Encounters with the Torturer
Pinochet's dirty warriors tortured Hector Salgado. Now he's tracking them down.
May/June 2006 Issue
CHILE’S MODERN HISTORY IS A STORY OF LISTS. In the 1970s and ’80s, General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship compiled lists of leftist sympathizers, union leaders, student activists, and other suspected comunistas. These lists, in turn, led to new ones—of political prisoners, exiles, the missing, and the executed. After Pinochet stepped down in 1990, more lists were made, identifying some of the 3,000 Chileans who had been killed or “disappeared” under his 17-year rule. By 2004, Chile’s National Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture had compiled the longest list yet, with the names of more than 35,000 people claiming to have been victims of torture.
Then there is Hector Salgado’s list. The names of the former military officers on his list are not well known. They live in pleasant neighborhoods and own nice houses and expensive cars. They have rounding bellies, retreating hairlines, and little reason to recall Salgado. But Salgado, who was arrested and tortured by the military more than three decades ago, has been unable to get these men out of his mind. For the past seven years, he has been gathering their names, addresses, and phone numbers. One by one, he plans to confront them all.
On a mild autumn morning in the resort town of Viña del Mar, Salgado stood on the sidewalk wrestling with his tie. The 49-year-old was dressed in a handsome charcoal-colored business suit, the only one he owns, purchased especially for these occasions. He calls it his “uniform.” The pattern on his tie was a swirl of green and yellow spots, and at the center of one of these spots was a small hole. The glassy eye of a tiny camera lens peered from the hole; Salgado has dubbed this curious invention the “corbata cam,” or tie cam. A hidden microphone was taped inside the breast of his coat. “I get so nervous before these confrontations,” Salgado said, smoothing his slacks. “I never know how they are going to react. And the last thing I want is to be abused by them again.”
Accompanied by his wife, Marianne, and a two-person film crew, Salgado approached the gate of an apartment tower and rang the buzzer. Since he began confronting former members of Pinochet’s military, Salgado has gotten used to having doors slammed in his face. He’s already tracked down more than half of the 20 men on his list, though only 6 have consented to on-camera interviews for the documentary film he and his wife are making. However, he is not overly preoccupied with the legal implications of surreptitiously re- cording the others. He would welcome their lawsuits, he says defiantly—naively, perhaps— as a chance to expose them in court.
A doorman allowed Salgado into the building, and when he reached the lobby, a former navy captain whom Salgado had not seen in more than 30 years was waiting for him, looking puzzled. They exchanged introductions, and the captain, now in his 60s, said he didn’t remember Salgado. “But I remember you,” Salgado said. “I remember you from Talcahuano.”
The mention of the naval base in southern Chile immediately put the captain on the defensive. “Why were you there?” he asked accusingly.
“I was detained. In the gymnasium,” Salgado replied.
“What does that have to do with me?”
When the two men first met in 1973, on Talcahuano’s soccer field, Salgado was a teenage prisoner and the captain a menacing young officer with a hunting knife strapped to his boot and a Colt pistol on his belt. Salgado had been sent with a group of prisoners to clean up the field. There on the grass, Salgado says, the captain ordered him to crawl, kicking him in the ribs and stomach.
“Do you know how old I was then?” Salgado demanded. “I was 16.… You beat me and made me get down and walk on my hands and knees.”
But the captain would admit nothing and insisted that Salgado had him confused with someone else. He steered the conversation into more comfortable territory, justifying the military’s attempts to save Chile from Cuban-style communism—excuses Salgado has heard many times before: That was another era. You can’t judge it by today’s standards. That was the Cold War. “I sleep with a clear conscience,” said the captain.
The two men argued for an hour as the tie cam recorded everything and Salgado’s crew waited in a nearby stairwell, monitoring the conversation. Eventually, Salgado gave up and headed outside. He said that facing the captain after so many years was a small step toward closure, but he was frustrated that the man wasn’t honest with him.
“It’s always the same story,” he said. “The officers say they didn’t see anything and didn’t torture anyone. The lower-level guys say they were just following orders. No one accepts responsibility.”
