Pinochet's New State of Siege
An assassination attempt fails, arid the government cracks down
"W are going to get tough. Those people talking about human rights and all those things must be expelled from the country or locked up. The war against Marxism is on. The war is going to start from our side." -- General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte
It was a balmy Sunday evening, and General Augusto Pinochet was making the 23-mile trip back to the capital, Santiago, from his weekend retreat at El Melocotón, accompanied by his ten-year-old grandson. The President's armor-plated Mercedes was the fourth in a five-car caravan. Suddenly, an oncoming car pulling a small camping trailer swerved across the road, blocking the presidential motorcade. "Intense firing began," Pinochet later recalled, "with machine guns, rifles and bazookas or possibly rocket launchers and some hand grenades." The barrage, which came both from the trailer and the surrounding hillsides, cut down the two motorcycle riders who led the President's caravan. A rocket hit the second I car, which exploded in flames.
Although his vehicle was under heavy machine-gun fire and was rocked by at least one grenade explosion, Pinochet's driver managed to slam the car into reverse, whip around in a U-turn, and speed out of the circle of fire and back to El Melocotón. All but one carload of bodyguards stayed behind to shoot it out with the guerrillas. When the battle was over, five security men were dead and eleven wounded. Despite a widespread manhunt by army units and the paramilitary carabineros all the attackers, whose number was estimated at between twelve and 40, slipped away.
To assure supporters and enemies alike that he had not been killed, Pinochet made a postmidnight television appearance. With considerable bravado, he described the ambush. "My first reaction was to get out of the car, but then I thought of my grandson at my side and covered his body with mine," he said. He displayed for the viewers a bandaged left hand, the result of a slight wound from flying glass.
The failed assassination attempt represented a dramatically sharp escalation of opposition to Pinochet's repressive regime. Though he is now highly unpopular, even among many conservatives who supported him when he led the military coup that ousted the government of Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens, this was the first attempt to kill the President.
The would-be assassins were suspected of being members of the shadowy Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, which U.S. State Department Spokesman Bernard Kalb described as a "Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization with links to the Chilean Communist Party." An armed leftist insurgency emerged in Chile only three years ago. Last month Chilean authorities claimed to have uncovered a huge arms cache that rebels had smuggled into the northern part of the country. A Washington diplomat says the finding of the weapons, together with the assassination attempt, indicates the leftists have decided "to up the ante."
Within hours of the attack, Pinochet declared a 90-day state of siege that he can extend at will. The decree suspended most civil liberties, gave the regime the right to ban demonstrations, conduct searches and make arrests without warrants, and close down the press and broadcasting stations. Declared Pinochet: "We are in a war between democracy and Marxism."
An earlier state of siege, imposed after an outbreak of street demonstrations in late 1984, lasted for six months. It ended only when the U.S. threatened to block new multilateral loans to Chile. This time, the regime will have to consider what impact the state of siege may have on Pope John Paul II's planned visit in April. In predominantly Roman Catholic Chile, where even many Marxists declare themselves Christians, the papal trip is anticipated with uncommon fervor. But the Vatican has let it be known that a state of siege would not be an appropriate atmosphere for a papal visit.
Signs of the crackdown were soon evident. The feared units of army men, their faces daubed with black greasepaint, fanned out through Santiago's vast slums searching for Pinochet opponents. By week's end more than 40 people had been arrested. Among them: Ricardo Lagos, a moderate Socialist Party leader; German Correa, secretary-general of the Popular Democratic Front, an outlawed Marxist coalition, and Rafael Marroto, a spokesman for the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. Five Catholic priests, two Americans and three French, who worked with the poor were also detained. A few days later, the French clerics were put on a plane to Brazil.
Exiles, though, have become a source of embarrassment to Pinochet. All told, 3,717 Chileans have been banned from their country since 1973, but many of them continue fighting the regime from abroad. In an attempt to draw attention to last week's 13th anniversary of the Pinochet coup, a group of 29 exiles arrived by plane in Santiago from Argentina. They were not permitted to leave the aircraft, and after four hours were flown back to Buenos Aires. Later in the week Pinochet announced that a plan to permit about a third of the exiles to return to Chile had been postponed.
The press also came under attack as part of the state of siege. Six magazines were closed down indefinitely, including Hoy, the journal of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. The London-based Reuters wire service had to close its operations in Santiago after transmitting a -profile of Pinochet that referred to the President as an "archvillain." The Italian news agency ANSA was also shut down for disseminating what the government called "tendentious and false information that has offended the armed forces."
The campaign of intimidation extended to murder, though no government involvement has so far been proved. Early one morning last week a white van pulled up outside the apartment building of José Carrasco Tapia, 43, foreign editor of the anti-Pinochet magazine Análisis. Two men, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying automatic weapons, dragged Carrasco away without his shoes. "You're not going to need them," his wife quoted them as saying.
Carrasco's body was found outside a cemetery later that day. He had been shot in the head 13 times. Two other men, a schoolteacher and an electrician with links to the left, met similar fates. A fourth man, an accountant who was not a known leftist, was also taken half-dressed from his home and killed. The government denied any role in the abduction-murders. About 600 people, many of them journalists, gathered in a cemetery in Santiago last Wednesday to accompany Carrasco's funeral cortege to his grave. Police dispersed them with tear gas and water cannon.
Moderate political leaders, meanwhile, grieved silently at the damage the violence on both sides was doing to their hopes for a transition to democracy. They were quick to denounce the assassination attempt. Said Enrique Silva Simma, president of the Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group of moderate parties: "We believe that acts of this kind neither contribute to pacifying the country nor help achieve democracy." Since 1983, when Pinochet loosened some of the restrictions on political activity, the moderates have been struggling to find a way of persuading the dictator to yield to a civilian electoral process. The latest plan was offered in August 1985 by an impressive coalition of eleven centrist and rightist parties called the National Accord, which was put together by Juan Francisco Cardinal Fresno. But Pinochet rejected out of hand the Accord's request for elections, the return of exiles and freedom of the press.
Last week's developments left Washington policymakers in a classic dilemma between violence of the far left and violence of the far right. The State Department condemned the attack on Pinochet and hoped the "terrorists will be found and prosecuted in accordance with Chilean law." At the same time, the Administration expressed its concern at the new state of siege, asserting that "such extreme measures hinder the development of the process of dialogue and consensus building."
For the past several months, the Ad-