The Football Stadium ‘Stained with Blood’

September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile.

President Salvador Allende, Chile’s first socialist president, is broadcasting live over the radio. He had been preparing a public announcement to ease the criticism he had been facing for the last few months. This was not that announcement. It was a goodbye. A coup d’état was underway.

Amidst sounds of gunfire and explosions, Allende broadcast:

‘Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.’

A cacophony of sound ends the recording. Amidst these sounds, one is particular ominous. It is a sound that would determine the fate of Chile for the next 17 years. President Salvador Allende shot himself in the head with an AK-47, gifted to him by Fidel Castro.

The Pinochet Era

With the help of the Nixon administration, and the tacit support of the CIA, the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, right-wing army chief, began.

For those on the political left, it immediately became evident that Allende would not be the last of them to die. Those who had just hours before been supporters of the ruling party were now being hunted. All evidence of their political affiliation was burned, before it was burned for them by the Chilean military. Despite these efforts, some were turned in by neighbours, acquaintances, even trusted friends or family. Others tried to gather and rally spirits, but were forcefully rounded up and placed in trucks and vans. They were bound for one of many detention centres that had immediately sprung up all over Chile. In the capital, Santiago, alone, there were more than 80.

One of these detention centres was the Estadio Nacional, the national stadium of Chile, and its surrounding complex.

The Estadio Nacional

Built in 1938, the national stadium was one of a number of buildings on a sprawling sports complex. It was in this stadium, in 1962, that Eladio Rojas scored against Yugoslavia in the 90th minute, cementing 3rd place for Chile in their home World Cup, their highest ever finish. One day later, in the same stadium, Brazil were declared champions for the second time in their history. Within its walls, legendary figures such as Carlos Caszely, Leonel Sánchez, and Elías Figueroa had delighted their native fans.

Its latest visitors were not there to be entertained.

‘Stained with blood’

A parade of vans drove down a street known as Pedro de Valdivia. Within, detainees were beaten into submission, still carrying injuries from their capture. Medical attention was not provided. The living would walk past piles of bodies as they entered the gates.

Several times a day for the two months it was in use, the beaten and the battered would wind their way down Pedro de Valdivia, to be herded into the complex. In the first month alone, 12,000 people were brought through those gates.

The men were made to run through a corridor, past soldiers who would beat them with their rifles as they ran. This corridor would lead to the stadium, where the men would be held. The women were held in the swimming pool area and adjoining changing rooms. They would then be split into categories, and from there, into separate changing rooms. They were mostly working-class adults.

Their new reality was stark. Their living quarters were cramped, and they would have to sleep and live atop one another. Food was in short supply, and they would be left starving. It is alleged that many female detainees were raped. Meanwhile, the soldiers would beat the prisoners routinely, using their rifles or throwing them into the concrete walls below the stands, sometimes headfirst. At all times, the prisoners would dread being called up for ‘special treatment’.

On occasion, some 5,000 detainees were allowed into the stands of the stadium. Despite the fresh air, this was not an exercise in humanity. Instead, a hooded figure known as ecapuchado (‘hooded’), would choose from the detainees. Survivors recall being unsure as to whether they would be more or less likely to be chosen if they avoided or made eye contact. Some would return with coloured markers, not knowing what the markers conveyed.

It was on one of these outings, on September 22, 1973, that the doors were bizarrely opened to the media. The goal was to change public opinion. The effort backfired, and the scenes in the Estadio Nacional went global.

September 22, 1973

Those chosen for ‘special treatment’, or marked with red markers, would be led to the changing rooms of the velodrome. Here, they would be interrogated. There were 30 interrogators who would work in shifts. They would start by asking, ‘why are you here?’ Often, the detainee would not know. They would scream ‘Where are the guns? What are the plans? Who are you working with?’ One detainee remarked, ‘I had no answers for them’.

30 feet from the interrogation rooms were the caracolas (‘snails’), spiral shaped concrete structures once used for weightlifting, repurposed for torture. Detainees would stand in line for these 30 feet, hearing the screams of their fate. Torture methods had been specially taught by visitors from Brazil and Algeria. It would often involve the mutilation of genitals, electrocution, and the breaking of bones and teeth. Others were stamped on with boots and burned with cigarettes. One victim heard his torturer tell his assistant: ‘Let’s make this a quick one, we have to finish early. I have to meet my wife at 5:20 to take her to that movie, the Godfather’. Those who returned from the caracolas would often have to be carried.

An American survivor, Adam Schesch, recalls seeing a line leading to the pitch:

‘They seemed stunned, stolid-faced. We never saw those people again… Just before they led the one line out into the stadium, they would start the extractor fans in the changing rooms just to make some noise’.

