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50 years after the U.S.-backed coup toppled Chile's government, victims await justice


This is a day of remembrance in the U.S. as we honor those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the United States is not the only country that commemorates 9/11. On this date 50 years ago, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew Chile's democratically elected president. And during the 17-year dictatorship that followed, thousands of people were killed or disappeared. Today, many in Chile will be reflecting on the country's search for justice. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Luis Calderon Garcia stands among the empty seats in Santiago's National Stadium. He points out a familiar awning in the distance to his wife standing next to him.

LUIS CALDERON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's where you saw me," says Calderon, now 78 and sporting a full white beard. His wife nods. She, too, remembers the scene 50 years ago. She was pregnant and had come searching for him. It was just days after the September 11 coup, and at this huge soccer stadium, thousands were being held here - and worse, says Calderon.

CALDERON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They'd strike me with the butts of their rifles during interrogations, kick me. It was brutal. But luckily, they kept asking me about things I knew nothing about," he says. He says, back then, he was just a member of the Communist Party, young and with no useful information. After 14 months detained at the stadium and later at a camp in Chile's northern desert, Calderon was released. He and his family fled to Canada.

CALDERON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Since the first day after the coup," he says, "Chileans have never seen justice. Never." For many, what justice has been dispensed has been slow and uneven. Tens of thousands were tortured and more than 3,000 killed, but only about 300 remains have been located and identified. And compared to neighboring Argentina, where even senior military commanders of its dictatorship were convicted, few in Chile have been held accountable. Justice and Human Rights Minister Luis Cordero admits that's regrettable.

LUIS CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Has it been sufficient? Probably not," he tells NPR. "Has it been advantageous? Definitely not," he adds. But Cordero, who himself had two family members disappeared, says for the first time ever, the state will now lead search efforts for the victims. Chile's leftist president, Gabriel Boric, announced the plan earlier this month. Gaby Rivera, president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, applauds it. But she urges for more, especially getting information from Chile's reticent military.

GABY RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have to demand that cases be reopened so that the perpetrators are held accountable," she says. For President Boric, politically, that is complicated. His popularity is waning, and as the country faces rising crime and a faltering economy, many are not prioritizing human rights. Victims worry time is running out to hold aging perpetrators accountable. But Luis Calderon, who was tortured and detained at the soccer stadium, says you can't force people to give up what they know.

CALDERON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We can't do to them what they did to us," he says, "torture them until they talk." Both he and his wife at the same time say, that would be inhumane.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on