In Chile the brutal, murderous past under dictator general Augusto Pinochet is never far away. Families of those who perished or simply disappeared under his rule are looking for clues to what happened to their loved ones and they’re yearning for justice.
During the Pinochet years more than 3,000 Chileans were politically targeted and killed. Fernando Ortiz was one of them – a university professor and senior member of the Communist Party, snatched from a Santiago street in 1976.
His family never saw him again.
We now know that Ortiz ended up at a super-secret extermination centre called Simon Bolivar where he was beaten to a pulp, injected with a lethal poison and died.
We also now have a clearer picture of the scale of suffering and death inside Simon Bolivar because a witness to much of it has been compelled to go public by Chilean authorities examining myriad cases of murder and disappearance.
The testimony of a man known as The Little Waiter, and other supporting accounts have generated a national and global hunt for culprits and their associates.
It’s a quest for justice that leads all the way to suburban Sydney.
In this special investigation, Foreign Correspondent’s Sally Sara travels to Chile to talk to the families of victims and the investigators and lawyers who are very keen to see a woman named Adriana Rivas returned to Chile to face trial.
And, back in Australia, we go in search of Adriana Rivas.
The Chilean Government is submitting extradition papers to Australian authorities based on 7 counts of aggravated kidnapping during Rivas’ time at Simon Bolivar.
Will she face the courts in Chile or will she stay out of reach in Australia?
SARA: The mountains are serene and the farmland is rich. Jorgelino Vergara was born and raised in this idyllic countryside a few hours south of Chiles’ capital, Santiago. Sometimes he wishes he’d never left.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “I’m honest and humble when I say that I’m not a bad man… I’m not a bad person”.
SARA: Jorgelino headed off to the city as a teenager and soon found himself at the centre of one of the most despicable chapters of Chile’s history. His job as a servant inside a secret government facility meant he witnessed horrific scenes – kidnapping, torture and even murder. He was a bystander as goons dispensed cold blooded brutality.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “For them perhaps, it was enjoyable – but for me, I felt the torment. The screams were loud, so loud”.
SARA: What happened here was so appalling, the Chilean military denied that these dungeons even existed and officials trusted insiders like Jorgelino Vergara to keep quiet. He didn’t.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “I started to cooperate with the authorities and then the truth began to come out – they didn’t know about the existence of an extermination centre”.
SARA: His explosive testimony has led to dozens of arrests and convictions and set in train a global chase for other suspects. One of those trails leads all the way from Santiago to Sydney and a woman accused of involvement in several high profile cases of aggravated kidnapping. Jorgelino Vergara and a number of witnesses put her inside the secret facility and within the circle of violence.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “How can they do it? How can they live with the eyes, with the screams, with the horror? How can a human being be part of this machinery of exterminating people?”
SARA: How has this woman managed to quietly build another life in Australia, while so many including the Chilean government itself, want her back to face justice? And will she remain out of reach in suburban Sydney?
LUISA ORTIZ: “She can’t say she didn’t know, didn’t hear, didn’t see. It’s not possible. And that’s why she’s accused of being an accomplice in the kidnapping of my father”.
SARA: This is where Chileans come to remember. The secrets and brutality of the Pinochet regime are laid bare at Santiago’s memory museum.
LUISA ORTIZ: “I was 15 at the time of the coup. And from that moment on I started to live with fear. I lived all my youth and adolescence with fear”.
SARA: More than three thousand people were kidnapped and killed under Pinochet’s rule. The army general seized power on September the 11th, 1973. The coup was the start of almost two decades of bitter repression in Chile.
LUISA ORTIZ: “The dictatorship did not defeat us. Never. We’ve always had great strength and a desire to live. We’ve felt angry and sadness and we’ve shared our sorrow, but also our hope”.
SARA: But many didn’t survive. It’s a deeply personal place for curator Luisa Ortiz. Among the faces of the thousands of dead and disappeared, is her father, Fernando.
LUISA ORTIZ: “The most difficult thing for me was to assume – and I think this is true for any relative of missing persons – the possibility of not finding him – that he’d never come back”.
SARA: Fernando Ortiz was a university professor and a senior member of the Communist Party. That made him a target for Pinochet’s security forces.
LUISA ORTIZ: “My father was in hiding. They were looking for him. You’d get home, and they’d been there, asking for him”.
SARA: On the 15th of December 1976, they found him. Government agents snatched Fernando Ortiz from a street in Central Santiago. There was no warrant for his arrest, no charges, no trial. Fernando Ortiz became one of the disappeared.
This man is one of the few who knows what happened next. Jorgelino Vergara has brought us here. It’s lush and leafy now, but 40 years ago this was a place of torture.
“What goes through your mind when you visit this place again?”
JORGELINO VERGARA: “It takes me back to the years when I was very paranoid. It brings back very back memories. I never want to go back to those times”.
