By Pascale Bonnefoy M. (lea aquí artículo original en español)
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (II): “Cursory autopsies”
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (III): From the morgue to the cemetery
eptember 11, 1973. The flames of the presidential palace had not yet been extinguished. Military patrols, anticipating what was to come, made a silent tour of Santiago to pick up some morgue employees from their homes. Among them was one of the drivers of the Santiago Morgue (Instituto Médico Legal, IML), and four neighbors from his town, all IML assistants and administrative officials.
On the day of the military coup there were only 20 or so officials on duty at the compound on Avenida La Paz. At 8 p.m. the first two victims of the incipient military dictatorship arrived. Claudio de la Fuente Castillo, 20 years old, and Ariosto Zenteno Araneda, 17 years old, had been shot in the street at 3:30 p.m. that day, according to their autopsy reports. The autopsy order for both was given by telephone by the Santiago Military Garrison, as noted in the book of deceased persons admitted to the morgue of Santiago (Transfer Book).
The next day, with the country still under total curfew, more bodies arrived, all riddled with multiple bullet wounds. More IML officials were sent for, among them, the dispatcher Heriberto Maians. Like several of his co-workers, Maians remained locked up in the morgue for two months. There was too much to do.
An avalanche of bodies
ccustomed to receiving an average of less than 10 corpses per day (during August 1973 a total of 286 arrived), morgue officials now had to deal with several times that number. Between September 11 and 30 alone, 588 bodies arrived. Of these, 397 were deaths from gunshot wounds. On a single day, September 20, 43 were admitted. The day before, 40. By the end of October, the post-coup death toll totaled 1,177, including 722 victims of gunshot wounds.
Such was the magnitude of the work that the Servicio Médico Legal (SML) had to request reinforcements from the Registro Civil so that its officials could help take fingerprint samples from the bodies for their identification, and officials from the General Cemetery were forced to go out into the streets to collect the dead and then “box them up” in the morgue itself.
Since the staff of the SML was not increased, clinical physicians from other departments of the Service had to assist in the performance of autopsies. Forensic physician José Luis Vásquez recalls that during that period, he worked up to 12-hour days, performing one autopsy after another.
It was the period of razzia, of social and political “cleansing”, as is confirmed by the high concentration of victims of human rights violations during that period as recorded in the Rettig Report. Leaving tortured bodies destroyed by machine gun fire and even mutilated bodies in full view of the population seemed to be a tactic of the policy of terror and psychological domination imposed by the new regime.
The SML provided a database in spreadsheet format with the complete records of all the deceased who arrived at the morgues of Santiago and 14 other cities in the country between September 11 and December 31, 1973. In addition, it allowed us to make a photographic copy of the Transfer Book, where officials noted the arrival of the bodies, assigning each one a protocol number and reporting all the procedures surrounding the deceased until his or her departure from the morgue.
ArchivosChile also interviewed current and former SML officials, including auxiliaries, attendants, clerks, drivers, secretaries, administrative staff and doctors. With these data and testimonies it has been possible to construct a picture of what happened inside the Santiago morgue in the first 11 weeks of the military dictatorship. This allows us to know how the sudden avalanche of bodies was dealt with, including the autopsies that established the causes of death, the process of identification and recognition of the bodies and their transfer to the cemetery or other places. It was also possible to investigate the intervention of the military bureaucracy within the SML itself.
The investigation encompassed the actions of four institutions within a bureaucratic circuit of death: the Servicio Médico Legal, the Registro Civil, the Santiago General Cemetery and the military prosecutors’ offices. All of them worked to distort and hide the reality of the massive political executions that took place immediately after the military coup and until the end of 1973, a period in which the greatest number of victims of the 17 years of military dictatorship were concentrated.
In those months, most of the corpses were abandoned in uncultivated areas, streets and highways. The records of the SML report 193 cases of dead bodies found on “public roads”, without specifying the place. According to the Transfer Book and other data provided by the SML, 123 people were dumped in rivers and canals in the Metropolitan Region.
