History of Chile NATIONAL

34 Years Ago: The Failed Assassination Attempt on Pinochet

CAJÓN DEL MAIPO – Thirty-four years ago, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front attempted to assassinate Augusto Pinochet. After a fierce firefight, the attackers escaped, believing that they had accomplished their mission. Pinochet survived, however; and then he tracked down those responsible.

On Sept. 7, 1986, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) attempted to assassinate Augusto Pinochet. They made a surprise attack while Pinochet and his military escort were driving to Santiago from Cajón del Maipo. When the FPMR attackers fled the scene, they thought they had succeeded in killing the dictator.

The next day they learned otherwise. Pinochet narrated the events during a TV interview. Some guerrillas left the country, but those who didn’t were arrested, tortured, and in some cases executed. Those incarcerated later managed to escape and are still at a large, living outside of Chile.

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The FPMR

On Sept. 11, 1973, a bloody coup took down democratically-elected president Salvador Allende, and nearly everyone involved with him was brutally persecuted and tortured. After the coup, the government was run by a military junta for approximately one year before the head of the Army, Augusto Pinochet, was proclaimed president by the junta.

In 1983, the Communist party created an armed resistance against the military dictatorship, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR), named in honor of Manuel Rodríguez, a guerrilla fighter who participated in the Chilean Revolution. The party chose Guillermo Teillier to be its link to the FPMR and to coordinate with the Cuban government, which supported the front. Members of the Communist party’s youth chapter were also recruited and sent to participate in extensive guerrilla training in both Cuba and Nicaragua, before coming back to Chile and establishing themselves in 1984. 

After a year of sabotage and car bombs, the FPMR decided to kill Pinochet. For that job they needed better weapons, which were smuggled in by boats from Havana and stashed in the fishing town of Carrizal Bajo before being moved to safe houses around the country. The first two shipments arrived without a problem, but the previous movements in the isolated fishing town alerted authorities.

After a brief investigation, the military found the weapons cache and arrested those involved. Considered to be one of the biggest weapons bust at the time in Chile, there were 320 rifles, two rocket launchers, 894 bombs, 162 kg of TNT, and 384 kg of plastic explosives. Most of these weapons originated from the United States, and were left behind in Vietnam and obtained by the Cubans.

They differed greatly from the weapons with which members of the FPMR had trained, but having had their main source of weapons confiscated, the FPMR decided to act with what it had.

They knew that Pinochet would travel every weekend to his house in El Melocotón, a small locality in the Cajón del Maipo Canyon. After scouting the location, they found a high and narrow stretch of road where it would be easy to cut off Pinochet’s caravan making it difficult to retreat, plus the caravan’s radios wouldn’t work.

The group rented a nearby cabin and had everything prepared for the afternoon of Aug. 31, 1986. However, the death of former president Jorge Alessandri that same day forced Pinochet to leave earlier than normal, foiling the FPMR’s plan, and forcing them to reschedule for the next Sunday, Sept. 7.

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The Attack on Pinochet

At 5:20 p.m., Pinochet’s caravan, consisting of five vehicles, left his home. Pinochet and his grandson were in the second car, which was an armored Mercedes-Benz. The others contained armed guards and Pinochet’s personal doctor, who was also in a Mercedes-Benz.

The FPMR sprang into position and blocked the road with a station wagon and trailer. Fifteen minutes later, Pinochet arrived and stopped. The guerrillas then immediately opened fire from behind the station wagon and from the surrounding hills.

The bodyguards immediately returned fire, but were unable to repel the attack. The second Mercedes-Benz confused the guerrillas, who fired at both hoping to hit the dictator. Meanwhile, Pinochet’s personal driver managed to turn to head back, but during the maneuver the vehicle was hit by a rocket, which failed to explode.

After a five-minute shootout, the guerrillas left, believing that Pinochet was dead. Due to the FPMR’s lack of experience with the new American weapons, they had fired the rocket at too close a range, not allowing the device enough momentum to detonate. The attackers ultimately escaped by pretending to be part of the caravan. The FPMR suffered no casualties or injuries while five of Pinochet’s guards were killed and 11 were injured.

The Aftermath

After the attack, Pinochet contacted TVN and talked about the event. That night, a State of Siege was declared in Santiago, and the leaders who opposed the dictatorship were arrested by the CNI, then Chile’s intelligence agency. After that first night, four of these leaders were killed, as a form of retribution for those killed in the attack.

Most of those involved in the attack returned to their daily lives, believing that authorities would be unable to track them down. Within a month after the attack, however, government authorities had caught most of the guerrilla fighters and sent them to prison. The leaders of the attack had a grimmer fate. On June 15-16, 1987, the CNI carried out Operation Albania, an attempt to wipe out the guerrilla group for good, which resulted in the deaths of 12 leaders of the FPMR.

After the 1988 plebiscite, in which voters chose to return to democratic rule, the FPMR refused to recognize the results, claiming that because Pinochet was still involved in the government they would continue fighting. 

In 1990, the guerrillas who had been imprisoned in 1986 escaped. Most left the country, but some remained and took part in clandestine operations, including the assassination of Jaime Guzmán, a member of Pinochet’s inner circle.

To this day, the FPMR technically lives on, but likely only in spirit, as most of its members are dispersed around the globe.

In Popular Culture

The failed assassination attempt and its aftermath are the backdrop to the 2001 book “Tengo Miedo Torero” (“My Tender Matador”) by Pedro Lemebel, which tells the love story of an openly gay middle-aged man and one of the guerrilla fighters who took part in the attack. It was adapted to film in 2020 and was selected to be shown in the 2020 Venice Film Festival.

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Longread: The “No” Plebiscite That Finished Pinochet

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