Peter Charley and Melanie Morningstar were hungry. They had just arrived in a small town on the coast of northern Chile. Walking down the beach-front promenade they saw what they thought was a restaurant. So they went in.
As soon as they walked in the door, their way was blocked by a short heavyset man in his early thirties. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with a windcheater over it. He put his hands on his hips, pulling the windcheater apart. The action revealed a big beer gut.
And a .357 Magnum stuck in his belt.
The man said, "What are you doing here?"
It was August 1988. Pinochet had been dictator for nine years. The economy was strong. Inflation was under control. The opposition was being ruthlessly suppressed. Pinochet, with overweening confidence, proposed a referendum. Did the country want him in for another nine years, or did it want a general election? The people could decide, "Si" or no. Although the vote was to be free, there was a lot of pressure on everyone to vote "Si" for Pinochet.
Looking around, they could see the restaurant had been converted into a Pinochet party headquarters for the town. There were Pinochet banners everywhere. It was here the party organised support for the "Si" vote for Pinochet.
Peter said, "We thought it was a restaurant."
The man was not satisfied. He pulled the Magnum out of his belt. He asked, "What do you think of Pinochet?"
Melanie thought, this is not a man to have a philosophical discussion with. She said, "Pinochet is a wonderful guy."
But Peter resented the intimidation. He asked, "Why do you have this gun?"
The man replied, "This is my communist eliminator."
Brandishing the massive handgun, he asked them who they were.
Australians. From Tierra dellas kangooras.
The man brightened. "Do you know Alan Bond?" he asked. Bond had recently invested heavily in CTC, the Chilean Telephone Company. CTC was a mess, but under Australian organisation it was putting in phones where people had never had phones before. Because of this helpfulness and efficiency, Australia was considered Chile's ally.
"Yes," said Peter. "I work for him."
The man immediately warmed to them. His name was Karl [not his real name]. He was a salesman. He was also the chief organiser for Pinochet in the town. What did they do?
Peter said he was a photographer. In fact they were journalists from Sydney based in New York. They were on a year-long assignment in Latin America working for Three Triple-M radio in Sydney and an ABC radio station in Perth. Resented or not, the intimidation persuaded Peter to adopt a new profession temporarily.
As they talked, it became apparent Karl was an intelligent guy. More educated than the average American, Melanie thought.
Their careful replies pleased Karl. He said, "There's a Pinochet rally here tonight. It's a youth dance. I want you to come. You're from Australia and you live in New York, and you can take the truth back with you."
He used a distinctive Spanish word to describe the young Pinochet supporters. Sano. It means clean, healthy. Karl said, "The supporters of Pinochet are sano. They don't drink, they don't smoke. They're god-fearing people."
Gun-wielding people too, Peter thought sarcastically.
Karl said, "If you really support Pinochet, come to the rally tonight."
Peter and Melanie agreed that it sounded like an interesting idea.
* * * * *
That night, when they walked into the rally at the restaurant, the same thing happened. Only worse. Six heavy guys swarmed down on them. Tension crackled in the air. They were obviously expecting trouble. Peter had long hair at the time and was wearing a black leather jacket.
Peter said, "We're looking for Karl - he invited us to come."
Just then Melanie spotted him. She waved to him frantically. Karl came over and embraced them. It was OK. He was their friend. He explained there'd been a gunfight a couple of weeks before outside the restaurant. Two people were shot dead.
The kids were 15 to 18. They danced to the disco music and drank free coca-cola. Peter and Melanie quickly realised the kids were there for a more important reason. They were showing the rest of the town that they supported Pinochet. If they didn't, they and their families ran the risk of being branded unpatriotic.
Melanie didn't like it. She wanted out. Because they were serving only coca-cola she said to Karl, in her bold Aussie way, "I want a beer."
"Come on," Karl said. "I'll buy you a beer."
The restaurant was right on the beach. They walked a few feet back and there was another street with three or four crowded outdoor cafes selling beer and hamburgers. Karl had an entourage of five or six friends with him.
