Who Killed Victor Jara?

A few days after the other 9/11, Victor Jara., a Chilean folksinger, songwriter, actor, director, poet, political activist and teacher, was tortured and then shot to death while being held prisoner by the military.   This year on May 15th Chilean Judge Juan Eduardo Fuentes found Colonel Mario Manriquez, the man in charge of the makeshift prison where Jara was being held, guilty of his murder.  Today Colonel Manriquez is under arrest awaiting sentencing while the judge is attempting to determine who else was responsible for torturing and killing him.


Here is some of what we know about the circumstances surrounding the death, the discovery of the body, and the struggle to identify the murderers:

On Tuesday, September 11, 1973 the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, a socialist, was overthrown in a bloody coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet and supported by the United States.   Afterward thousands of Allende’s supporters were arrested, tortured, and killed.

Victor Jara was detained on September 12, 1973 at La Universidad Técnica del Estado (UTE or State Technical University) where he worked and along with hundreds of students and colleagues forced to jog with his hands behind his neck to the Estadio Chile , a sports stadium six blocks away. Witnesses report he was beaten at the time of his arrest and en route to the stadium.  At the stadium an army officer recognized who he was.

“Bring that son of a bitch over here to me!” he ordered a soldier.

The officer’s helmet was pulled down to his eyes.  Over one shoulder hung a machine gun.  On his chest was a hand grenade.  On his belt, a pistol.  His face was painted. He wore dark glasses.  And, he stood with his black boots spread wide.

“Don’t treat him like a young lady, damn it!”

The soldier, following orders, struck Victor in the back with the butt of his rifle sending him sprawling face forward to the ground in front of the officer.

“Fuck your mother!” the officer started to rant as he began kicking the well known and popular song writer who now lay at his feet.   “You’re Victor Jara, asshole!  You’re the Marxist singer.   Your songs are pure shit! I’m going to teach you how to sing Chilean songs which aren’t communist you son of a bitch!”   Victor’s hair and face were soon covered with blood and one of his eyes swollen shut.

Then Colonel Manriquez showed up.  With him, under guard, was Danilo Bartulin, one of Allende’s doctors.  Victor was made to join Bartulin and the two of them were led to an underground walkway.  There, according to Bartulin, they were beaten “from seven in the afternoon until three in the morning.”   Then their tormentors were called away to help deal with the arrival of a new group of prisoners.  It was at that point that they managed to join their companions in the stadium’s tiers of seats.  There they remained until Saturday, September 15.

Saturday around noon word reached Victor that a number of prisoners were to be released.  He responded by scrounging two sheets of paper and a pen from Boris Navia, a professor of law at the UTE who had been arrested with him, and starting to write.  After a time two soldiers appeared and signaled for him to follow them.  Victor passed the two pieces of paper back to Navia as he rose to go.  On them was a poem.  The poem later made its way to the outside world and became famous.

The soldiers took Victor to a broadcast booth where he was again badly beaten.  Later Carlos Orellana, another of Victor’s colleagues arrested at the UTE, was approached by a student.  The student had seen Victor in a passageway where he was again being held isolated from the others.  Victor told him he wanted to talk to Orellana.

As Orellana approached the passageway, Victor persuaded the soldier guarding him to allow him to go to the bathroom.  Orellana followed. In the bathroom Victor told Orellana about a prisoner who was acting as a spy for the soldiers.  In other words, Orellana later recalled, even after Victor had been tortured and beaten and had good reason to believe that he wouldn’t make it out of the stadium alive his concern was for the welfare of others, not himself.

Saturday afternoon, after his brief encounter with Victor, Orellana and other prisoners being held at the Estadio Chile were transferred to the Estadio Nacional, another sports stadium in Santiago that had been converted into a concentration camp. On their way out of the Estadio Chile they saw Victor’s body.  It was riddled with bullet holes and piled together with other bodies in the foyer of the stadium.

Three days later, on Tuesday, September 18, Joan Jara, Victor’s widow, received a visit from a young man she hadn’t met before.  “I’m afraid to tell you,” he said, “Victor is dead.  His body has been found in the morgue…You must come, because …unless his body is claimed they will take him away and bury him in a common grave.”