SARA: A housing estate now stands on the former site of a secret extermination centre called Simon Bolivar. Few outsiders knew it existed until Jorgelino Vergara spoke out. But he was a reluctant whistle-blower. He only started giving evidence to clear his own name after he was arrested in 2007. And he only testified about events that occurred when he was under eighteen, so he didn’t incriminate himself.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “I started to testify and started to get rid of those pangs of guilt that should never have been there because I never acted the way the agents did”.
SARA: Jorgelino arrived here as a 15 year old after working as a servant for a top Chilean General. His nickname was El Mocito, or “the little waiter”, and his job was to bring food and drinks to the torturers.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “I had the chance to see all those things… the tortures, the conversations between them and all those things”.
SARA: Jorgelino was on duty as Fernando Ortiz was dragged in by government agents for one last terrible episode of torture.
JORGELINO VERGAGA: “He screamed because of the pain but he didn’t insult them like the other prisoners who were really rude to the torturers. Fernando Ortiz, you could tell he was a very polite gentleman”.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “You have to think about the case of my father and the other people who were at Simon Bolivar. Unlike other detention centres, this was an extermination centre. Nobody got out alive. Nobody”.
SARA: Fernando Ortiz was beaten so savagely, a broken bone in his leg was sticking out.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “Yes, that’s correct. I saw that. I heard the screams and I stopped to see what was going on. I could see Fernando Ortiz was being tortured. While they were beating him they shouted and boasted to each other”.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “It is something awful. Not even animals do that. This only happens with humans. We cannot even imagine how someone could do that”.
SARA: As the life went out of Fernando Ortiz’s body, he was killed by lethal injection. According to Jorgelino Vergara, a young female agent also took part in the interrogation. Her name? Adriana Rivas.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “Generally, when Adriana Rivas participated in the torture of the detainees, she beat them with sticks, she kicked them, punched them and also applied an electric current to the political prisoners”.
SARA: Adriana Rivas was one of the women hand-picked to join the much feared Lautaro Brigade. The sole purpose was to eliminate opponents of the government.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “They were all very pretty girls, well mannered… but at the same time, they could be very two-faced, and when it was their turn to torture prisoners they were extremely harsh and very brutal”.
SARA: Adriana Rivas’s mentor was the head of the secret police and the second most powerful man in Chile – General Manuel Contreras. He would later be sentenced to 289 years in gaol for kidnapping, torture and murder during that time.
Witnesses say part of Adriana Rivas’ job was to extract confessions before the prisoners were murdered.
JORGELINO VERGARA: “Yes, that is correct. Adriana Rivas’ role was also to move the recorder closer to the detainee”.
SARA: In 1978 Adriana Rivas left Chile to settle in Australia with her husband. She was able to travel freely back and forth to her homeland.
In 2006, Adriana Rivas returned to Chile to visit family and friends but she was arrested and held in custody for three months in connection with her work at Simon Bolivar. She was eventually released on bail on the condition that she report to authorities each month and not leave the country. But in 2010 she escaped to Argentina and then flew back to Australia.
While Adriana Rivas left the country, the daughters of Fernando Ortiz began their quest for justice.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “Justice if a responsibility we have beyond our family. For us, it is essential. It is essential that the ones who committed these murders, these crimes, who used all the power of the state, paid for by our taxes, serve their sentences, so that these things never happen again”.
SARA: The sisters have brought me here to an old mine called Cuesta Barriga. It took the Chilean military 25 years to reveal that the remains of Fernando Ortiz and several other victims had been dumped here.
LUISA ORTIZ: “It had a very strong emotional impact… tremendous. A long time had passed from 1976 to 2001 and we thought we’d never find out anything. And then this”.
SARA: The sisters and the relatives of other victims spent three months searching the mine. In the end they only found tiny bone fragments which took years to sort and identify using DNA tests.
LUISA ORTIZ: “Each day we would set out in the morning and stay all day, waiting for news. It was a very intense moment because we were families who shared a lot at that time. We imagined we were going to find entire remains… but we only obtained small fragments at the end of all that work”.
SARA: It was all they had. Fernando Ortiz’s funeral was finally held in 2012. He was laid to rest with his former Communist Party colleagues. They were murdered for simply daring to oppose the Pinochet regime.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “We cannot allow ourselves as humankind to kill, to disappear, to torture people just because they think differently. That is unacceptable”.
SARA: Francisco Ugás is the Chilean government’s top human rights lawyer. After a long investigation, charges are being laid against more than seventy people accused of involvement in the brutality at Simon Bolivar, including Adriana Rivas.
FRANCISO UGÁS: “The facts investigated, in which she was allegedly involved, are crimes against humanity and we as a state, have the obligation to prosecute those who have committed these crimes”.
SARA: Adriana Rivas is accused of seven counts of aggravated kidnapping. The victims were Fernando Ortiz, Victor Diaz, Fernando Navarro, Lincoyan Berios, Horacio Cepeda, Hector Veliz and Reinalda Pereira who was six months pregnant when she disappeared.
