New details about the brutal murder of Victor Jara in the days following the September 11, 1973, military coup in Chile are finally emerging in a court of law. Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, a former army lieutenant under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, stands accused of torturing and killings the legendary communist folk singer at Estadio Chile on September 16, 1973. The civil trial began on June 13 and is taking place in Orlando, Florida, not Santiago, Chile. But the proceedings mark an important first step in bringing the Chilean army official to account for Jara’s murder.
The effort is being led by Joan Jara, Victor’s 88-year-old widow, and her daughters Manuela Bunster and Amanda Jara Turner. The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) helped the Jara family file the civil suit under Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. “The pursuit for justice and accountability for the torture and murder of Victor Jara has been 43 years in the making,” CJA Executive Director Dixson Osburn tells Truthout. “Joan Jara and her children have been relentless in trying to identify those responsible for his murder.”
A folk singer of the people, Jara’s music became instrumental to the presidential election Salvador Allende, a socialist, in 1970. For his outspokenness, Jara became targeted for torture and murder in the U.S.-backed coup that toppled Allende’s democratically elected government. An investigative report by Chilevisión asked “Quien Mató a Víctor Jara? (Who Killed Víctor Jara?)” decades later in May 2012. It featured an interview with a former conscript who accused Barrientos of being the trigger man. Later that year, a Chilean court indicted Barrientos alongside seven other ex-military officials wanted in connection with Jara’s torture and murder.
The ex-lieutenant has made his home in Deltona, Florida, since the 1989 and is now a US citizen. Chile formally asked the United States for the extradition of Barrientos, but the request hasn’t been acted on. In the meantime, the civil trial started on June 13 when the plaintiffs presented their case against Barrientos. “One of the reasons this case is so important beyond having justice for the family is that the murder of Victor Jara was one of the most emblematic murders under the Pinochet regime because Victor was such a revered icon in Chile,” says Osburn. “Trying to piece some kind of truth of what happened to him in the first few days of the coup at Chile Stadium is vitally important.”
Jose Santiago Navarette Barra, a former conscript, stated in a taped testimony that he overheard his superior bragging about killing Jara with his Luger pistol numerous times while working at a mess hall in Arica, Chile. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported on Navarette’s testimony, as it painted a portrait of Barrientos with a deep hatred of Jara and the political ideals he held. On one occasion, a soldier solely named “Rojas” hummed the tune of Jara’s “El Cigarrito,” a poetic song not political in nature. Barrientos is said to have become so enraged that he beat and tortured “Rojas” to death. Other testimonies by former conscripts place Barrientos at Estadio Chile during the time of Jara’s death, noting that he played a key role in operations.
Dennis Navia Perez testified about what he saw happen to Jara at Estadio Chile. He worked at the same university that Jara did on the day of the coup when both got hauled away by the military. The famed folk singer rid himself of his identity card but was recognized. That’s when the beatings began. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that an officer taunted Jara, standing on the guitarist’s hand with one foot while stomping his wrists with the other.
Navia, now an attorney, also testified that he gave Jara a pencil and notebook on the morning of September 15, 1973. The singer penned a poem before officers came to beat him again. Jara tossed the notebook in the air and Navia retrieved it. Two hours later, Navia was being transferred to another site when he saw Jara again, only atop a pile of other dead bodies. Soldiers found the poem Jara penned in Navia’s possession and tortured him because of it. A version survived and became known as “Somos Cinco Mil,” Jara’s dramatic last testament.
The defense took its turn in presenting its case last week for Barrientos. Before that, a deposition Barrientos gave was presented to the six-person jury by the plaintiffs. In it, Barrientos claims that he hadn’t heard of Victor Jara until 2009, and was similarly unaware of any torture happening at Estadio Chile. Barrientos took the stand in his own defense.
The law firm representing Barrientos didn’t return Truthout’s request for comment on the trial.
The legacy of Victor Jara spans the globe influencing generations. Arlo Guthrie, the folk singer son of Woody Guthrie, shared a statement of support with CJA. “Victor Jara was the friend and brother I never had the chance to meet,” Guthrie states. “He was and remains an inspiration to continue the fight against injustice wherever and whoever profits from the politics of fear.” Musicians are paying close attention to the trial of his accused killer and are helping to raise awareness. “I grew up with parents that played Chilean folkloric music. I’ve been hearing that music all my life,” Maria del Pilar, a Chilean-born, California-based musician, tells Truthout. She’s inspired by Joan Jara and her fight for justice. “Look at the endurance of this woman; she hasn’t given up!”
It’s unclear how the verdict could impact the US honoring the extradition request Chile has for Barrientos. But lawyers in the civil case are trying to establish that he was, indeed, the gunman or at the very least aided and abetted Jara’s torture and murder. “This is the first trial that is looking at evidence of responsibility for the murder of Victor Jara,” Osburn says. “We think we are presenting very compelling evidence that Barrientos was responsible for the torture and murder of Victor Jara.” With the trial now in the hands of a deliberating jury, a verdict is expected early this week.