by Pascale Bonnefoy M. (Lea artículo original en español aquí)
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal I: Bodies at dawn
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal II: Cursory autopsies
the chaotic first three months following the military coup the bodies of the victims piled up in the Santiago morgue and the Servicio Médico Legal (SML) transferred nearly 190 deceased without the knowledge of their families to the General Cemetery. In 120 cases, their identities had already been confirmed by the Registro Civil. However, many of them ended up buried in Patio 29 of the cemetery while their families continued to search for them in regiments, prisons and police stations.
As part of the investigation “The Bureaucracy of Death: Executions in Chile 1973“, ArchivosChile investigated SML procedures for the removal of corpses and compared the official data from the morgue with information from other sources on the fate of the same people, discovering great disparities.
For sanitary and space reasons, from time to time the corpses of the victims of the military dictatorship in the morgue that were not claimed were put into vehicles of the SML or the General Cemetery itself and taken to their burial in total secrecy.
Of the almost 690 dead after the military coup in the capital, some 190 were not claimed by their relatives, either because the families did not yet know that they had died or because they had been left as NN in the morgue. In these cases, the morgue attendant was sent to the court or prosecutor’s office to obtain judicial authorization for the release of the body and the service itself transferred them to the cemetery.
“This was done when there was too much overcrowding in the refrigerators, generally every three weeks. Then, they were taken in coffins provided by the General Cemetery, two or three corpses were placed in each coffin, and they went,” Gilberto Rudolph, then legal advisor to the SML, told ArchivosChile.
cover sheets of the autopsy protocols and the medical death certificates, which the Registro Civil used to register the death and issue the death certificate to the next of kin.that time, Melentina Hernández was an administrative officer in the Thanatology section. She transcribed the handwritten autopsy reports submitted by the doctors and filled out the
Her office was at the entrance of the main door, on the right side, where she served the public through a window. She recalls that in those days, there was an “insane” increase in the number of inquiries. “We didn’t have time to go to have a snack or go to the bathroom. There wasn’t enough time to fill out so much paperwork or serve so many people. We worked until after curfew, then an IML van with a patrol car escort would take us home,” she told ArchivosChile.
According to Hernández, her office drew up a list of unclaimed persons and arranged for its publication in a newspaper, stating that these persons would be transferred to a mass grave. After a few days, she says, the bodies were sent to the General Cemetery.
“The cemetery decided whether they went to the crematorium or were buried; it was a lot of corpses,” she said.
ccording to the Rules & Regulations of the SML, unrecognized or abandoned corpses were to be turned over to the National Health Service for burial. Of the almost 690 bodies that the SML records as having been transferred to the General Cemetery between September 11 and the end of December 1973, about 190 were taken directly by the Service and not by their relatives, according to morgue records. However, the number could be much higher.
The SML record did not always reflect reality. “In the autopsy protocols it sometimes appears as if the family came to pick up the deceased, handed over the clothes to dress him and took him away. But that is not always true. In that case, they would not have taken him to the common cemetery yards,” SML forensic anthropologist Marisol Intriago told ArchivosChile.
The case of Humberto Escobar Escobar, a 25-year-old worker executed on October 14, 1973, speaks volumes. According to the records of the SML, his body was removed from the morgue by his brother-in-law eight days later. But the Rettig Report states that after visiting detention centers and hospitals, his spouse went to the IML, where she was told that Escobar’s remains had already been taken to the cemetery. His identity had only been confirmed by the Registro Civil on October 30. At the cemetery, the family was informed that he had been buried in Patio 29. His body was exhumed and cremated in 1981 by the cemetery itself, when there was a massive removal and cremation of those buried in Patio 29, without the authorization or knowledge of the family.
It is unclear whether this type of situation occurred by negligence or deliberately, as a way to “normalize”, on paper, the delivery of corpses to their relatives.
The same happened to Álvaro Acuña Torres, José Machuca Espinoza, Sergio Aguilar Núñez and Guillermo Arriagada Saldías, executed at the Bulnes Bridge on September 24, 1973, and to Dagoberto Lefiqueo Antilef and Florencio Cuéllar Albornoz, shot on October 14 at the same place. According to the General Cemetery books to which ArchivosChile had access, all of them were buried in Patio 29 and remained there until 1981, when their remains were exhumed and cremated. The SML book, however, states that Lefiqueo was removed from the morgue by his mother, Cuellar by his partner, Acuña by a brother, Machuca by his partner, Aguilar by his sister-in-law and Arriagada by his grandmother.
“Some families were told that they would be given the body, so they would bring the clothes to dress it and get the death certificate and the burial pass, but when they arrived to pick up the body, they found that it had already left for the cemetery. When they went to consult the cemetery, there was so much chaos that it was difficult to find out exactly where the body was buried,” said Intriago.