Until the 9/11 1973 coup d’état Chile had been the most stable democracy in Latin America. It had an elected President, a two house legislature and a free and lively press.  The military Junta with support from President Richard Nixon in the United States changed all that.  Led by Augusto Pinochet it abolished the Congress, outlawed political parties and labor unions, appointed military rectors to run the universities, censored the press, forbid the playing of Victor Jara’s records and other popular music, and established a secrete police force that arrested, tortured and killed those it considered a threat to its rule.

Even in the face of such repression, however, a resistance developed which won international support and 16 years after the coup forced the junta to hold a Presidential election. In the election, Patrico Alywin, a Christian Democrat, defeated the candidate supported by Pinochet.

The transition back to democratic rule in Chile began when Alywin took office on March 11, 1990.  That transition led to Michelle Bachelet, a socialist like Allende, being elected President in 2006. Bachelet’s father, a General in the Air Force and supporter of Allende, had been arrested after the coup and died after being tortured.  She and her mother had also been arrested and tortured.  Hence, her election signified for many that Chile was once again a healthy democracy.

President Bachelet, however, does not share that view.  Rather, in response to a question regarding the trials of military officials for human rights abuses she said,

“The important thing is in our country we do have trials going on. We are advancing and under my government we will still advance on three great principles: truth, justice and reparation for all the victims, all the families of the victims. We have been walking in that direction. And I will do all my efforts to continue in that direction. I mean — no impunity — no! Because I’m a doctor, I know when you have an injury it will heal if it’s clean enough to heal; if your injury is dirty, it won’t heal. And so when you are talking in societies, we are also talking in healing processes, and for a good healing process, you need to make things right.”

That  effort to make things right got a boost even before Bachelet was elected when on October 16, 1998 Pinochet was detained in England on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, charging him with human right violations. Pinochet’s arrest set a precedent.  It marked the first time anyone had been arrested under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.  Universal jurisdiction holds that certain crimes threaten the welfare of people in all countries and therefore all countries have the right to arrest and hold accountable those responsible for them.  After his arrest Pinochet was allowed to return to Chile on the grounds that he was not mentally fit to stand trial.  After his arrival home he was again detained and charged with human rights violations. Though when he died in 2006 he was still under house arrest he had never spent a night in jail.

Joan Jara first brought charges against those who tortured and murdered her husband in 1978.  However, for three reasons — a decree issued by the military that year provided amnesty to its members for actions carried out in the aftermath of the coup, fear of how the military would react to prosecutions, and the resistance of many Chileans to opening old sores — nothing came of her action or others like it.  But in August 1999, ten months after Pinochet was arrested, when she once again filed a lawsuit against her husband’s killers, the climate in Chile had changed dramatically.   As a result on May 15 Judge Juan Fuentes found the man who had been in charge of the Estadio Chile, Colonel Mario Manriquez, guilty of his murder.  Then by declaring the case closed he provoked an outcry which led on June 3 to him agreeing to continue an investigation which seeks to identify and bring to justice all those who were involved in torturing and killing Victor Jara. Already, a key suspect, Edwin Dimter, has been identified.  Dimter is believed to be an especially brutal guard whom prisoners referred to as the “Prince.”


How important is it to bring to justice every single individual who took part in torturing and killing Victor Jara 35 years after he was murdered?     Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone who tortured and killed a loved one sipping tea in a café while knowing that pickpockets and prostitutes are serving time in jail.  Chile will only become a healthy democracy again when everyone in the country is confident that wearing or having once worn a military uniform won’t provide people with impunity for the crimes they committed.

That is one argument.  Others think it is more important to move up the chain of command than down.  “Who killed Victor Jara?”  The superficial answer according to this point of view is that most likely it was a soldier from a poor or working class background.  The more substantive answer is: “the people at the top of the chain of command, a chain which in the case of Victor Jara and other victims of the Pinochet regime leads all the way from Chile to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

How could a common soldier with a working class background end up pulling the trigger that ended Victor Jara’s life?  Victor answered that question a month before he was killed when in response to a question about his military service he said:

“I think that the professional soldier, from the fact of wearing a uniform and having power over the rest of the contingent, loses the sense of his own class.  I think the exercise of command makes him, consciously or unconsciously, put himself on a different plane and see life from a different point of view.  He believes himself to be superior.  As a shaven-headed private, I remember having to polish an officer’s boots or do the cleaning in his house and I thought it very natural…indeed, I thought it almost a privilege to be called upon to do it, because it meant that I was a very disciplined bloke who could be trusted to do the job properly.  But looking at it now, without innocence, I think it was a conditioning – it conditions the servility of the private, just as it conditions the superiority of the officer.”