After a few beers Peter suddenly noticed that everyone at the tables next to them had left. One by one they got up and walked away. Melanie saw it too. When she went to the toilet, one of the group got up and took her there. When she came out he was still standing outside. She realised he was not just being polite. He was her protector.
But from what? Weren't these just a salesman and some of his mates?
After many beers, Karl began to reveal his true character. He pulled out his gun and laid it on the table. Pointing to it, he said, "That gun has killed seven men. That's my job. To eliminate delinquents."
Peter wasn't sure Karl meant it. He asked, "How would you define delinquent?"
Karl said, "Communists. Socialists. Anybody who is anti-Pinochet." He pointed vaguely at the hills. "I kill them in a concentration camp just over there," he said.
Karl gestured to his friends around the table. He introduced them again, one by one. One of them worked in a government office. He opened his jacket, revealing an automatic pistol. The next one worked in a hotel. He was carrying an Uzi. And so it went on. Karl's friends worshipped him. They were not just friends, they were followers. Between them, they'd killed more than a dozen people.
A sobering chill hit Peter. They were drinking with a group of hitmen. Peter and Melanie suddenly became very careful of how much they drank. They noticed the others always kept a lookout, watching the road. Two of them didn't drink at all. They were part of the group but they drank lemonade or coca-cola.
Melanie asked about the ring on Karl's hand. It had a swastika made of mother-of-pearl set in onyx. Melanie is Jewish and many of her family were killed during the Second World War.
Karl was very proud of his ring and chatted about it for a some time. Hitler had specially made a hundred of these rings for his favourite staff members and given them out as a mark of honor and distinction. The Fuhrer had handed the ring personally to one of Karl's relatives.
Karl looked at Melanie. He asked, "What religion are you?"
Melanie thought quickly. She said, "I don't have a religion. My religion is Australia."
The group of men leapt to their feet, and cheered and clapped.
Nationalism, fanatical nationalism, she thought. They were not mercenaries, they were doing what they believed in. They killed for the love of their mother country. They were making it a place for decent people to live in.
Peter thought with horror: They're sanitising the nation. Eliminating the delinquents.
Melanie realised what a difficult situation they were in. They had written in the hotel register that they were journalists. She became concerned that these killers would go to the hotel and find out that they'd revealed themselves to a couple of foreign correspondents on a drunken Saturday night.
When Peter and Melanie went back to the hotel, they were really scared. The way the room was set up they couldn't see the door from the bed. They devised a simple alarm system. They put chairs in front of the door, so if it opened in the middle of the night they would know. They had already sorted out an escape route. They could jump out of bed and dive out the window. They decided to leave the next day.
They did not have an easy night of it.
* * * * *
Every city and town in Chile has a main square with three or four streets off it called the Plaza de Armas. The place the army rallies. Every Sunday morning the schoolchildren from the Catholic schools and the nuns and priests put on a parade, and the military goosestep through the town.
The hotel had a balcony elevated a few feet above the ground. It opened onto a series of conference rooms and dining rooms with bars. It faced the main street. Peter and Melanie stood amongst the crowd on the balcony taking photographs of the army marching past. Then they spotted Karl in the park opposite. They could see he was taking note of who was watching the parade, and what they were doing.
All the children of the town take part, which means that every family that lives in the town gets out to watch their kids march. In fact, it's healthy to do so, because if they didn't they ran the risk of being targetted as communists.
Peter felt that the applause was perfunctory. Many onlookers had fixed grins on their faces. It seemed to him they were applauding just to be safe because people like Karl were in the crowd checking them out.
Karl looked up and saw them. He smiled and beckoned them over, greeting them with much warmth and gusto. He said, "Let me take you for a walk through the town."
As they went down the crowded streets, they saw the effect Karl had in his town. The footpaths emptied around them as they walked. People crossed the road when Karl approached. It was a small town. Everyone knew who Karl was.
No one else in civilian clothes was wandering around with a gun tucked in his belt. Yet nobody questioned Karl. Neither the military nor the police looked twice when he walked down the street with his gun. And they didn't seem to be afraid of him like the civilians.
Karl loved it. He loved having that power. As they walked, Karl indicated various shops which he declared were run by communists.