ArchivosChile has converted the records provided by the SML into an interactive map that shows the location of the dead, according to the Transfer Book column “Place of death or place where found” and other data from the SML.
Other bodies were thrown as waste by the military themselves inside the SML or in front of its gates, according to former officials. “Bodies would appear at the entrance of the service that were left at night. These bodies came without any notification,” Dr. Vásquez said.
Bodies at dawn
fter the coup, the morgue staff on duty took turns sleeping, according to Heriberto Maians, who was a morgue attendant at the time and had been with the Service for seven years. Rest was impossible. Several times during the night, military vehicles stopped at the entrance to the morgue. The Transfer Book records the entry of bodies after curfew, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of two, three, four and even seven.
What Maians and other morgue officials remember with clarity is the scene of the mutilated bodies thrown on the sidewalk at the entrance of the Institute, which they themselves had to pick up and bring into the premises.
“The militiamen left the bodies lying around as if they were throwing garbage. Some were tied up with wires, blindfolded, others were destroyed by a hail of bullets. We would pick them up and place them at the entrance. You couldn’t ask any questions. Inside, other colleagues would put them on stretchers and take them to the back room where the refrigerators are,” a former IML driver, then 33 years old, who did not want to be identified, told ArchivosChile.
According to Maians, no one gave them instructions to collect these bodies, despite the fact that by regulation no corpse was to be received without a court order. “We couldn’t leave them dumped there. They didn’t come with papers, and they were all shot. There were three of us colleagues who had to do it and it took us about an hour. There were carabineros walking along the sidewalk, but they didn’t say anything; they just watched,” he said.
During the day, military trucks would arrive and enter directly at the back of the morgue to leave more corpses. On September 21, for example, the Transfer Book recorded the arrival of nine bodies at 9:50 a.m.; another 12 at 11 a.m.; nine at noon and nine more during the course of the day. On October 6, between 11 a.m. and noon, 29 bodies arrived.
“They were coming in so fast, about five times a day. They didn’t come with any orders. An auxiliary told me that they were very arrogant with them. ‘Open the door, or do you want to end up like those in the truck,’ they shouted at them,” Adelina Gaete, then secretary to the Director of the SML, Dr. Alfredo Vargas Baeza, told ArchivosChile.
The vehicles loaded with bodies entered the sector where the carriages entered the morgue, a dark basement. In that place, the military dumped the bodies, and the officials had to pick them up and bring them in.
“They were conscripts and you could tell they were very scared. They unloaded trucks with corpses and dumped them in piles on the ground. The morgue officials would put them on stretchers and try to arrange them on the floor. The place was carpeted with corpses one after another: children, old people, women, men. It was hell itself,” said Hector Herrera, a Registro Civil official who was brought to the morgue to help take fingerprint samples from the deceased.
“They had signs of torture, bruises, dirt stuck to their eyes, blood. They came in a very pitiful state. Many had their eyes open. I always thought those people saw the people who shot them. Those eyes followed me every day, they came back with me to my home,” he added.
Victims who lived
several occasions, the officers discovered living victims among the corpses. The specialized auxiliary Mario Cornejo was one of the officers who, after the military coup, had to remain in the morgue for more than 20 days without returning home. Mario Cornejo later told his son Sergio that one day in September, when he was making a nightly round of the room where the bodies were stacked, he heard a moaning sound. He quickly called other officials to help him check the bodies and found a wounded man. Cornejo arranged for the man to be taken to the José Joaquín Aguirre Hospital through a side door that connected the morgue to the hospital. However, he later learned that the man was abducted from the hospital by the military.
Although it is impossible to determine the identity of the man Cornejo found alive in the morgue, it can be deduced, based on information from the Rettig Report, that it could be at least one of two people.
