In the summer of 1986, two residents of Washington, D.C., visited Chile, a country wracked by protests against the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
One of the visitors, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chatted amicably with Pinochet and returned to tell the American people that it was a "myth that human rights is a major problem in Chile."
The other, Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old Chilean exile who had been living in the United States, died at the hand of Pinochet's security forces after they beat him senseless and set him on fire.
The incident received international publicity, and the case of Los Quemados--"The Burned Ones"--became a grisly milestone in the history of Chile's struggle against dictatorship. It also proved to be one of the most controversial chapters in Helms' foreign policy career--a chapter that has been reopened following the declassification of government documents that reveal just how far the senator went in backing the Pinochet regime.
"I am not pro-Pinochet or anti-Pinochet," Helms said at the time. But, as he had done since Pinochet seized power in 1973, the Republican senator rose to the defense of the dictator. Ignoring eyewitness accounts that Chilean soldiers had committed the attack on Rojas, Helms vilified the teenager and Carmen Quintana--an 18-year-old Chilean who narrowly survived the same burning--as "communist terrorists." He pushed Pinochet's cover story that the victims had immolated themselves.
International efforts to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes have turned the spotlight on those who bolstered the general's repressive rule. In 1998, after Pinochet was indicted by a Spanish judge for torture and assassination and placed under house arrest during a visit to London, President Clinton ordered government agencies to release all files on human rights abuses in Chile. The administration made thousands of secret documents public in a series of releases, the latest of which was in November 2000.
A review of documents released by the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House, and the departments of State and Defense reveals the lengths to which Helms went to support the dictator at a time when Pinochet was being condemned internationally. The records show that even as the Reagan administration pressed Pinochet for a thorough investigation of the burning attack, Helms red-baited and blamed the victims, told the State Department to "drop the sanctimonious attitude," and upbraided the U.S. ambassador to Chile for attending Rojas' funeral.
Aides to Helms did not return phone calls seeking comment about his relationship with Pinochet.
The release of official documents comes at a time when Helms is considering another senate run (see "Saving the republic," p. 20), and foreign policy analysts say he is trying to soften his image as an uncompromising maverick. He has scaled back his criticisms of the United Nations and recently staged a well-publicized visit to Mexico--a country he had previously slammed as a den of drug corruption.
Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, says Helms is adapting his image to the post-Cold War times. "Back in the mid-1980s you had the Russian bear and now you don't have that anymore," Beyle says. "Now [Helms] has got this strategy which makes him look more amenable in a safer world--a world where he can speak more kindly."
But the Chile documents offer a grim reminder of the hard-line history behind Helms' kindler, gentler image. They show there was a time when the senator was more than willing to support an authoritarian regime, despite clear evidence of human rights abuses that had led other Republican leaders to distance themselves from it.
A shared mission
Long before the burnings, Helms had established himself as one of Pinochet's chief advocates in the United States. Helms became a senator in 1973, the same year Pinochet led a military coup against President Salvador Allende. A Socialist who had been democratically elected in 1970, Allende had been targeted by a massive CIA destabilization campaign.
Sharing a sense of mission marked by anticommunist zeal, Helms and Pinochet established close ties over the years, sending emissaries to each other and twice meeting personally. Helms stood by the general throughout Pinochet's 16 years as head of state and afterwards as the Chilean declared himself "Senator for Life." In doing so, Helms flexed all of his foreign policy muscle, devoting the full resources of his so-called "shadow state department," an international network of right-wing military and political contacts maintained by Helms' office staff and aides on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Helms' support of Pinochet was not an isolated case. The senator had long stressed that Latin America was a key Cold War battleground, and throughout the 1970s and '80s he forged alliances with several of the most repressive military regimes in the hemisphere, praising their staunch anti-communism. But Helms took special measures to bolster Pinochet, amplifying his support when the dictator was under fire from critics at home and in Washington.
After the military junta overthrew Allende, Helms called the coup "a revolution for freedom," and submitted to the Congressional Record a lengthy defense of the regime by a right-wing Chilean politician who claimed, "today in Chile, human rights are being respected."