Peter asked him, "What kind of bullets do you use?"
Karl said, "Hollow points, because they explode like a grenade as they go through. It's the most effective way of killing a man, a hollow-point bullet in the back of the head."
They stopped at the same outdoor cafe and had a few beers and hamburgers. Karl was already slightly drunk again. The same thing happened as the night before. While they were having lunch, everybody got up and moved away. This time Peter and Melanie understood perfectly why.
Karl said he had a videotape that they should see. He took them to a little, almost pueblo-type house. It was a poor house, but it had every electronic convenience that opened and shut. Karl put a videotape into a VCR machine and pushed Play.
What they saw was basically an anti-communist snuff tape.
It had been put together by someone in the Chilean government and circulated to people like Karl. It showed all kinds of terrorist atrocities in horrific detail, claiming that the communists had done them all.
There was one shot, a still, that was repeated over and over again. A busload of Chilean military had been ambushed. The Chilean army uniforms were clearly seen. Their heads had been blown off. There were body parts everywhere. This shot appeared in every sequence. It was almost subliminal.
The tape claimed that every terrorist group you could think of - the Bader-Meinhof, the Hezbollah, the IRA - were trained in this one building in Moscow. The tape showed part of the building and briefly panned down. It was a grey, somewhat ornate skyscraper.
Then there were shots of executions. Death-squad killings. People pushed to the ground and shot in the back of the head. It wasn't an official firing squad where they say, Ready, aim, fire. It was someone tugging a gun out of his belt, ramming it against the base of someone else's skull, and firing. When the trigger was pulled, Karl would mutter, "That's me, that's me."
The tape's message was, this is how dangerous the communists are, and this is what we do to them when they are caught.
Karl showed them the tape because he wanted Australians to understand that Chile is a great place, and that people like Alan Bond were not only astute businessmen but investing in the future of a country that was worth while living in. Karl wanted them to take that message back.
The house was full of women, passing in and out. Karl was the only man there, with his gun. After they watched the tape, a woman who looked like a grandmother told them that it was important that Pinochet be re-elected. If he wasn't, a dreadful atrocity would happen in Chile. Just like the Nuremberg trials in Germany after the Second World War, she said, when the Nazi leaders were convicted and many of them executed for war crimes. She was disgusted at the thought.
Peter had only one idea. He was terrified that Karl would find out that they were really journalists. What had started out as a simple social evasion, in the face of the waving gun, had become a nightmare.
They were in a panic. They told him they were going back to the hotel for a siesta. They took a cab and went straight to the bus station. They bought tickets for a bus out of town within the hour. They ran back to the hotel, packed up and jumped on the bus just as it was taking off. They spent the next five or six hours looking out the back window, reassuring themselves they weren't being followed.
Bus passengers in Chile don't have to give their names. Peter and Melanie zig-zagged in and out of the coast anonymously for several days until they arrived at Santiago.
All their effort may have been in vain. Early on they had told Karl where they were heading.
* * * * *
They got to Santiago September 1, 1988, the day Pinochet announced his intention to run in the plebiscite. Everyone knew he would, but he announced it officially that day.
It was a time of chaos. At least once a day the police charged down the main streets of Santiago with water cannons, blasting people with high-pressure water, and firing tear gas everywhere. People were getting beaten up and shot. And at all hours of the day and night there was a deafening racket when people started banging empty pots and pans together because they were hungry. Ironically, this tradition had started in the days of Allende, but now they did it to show they wanted Pinochet out.
Peter and Melanie spent their days sending reports back to Australia on the continuing and accelerating unrest. They had to wear press passes prominently displayed. It was a dangerous thing to do in Santiago because the secret police were liable to beat the foreign press. Yet it was required by law to wear the pass so it was always visible. They were virtually walking around with a sign saying, Beat me.
But as Australians, they were normally treated well, mainly because of the work of Alan Bond. Peter and Melanie made many friends, including one of the clerks at the front desk of the hotel they were staying at. Another friend was a highly-placed political contact. He warned them they were being watched and that their phones and faxes were being monitored.
