Pinochet’s "torture" ship protested in London and Amsterdam
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Pinochet’s "torture" ship protested in London and Amsterdam

La Esmeralda, the nearly four hundred foot long Chilean navy training ship, created a stir last weekend at London’s Tall Ships festival as demonstrators protested its docking. Known as “La Dama Blanca”, or The White Lady, the vessel has a sinister past, belied by its elegant aesthetics dating back to Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s violent coup d’état in 1973.

Following the coup, La Esmeralda, which was docked at the coastal city of Valparaíso, became one of the many locations where people suspected by Pinochet’s military government of supporting the ousted left-wing President Salvador Allende were tortured and murdered.

Several international reports found that as many as 112 people were detained on La Esmeralda. The U.S. senate, and other international investigations, found that systematic torture including rape, electric shocks, mock executions and beatings took place on board.

“There was violence 24 hours a day on the Esmeralda…”

Former prisoner, Maria Eliana Comene, spoke candidly about her detention to the Guardian in 2003: “There was violence 24 hours a day on the Esmeralda. Prisoners were taken out, beaten and tortured, returning bruised and vomiting blood. I was there for four weeks. They took me out every night to interrogate me. They hit me on the ears with their hands, they applied electric current to my tongue and my vagina. They took us out to amuse themselves, to abuse us sexually. They raped us on a massive scale.”

Among the victims on La Esmaralda was a young Anglo-Chilean priest, Michael Woodward. For years the official account claimed he died of ‘cardio-respiratory failure’ en route to hospital.

However, Patricia Bennetts, Woodward’s sister, spent 40 years campaigning for the navy to acknowledge its role in her brother’s death. Bennetts and her supporters, who received death threats and intimidation for their efforts, were finally vindicated in 2013, when two ex-navy officers were found guilty of the priest’s murder.

Unfortunately, Bennetts’ struggle for justice is not unique. Chile’s legal system still holds an amnesty for many crimes committed during the dictatorship, while the armed forces have received heavy criticism for the reluctance in recognizing their roles in the murder of more than 3,000, and torture of 38,000, people.

“We want the Chilean navy to acknowledge what happened…”

Chief among complaints of protestors in London last weekend was the lack of openness from the navy about La Esmeralda’s history.

Jimmy Bell who left for the UK as a refugee in 1974, said to teleSur, “The Navy refused to recognize what they’ve done and they continue to use this vessel in a diplomatic ay and it’s an outrage.”

Another protester and torture victim during the dictatorship, Ana Maria Pelusa, was reported by the Guardian as saying: “We are here because we want the Chilean navy to acknowledge what happened on board Esmeralda and tell us where the victims are. It’s 2015 and these basic questions still haven’t been answered.”

Prior to its arrival in London La Esmeralda had docked in the Netherlands for another maritime event and was met with similar protests.

Rafeal Railaf, a member of Dutch-Chilean exiles association Mapuche, was reported by Dutch daily Het Parool as commenting: “We are not against the arrival of the ship… But the Esmeralda has a tainted past. We want to remember the victims at least.”

In Amsterdam Meath Boff, a Brazilian who was tortured on the ship in 1973, had agreed with event organizers to board the ship but was refused entry by the Captain, according to Dutch newspaper Volkskrant.

 London and Amsterdam are among many cities where La Esmeralda has been met with protests since Pinochet’s coup.

There is some hope for the victims and families in search for justice in La Esmeralda case. Recently, the Chilean government created a military unit to support investigations into the dictatorship’s human rights abuses. Currently, there are roughly 1,000 cases being investigated by the Chilean courts, but the progress is slow as the country continues to grapple with darkest period of its history.

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