Meanwhile, Pinochet's security forces were waging a dirty war against former Allende government officials and leftist leaders. The most vicious repression occurred in the weeks directly following the coup; among those tortured and killed were two American citizens, Frank Terrugi and Charles Horman, subject of the Hollywood film, Missing. Chilean government commissions later reported that the regime killed or "disappeared" 3,197 people.
Thousands more were arbitrarily detained, tortured and forced into exile.
In January 1976, after the junta had weathered 27 months of negative international publicity about its abuses, Helms argued that Chile was a friend to the United States and deserved Washington's support. Sounding some of his favorite political themes, Helms said that Chile under Pinochet, had "rescued itself from the moral and economic bankruptcy of Marxism," and now was "trying to restore its deep Christian traditions, and rebuild its priorities in favor of the cultivation of the home and the family and spiritual values."
Helms reached out with more than rhetoric. In July 1976, he made his first foray to Chile, a three-day visit sponsored by the Institute for American Relations, a nonprofit organization created by Helms aides to advance the senator's foreign policy agenda. The first U.S. senator to visit Chile in 12 years, Helms was received by top officials, including two members of the ruling junta. He met first with Gen. Gustavo Leigh, the air force commander who had ordered the bombing of the presidential palace during the coup. Helms topped off the trip with a closed-door meeting with Pinochet.
During his visit, Helms told the press that "the enemies of Chile exaggerate" about human rights abuses under Pinochet, a theme he would return to repeatedly in the future. "The criticisms of Chile, made by the foreign press and also by the press in my country, are malicious and do not correspond to reality," Helms said.
Back in Washington, Helms shared his positive impressions of Pinochet and urged U.S. officials to recognize Chile as a valuable ally in the fight against international communism. But just two months later, Helms' campaign to bolster Pinochet's image was jeopardized by an unprecedented act of terrorism on the streets of Washington, D.C.
On Sept. 21, 1976, agents of Chile's intelligence service used a remote-control car bomb to assassinate Orlando Letelier, a former cabinet official in the Allende government and a high-profile opponent of the regime. Letelier's American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, was also killed in the blast, and her husband, Michael Moffitt, was seriously injured. Their car had been traveling up Embassy Row when the bomb ignited, sending the chilling message that assassins could strike in the heart of the nation's capital.
As several members of Congress accused the Chilean government of complicity, Helms vehemently objected. "The men I met in Santiago were basically decent and humane, and I would find it hard to believe that they would sanction anything of the sort," he told his Senate colleagues. "I found them to be men of impressive ability, motivated by high religious and philosophical principles and concern for their people." Helms suggested a "far more plausible" hypothesis for the bombing: that Letelier was a victim of left-wing assassins intent on making him a "symbolic martyr."
Federal investigators discovered otherwise: that the team sent to kill Letelier was working on orders from the Pinochet government. In 1980, four members of the assassination squad--who were agents of Chile's intelligence service, DINA--were convicted in a U.S. court, and Washington began to press for the extradition of top-ranking DINA officials. Even then, Helms tried to shield Pinochet from the fallout, sponsoring a failed amendment to lift Washington's ban on military aid to Chile.
"The burned ones"
Newly released documents shed light on Helms' role in the aftermath of another of the Pinochet regime's atrocities--one that is less well-known in the United States.
In July 1986, Helms returned to Chile on a trip sponsored by that country's National Agriculture Society. The senator had hoped to focus on the economy, and on Pinochet's plans to return power to a civilian government. Instead, he found the dictator mired in controversy over an attack by soldiers on two teenagers.
Helms' visit came at a time when Pinochet's public image was at an all-time low. A week earlier, a broad-based coalition of Chilean opposition groups staged a national strike against the regime. Marches and rallies took place throughout Santiago, the capital. In poor neighborhoods, which had recently been subjected to army sweeps and mass arrests, people built barricades of burning tires and debris--a defensive measure that became a common fixture in mid-1980s Santiago.