September 11 was the anniversary of the overthrow and death of Allende. They went out to a stadium where a lot of people were killed that day nine years before. It was exciting for them to mingle with the people banging empty pots and pans together and chanting for Pinochet to get out. It was dangerous too. Police cars would cruise up with their lights off and everyone would scatter, terrified. The cops shot randomly at the demonstrators from the windows of their car.
A few nights later Peter and Melanie went to the suburb of La Victoria, one of the poorest areas of Santiago. Many of the demonstrations and much of the violence occurred there.
As their cab turned off from the highway, a huge police van pulled up and about 60 cops poured out with submachine guns. A couple of cops came over to the cab driver and said, "Get these gringos out of here. People are going to be killed here tonight."
They left. Later that night the police killed 53 people.
That was the kind of story they were sending back, so it must have become clear to those spying on them that the opposition viewpoint was strongly represented.
The next morning there was a large pro-Pinochet rally in a street close to the hotel Peter and Melanie stayed in. They walked out of the hotel with cameras and joined the flow of several thousand people surging through the streets, many of whom were wearing hard hats and carrying pipes and sticks, ready to protect themselves against the opposition if there was a confrontation in the streets.
Almost immediately they passed a group of five or six guys in black leather jackets carrying lead pipes, truncheons and wearing bandannas across their faces. They had closely-cropped hair. Only their eyes were visible. Such gangs were often seen at the demonstrations. They were there to beat up anybody who was anti-Pinochet.
Shortly after they passed the gang, Peter stopped by a potted palm in a large concrete bowl. He wanted to take a photograph of this sea of people. He climbed up and stood on the rim of the bowl to raise himself above the crowd. He snapped a picture.
Suddenly he was dragged down from behind. It was the masked gang they had just passed. They started beating him with their lead pipes.
Melanie screamed. Peter fell to the ground and huddled into a fetal position to protect himself. As they beat him they shouted, "We know who you are. You're the Australian journalist who's been sending out false reports."
A group of women surrounded Melanie. They yelled at her, "How dare you send bad reports out."
Peter risked a look up. All he could see were their truncheons rising and falling. They were whipping his back and arms and legs. It was just a rain of blows.
After an age, but probably only 30 seconds or so, a couple of passersby started pulling the gang off. When the beating finally stopped, Peter recognised one of his rescuers. It was their friend, the clerk from the front desk of his hotel. He was wearing a big "Si" for Pinochet badge. The gang seemed to know him. He was saying, "No, no, you've got the wrong Australians, you've got the wrong Australians."
Once he'd pulled the attackers off, the clerk gave Peter some very good advice. He said, "Now walk backwards very slowly. Don't let these guys out of your sight. Get back into the hotel and stay there."
Peter limped back to the hotel. The beating had cracked a couple of his ribs. He was badly bruised and had a couple of gashes. Melanie took care of him. He didn't need stitches, just heavy bandaging.
He filed the story, of course. His news director got back to him and said, "Don't wait in Santiago for the vote. Move on. Don't risk having that sort of thing happen again."
It took two or three days for Peter to recover from the beating so they could travel. During that time a couple of people told him they'd seen him being beaten up and apologised for not helping him. One of them said, "It wouldn't have been healthy for me and my family if I'd stepped in."
As they left, Peter saw their friend at the front desk. Peter went up and said, "I can't thank you enough for pulling those guys off."
The clerk said, "I don't know what you're talking about," and turned his back.
* * * * *
Peter and Melanie watched the results of the referendum on television. Despite the rampant intimidation, the "Si" for Pinochet movement was decisively crushed. The no vote was 54 percent.
Melanie saw Pinochet sitting in a row of people with an honour guard. He had this look on his face like a grandfather, really disgusted with something his grandchildren had done. It was like, you foolish children, don't you realise what you've done? She could tell that's exactly how he felt.
[The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York reports that in Chile in 1988 15 journalists were jailed, 26 were beaten, eight received death threats and two were abducted. It says many more were probably beaten and threatened but never reported it. These figures include local as well as foreign press.]
, Sydney, 1989