Most of the people transferred by the IML itself to the cemetery, without the knowledge of their families, were already fully identified through the fingerprint samples sent to the Registro Civil. Some 70 were unidentified persons (NN). Another 107 also left the IML for the cemetery, but the IML records do not indicate whether they were removed by relatives or transferred directly by the Service.
Leaving the morgue
form that the judge of the criminal court or the military prosecutor’s office had to stamp and sign. This form included three things: the autopsy order, the order to register the death and the authorization to release the body.hen a person recognized the victim, the paperwork began. The delivery of the corpses had to be authorized by a judge, only then could an autopsy order be requested from the court. The SML had a
Often it was the families themselves–and sometimes the funeral parlors that offered to do so–who had to handle the paperwork, going to the courthouse themselves. Once they had the court order, the Independencia sub-office of the Registro Civil, whose office was at the south entrance gate of the IML, delivered the death certificate and the burial pass for the bereaved to pick up.
It was not a simple process, nor was it free of irregularities, as Juan Antonio Zúñiga, stepson of Salvador González, a 63-year-old ice cream maker from the La Legua neighborhood, explained. On September 18, 1973, González had gone out to sell ice cream, apparently during the curfew, and because he was a little deaf, said the stepson, he did not hear when the military ordered him to stop. They shot and killed him. Strangely, his body appears entering the morgue much later, on October 4, according to the admission book of the SML. The Second Military Prosecutor’s Office assumed legal jurisdiction over the case.
Nevertheless, Zúñiga complained to Policía de Investigaciones that in order to remove his stepfather’s body from the morgue, he had to sign a document stating that González had died in a traffic accident, even though the autopsy report clearly indicated that he died from gunshot wounds.
Falling behind on autopsies
letter dated January 11, 1974, the Director of the SML, Dr. Alfredo Vargas, urged the medical examiner Exequiel Jimenez to hurry up the signing of autopsy reports for dispatch to the courts, since they were accumulating without being sent. Dr. Vargas listed 74 reports from 1973, and even two from 1972, which Dr. Jimenez had not yet signed. Of these, 11 corresponded to the jurisdiction of the Second Military Prosecutor’s Office; almost all were workers listed in the Rettig Report as victims of political repression.he autopsy reports, sooner or later, reached military courts and prosecutors. In fact, in a
At the beginning of 1974 an internal investigation was opened against Dr. Jimenez for the slowness in signing autopsy reports, which prevented them from being sent to court.
The physician defended himself, claiming that in “the last quarter of last year , for known reasons, the work pressure increased considerably in this service. Thus, during that period, about 200 reports had to be made, corrected and dispatched. Under so much pressure, we fell behind on some of them.”
As part of this summary, a list of autopsy reports and the time elapsed between the court order to perform the autopsy and the signature of the report by the physician was prepared. The report reveals that, In the case of the military prosecutors’ offices, the reports were sometimes sent almost a month late. But they always arrived.
Autopsies were performed before a court order was obtained and without the existence of any police report. They had to be done according to the order of arrival of the corpses and according to the shifts and schedules of the doctors, so it was not possible to wait one or two days for the court order to arrive before starting, says former legal advisor Rudolph. The autopsy order was requested later.
Only once did the military ask in an irregular manner for the autopsy reports of two people, according to Rudolph. Two lieutenant colonels came to the office of the director, Dr. Vargas, with whom Rudolph was meeting at the time.
Rudolph recalls that Dr. Vargas told them that he would give them the expert reports only if they brought a court order. “The officers replied: ‘We are military!’ I remember that Dr. Vargas answered: ‘Look, two Presidents of the Republic have called me to ask me for autopsy results and I never gave them the results.’ The military men withdrew very upset,” he recounts.
Finding Enrique Ropert
or the relatives of the politically executed, the process of removing the remains of their loved ones presented risks, as witnessed in the case of 20-year-old Enrique Ropert Contreras. Ropert was the son of President Allende’s personal assistant, Miria Contreras “la Payita”, and had been arrested the same day of the military coup outside La Moneda when he left his mother at the presidential palace with members of the Presidential Security team.
Ropert was executed on the Bulnes Bridge nine days later, but it was not until October 1 that someone phoned his aunt, Mitzi Contreras, to tell her that his name appeared on a list on the morgue door.  That same night, her house was raided by the Army, and a son and son-in-law were arrested. The next day, Mitzi Contreras went to the morgue with a friend, and they were taken to the exhibition room, where the corpses were lying.
They found Ropert among the dead, naked, with bullet impacts on the head and chest and bruises in the abdominal region. At his feet was a pair of clothes and he was without identification.