The regime reacted violently. During the upheaval, eight people were killed and 600 arrested. In a top secret intelligence summary for President Reagan, the CIA described the crackdown: "Although the government did not overreact by closing down the center of Santiago, as it did twice recently, the security forces' heavy-handed methods in slum and middle-class districts, along with press censorship and other forms of harassment, demonstrate that Pinochet is determined to crush all protests."
Some of the "heavy-handed" action was meted out against two teenagers, one of whom had spent the previous 10 years in the United States. Rodrigo Rojas, 19, whose mother had been tortured at length in Chilean prisons, had left the country in 1975. But he never felt completely at home in Washington, D.C., where his family had permanent resident status, and he yearned to return to Chile. Most of all, he wanted to pursue his passion--photographing protest movements. When he stepped off a bus in Santiago in May 1986, surrounded by broiling unrest against the Pinochet regime, he seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Among Rojas's new friends was Carmen Gloria Quintana, 18, a University of Santiago student active in pro-democracy protests and community organizing in the slums. Around 7:30 on the morning of July 2, 1986, Rojas and Quintana met up with several young people on their way to build a barricade and stage a rally in a shantytown called Nogales. An army patrol of about 25 soldiers swooped in before they got there. Several young people got away, but Rojas and Quintana were apprehended.
Members of the army squad, dressed in fatigues and wearing black face paint, beat the pair with rifle butts until they were immobile. At one point, a soldier pulled Quintana's pants down and sodomized her with a rifle barrel. The soldiers then doused Rojas and Quintana in a flammable liquid, probably gasoline, stepped back and tossed a Molotov cocktail to set them afire.
Jorge Sanhuesa, a factory worker who witnessed the attack and later fled Chile after he was kidnapped and threatened with death if he testified, remembered: "The young people both tried to put out the fire on them but the girl was hit in the mouth with a gun by one of the soldiers, and the boy on the back of the head until he lost consciousness. After a while, the soldiers wrapped up the bodies in blankets and threw them on the back of the truck like parcels."
The soldiers drove Rojas and Quintana to the outskirts of Santiago and dumped them in a ditch. Miraculously, they were still alive, though both had numerous broken bones and severe burns on more than 60 percent of their bodies. They staggered to a street and eventually flagged down help.
In the hospital, the two clung to life, while rumors about their case began to trickle out to the Chilean media and the U.S. Embassy. Meanwhile, the Chilean government announced it would appoint a judge to investigate, and the army issued a statement denying any involvement in the incident.
Four days later, Rojas died of his injuries. In his final hours, he couldn't speak because of a tube in his throat. But by nodding and shaking his head, Rojas confirmed the story of how soliders had beaten, burned and abandoned himself and his friend. Quintana survived, and was taken to a Canadian burn unit to begin her recovery. Later, she returned to Chile where she now works as a psychologist.
Although the regime had promised to investigate, Pinochet signaled right away that the soldiers would not be held accountable. On July 11, he suggested that Rojas had injured himself with an incendiary device. And the authorities soon floated the allegation that Quintana had tried to kick a Molotov cocktail at the soldiers, accidentally torching herself.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Santiago nor the Reagan administration was persuaded. A State Department official said "this was the first time anyone has suggested [Rojas] set himself afire." An intelligence report sent to President Reagan on July 14 and declassified last year said that "eyewitness reports of Chilean army involvement in the fatal attack on U.S. resident Rodrigo Rojas in Chile so far are holding up under closer scrutiny," and that "an investigation by the Chilean intelligence services has fingered army personnel as clearly involved."
Rojas was laid to rest in a Santiago cemetery on July 9, but his funeral was interrupted by the same turmoil that had taken his life. About 5,000 Chileans gathered to mourn at a ceremony before the burial, along with international journalists and diplomats. U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes attended, according to a statement by the embassy, "out of humanitarian concern for the victims of this crime and their families."
During the ceremony, riot police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on the crowd, and, in a final indignity, commandeered the hearse carrying Rojas' body. Ambassador Barnes and the other diplomats were among those who were gassed. The next day, the regime labeled the funeral a subversive rally, and in a rare slap at the United States, pro-government newspapers criticized Barnes for attending, suggesting that his presence had helped spark a riot.