Hector Salgado grew up in a working-class section of Tome, a small fishing and manufacturing town 400 miles south of Santiago. When Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973, Salgado and his teenage friends were eager to do something to resist. They knew of a local Pinochet supporter who ran a mining operation and kept a large store of dynamite. The boys managed to steal and hide the explosives but had no real plans to use them. “We were just kids,” Salgado says. “It’s not like we had any military training.” A few weeks passed. Then, on the night of October 7, 1973, military officers came and arrested Salgado. A navy lieutenant told his mother her son would be back in an hour.
Instead, Salgado was subjected to weeks of terrifying interrogations, including beatings, electric shocks, and moments so dark he has blocked them from memory. His teeth were knocked out and his nose and ribs broken. On one occasion, officers blindfolded him and told him he was going to be shot, and then staged a mock execution for their own amusement.
The horror and humiliation lasted nearly three months, until a team of psychologists declared Salgado fit to be tried as an adult. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Most of his friends received similar punishments, but one, 19-year-old Fernando Moscoso, was sent to a firing squad.
Salgado spent the next three years in prison, housed with political detainees, who gave him the nickname “El Guagua” (“the baby”). In 1976, he was released, put on a plane for the United States, and forced into exile. He landed in New York with $40 and no English, but he eventually made his way to Berkeley, California, where he became active in Chilean exile politics. He married and started a family, and later went into therapy. But he could not expunge his memories of what had happened in Tome and Talcahuano.
As an American citizen, Salgado began traveling back to Chile in 1987 and started gathering information about what had happened to him and his friends more than a decade earlier. He interviewed other ex-prisoners, managed to obtain copies of military records, and even hired a private investigator. Later he realized he could search for his former captors online. “Basically,” he says, “I just Googled the Chilean navy.”
Since then, Salgado has located and met face to face with many of the figures from his past. One former lieutenant posed proudly for Salgado beneath an autographed portrait of Pinochet. A former prison guard who had watched over Fernando Moscoso said he’d fantasized about freeing the condemned man. A childhood friend confessed that he had revealed the names of Salgado and the other boys, under torture, and had been consumed by guilt ever since.
Salgado says he is driven by both the need for answers and his frustration at the slow pace and limited scope of Chile’s official truth and reconciliation process. Only a handful of high-ranking former military officials have been convicted, and hundreds of investigations remain unresolved. (Pinochet has evaded prosecution for years, though the 90-year-old is currently facing new murder and corruption charges.) Amid this dawdling, Salgado’s dogged legwork has attracted the attention of human rights investigators. In 2002, he filed a deposition with a special investigative judge, opening an inquiry that could result in some of the men on his list facing criminal charges. In the meantime, Salgado continues to prosecute them himself, in person and in the ambush-style film he hopes will one day air on Chilean television.
Salgado returned to Chile during the recent election of its first female president, Michelle Bachelet, herself a torture survivor. He had come to track down a man he’d been hunting for many years—the lead judge of the war tribunal at Talcahuano. Salgado had learned where the man was registered to vote, and at seven in the morning on election day, he went to his polling place in a wealthy neighborhood of Santiago.
The morning passed. By mid-afternoon, the man hadn’t arrived. “I watched thousands of faces go by,” Salgado says. “And then, just before the polls closed, he walked in.”
Now in his 70s, the man looked shrunken and slightly disoriented. After the old man had voted, Salgado approached him, introduced himself, and held up a small photo. “This is Fernando Moscoso,” he said. “He was my friend. You sent him to death.”
The judge took the photo and held it for a moment. “These poor kids,” he said, looking up at Salgado.
Salgado pressed him for an admission of guilt, but he would only blame others. Then the old man said he had to leave. As the last voters streamed in, Salgado just stood there and watched him walk away, his corbata cam silently recording everything.
One Sunday morning in 1976, a few weeks before he went into exile, Salgado was granted a one-day furlough from prison. He took the bus to Tome and began walking home for the first time in more than two and a half years.
When he passed Fernando Moscoso’s house, his dead friend’s grandmother was sitting on the porch. She began to cry when she saw him. “Oh, my son,” she wept, “you’ve come home.” She had mistaken him for Fernando, and Salgado didn’t know what to do. So before going home to see his own mother, Salgado brought her to the cemetery to visit Fernando’s grave.
That day, Salgado says, he made a vow. “I promised him that I would expose what happened. When I’m walking to these confrontations, I’m always thinking about that. How right I am. I’m not going there to beat anyone up. I’m not going to destroy anything. I’m going to confront them with the truth.”