The Australian authorities have so far failed to extradite a woman who was notorious for her role in the systematic torture and disappearances of Chilean leftists, but pressure — and evidence — is building.

Adriana Rivas with DINA Chief Manuel Contreras (Courtesy of Memoria Viva)
Adriana Rivas with DINA Chief Manuel Contreras (Courtesy of Memoria Viva)

During General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, one of the most notorious places for political dissidents to end up was Cuartel Simon Bolivar. It was here, in the extermination centre known as “the place where no one got out alive” that Adriana Rivas, a former National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) agent and personal secretary to DINA Chief Manuel Contreras, gained a particularly brutal reputation for her work in the systematic torture and extermination of Pinochet’s opponents.  

The notorious Cuartel Simon Bolivar, an extermination centre where many of the worst atrocities of Chile's military dictatorship took place in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Villa Grimaldi)
The notorious Cuartel Simon Bolivar, an extermination centre where many of the worst atrocities of Chile's military dictatorship took place in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Villa Grimaldi)

The torture cycle experienced by political detainees included beatings, electrocution and sexual depravity. Rivas is said to have rendered prisoners to the brink of death; the last phase before being administered cyanide injections and disappeared. The bodies were then disposed of in the ocean or burnt in drums, to prevent identification of the victims. The remains buried in undisclosed locations. 

The centre was located in La Reina, an otherwise quiet residential suburb on the outskirts of Santiago. 

After “retiring” from such work, she moved to Australia, where she has freely resided since 1978, returning to Chile for family visits. 

In Australia, Rivas has managed to abscond from Chilean justice. An extradition request to Australia, first made in 2014, remains unresolved. 

Rivas is wanted by the Chilean authorities for the aggravated kidnappings, torture and disappearances of seven Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) and Communist Party militants: Fernando Ortiz, Victor Diaz, Fernando Navarro, Lincoyan Berrios, Horacio Cepeda, Hector Veliz and Reinalda Pereira. 

The seven leftists were all victims of a 1976 clandestine operation known as Calle Conferencia, during the darkest years of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The operation was carried out by the elite Lautaro Brigade, of which Rivas was a member, under the command of Juan Morales Salgado. 

In 2006, she was indicted by the Chilean courts for her participation in the crimes committed at Cuartel Simon Bolivar — a torture and extermination centre that remained a military secret before being exposed by Jorgelino Vergara Bravo, a former errand boy to DINA Chief Manuel Contreras. While on bail, Rivas managed to evade Chilean authorities and return to Australia. 

She remains unrepentant. Three years ago, Rivas gave an interview to Australian media in which she declared, “The best years of my life, of my youth, were the ones I lived in the DINA.” In the same detached manner, Rivas went on to state that torture was necessary “to break down the communists.”

Mobilisation by Chileans at home and abroad is increasing after additional information was submitted by the Chilean courts to the Australian government to support the extradition request initially made in 2014. 

Exposing Rivas — and the divisions in Chilean society

Rivas has tried to absolve herself, but the facts speak otherwise. Testimony and statements given to the courts, as well as Vergara’s own narration of the atrocities committed at Cuartel Simon Bolivar, revealed her involvement, enabling the Chilean courts to make the extradition requests to Australia. 

Adriana’s Pact, a 2017 documentary by Lissette Orozco, Rivas’ niece, provides a gradual revelation of Rivas’ involvement as the film unfolds, with her vague and contradictory statements being countered by factual evidence. 

Adriana Rivas with her niece Lissette Orozco, who made a film about her aunt's dark past. (Photo still from El Pacto de Adriana)
Adriana Rivas with her niece Lissette Orozco, who made a film about her aunt's dark past. (Photo still from El Pacto de Adriana)

Orozco recorded several Skype conversations with her aunt after discovering her involvement with the DINA. She explains the documentary as “wanting to do a project about the dictatorship, which I did not live, from my present.” The documentary, which spans five years, is also punctuated by Orozco’s discussions with people involved in the struggle for justice and, as her aunt’s desperation increases, telephone calls with her aunt’s former colleagues who, for the most part, are hesitant to give alibis to Rivas regarding her time at Cuartel Simon Bolivar.

As part of her documentary research, Orozco filmed herself attending two commemorations: one for Salvador Allende and another for Pinochet. 

“I am not part of any of them, but personally they helped me to get an idea of today’s Chile,” she stated. 

The divisions in Chilean society are still a major issue when it comes to the country’s recent history. 

“I empathised with the Museum of Memory,” Orozco explained. “I thought I would meet an audience consumed with hatred and anger, but it was actually an atmosphere of respect and reflection. In the tribute to Pinochet, I lived an atmosphere of violence — it helped me to realise that they are the ones who have similar thoughts to those of my aunt.” 

Victor Diaz, Chile's most senior underground Communist leader,  is one of the victims Rivas is believed to have helped to torture and
Victor Diaz, Chile's most senior underground Communist leader, is one of the victims Rivas is believed to have helped to torture and "disappear". (Courtesy of Museo de la Memoria)

The pact of silence

Javier Rebolledo is an investigative journalist and author of several books about dictatorship atrocities including “La Danza de los Cuervos” (The Dance of the Crows) which details the systematic extermination at Cuartel Simon Bolivar as narrated by Jorgelino Vergara. Vergara is the main witness to have given testimony about the extermination centre’s history, including Rivas’ involvement. 