One could be Javier Sobarzo Sepúlveda, a Socialist Party militant and official of Distribuidora Nacional de Alimentos. He was arrested on September 11 and taken to the Army’s Peldehue Parachute School, of which he had been a member. He managed to survive a collective firing squad and, presumed dead, was transferred to the IML, according to the Rettig Report. From there he was taken by morgue officials to the J.J. Aguirre Hospital, but was later removed by the military, and his trail was lost. Today he is a detainee-disappeared.
Another survivor who arrived at the morgue during September was Luis Gutiérrez Rivas, a 29-year-old miner from Lota and Communist Party militant. Gutiérrez had been arrested in the capital on September 30 along with five companions in a military raid on the Santiago Pino de Barrancas camp in the western sector of the capital. The six were taken to the Barrancas Cultural Center, which the Army had occupied and converted into a detention center, and shot. The badly wounded body of Gutiérrez was taken to the morgue. The other five victims were recorded in the Transfer Book as having been killed in the street. According to the Rettig Report, Luis Gutiérrez was taken to the J.J. Aguirre Hospital still alive, but was taken from the place by a military patrol on October 2. He remains as a detainee-disappeared.
Maians also recalls finding people alive among the dead within a week of the coup. “At night we would go to look at the bodies inside and suddenly we heard some moans. There were three alive. We alerted the policemen who were outside and they themselves called the ambulance from the J.J. Aguirre Hospital to take them away. A few hours later they came back, but dead,” he recounted.”
ll those corpses – those that appeared in front of the morgue gate in the mornings, those that had to be picked up from the street, and those left by military trucks inside the IML itself – filled the halls, corridors and stairways of the Institute, waiting their turn for a cursory autopsy.
“The entrance was horrific. The oval corridor surrounding the building had corpses along both walls, from the door entrance to the back. The room where the refrigeration chambers are, which numbered about 90, was also full, and not all of them were working. In each one, two, three, four bodies were placed. In that room there were also bodies on the floor,” said Dr. José Luis Vásquez in an interview with ArchivosChile.
In the corridors it was practically impossible to walk, Adelina Gaete, then secretary to the Director of the SML, told AchivosChile. “You had to jump over the dead. There was always a horrible smell. It was awful,” she said.
The hospitals, meanwhile, were experiencing their own drama. Dr. Alvaro Reyes, a traumatologist, worked in the emergency room of the Posta Central in the first days after the coup. He stayed at the Posta with other colleagues without being able to go home for four days.
“I didn’t keep count, but it was a lot of people, like never before. There were many bodies with bullet wounds and the work was frenetic… The ambulances had work day and night non-stop,” he told ArchivosChile. The dead from the hospitals would also end up in the morgue.
The officials were faced with a potential health catastrophe. When a body was brought in, a “corpse reception report” was filled out, indicating the day and time of arrival at the morgue and the clothes the deceased was wearing. Each body was assigned a protocol number, which was written down on a small piece of paper that was then tied with wire or string around the wrist.
This protocol number was recorded in the Transfer Book and accompanied the body throughout the morgue procedures: it was the same number of the autopsy report and of the histological and toxicological examinations performed–although at that time, they were almost never performed. This number was also used to send the fingerprints for identification at the Registro Civil, and the same number was used to authorize the delivery of the body and its burial.
Recovering the dead
he number of trips to pick up corpses that had been shot and abandoned on public roads multiplied. At that time, recalls the former morgue driver, the Service had about four Chevrolet vans that could hold four to six corpses. Clearly that was not enough.
People went out every day, unlike before the coup, when they went out only three or four times a day, recalls Sergio Cornejo, who was 13 years old at the time and accompanied his father to his job at the morgue. “Carabineros would call to go and pick up bodies. As I was a boy, sometimes I would accompany the drivers to pick up the dead. In the vacant lots we would find badly decomposed bodies,” he said.
It was so much work that they even asked for help from the General Cemetery officials to go out and pick up bodies from the Mapocho River during their workday, recalls one cemetery official, who said he refused to perform that task.