“Duerme, Duerme negrito.”  That is the title of a Cuban lullaby sung by Victor.  When I think of how Victor was killed I think of that song.  The lullaby is so gentle, so sweet, so beautiful.  How could anyone harm even a hair on the head of the man who sung it?  “Sleep, sleep, little back baby.”  “Que tu mama está en el campo.”  Your mama is in the fields.  “Tabajando.”  Working.  “Trabando duramente.”  Working hard.  “Trabajando sí.” Yes, working hard.

Victor Jara was born on September 28, 1932 in a rural region south of Santiago. Joan Jara describes Victor’s earliest memories in her book An Unfinished Song:  The Life of Victor Jara.    His parents, Manuel Jara and Amanda Martinez were dirt poor peasants.  Amanda “had a strong strain of Mapuche Indian blood in her” and “was the mainstay of the family” As a child she had learned the folk music of the countryside.   Manuel “was embittered with the heavy toil of being an inquilino” or tenant farmer.  “He saw his children more as additional labor than as independent human beings.”  Manuel was illiterate but Amanda had taught herself to read.  The relationship between his parents was strained.  After Amanda became pregnant with her fifth child they separated and she moved with her children to the city.  There she got a job as a cook.  When Victor was 15 his mother died and he began living with friends.  In the winter of 1950 he entered a seminary.  In 1952 he dropped out of the seminary. “Ten days later he was called up for military service.”  After he left the military he pursued a career in theatre and music.  He also joined the Chilean Communist Party and became an active supporter of Allende.  And he took a dance class that was taught by a British born and raised woman named Joan Turner who later became his wife.  Together they had a daughter.  They named their daughter Amanda after his mother.  When he learned that Amanda had diabetes he wrote a song which he dedicated to her.  The song is called, “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”  It has nothing to do with diabetes.  It is a song about love and loss and revolution

“Te recuerdo Amanda.  La calle mojada.  Corriendo a la fabrica donde trabajaba Manuel….”

I remember Amanda.  The wet street.  Running to the factory where Manuel worked.  The wide smile.  The rain in your hair.  None of it mattered.  Soon you would be with him.  With him.  With him. With him.  You have five minutes.  A lifetime in five minutes.  The back to work siren sounds.

“Y tu caminando.  Lo ilumias todo. Los cinco minutos te hacen florecer.”

And you walking.  You make everything brighter.  Those five minutes make you flower.

Because he wants more than five minutes a day to spend with Amanda Manuel retreats to the mountains to join others fighting for workers’ rights.  Five minutes later he is killed.  The back to work siren sounds again.

“Muchos no volvieron.  Tampoco Manuel.”

Many didn’t return.  Neither did Manuel.

Most of Victor Jara’s songs are like Te Recuerdo Amanda in that they are concerned with justice and the people who struggle for justice.  Most promote progressive change.   And most evince compassion for workers and the poor.  An especially lively ditty called Ni Chicha Ni Limonada is one of his most popular and difficult to translate:

Arrímese mas pa’ ca
aquí donde el sol calienta,
si uste’ ya está acostumbrado
a andar dando volteretas
y ningún daño le hará
estar donde las papas queman.

Usted no es na’
ni chicha ni limoná
se la pasa manoseando
caramba zamba su dignidad.

The song makes fun of those who sympathized with Allende but refused to actively support him.  A rough translation of the excerpted lyrics above is:  Come closerhere in the heat of the sunif you’re already accustomedto somersaulting aboutit won’t hurt youto be where the potatoes burn.  You, you are nothingYou’re neither hard cider nor lemonadeyou go about putting everybody down man you have no dignity.


Victor Jara was a loving, compassionate singer and songwriter who shared the Allende government’s goal of moving along a peaceful road toward socialism.   His only weapon in the struggle for justice was his guitar.

