 1915, to an upper-middle-class, generational Chilean family. Families such as Pinochet’s were socially and politically conservative, with military service considered a rite of passage.
So young Augusto went to Chile’s top military academy and entered the Chilean Army as an officer in 1935.
Also unlike many of the dictators in our book, Pinochet had no complex intellectual journey that brought him to the philosophies that drove him as a dictator. In fact, young Pinochet was relatively apolitical, which helped him progress in Chile’s Army.
Perhaps somewhat ironically—or not, depending upon how you look at it—Pinochet was made the commander-in-chief of the entire army by President Allende because he was so effective at suppressing rightwing opposition on the streets.
But it was apparently all just a ruse because on September 11, 1973, Pinochet led the entire Chilean military to overthrow Allende.
In an instant, the leftwing went from rulers to the opposition and Pinochet quickly took them for a ride, figuratively and literally.
Not a Ride You’d Want to Take
As soon as Pinochet came to power, he began thinking of new ways to use normally mundane things as tools of repression. He filled soccer stadiums with political prisoners so they could be more easily processed and sent to prisons or disappeared.
His death squads also began using helicopters as their favorite type of transportation.
In the month and a half immediately after the coup, Pinochet’s death squads used helicopters to transport political prisoners in what became known as the “Caravan of Death.” Members of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) and paramilitary death squads rounded up political enemies and moved them to different prisons around the country in Puma helicopters. Nearly 100 prisoners were killed during the Caravan of Death, but it was during this time that DINA and the death squads realized that helicopters could be used in a far more nefarious manner.
So, Pinochet gave the green light for free helicopter rides for his political enemies.
Although Pinochet himself was probably never there when any of his political enemies were tossed from helicopters, his personal Puma pilot, Oregier Benavente, later admitted that he carried out several such missions.
The scope of the helicopter executions remains unknown. In 2001, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said that 120 people were killed in such a way, but most believe the number was several times higher.
And the unique execution method proved to be so effective that it was exported.
As Pinochet became the face of anti-communism in Latin America during the 1970s, he made alliances with the rightwing and military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The Argentine military in particular seems to have taken the idea of “death flights” from Pinochet, as they tossed at least 1,000 of their political enemies out of planes over the Rio de la Plata outside Buenos Aries.
Pinochet’s free helicopter rides were truly some crazy sh*t that had long-term ramifications for the dictator and Chilean society. After Pinochet finally handed over power in 1990, he was hounded around the world for crimes against humanity, many of them relating to the Caravan of Death, disappeared peoples, and helicopter executions.
Despite his apparent immunity due to being a former president, Pinochet also faced prison in Chile and was subject to numerous trials before he finally died on December 10, 2006, at the age of 91. Once news of the dictator’s death became public, the ruptures in Chilean society from his rule became apparent.
Thousands came out in celebration of his death, but as many came to his state funeral.
Due to the crazy stuff he did, Augusto Pinochet continues to divide the people of Chile.
Did You Know?
- Although Pinochet portrayed himself as a populist and somewhat anti-intellectual, he amassed a library of more than 55,000 volumes.
- Pinochet married Luciana Hiriart in 1943. The couple had five children. Luciana and the Pinochet children were charged with embezzlement in the United States in 2007.
- In 2007, a Catholic priest named Luis Jorquera was charged with his involvement in the Caravan of Death. He was accused of working with death squad members to dig up the bodies of victims, putting them in helicopters, and then dumping them in the ocean.
- The paternal side of Pinochet’s family is French-Bretton and his maternal side is Spanish and Basque.
- The bodies of death squad victims were usually placed in gunny sacks and then brought to Puma helicopters to be dumped in the ocean. Live victims were either severely beaten and/or drugged first to eliminate resistance.