The cases are resting on the testimony of Jorgelino Vergara. Prosecutors say that his evidence is crucial and reliable.
FRANCISCO UGÁS: “… because it can be contrasted with other evidence in the process and when you analyse that testimony with the other elements it looks plausible. That’s why”.
SARA: Now the challenge is to get Adriana Rivas to return to Chile to stand trial.
NELSON CAUCOTO: “My message to her is to face justice in Chile, with all the rights that she and her comrades denied their victims. She’ll have the right to the best lawyers”.
SARA: The Chilean Supreme Court has approved a formal request for Adriana Rivas to be extradited from Australia to Chile.
NESLON CAUCOTO: “For the case to be finalised, the International Arrest Warrant issued against Adriana Rivas needs to be executed. I call upon the Australian government to get on board with the fight against impunity”.
SARA: Our search brings us back across the water, all the way to Sydney’s picture perfect Bondi Beach. We want to know where Adriana Rivas is, what life she’s leading and what are the chances she’ll face justice. It doesn’t take us long to discover that the alleged kidnapper works as a cleaner and nanny. We make several written requests for an interview to get Adriana Rivas’ side of the story, but she refuses.
ADRIANA RIVAS: “Who is it?”
SARA: “Sally Sara from ABC Foreign Correspondent”.
ADRIANA RIVAS: “How did you get my address?”
SARA: “We’d just like to ask you some questions about …”.
ADRIANA RIVAS: “Why have you got my address? [door closes]
SARA: But well before any extradition process was in train and the charges against her were still taking shape, Adriana Rivas did an interview with SBS online. In it, she admits to being at Simon Bolivar, but denies involvement in kidnapping.
ADRIANA RIVAS: [Courtesy SBS Online] “Not guilty. Not guilty. If I… look, I never had the opportunity to be where the detainees were. Never, understand? All my work was as a secretary or security. Nothing more”.
SARA: But Adriana Rivas’s views on torture are chilling. She defends the use of extreme violence against opponents of the state.
ADRIANA RIVAS: “Everyone knew they had to do that to the people in order to break them because Communists would not talk. It was necessary. The same as the Nazis did, you understand? A necessary part. And you think the US doesn’t do the same? Around the world they do the same. Around the world they do. Silenced underground, but they do it. This is the only way to break people”.
SARA: Adriana Rivas doesn’t express regret or remorse about her time as an agent with the Chilean secret police, known as DINA.
ADRIANA RIVAS: “That’s why I say the best years of my youth was when I lived in the DINA. I do not regret having worked there, because for me it was a job. It was a chance to survive. Understand? When I joined the DINA, it was another world to me. Clothing, we were dressed head to toe – four times a year. A brat like me, middle class with an average education, do you believe I would have had the opportunity to go to embassies in Chile, or ride in a limo, to and fro… visit the best hotels in Chile?”
SARA: Back in Santiago the sentiment is very different. The lack of justice enrages the daughter of torture victim Fernando Ortiz. This is the first time she’s seen pictures of Adriana Rivas living in Australia, out of reach of Chilean authorities.
LUISA ORTIZ: “She must come back and face what she’s responsible for. Looking at this photo makes me feel sick with this attitude as if she wasn’t responsible for anything. She looks like she is having fun, as if she was innocent. Living life as if nothing happened. Incredible, incredible”.
SARA: The Ortiz family has grown stronger despite the brutality of the Pinochet years. Estela Ortiz not only lost her father, her husband Jose Manuel was beheaded by security forces in 1985 but her message to her children was not to live in fear and sorrow.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “It was difficult… it was hard… but I believe that the decision, as I discussed with my daughter, to live, was the right one – the correct one. I’m talking about living with capital letters – of going back to dancing, to laughing and finding happiness again”.
SARA: Her daughter, Javiera is the next generation of the Ortiz family with a passion for politics. Chile is now one of the most prosperous and stable countries in South America, but Javiera believes that can’t be used to justify the oppression during the Pinochet era.
JAVIERA PARADA: “I believe that the ones who supported the dictatorship find it difficult, today, to say publicly how terrible it was but look at the country we delivered. The macro economic figures are not enough to say that the 17 years of suffering were justified – because people are still living in poverty, they don’t have a secure pension, they have poor quality education and inadequate health services”.
SARA: Javiera was only two years old when her grandfather, Fernando Ortiz, was kidnapped and murdered. She is determined to uphold his legacy.
JAVIERA PARADA: “I’m moved. I’m moved. The truth is, I find what happened more moving than painful knowing that there were so many people… so many people willing to give their lives”.
SARA; The Ortiz family is sending a clear message to Adriana Rivas in Australia, that the time has come to face up to the past.
ESTELA ORTIZ: “How Adriana? How? That is incomprehensible to me, but it was a choice made. I chose life. You chose death. I chose freedom – and to look people in the face. You chose to have a double life, and hide. I think you are going to feel released, if you face justice, if you face your reality. Say what you know, say what you know. Help this country so that those things never happen again”.