A government delegation visited Dawson Island to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état. The isolated island, located in the Chilean Patagonia, served as a concentration camp during the first year of the dictatorship. Between 1973 and 1974, the camp housed Chile’s most prominent political prisoners.
On June 13, a government delegation paid a visit to Dawson Island. The island is infamous for its use as a concentration camp at the start of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
The visit is part of this year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup d’état. The attendees held a ceremony to remember and honor those who were incarcerated on the island.
The delegation was headed by Minister of Defense Maya Fernández and the Minister of Culture Jaime de Aguirre. They were accompanied by Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Admiral Juan Andrés de la Maza, Communist Party representative Carmen Hertz, te Presidential Advisor for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee Patricio Fernández, and several of the island’s victims and their families.
“Dawson Island is one of the most important and emblematic sites of memory of our country … the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état is an opportunity for Chilean society to reflect on the importance of memory and democracy to build a better future,” Minister De Aguirre commented on the visit.
Dawson Island, a history of repression
Dawson Island is located in Chile’s southern Magallenes Region, next to Tierra de Fuego. The island, which covers 500 square miles, has a violent history.
Before the arrival of Europeans to South America, the southern Patagonian islands were inhabited by indigenous peoples like the Selk’nam, the Yahgan, and Kawésquar people. They were nomadic tribes that largely lived off of the riches the Patagonian waters.
The indigenous population was heavily impacted by the arrival of Europeans in the late 19th century. Europeans set up large sheep ranches, or came looking for gold and other valuable metals.
The indigenous people who lived in the area for thousands of years, were regarded as uncivilized and undesirable by the Europeans. They had to be removed from the newly settled lands, so they were actively hunted down by guns for hire.
Others passed away from contact with European sicknesses that were unknown to them. Survivors were placed in internment camps that were set up all over the region. One of these camps was established on Dawson Island.
The purpose of the camps was to assimilate the prisoners into the new European-Chilean society. To that end, the Chilean government granted a permit to Italian missionaries to care for, educate, and convert the camps’ (mostly Selk’nam) inhabitants.
Pinochet’s concentration camp
Fast forward to the 20th century. It is the year 1973, and general Augusto Pinochet has just assumed power following a bloody coup. He and his supporters are purging Chilean politics from anyone who opposed, or could potentially oppose, his military junta.
While looking for a place to dispose of his opponents, his eyes fall on Dawson Island. Just a year earlier, the Chilean Navy had set up a naval base in Puerto Harris, the largest settlement on the island. The island’s remote location and its inhospitable climate made it the ideal place to keep important political prisoners.
During the night of Sept. 11 into Sept. 12, just hours after the military takeover and the presumed suicide of President Salvador Allende, the Navy started transferring prisoners to the island’s naval base.
In the days following the military takeover, the junta had a special concentration camp built on Dawson Island. It was the only facility of its kind, because other detention camps were placed in already existing buildings. After the facility’s completion, dozens of high-ranking political figures were deported to the island. There, they were subjected to barbaric conditions, such as forced labor under freezing temperatures, starvation, and hour-long torture sessions.
In the first year after the coup, Dawson Island was the main destination for political prisoners who were “suspected” of being sympathetic to the deposed President Allende. Its detainees included leaders of opposition parties, former government ministers, mayors, senators, and personal friends of Allende.
Notable prisoners were the head of the Communist Party (Luis Corvalán); Allende’s Ministers of Mining (Sergio Bitar), Foreign Affairs (Clodomiro Almeyda); and Defense (Orlando Letelier, who, after his exile from Chile, was killed in a Pinochet-orchestrated assassination in the U.S in 1976); and former minister José Tohá (the father of the current Minister of the Interior), who died in 1974 of injuries sustained on the island.
In total, more than 800 people are estimated to have been held prisoner in the Dawson Island concentration camp before it was shut down in 1974. Most of its prisoners were transferred to Santiago. Some of them went into forced exile.
The camp was demolished by the Navy in the 1980s. Today, only its foundations remain.
Matthijs is a newly graduated journalism student from Groningen, the Netherlands. As a starting journalist and aspiring foreign correspondent, he decided to extend his 6-month university exchange in Chile to do an internship at Chile Today. He enjoys writing about a broad range of topics, but international relations, politics and conflicts are his key interests.