June 2, 2006

La Esmeralda, Haunted by Torture and Abuse, Docks in San Diego

By Michael Klam

As the Chilean Navy’s tall ship, La Esmeralda, enters San Diego waters for the fourth time this Sunday afternoon, many will see it as a staunch reminder that political prisoner abuse and torture are not a thing of the past.

Given ongoing investigations into secret CIA extraordinary rendition sites across the globe, the well documented abuses at Abu Ghraib, and on the heels of U.S. government discussions to close Guantanamo Bay, the survivors, friends and family members of those tortured aboard La Esmeralda will protest the ship’s arrival at San Diego’s Broadway Pier. Amnesty International, Survivors of Torture, International, and the International Museum of Human Rights will also be present.


La Esmeralda in Valparaíso harbour on the day it left on its current cruise.

Some background: On Sept. 11, 1973 Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his military junta, funded by the CIA, seized power in a coup d’etat that would lead to decades of large-scale repressions and human rights violations in Chile.

In the weeks after the coup, La Esmeralda (also known as the White Lady, a symbol of Chilean pride that continues as a training ship for young recruits) was used to imprison, beat, sexually assault, electrocute and water torture those who sympathized with the ousted socialist president, Salvador Allende.

The Chilean Navy only recently admitted that detainees were tortured. The navy’s Adm. Miguel Ángel Vergara said in 2004 that the navy “profoundly regrets” the abuses. Vergara did not acknowledge that the navy as an institution was at fault, saying, “Those personal and ethical responsibilities are strictly personal.”

In essence, he suggested that the superior officers were not to blame.

A November 2004 report printed in the Chilean newspaper, La Nación, said the navy “profoundly laments the violation of human rights, in any place and under any circumstance, particularly that which occurred on board the ship, Esmeralda, which is a symbol for all of Chile.”

But the navy still insists that it has no “institutional” responsibility for what happened on the ship or in the many other centers (Academia de Guerra, Cuartel Silva Palma) in which civilians were tortured and assassinated.

Just this week, however, on May 28, the navy’s new leader, Adm. Rodolfo Codina Díaz, conceded in an interview in La Nación that it was not just a matter of personal responsibilities, that there were orders from line supervisors, “mandos directos” but they did not come from superior officers, “mandos superiores.”

Germán F. Westphal, a former Chilean political prisoner and professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at the University of Maryland, says the Chilean Navy’s high command has been particularly adamant in protecting its cadre involved in the crimes committed onboard the Esmeralda and elsewhere, alleging that there is no institutional information pertaining to the same.

“This is a blatant lie,” says Westphal, “since the individuals who committed those crimes did so using the navy’s guns and ammunition, infrastructure and facilities, in the context of an institutional policy of repression against political dissidents, as it has been thoroughly documented (in the January 1991 Rettig Report and the 2004 Valech Report) that the Chilean Navy acknowledged that the ship had ‘unfortunately’ been used as a detention center.”

Westphal continues: “As far as the Chilean Navy’s statement acknowledging the ‘unfortunate’ use of the Esmeralda in 1973 is concerned, it is mind-boggling that the High Command would offer the surviving victims of torture —as in fact it has— the celebration of an act of atonement on the ship, but at the same time deny any institutional responsibility for the crimes committed on board, not to mention its refusal to do anything that would help identify the perpetrators.”

Like Westphal, Pat Bennetts and her husband Fred have also been searching for answers and justice. The Bennettses believe that Pat’s brother Michael was tortured on the Esmeralda and later buried at night in the cemetery at Playa Ancha, Valparaiso.


Pat Bennetts is the sister of Father Michael Woodward who was tortured aboard the Esmeralda and disappeared.

“We have documentary evidence that the two most senior naval officers in Valparaíso at the time were fully aware of what was happening,” says Mr. Bennetts. “And in the case of Michael, they knew that he had died of torture – ‘se habrá pasado la mano a un interrogador’ – and did not investigate his death,” he says. “They were Almirante Adolfo Walbaum, Jefe de la I Zona Naval, and Captain Guillermo Aldoney, Jefe del Estado Mayor de la I Zona Naval. Both are still alive.” Aldoney is a retired admiral and successful businessman, according to Mr. Bennetts.

