Victor Jara: A Victim of the Prince?

Ramona Wadi reports on the continuing struggle to shed light on the death in 1973 of the Chilean singer and political activist Victor Jara.

Victor Jara

General Augusto Pinochet’s annihilation of socialist opposition in Chile started on the day of his military coup against the government of Salvador Allende – September 11th, 1973. Among victims of the dictatorship was nueva canción singer Victor Jara, who was tortured and murdered at the Estadio Chile sports stadium three days later. Almost 40 years after his death Victor’s widow, Joan Turner Jara, together with the lawyer Nelson Caucoto, requested the cooperation of the minister of defence and the Chilean armed forces in order to establish the exact circumstances of Jara’s murder.

Jara was born on September 23rd, 1932 on the outskirts of Lonquen, near the capital Santiago, to a family of peasant campesinos. Already drawn towards solitude to escape his father’s domestic violence, Jara’s refuge was music. His mother, Amanda, insisted upon education for her children and he was sent to a Catholic school in Santiago. Amanda’s death when Jara was 15 compelled him to enrol in a seminary before enlisting in the Chilean army. However Jara veered towards the arts and eventually joined a mime group. After meeting the folk singer, Violetta Parra, Jara delved further into traditional Chilean music, while incorporating political expression into his songs.

Jara was one of the founding members of the nueva canción movement, together with Isabel Parra, Rolando Alarcon, Angel Parra and Patricio Manns. In 1965 this group of singers started meeting in an old house, Carmen 340, near the centre of Santiago. The rise of military dictatorships in Latin America ensured that social consciousness became entwined within their songs. With lyrics dealing with collective memory and anti-imperialism, the nueva canción movement drew followers from among working-class neighbourhoods. Jara became a hate figure for the Chilean Right after he sang Preguntas a Puerto Montt (Questions About Puerto Montt) at a boys secondary school in 1969. The song was a direct message to the ministry of the interior, who had ordered an attack upon 91 homeless peasant families occupying a stretch of wasteland.

Nueva canción singers supported Allende’s presidential campaign, which led to his election in 1970. Venceremos and El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido, both by Sergio Ortega, became songs synonymous with the Left.

During Allende’s presidency nueva canción became an integral part of Chilean culture and Jara and other singers cultural ambassadors for Chile, touring Europe and Latin America and speaking about the movement. However, the Right in Chile was facing the possibility of Allende’s re-election in 1973. Pinochet’s military coup, aided by the CIA, quickly sought to eliminate all traces of socialist and Marxist support. Following Allende’s final broadcast before committing suicide on September 11th, Jara was at Santiago’s Technical University, visiting an exhibition about Fascism. After the bombing of the presidential palace Joan Jara discovered that her husband had been taken prisoner.

According to testimonies from those held in the Estadio Chile, a
lieutenant nicknamed the Prince recognised Jara and singled him out for torture, mockery and murder. His hands were broken by rifle butts and, some say, a guitar was handed to him by his torturer, whereupon Victor sang some verses from Venceremos. Jose Alfonso Paredes Marquez, at that time an 18-year-old conscript, established the scene of the singer’s death. Jara was brought before Lieutenant Nelson Haase, together with a second lieutenant who remains unidentified. This man played Russian roulette with Victor, eventually shooting him in the head. All conscripts present in the room were then ordered to open fire on Jara’s body and on 14 other prisoners who witnessed the singer’s assassination.

Aware of Jara’s influence among the Chilean Left, orders were given to bury him in a mass grave. With the help of Hector Herrera Olguin and a civilian who identified Jara, the body was secretly removed and a clandestine funeral was held. A tiny obituary in the Chilean newspaper La Segunda announced his death.

Jara’s murder was part of the dictatorship’s plan to obliterate any traces of the nueva canción movement. Traditional instruments associated with it were destroyed, together with recordings. The group Inti Illimani, on tour in Europe when the coup happened, remained in exile and were followed by Sergio Ortega, Patricio Manns and Isabel Parra. Jara’s name was banned in Chile and possession of any material related to the nueva canción warranted arrest. The military conducted arbitrary searches in houses, looking for ‘Marxist propaganda’.

While Marquez’s trial was instrumental in establishing the events leading to Jara’s murder, the Prince remains unidentified. Both Joan Jara and her lawyer have clarified that their action is aimed at uncovering the perpetrators. Many prominent Centro Nacional de Informacion (CNI) and Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) officers responsible for torture under the Pinochet regime continue to hold powerful sway in Chile.

Ramona Wadi is a writer specialising in Latin American affairs.