“Jorgelino mentions Adriana Rivas as one of the DINA agents torturing detainees at Cuartel Simon Bolivar,” Rebolledo explained to TRT World. “According to [Vergara’s] testimony, he was present during several torture sessions of Communist Party militants.” 

“The statement of Juan Morales, Chief of the Lautaro Brigade, also places Rivas as one of the torturers of the Communist Party militant Victor Diaz. On that occasion, Morales had to restrain Rivas from torturing Diaz.” 

In the documentary, Vergara told Orozco that Rivas “would torture them [the detainees] to the point that they were almost dead.” Another DINA agent Gladys Calderon, would then “finish them off” by administering cyanide injections.

The detachment exhibited by Rivas is acknowledged by Rebolledo who, in the documentary, plainly tells Orozco, “Your aunt is lying. The DINA would not let anyone opt out of torture — their loyalty had to be proven.” 

Orozco defined the detachment as working on two different levels. 

“After making this documentary, I have a political formation,” she explained. “I am part of rescuing our history, our memory. For me, forgetting is a tremendous act of cowardice and a defence mechanism which many of these institutions — both civil and military — have employed to survive. This is the pact of silence — an agreement by cowards to continue influencing the present.” 

Rebolledo insists that this “pact of silence” reflects the DINA’s power in contemporary Chilean society. Although the DINA no longer exists, “the pacts of silence form a power that commenced during the military dictatorship and is prevalent today. It has hindered my work and also the courts of justice, which are agencies that must impart the truth as mechanisms of justice.”

Adriana Goni Godoy, an anthropologist and former MIR militant, reflected upon the Rivas case in its relation to Chilean history and the struggle of rights organisations in Chile to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“Our collective memory is like a closed circle that has not managed to break down the walls of social amnesia which the political class has manipulated. Survivors and organised groups are trying to construct our memory while the official sectors have installed a counter-memory [of their own invention].” 

Ramping up pressure for extradition

Chileans are not giving up on Rivas’ extradition. Pilar Aguilera, a Chilean involved in the Australian NGO called the National Campaign for Truth and Justice for Chile, explained that there is mobilisation between Chileans at home and abroad regarding Rivas’ case. 

The group, which was formed in 2013, works with politicians and groups such as Amnesty International “to shed light on the case, the charges, and to try and pressure the Australian Justice Minister Michael Keenan to finally detain Rivas and proceed with the extradition.” 

The Chilean quest for justice is dynamic. In the past, Aguilera explained, some community groups in Australia also took part in direct mobilisations, which she describes as direct confrontation with Rivas and publicly denouncing her crimes.

Presently, Aguilera said that liaison with memory groups in Chile constitutes a major part of mobilisation. 

“One of our members of the group is the son of a disappeared victim,” she stated. “We have worked with the Group of Families of the Detained and the Disappeared in Chile. In 2016, Lorena Pizarro, who is president of the organisation, came to Australia to garner support for Rivas’ extradition.” 

Two successive Australian governments have been reluctant to discuss the case publicly. Among the MPs who have voiced active support for the extradition is Labour MP Julian Hill.

“I remain deeply frustrated that this extradition request has not been resolved by the Australian government. The delay appears embarrassing as this is not a routine case,” Hill told TRT World

Hill also drew attention to the fact that Rivas fled Chile while on bail during a trial proceeding and described the Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s response as weak. 

In a letter to Minister Keenan dated June 21, 2017, Hill emphasised that Rivas’ implication in the dictatorship's crimes “are classified as most egregious crimes against humanity.” He also noted that since the request for extradition has been made public by the Chilean government, the basis of confidentiality on the matter does not hold.

In his response to Hill dated July 20, 2017, Justice Minister Keenan maintained that discretion was important “to avoid giving the subject of an extradition request the opportunity to flee and avoid arrest.” 

Aguilera stated that following the Australian government’s receipt of additional information which took over a year for Chileans to prepare, including a revised extradition request, a decision regarding the extradition should be made in the next few weeks. Rivas would have the right to appeal the decision, but Aguilera argued that this would be difficult. 

“I don’t think she would have the grounds to claim political persecution in Australia,” Aguilera said, “because Chile is currently governed by a democratic government and the crimes have been assessed as having equal gravity in Chile and Australia.” 

The extradition treaty signed between Australia and Chile approves the extradition of individuals charged with extraditable offences according to the laws of both states and which carry a sentence of not less that one year. Clause XV of the treaty requires a prompt response to the extradition request. Aggravated kidnapping also satisfies the requirement of dual criminality as specified in the treaty. 

Politics and extraditions

Goni explains how politics influence extradition requests, as Chile will be going to the polls next year to elect a new president. 

Goni elaborates further. “Extradition requests can also be used to pressure the political opponents. For example, there are extradition demands also for the executioners of Jaime Guzman who was a close advisor of Pinochet, by the Independent Democrat Union and was shot by members of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR). Conversely, there have also been extradition requests to the US for Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez, a soldier from the Tejas Verdes contingent residing in Florida and who is accused of murdering Chilean new song musician Victor Jara.”

She said, “The subject of extradition is undoubtedly confrontational and directly related to the arguments of the political spectrum. In my opinion, this extradition request for Rivas will be ignored until the forthcoming presidency of 2018 is decided.”

Source: TRT World