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BBC News
September 1973: Archive footage
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BBC News
Carlos Reyes, tortured under Pinochet's rule, reacts to the arrest
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Friday, 23 October, 1998, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Testimony: Detainee remembers Chile 1973

I lived in a small flat in Eyzaguirre Street, very close to the centre of the city. Trapped at work by the military curfew on the day of the coup, I was rescued by the cleaners who hid me in their home in a nearby shanty town while troops fired machine-guns at random from helicopters hovering overhead.

Colleagues at my workplace, the Chilean Forestry Institute, including its Director, Federico Quilodrán, were arrested and taken to the National Stadium. Some of them were badly beaten, and some I met up with later in Finland, where they had been admitted as refugees.

Of my two Chilean flat-mates I knew nothing for some days. Wolfgang had been arrested along with Victor Jara and several hundred students and academics at the State Technical University and taken to the Chile Stadium, a small indoor sports arena in downtown Santiago.


Protest singer Victor Jara
Victor Jara was tortured there and killed. Wolfgang, however, managed to escape the military guards, and later we were able to bring him to Britain as a refugee. Juan and his Russian wife reached the Swedish Embassy where they joined hundreds of other asylum seekers. My girl-friend's ex-husband was summarily executed by the police when they discovered a sporting shotgun in his house.

Friends had warned me not to return to my flat, but I was anxious to rescue clothes and belongings. I found the place in total chaos, following several raids.

I was there less than an hour, but as I was leaving I met armed police coming up the stairs. Right-wing neighbours, who resented my work for a local community group, had denounced me, claiming that we had an arsenal of weapons in the flat.

The events of 1973 were bloody and violent
The events of 1973 were bloody and violent
I was taken to the local police station where, improbably for an Englishman with fair hair and blue eyes, I was accused of being a Cuban.

Later that afternoon I and a handful of other prisoners were taken out at gunpoint and forced to lie face-down on the floor of a bus, police with sub-machine guns standing astride us.

We were taken to the National Stadium, Chile's equivalent of Wembley, a large football stadium with other sports facilities clustered around it. We were herded into a mustering area which was full of newly arrived prisoners in white coats, doctors and orderlies from several Santiago hospitals which had been raided that day, victims of a savage proscription by the far-right dominated Chilean Medical Association, which accused them of having failed to go on strike against the legal government.

The 'cells' into which we were herded were the team changing rooms. There were 130 prisoners in ours, and at night we were so tightly packed that we could sleep only by lining up in rows and lying down 'by numbers', dovetailing heads and feet.

We were guarded by soldiers and there were sand-bagged machine-gun emplacements at intervals around the walk-way that formed a circuit under the angle of the stadium stands.

Men and women were segregated. At one point I was held in an open area opposite the women's cell and witnessed their extraordinary courage as they sang songs to keep up their (and our) spirits, and begged cigarettes from the guards, which they would throw to us across the passage-way.

A memorial naming 2,500 people who died during Pinochet's rule.
A memorial naming 2,500 people who died during Pinochet's rule.
The majority of us, prisoners of all ages, professions and nationalities, were there for more or less random reasons -because we worked for public institutions or the government, because we were foreigners, because we were factory workers, nurses, teachers, university lecturers, lived in a shanty town or any of the other ordinary occupations and groupings that suddenly became proscribed or suspect under the new military dispensation.

I was lucky: the British Embassy discovered my whereabouts and obtained my freedom on condition I leave the country.

The man next to me in my cell was less fortunate. A Brazilian engineer, named Sergio Moraes, he had worked in a factory called Madeco. He was taken out for his first heavy interrogation two days before I was released.

When he returned he could hardly hear or speak: he had been hooded and beaten about the head and ears with a flat wooden bat. He told us that among his interrogators were Brazilian intelligence officers.

I never knew what happened to him, but an Amnesty International researcher who went to Santiago some weeks later was told by a military official: 'I hope to god we killed him'.

It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of terrible danger that had pervaded Chile in the weeks before Pinochet and the generals seized power.

In June there had been an abortive and somewhat ludicrous coup attempt by the head of a tank regiment, backed by the fascist party Fatherland and Freedom. However it was clear that these were merely hot-heads who had jumped the gun.

The opposition to the government continued with increased violence, and attacks on public property and institutions. Jeeps of the Forestry Institute were 'grounded' after several were stoned and their drivers injured at road-blocks set up by right-wing land and lorry-owners.

Like most of my colleagues, I did night-shifts to guard my place of work against possible sabotage attacks. Many of us considered, in those first days of September, that we were living in a de facto state of civil war, fomented and in part financed by Chile's enemies abroad, notably the US administration.

Nothing, however, had prepared us for the cold, surgical reality of the coup and the fact that a legal and constitutional government could be utterly defeated and destroyed within the space of twelve hours.

By the evening of September 11 there was no armed opposition to the military regime, no figure to rally support for democracy, no loyal general (the few who remained loyal were arrested, mostly in the hours before the coup), no place where government supporters could muster.

Augusto Pinochet and Salvador Allende in August 1973
Augusto Pinochet and Salvador Allende in August 1973
I will never forget from those days the press, radio and television images of the new dictatorship: the harsh robotic voice and the blank face (masked by dark glasses) of General Pinochet, who represents for me everything that is cruel, destructive, bigoted and philistine.

His was the first regime since the Nazis, I believe, to burn books publicly in the streets (my own were burned).

I returned home to Britain and for the next six years worked for Chile Solidarity Campaign. It was my privilege to accompany on their visits to Britain to seek support many leaders of Chile's democratic parties, trade unionists, musicians, and Hortensia Bussi, widow of President Allende.

Throughout Britain we met and worked with some of the finest and most generous people I have ever known: people who took Chilean refugees into their homes, befriended them and collected furniture, clothing and other essentials for them.

Mike Gatehouse and the daughter of Salvador Allende in the 1970s.
Mike Gatehouse with Hortensia Bussi, the widow of Salvador Allende in the 1970s.
People like the Liverpool dockers and Rolls Royce workers who put their own jobs at risk by refusing to do work that might benefit the military junta in Chile. Church groups and people of no religion, members of Amnesty International, school students, trade unionists, Labour MPs, many thousands of people for whom Allende's Chile symbolised a unique and extraordinarily hopeful attempt to create a more just society, cut off and destroyed by the darkest and most cruel forces of naked power, selfishness and wealth.

I was delighted by the news of General Pinochet's arrest in London. For the first time since 1973 his impunity has been challenged. Such is his continuing power in Chile that no-one has been able to prosecute him.

It is not so much the person, but the nature, legitimacy and continuing support for that anti-democratic and authoritarian power that are being challenged.

Whatever the timidity of the present civilian government in Chile, neither democracy nor ordinary people in Chile will be safe until the full truth of the military coup and regime are exposed, and its victims given access to justice.

Mike Gatehouse. October 1998.

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06 Sep 98 | Americas
'They couldn't kill his songs'
Links to more The Pinochet file stories are at the foot of the page.


Links to more The Pinochet file stories