His brutal murder therefore is seen by many as emblematic of the lengths the U.S. is willing to go to overthrow even peaceful, democratic governments when they pursue policies which it considers a threat to its interests.  The military junta in Chile was not out just to kill a man.   Rather, acting as an agent of the Nixon White house and the most reactionary force within Chile, it was out to kill the idea that democratic socialism was a possibility.  But as the popular progressive singer, actress and songwriter Holly Near points out in her song entitled It Could Have Been Me it failed:

The junta broke the fingers on Victor Jara’s hands
They said to the gentle poet “play your guitar now if you can”
Victor started singing but they brought his body down
You can kill that man but not his song
When it’s sung the whole world round.

It could have been me, but instead it was you
So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two
I’ll be a student of life, a singer of songs
A farmer of food and a righter of wrong
It could have been me, but instead it was you
And it may be me dear sisters and brother
Before we are through
But if you can sing for freedom
Freedom, freedom, freedom
If you can sing for freedom I can too

That, of course, is the sentiment echoed at political rallies and other events when someone yells, “Victor Jara!”  and others respond, “Presente!”   Yes, Victor, you are here in our hearts as we search for your killers and struggle for human rights everywhere in the world.

PAUL CANTOR is a professor of economics at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.

Those interested in familiarizing themselves with the history of the U.S. involvement in the coup might read Covert Action in Chile, the report of the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate and available on the web at http://foia.state.gov/reports/churchreport.asp.  They might also view Costa-Gavras’ riveting film, Missing staring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

The Estadio Chile was renamed the Estadio Victor Jara in September 2003.

This information comes primarily from Boris Navia, a law professor at the UTE who was arrested with Victor.  Navia’s account of the singer’s final hour can be found on numerous web sites.

“That first night two officers of the Chilean Air Force approached Victor.”  One of them threw a cigarette butt on the ground.  “Want to smoke?” he asked.  Victor raised his head but did not respond.  “Smoke big balls, smoke!” the officer commanded.  Then as Victor reached for the cigarette butt the officer stomped on his hand.  “Now let see if you are going to be able to play your guitar, you communist piece of shit,” the officer said.  That account comes from  Juan Cristóbal Peña Fernandez article La Sangre de un Poeta or The Blood of A Poet which appeared  in the September, 2003 edition of Rolling Stone-Chile Fernandez attributes the information to Boris Navia (see footnote 2).  However, since Navia was not with Victor when the incident he describes took place his story is based on hearsay.  Nevertheless, given the manner in which Victor was treated from the moment he arrived at the stadium it would not be surprising if at some point an incident similar to the one described by Navia actually did take place. That certainly would be consistent with Joan Jara’s report that when she saw Victor’s body in the morgue in Santiago:  “His eyes were open and they seemed still to look ahead with intensity and defiance, in spite of a wound on his head and terrible bruises on his cheek.  His clothes were torn, trousers round his ankles, sweater rucked up under his armpits, his blue underpants hanging in tatters round his hips as though cut by a knife or bayonet…his chest riddled with holes and a gaping wound in his abdomen.  His hands seemed to be hanging from his arms at a strange angle as though his wrists were broken.” (Joan Jara, An Unfinished Song, Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1984, p. 243).

The poem, titled El Estadio, is available on the web in Spanish and in translation at http://everything2.com/e2node/Victor%2520Jara and many other places.   Pete Seeger set  it to music

Joan Jara, Op. Cit., pp. 241 – 242.  See footnote 4 for Joan Jara’s description of the condition of Victor’s body when she saw it in the morgue.

January 25, 2006 interview with Elizabeth Farmsworth on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.  Found on the web at: www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/latin_america/jan-june06/chile_1-25.html

Pinochet was also under investigation at the time of his death for squirreling away money obtained from illegal financial operations in the Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C.   In 2007 his wife and five sons were arrested on related charges.

This question is similar to questions that South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda and many other countries are confronted with today.


Joan Jara, Ob. cit., p. 36 This response is consistent with the conclusions of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, two experimental psychologists who carried out experiments which demonstrated the willingness of almost anybody to behave brutally toward others.   Milgram discusses his experiment in his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.  Zimbardo’s Stamford Prison Experiment is described in his best selling The Lucifer Effect.  It is also important to point out that many common soldiers feared that if they disobeyed orders they themselves would be beaten and/or shot.

  On you tube you can listen to Mercedes Sosa singing the lullaby.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfESgtCTn1Q takes you to Victor performing Te Recuerdo Amanda on You Tube.





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