As the regime dug in for a protracted defense in the Rojas case, Pinochet's man in Washington arrived to help out. The day of the disrupted funeral, Helms and three of his aides flew to Chile for a four-day visit. On July 11--the day Pinochet pinned the blame for the burnings on Rojas--Helms and Pinochet met for two hours.
Helms' Foreign Relations Committee staff referred questions about the trip to Deborah DeMoss-Fonseca, who was then the senator's Latin America specialist. In a telephone interview from her home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, she says she can't remember if Pinochet discussed the burnings with Helms, but she can recall who was to blame.
"As I recall, there was pretty good evidence at the time that [Rojas] was playing with a Molotov cocktail that went off," she says. "There was certainly enough suspicion that he was involved in things he should not have been."
When told that newly declassified papers indicate that top Chilean and U.S. officials knew that the army was involved in the burnings, DeMoss-Fonseca says, "If I read that stuff now I would be extraordinarily surprised. I mean I wouldn't say that it's untrue, I would just say that we certainly had no indication of that at the time." Although she insists Helms was intent on getting to the bottom of the case, "there was no good intelligence," DeMoss-Fonseca says, "certainly not at that time, that these [attacks] were army perpetrated."
In fact there was such intelligence, as the new files prove, but Helms and his assistants may have sidestepped it. DeMoss-Fonseca says that Helms' staff rarely attended classified intelligence briefings for fear of being accused of leaking secrets. When she got her first security clearance, she says, Helms urged her to steer clear of such briefings, "because then you won't be able to talk about things you know already." Besides, she says, "We had our own sources that were very good."
The key source, it appears, was Pinochet, whose line on the Rojas case Helms accepted and dispensed. The senator sharply criticized the U.S. media's coverage of events in Chile--echoing his earlier complaints that the regime was getting a bum rap from biased journalists.
In comments to the Chilean press, Helms went on the offensive, accusing Ambassador Barnes of "planting the American flag in the midst of a communist activity" by attending the Rojas funeral. "If President Reagan were here," Helms said, "I believe he would send this ambassador home." State Department officials backed up Barnes, and a White House spokesman said that the ambassador "continues to have the president's full confidence."
Newly declassified files show that, having failed to shake the Reagan administration's support for Barnes, Helms then took his complaints straight to the ambassador. In a detailed memorandum of the July 12 meeting, Barnes described a contentious discussion.
Regarding the Rojas case, Helms told Barnes, "You have screwed it up--you and the people in Washington." By way of particulars, Barnes said, Helms "complained about my presence at the Rojas funeral and the State Department and the White House press statements which pressed the government of Chile to carry out an investigation when the government was already doing so." The State Department spokesman, Helms said, "should have limited himself to praising the government of Chile for initiating an investigation."
Helms also pushed Pinochet's version of events, insisting that "the nature of the burns seemed to indicate that the young man had been carrying something that exploded rather than been set afire," according to Barnes. The ambassador replied that while he was familiar with that explanation, a doctor who had examined Rojas had found it unlikely.
Helms then charged that "the boy's mother was a communist" and that Quintana was "a member of a communist group"--charges Quintana's father had denied, the ambassador pointed out. Helms replied that such a denial "was only to be expected" and mentioned that he had a videotape showing Quintana "in actions of a terrorist nature."
Helms would cite that video often during the coming weeks, while he waged an aggressive media campaign aimed at shifting blame for the burning incident to Rojas and Quintana. "I've got a videotape given to me by a television station--not the government of Chile--which shows what's going on down there in terms of trying to maintain law and order with the throwing of Molotov cocktails and so forth," he told U.S. journalists.
In fact, the video--grainy surveillance images of a woman passing bottles to a line of students--was prepared by Chile's intelligence service. Friends and family of the victims had pointed out that the woman on the tape had shorter hair and was not as tall as Quintana, yet Helms continued to show the tape to any reporters willing to watch it.
In some cases, the tactic paid off. On Aug. 31, 1986, The Charlotte Observer published an article titled, "Helms Says Tape Shows Dead Man's Communist Ties," that described the video as authentic footage of Quintana.