“There were four or five officials, all young men. They were carrying long hooked irons so they could drag the bodies. One of our colleagues even had to be rescued once because he was being carried away by the current of the river. They would pull the bodies out and leave them on the riverbank,” said the official, who asked not to be named. The bodies were dragged to the riverbank.
Risking their own safety, the morgue workers had to go out even during curfew. One of the SML drivers at the time, who also asked not to be identified, said that they had to prepare themselves for each departure: they had to learn all the passwords and signs that the military authorities at the morgue told them so as to pass the permanent military checkpoints along the way and not end up shot like the victims they had to go and look for.
“We were given several different passwords or signals every night in case we were stopped by patrols. For example, change of cabin lights, colored bracelet or with some figure (turtle, skull, lizard), code words, etc. I drove at 20 km per hour because there were military patrols all the time. Although the vehicles were identified as Service vehicles, they still shot at us ‘by mistake’. Then they would make us get out and throw us to the ground,” the former driver told ArchivosChile.
He spent all day and night looking for bodies. “We would go to the Mapocho River, to the river gate, to the side of the Metropolitan Cemetery, to the towns. Someone would give the order and Carabineros in the morgue would say: ‘What huevón is unemployed? Go to the José María Caro, for example; on the train line there are 6, 8 huevones that have to be picked up. On the way back, they go to pick up other huevones in such and such a place’. That’s how they gave us instructions,” he added.
“I saw so many things I don’t want to remember anymore,” said the former morgue driver, who retired from the service 10 years later. “I was traumatized by it all, I would cry constantly. I went through a lot of psychologists. To this day when I remember it I start crying,” he recounted.
One of his colleagues, a young driver, had to undergo psychiatric treatment several times. “Every time he heard sirens he would start crying,” he added.
According to Heriberto Maians, several of his co-workers who went out at night to look for bodies “went crazy.” “They wouldn’t say anything, but they would come back desperate.”
Dr. Vásquez, who today continues to work as a medical examiner at the SML, confirmed to ArchivosChile that the psychological consequences for those involved became evident later on. “At that time, we didn’t even have the opportunity to talk about what was happening, there was no time. We were interested in resolving the situation quickly, because we could see that we were going to have a very serious health situation.”
“We were under psychological pressure because of the responsibility of what we were facing,” he added. “There were relatives out there, people who wanted to know if their relatives were inside. We did what was humanly possible.”
 Debido a la ausencia de datos de las morgues de todo el país, incluyendo ciudades grandes como Valparaíso y Concepción, esta investigación se limita a los datos de Santiago en la mayoría de sus conclusiones y análisis.
 Mario Cornejo está fallecido. Su hijo Sergio Cornejo, quien hoy trabaja enla Unidad de Identificación del SML, relató a ArchivosChile la experiencia de su padre.
 No se han podido determinar los nombres de estas personas.
 Los datos del SML permiten conocer el detalle de los 123 fallecidos encontrados en ríos y canales: 75 en el río Mapocho, sus puentes o a sus orillas (33 de ellos en el Puente Bulnes, donde se realizaron varias ejecuciones masivas); 39 en distintos canales (21 solo en el Canal San Carlos); y nueve en el Río Maipo.
ArchivosChile’s research is based on information from the Servicio Médico Legal and the Registro Civil obtained through the Transparency Law and the review of files at the Santiago General Cemetery and the Second Military Court.
- Investigation Overview: The Bureaucracy of Death – Executions in Chile 1973
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (I): Bodies at dawn
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (II): “Cursory autopsies”
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (III): From the morgue to the cemetery
- Political Executions: 150 new cases?
- Crossed identities and bodies without names at the Registro Civil
- The black hole of the military prosecutors’ offices
- Military Courts: Execute first, judge second
- Wartime Tribunals: Absolute authority
- The silence of the cemetery
- The strange case of the two Luis Curivils
- Victor Jara and Littré Quiroga
- Bodies floating in the Mapocho River
- Allende suicide: Forensic reports July 19, 2011