Mitzi Contreras was worried about how to make the arrangements to pick him up, since in those weeks, her sister, Enrique’s mother, was being intensely sought by the military. A doorman at the morgue warned her to make the arrangements quickly because, he told her, “they would take them all to a mass grave” the next day.
However, she was unable to remove the body that afternoon, and returned the next day accompanied by her son Roberto Freraut.
“We entered at the back of the IML. There was a stair down to a basement, and it was full of corpses: hundreds of corpses all piled on top of each other. You could hardly move forward. The corridors were just as crowded,” Freraut told ArchivosChile. “One person asked me if I was coming for Enrique Ropert. I don’t know if it was someone who could help or if they really wanted us to identify him to get to my aunt.”
At the morgue they met some relatives and Lucía Salas, an old family friend with whom they had not had contact in years. The woman “immediately started pressuring me to tell her where my sister Miria and nephews Max and Isabel were. She said she wanted to act as a ‘silver bridge’ between the Junta and us,” stated Mitzi Contreras. Her son warned her that the woman might be an agent, and that there were about six security agents following them in the morgue. At the cemetery, they again met Lucía Salas, who turned out to belong to the Air Force Intelligence Service.
Five days before the execution of Enrique Ropert, the Second Military Prosecutor’s Office had concluded an indictment against him for carrying a firearm. In his ruling, the military prosecutor had proposed a sentence of five years imprisonment
- READ MORE: Execute first, judge second
here was an additional logistical problem: there were not enough coffins. Funeral homes were forced to donate caskets and the General Cemetery turned over the crematory coffins — ones that had been used by cremated persons and were normally donated to charities for the use of the indigent.
The backlog at the morgue was such that for a time cemetery officials were even asked to go to the IML to box up corpses themselves and take them back in trucks from the cemetery.
In many cases, they had to bury two corpses per casket, one with the feet at the head of the other. In order to fit, the boxes were left without lids and the bodies were buried that way. This procedure was confirmed by the forensic expert of the SML, Marisol Intriago, who said that the bodies buried in a single casket and exhumed from Patio 29 in 1991 were arranged in this way.
“We would load the service truck, unload them at the cemetery, bury them and go back to the morgue. Sometimes we would make two or three truckloads a day. In one truck we could fit twelve to fourteen caskets,” a cemetery official, “Roberto”, told the newspaper La Nación in 1991, This was confirmed by an official who worked in general services at the cemetery at the time, and who did not wish to be identified, in an interview with ArchivosChile.
In the General Cemetery the bodies would end up buried in Patio 29, and in an unconfirmed number of cases, they went directly to the crematorium.
- READ MORE: The silence of the cemetery
 Melentina Hernández no recuerda en qué diario se publicaban esas listas. Una revisión de la prensa de la época no da cuenta de ninguna publicación de esta naturaleza.
 Oficio del Departamento V de la Policía de Investigaciones a la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación sobre la muerte de Salvador González, sin fecha.
 Los informes de autopsia requeridos por estos oficiales podrían haber correspondido a Patricio Munita y Bautista Van Schouwen, ejecutados en diciembre de 1973 e ingresados a la morgue como NN, bajo protocolos 3950 y 3951. La ficha dactiloscópica del protocolo 3951, obtenida por la periodista Nancy Guzmán para su libro “Un grito desde el silencio” (LOM, 1998), señala que la identidad fue “Informada por teléfono el 3 enero 1974”. En septiembre de 1991, cuando el Registro Civil revisó las fichas dactiloscópicas de cadáveres NN en la morgue, confirmó que el protocolo 3951 correspondía a Bautista Van Schouwen. Los protocolos de autopsia de ambos no se encuentran actualmente en el Servicio Médico Legal y según la investigación de Nancy Guzmán, la DINA se habría quedado con ellos. En febrero de 1974, la DINA desenterró los restos de Van Schouwen y los hizo incinerar. El cuerpo de Munita fue rescatado meses antes por sus familiares e inhumado en otro cementerio.
 Este relato se basa en la declaración judicial de Mitzi Contreras Bell, 4 agosto 1987, en el expediente de la querella criminal por el homicidio calificado de Enrique Ropert Contreras presentada por su padre en 1987 ante el 20 Juzgado del Crimen.
 En declaración judicial el 1 de agosto de 1989 por el caso de Enrique Ropert, el abogado Fernando Guarello afirmó que Lucía Salas se lo había confirmado al encontrarse con ella en el Ministerio de Defensa.
 Paula Chahin, “En un camión de pollos trajeron a Van Schouwen”, La Nación, 5 septiembre 1991.
- 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