The previous month, Helms had taken his case to the nation on ABC's This Week with David Brinkley. Duke University Professor Ariel Dorfman, recently returned from Chile, appeared on the July 20 show before Helms. Dorfman listed a stream of inconsistent statements that the Pinochet regime made in attempting to blame the victims for the burnings.
"There are just so many lies piled on top of another that I think at times the lies are more vicious than the violence," said Dorfman, whom weeks later, Helms would call "one of the prime disinformation agents of the radical Chilean Left."
When Helms came on the show, he asserted that "I am not pro-Pinochet or anti-Pinochet," but that "the communist minority is the one that's creating the violence down there." Helms warned that "the surest way to pitch that country back into communism is for us to be too heavy-handed. There's a war on down there, between communism and anticommunism, and the sooner we understand that, the better off we are going to be."
In addition to his public statements, Helms continued to privately needle U.S. foreign policy officials about the case of Los Quemados. On July 14, 1986, the senator called Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams to lobby for positive gestures toward Pinochet. Abrams' memo of the conversation, which is among documents recently made public, recorded an icy exchange: "Senator Helms called to say that he had heard I was making remarks critical of him to the press. I responded that that was true and I did not see how he could defend attacking U.S. policy and the U.S. ambassador while he was in a foreign country."
"The ambassador had no business going to a funeral of someone who was not an American and whose mother is very anti-American," Helms said. The senator then recommended that Abrams make a fence-mending visit to Pinochet and further suggested that the State Department drop the "sanctimonious attitude" and "invite President Pinochet up here to see President Reagan."
The ghosts of the Cold War are coming back to haunt Pinochet and possibly Helms. Pinochet escaped the bid to extradite him to Spain but last December, a Chilean judge charged the former dictator with overseeing the murder of 77 civilians in the first weeks after the coup. In March, Chilean judges shielded him from the homicide charges, but he could be charged with covering up human rights abuses. Pinochet is under house arrest, awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Helms is trying to craft a new foreign-policy image as he contemplates another senate campaign, and as the power of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he chairs continues to wane. His recent Mexico trip allowed Helms to appear vigorous and statesmanlike, as well as forgiving of a country he'd long characterized as corrupt.
It's not clear what effect Helms' alliance with Pinochet will have on his foreign policy makeover or his chances for re-election. Recent press reports on Helms' possible senate run have noted that in 1984, when Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt launched an unsuccessful challenge to Helms for the U.S. Senate, he linked the senator to right-wing death squads in El Salvador. But even graphic political ads showing dead bodies didn't stop Helms from winning re-election.
For Veronica De Negri, Rojas' mother, once-secret papers about the burnings offer more than an inside look at Helms' foreign policy maneuvers. They elicit memories of a brutal crime whose perpetrators and defenders have never been held fully accountable.
In the hallway of De Negri's Washington, D.C. apartment, more than 20 photographs, paintings and posters of her son form a homemade memorial. There is the pencil sketch of Rodrigo's earnest young face; a self-portrait he photographed in a mirror shortly before his death; and a stark painting of his burning--only in this rendition, he is left unscathed by the flames.
De Negri, who was tortured by Pinochet's security forces during the eight months she spent in Chilean prisons, was working as a social services counselor for the town of Rockville, Md., when Rodrigo was killed. She still remembers the war of words that Helms unleashed against her son.
"Jesse Helms, instead of showing some kind of humanity, he attacked us and said that the kids were terrorists," De Negri says.
Helms also attacked De Negri. A month after the burnings, the senator said in a speech that "while we can all sympathize with a mother's grief," he'd learned that De Negri was once "a militant member of the Communist Party of Chile, skilled in psychological warfare"--a charge she denied, but could not ignore.
"When Rodrigo was killed, I was not able to mourn, to grieve--not because I didn't want to, but because I had to keep fighting, fighting the lies," De Negri says. "Pinochet denied that the army was involved in the crime and Jesse Helms was supporting that, even after there was so much evidence they couldn't deny it."