“We see it from the point of view of human rights,” says Mrs. Bennetts. “They have to come before justice. They have to be tried. Maybe quite soon some who were responsible will be officially named. Justice would be to name the people to recognize what units were involved in the torture.”

Her brother, Father Michael Woodward, had dual nationality, having been born in Val-paraiso of a British father and Chilean mother. As a priest he was increasingly drawn to the plight of the workers and the poor. He lived and worked amongst them.

At the time of the military coup in September 1973, Woodward was a member of the staff of the Univer-sidad Católica de Valparaíso. Immediately after the coup, his name was included in the list of those who were ordered, by street loudspeakers and radio, to present themselves to the authorities. He was soon picked up by a Navy patrol.

“For many years we were fobbed off with the story that he had been buried in a fosa común (common grave) containing thousands of bodies and that it would be impossible to find Michael´s,” says Mr. Bennetts.

However, the Bennetts later found out that there was a witness to Woodward’s burial. The body was buried in an individual grave at a site that the witness identified. His testimony was given not to the judge but to his actuario (clerk of the court) – an irregular procedure, says Mr. Bennetts.

The Bennetts’ struggle to find the body (they now know where Michael might be – within 20 meters) has hit several obstacles. Over the last year-and-a-half, on four occasions, planned attempts to exhume the body have been canceled by the judge without explanation. And the possibility exists that the body may have been surreptitiously buried elsewhere or thrown into the sea, according to Mr. Bennetts.

“My brother was a very special person,” says Mrs. Bennetts, who is cautiously optimistic about the future of the Esmeralda case in general. “The judge who is investigating in Valparaiso has the ship’s log, which is like a diary of daily activities,” she says. The log could answer many questions, but the Bennetts have yet to gain access.

Regarding the fate of the Esmeralda, Mrs. Bennetts says, “I’m not for burning it down. I don’t want to see it absolutely destroyed. There should be human rights courses for the young men who are trained on the ship. There should be a plaque with the names of the victims. Too many people depend on the Esmeralda. They would lose their work.”

The Bennetts are not alone in their struggle. Amnesty International is “urging those governments where the ship docks, to publicly state that the history of the Esmeralda is degraded by her abominable recent past and that until the grave human rights violations that took place on the ship are fully clarified and those found responsible brought to justice, the Esmeralda is not welcome as a worldwide roving ambassador to Chile,” according to the Web site. “This, in Amnesty International’s view, constitutes an affront to the families and the victims who suffered grave human rights violations on the vessel.”

The Esmeralda carries on its bow the symbol of the condor, one of Chile’s national emblems. To those involved in the effort to expose the truth about the ship, the image also represents “Operation Condor,” Pinochet’s attempt to repress the southern countries.

“The Esmeralda is not only the Chilean Navy’s Torture Chamber, as it has been thoroughly documented,” writes Westphal, “but also – along with the bird of prey on its bow – a symbol of the most heinous crimes ever committed in the Southern Cone of Latin America.”

It remains to be seen if the Chilean Navy will ever disclose all the facts about the Esmeralda. Perhaps there will come a time when the condor is replaced by the dove, or any symbol of peace, and the ship will be used as a tool to keep the past from repeating itself.

For now, protests.

This Saturday at 2 p.m., San Diego’s Central Library, located at 820 E St., will air the documentary “The Dark Side of the White Lady” (2006). In the film, writer and director Patricio Henríquez seeks to unravel the lies told for “reasons of state” and comprehend how such horrors could emerge from a thing of such beauty. The film will be followed by a discussion with Chileans who were detained and imprisoned by the Chilean Navy in 1973. For more information contact Anne Hoiberg at (619) 223-8074 or the Central Library at (619) 236-5800.

  On Sunday from noon to 2 p.m., the public is invited to join the demonstration outside the Esmeralda. The ship is expected to dock at Broadway Pier on the San Diego Bay. There is a gated fence and guarded gate for entry into the area adjacent to the ship. The demonstration will be outside of that area in front of the ship’s bow.

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