Sometimes, this would be accompanied by blaring military music over the loudspeakers. Then, the unmistakable burst of machine gun fire. Though this would occasionally be faked to keep the prisoners in order, Schesch believes between 400 and 600 people were executed by firing squad in the 10 days he was held there. Two of those executed were fellow US citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. When the soldiers returned to turn the fans off, there would be silence on the pitch, above.

Some detainees were defiant to the end. Schesch’s wife recalls hearing ‘people in the stadium singing ‘the Internationale’. Then the machine guns started’.

There were others way to keep morale up. Some would invent and play games, celebrate mass with imprisoned priests. Others would appeal to the common humanity of conscripted soldiers, barely out of school, and thus communicate with their families or receive illicit fruits. Journalist and former prisoner Fernando Villagrán recalls discovering how tasty an orange rind could be, whilst in fits of hunger. Other prisoners would discuss the games they had attended there, the football they had witnessed, and the goals they had celebrated, directly above where they were now imprisoned.

A World Cup qualifying match like no other

Some recall cheering ‘goal’ as the man cutting the grass passed between the posts. He was preparing the pitch for an upcoming match against the Soviet Union, for the final place at the 1974 World Cup.

The Chileans travelled to Moscow for the first leg, just two weeks after the coup, under order to not make any political statements as their relatives were under military surveillance. Chilean-Soviet ties had already been strained in the last few months of the Allende regime, but under the new US backed Pinochet regime, these ties were broken completely. Journalists and cameras were not allowed into the stadium. The game was almost cancelled, due to rumours that the Chilean players would be arrested. Nevertheless, the game was played, culminating in a tense but goalless draw.

Controversy sprang up around the second leg as soon as the first had been played. The Soviets approached FIFA, asking for an investigation into the stadium. In discussions with FIFA, the military junta insisted on playing the Soviets at the national stadium, aiming to defeat communism on symbolic soil. FIFA promised the Soviets they would fully investigate the stadium, and established a commission to do just that.

The day the FIFA investigators arrived, many of the prisoners were taken beneath the stadium, where they could not be seen from the pitch. They were instructed to remain silent at gunpoint. Other prisoners were able to watch from the stands.

‘We wanted to yell out and say, ‘Hey, we are here, look at us,’ said one of the prisoners, Felipe Agüero, ‘but they seemed only interested in the condition of the grass’. An imprisoned politician, Gregorio Mena Barrales, stated that the commission ‘visited the field, walked around the court, [and] looked with distant eyes at the prisoners’. Another said, ‘it was like we were in two different worlds’.

FIFA approved the stadium for use.

‘FIFA informs the world that life in Chile is normal’

Despite this, the Soviets refused to attend, forfeiting the final place at the 1974 World Cup, stating that ‘for moral considerations’, they could not play in a stadium ‘stained with blood’. FIFA declared the game as a 1–0 victory for Chile. They then decided the game would be played anyway.

For an unnecessary match, with a predetermined result and an absent opponent, the stadium had to be cleared. Whilst this meant the Estadio Nacional’s days as a detention centre were numbered, it did not mean an end to the horror for those within. Many were sent to other detention camps, some more brutal, some less. In some ways, it resulted in an acceleration of the horror. Many reported executions and burials or body disposals increased in preparation for the match.

On 21 November, 1973, the Chilean national team stood on the pitch of their national stadium, waved to just 15,000 supporters and began the game. They passed the ball between themselves, and the captain, Francisco Valdés, scored in an empty goal. It took 19 seconds. Chile were heading to the World Cup.

One of the stars of the Chilean team, Carlos Caszely watched on. He was the national team’s highest scorer before his retirement, and still remains amongst their highest scorers, with 29 goals in 49 games. He spoke about the game in 2015, saying ‘it was a worldwide embarrassment’. Meanwhile, members of the Soviet team would say they felt they had won a moral victory.

Before they left for the 1974 World Cup, Pinochet came to greet the team. Caszely recalls, ‘when he started coming closer, I put my hand behind me and didn’t give it to him’. It was a small act of resistance that took enormous bravery. It also had a stark consequence. In response, Carlos Caszely’s mother, Olga Garrido, was arrested and tortured.

When Caszely retired in 1985, a match was held in the Estadio Nacional. More than 80,000 people attended, including some who had formerly been imprisoned there. One recalls:

‘Everybody knew what happened to his family, they knew that he’d refused to shake Pinochet’s hands… that was an act of bravery that many people identified with — people who wished they had done something like that but didn’t dare to’.

