The Final Whistle 

The dark history of Chile's stadiums, and their victims, must not be forgotten.

In June, crowds thronged toward Chile's National Stadium like metal beads to a magnet for the first match in Copa America, the most hard-fought soccer tournament in Latin America. Fans waited nervously for the first whistle of the inaugural game between the home side and Ecuador, roaring national anthems and slinging flags.

In the dressing room, players bowed their heads and prayed for that holy goal, as managers paced and barked orders: 12 teams playing in eight cities, each hoping to kiss the trophy.

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But rewind 42 years, and the scene was very different. Emaciated men lied on the cold, hard benches of the stands, huddled together for heat without blankets.

Those revered dressing rooms, less than half a century ago were torture chambers, where men were sent for beatings, electric shocks, sexual assaults; to die. The very same stadiums that will bring glory or disappointment to the region's top sportsmen were the places 40,000 political prisoners were taken during Gen. Pinochet’s dictatorship

Sept. 11, 1973 marks the date when the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, starting 17 terrifying years, when 3,200 people, probably more, were killed or "disappeared," and 28,000 were tortured by the U.S.-and U.K.-backed regime.

Many of those atrocities took place in three of the stadiums that were used this year for the Copa America. In Valparaiso, Santiago and Concepcion, many fans, players and victims took a second to remember what those buildings represent.

Now the bones of some of those prisoners, like U.S. journalist Charles Horman, lie buried in the walls of the arenas, a reminder of the chilling past. But the stadiums also represent the survivors of the dictatorship, who not only live to recount what happened, but to demand justice for the ordeal.

Wenseslao Carreño was detained the day the coup struck at the University of Santiago, where he had been studying Chemical Engineering. He was beaten, and made to lie on the ground for hours, before being moved to the National Stadium.

"We stayed for around three days seated on the ground without eating, drinking water or being able to go to the bathroom," he tells teleSUR.

“After I was moved to the football stadium of Santiago, where I was detained for more than 45 days. I was beaten, but I did not receive the type of torture that others got: some of them could not bend their legs because they had been subjected to electric shocks.”

Carreño recalls seeing Victor Jara, the legendary Chilean folk singer, held behind wire bars. The two prisoners exchanged greetings. Inmates were later told Jara had died in a car crash.

“But that was a lie,” says Carreño, “They had killed him.”

RELATED: Never Forget: Latin America's Disappeared

the national stadium was renamed in honor of its most famous victim in 2003

Photo: EFE

Today, Carreño is part of the Union of Ex-Political Prisoners of Chile (UNExPP), a group that looks out for the rights of those who suffered human rights abuses under the Pinochet regime. Carreño says the group has no problem with the tournament taking place on what became an unwitting burial ground, because it helps raise awareness, "to remember what happened."

There are memorials to the bloodshed in the stadiums, at the gates and in the dressing rooms, black and white photographs of dying prisoners, and parts of stadiums left intact in their former states, the wood of the old stands standing out bleak next to the squeaking plastic chairs of renovation.

But in spite of the ceremony and show, all is not forgiven, and certainly not forgotten. For many former inmates, the horror continues today. Rejected by society and abandoned by the government, dozens of traumatized ex-prisoners, some octogenarians, have been on hunger strike for more than eight weeks, trying to make the authorities ratify promises to ensure their welfare.

“The ex-prisoners have always been treated as social outcasts, that is what we were during the dictatorship and what we continue being, even when the governments that call themselves socialists and leftists came to power,” Victor Rosas Vergara, the vice president of the UNExPP tells teleSUR.

“As we were outcasts, the ex-prisoners were not able to get good jobs, our children were not educated, and with such low pensions we can do almost nothing.”

As part of Chile's truth and reconciliation process, those who suffered at the hands of the dictatorship were given indemnities. For some of the victims however, pensions are as low as US$235 per month, well below the country's minimum wage.

The hunger strikers, many now weak with malnutrition, are fighting for the same rights as the families of those killed or disappeared by the regime, named on the Rettig report, who receive a higher compensation that prisoners. They want funds to continue after they die, and over minimum wage, to support their families as they feel they are entitled to, after what they endured at the hands of the state.

But according to Vergara, the government is just not listening, and subjecting them to the further indignity of sending low-ranking officials to negotiate.

"The ex-prisoners have been very badly treated by the Chilean government," he says, “and now when we ask to be heard they don't pay us any attention. The government has not committed itself to anything serious. It only makes us empty promises that we know they will not carry out. They said that they were going to send the ministers to converse with us at the dialogue table, but they only sent low level functionaries.”

The former prisoners feel cheated by President Michelle Bachelet, who rose to power on a human rights program, and ostensibly socialist policies.

Carreño agrees, “What really makes me uncomfortable is the indolence of the government that call themselves leftists, in the face of the injustice that we went through, those of us that survived the dictatorship.”

The group makes it clear that what needs to happen — as the likes of Messi, Rodriguez, Sanchez, and Neymar impress the adoring crowds showcasing the best that the beautiful game has to offer — is that the government should sit down with the group and takes its demands seriously. For them, those stadiums were anything but a playground.

Vergara sees no end in sight for this veritable second sentence, admitting that sometimes he feels like crying. But through the dismay is the endurance that kept these political prisoners alive during the dictatorship, giving them the will, like the soccer players, to continue with the battle until the final whistle.

“Dictators destroy public life and people,” says Carreño. “But the survivors must continue because for some reason we did not die with our companions.”

"Without memory there is no future - 
National Stadium, National Memory"
Parts of the stadium remain untouched since the days of the dictatorship. | Photo: EFE