This tall ship has a bloody, brutal history

La Esmeralda: The Chilean vessel was used as a torture chamber during Pinochet's rule, and an English priest died on board.

June 18, 2000|By Stacie Jonas and Sarah Anderson

TALL SHIPS FROM around the world are scheduled to sail into Baltimore's Inner Harbor on Friday for what organizers are touting as an event to promote "cultural exchange and good will."

The ships will surely be a majestic sight. But behind the stately image of one of these ships, La Esmeralda, lies a terrifying history that should not be forgotten.

In 1973, in the aftermath of a bloody coup against the democratically elected government, the Chilean Navy made a special contribution to the new military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. They allowed La Esmeralda, a four-masted Chilean naval ship, to be used as a prison and torture chamber. According to testimony collected by Amnesty International and the Organization of American States, at least 110 political prisoners - 70 men and 40 women - were interrogated aboard the ship for more than two weeks without charges or trial.

The former mayor of Valparaiso, where the ship was stationed, described being tied to one of the ship's masts and subjected repeatedly to electric shock. "I couldn't sleep for six days because they woke me up every six minutes, night and day," he told Amnesty International. "We could hear how the others were tortured right where we were."

According to a Chilean lawyer held on board, military officials stripped and savagely beat the prisoners and shot them with high-pressure jets of water that produced "an unbearable pain in the head, ears, eyes, and lungs" At least one of those tortured on board La Esmeralda, a British-Chilean priest named Michael Woodward, died as a result. His body was thrown into an unmarked mass grave.

In the past, La Esmeralda has received angry receptions when it came to the United States:

In 1974, the Longshoreman's Union and other protesters succeeded in turning La Esmeralda away from the San Francisco port.

In 1976, when the ship traveled to Baltimore as part of Operation Sail's American Bicentennial celebration, local human rights activists greeted it with strong protests.

Undeterred, La Esmeralda returned in 1986 for the Bicentennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty. This time, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the ship's participation and called on Operation Sail to withdraw the invitation. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said that "the Statue of Liberty would weep at the sight of La Esmeralda entering the gateway of freedom at New York Harbor."

Why, then, would Operation Sail extend yet another invitation to this maritime pariah? We phoned Operation Sail and discovered that the group was not fully aware of the ship's dark past.

"Conditions have changed significantly in Chile. Our main goal is to promote sail training and good will among nations ....We hope that the Esmeralda will continue to promote good will and communication between our countries," a spokesperson said.

A decade has passed since the end of the reign of Pinochet, the man who led the coup and ruled the country with an iron fist for 17 years. After losing a plebiscite, Pinochet allowed democratic elections to take place in 1990. In exchange, he received a series of concessions, including immunity from prosecution for his role in more than 3,000 killings and tens of thousands of torture cases.

Noting international law, British police courageously arrested Pinochet in October 1998 after a Spanish court charged him with "crimes against humanity" including the murder of Woodward. Although British officials allowed the 84-year-old general to return home in March on alleged health grounds, he faces more than 100 cases against him in his home country. Recently, a Chilean court lifted a major obstacle to these cases by revoking Pinochet's immunity.

Times have changed in the United States as well. Back in the summer of 1976 when La Esmeralda was last docked in Baltimore harbor, FBI investigators were busy conducting extensive surveillance of the Americans protesting the ship. In hindsight, the FBI's focus appears shockingly misplaced. While they had their lenses on peaceful protestors, the real security threat was heading toward our nation's capital apparently unnoticed. On Sept. 21, 1976, Pinochet's agents detonated a car bomb, killing former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and 25-year-old American Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington as they drove to work at our organization, the Institute for Policy Studies.

The attack - still the only proven act of state-sponsored terrorism in the United States - shocked U.S. officials who had supported Pinochet's coup and who failed to predict that the dictator's assassins would dare to operate on U.S. soil. An FBI investigation eventually resulted in the convictions of several of Pinochet's top secret police and intelligence agents, but the dictator has never been indicted for this crime - even though a former assistant U.S. attorney has said that it is "inconceivable" that the assassination occurred without Pinochet's approval.

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