Not a single channel dared to broadcast his retirement match, for fear of reprisal. No matter, he and his bravery were celebrated by a roar of 80,000 people, in a place where sudden silence had once been a custom.

La Cueca Solo

In 1990, Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically elected president of Chile in 2 decades, chose the Estadio Nacional as the setting for an enormous event. After a large Chilean flag was unfurled before a packed stadium, the widow of a detained-disappeared danced the national dance of Chile, La Cueca. Symbolically, she danced the courting ritual alone, in the absence of her husband, on the very soil he may have died, as the names of the dead and missing appeared onscreen. This was immortalised as ‘La Cueca Sola’. For many, this event was regarded as an exorcism, a marking of a new chapter in the history of a great nation.

Despite this catharsis, no memorial was made evident at the stadium until the 28th anniversary, in 2001, when a plaque appeared overnight. It was the same colour as the surrounding wall, and so high that it could not be read, to discourage vandalism and removal. It read:

I demand from my dead

That in their own day

I will find them, I will transplant them

I will undress them

I will bring them up to the light

Close to the ground

Where their song

Will be Nestling, waiting for them (translated by Paula González Dolan).

Whilst this tragedy was finally being memorialised in Chile, the US was having a September 11th that marked their own chapter in national history.

Soon after, shots again rang out in the Estadio Nacional, as the court re-enacted the execution of Charles Horman, a US national who had died on September 17, 1973. The efforts of his wife, Beth, and father, Edmund, in searching for him would be made into a film, called Missing (1982). It depicts the continued efforts of US officials in disrupting the search, and a postscript adds that the US continued to deny its involvement in the coup, and in the subsequent death of Americans in Chile.

Recently declassified documents render this denial useless.

One, dated August 25, 1976, declares:

‘There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC (Government of Chile). At worst, US intelligence was aware that GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia’.

The court determined that the US authorities had played a ‘fundamental’ role in his death. Other documents detail the actions of the CIA and the Nixon administration, as well as various Washington officials, crucially Kessinger, in aiding and abetting the Pinochet regime.

An ongoing whistle-blower complaint suggests that the US continues to protect and even hire former Pinochet allies and supporters, including ‘foreign military officials with histories of involvement in human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians’.

‘Justice’ is difficult to declare. ‘Felony, cowardice, and treason’ were not often punished. Many of the torturers and interrogators live amongst their former detainees across Chile. Trials have been held, but few have been convicted. One former detainee, now working as a political science professor in the US, was shocked to discover that his former torturer was freely working as a political science professor in Chile. Even Pinochet died in 2006, without being convicted for any of the crimes of which he was accused; he had even been released from house arrest in the UK by Jack Straw, Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s cabinet.

In 2011, a section of the stadium was set aside to remain forever empty, accompanied by the words: ‘Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro’ (‘A people without memory is a people without future’). One of the changing rooms beneath, in which detainees were held, remains untouched to this day.

‘A people without memory is a people without future’

It was in the Estadio Nacional in 2015, before those haunting, empty benches, that Alexis Sanchez slotted in a Panenka penalty to win Chile their first Copa América title. As the commentator screamed an ode to the nation, he and the stadium celebrated the end of their 99 year wait, bursting in national pride. The benches can be seen on the right at 06:21. For an estimated 12,000 to 40,000 people and their families, the victory in their former prison invoked complex emotions. For most, their support for La Roja was accompanied by the reminders of the past, with one saying ‘you can’t help looking around and remembering’. Others could not bear to set foot in Chile again.

One man, however, awakes every day and returns to the place he was once held captive. Before the coup, Don Roberto Sanchez had worked in the Estadio Nacional as a cleaner. Soon after the coup, due to a simple misunderstanding, having being seen standing near some suspect clothing, he was imprisoned in the very stadium he worked in. It was only years later that he was released. Finally free of interrogations and torture, he returned to the family home, only to find a picture of Pinochet hanging on the wall. Presumed a traitor by his own family, Sanchez lived on the streets and drank heavily for decades. He then returned to the stadium, a homecoming of a different kind. Those who have watched games at the stadium, or have visited it themselves, may see him, or even walk past him, cleaning the stadium as he once did. In all his years as foreman, he has only visited the caracol where he was tortured, once, and found himself paralysed by emotion. The halls he walks still bear names and dates written by detainees, some long dead, and the songs sung in the stands above reduce him to tears. Yet, when asked what emotion he bears towards the stadium, he replies:

‘I have been working here for 38 years, and was only tortured for two months. How could I not wish it well? It is the people that are guilty, not the place’.

I write about sports and the sea!

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