50 Years After the Coup History of Chile Human Rights NATIONAL

‘Operation Colombo’: the most disgraceful media campaign in Chile’s history

The families of several dictatorship victims are engaged in a long-running legal battle with La Segunda. The evening newspaper has been ordered to rectify deliberately false stories about disappeared persons, but has so far refused to properly do so. La Segunda and other large Chilean newspapers were complicit in Operation Colombo, a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Augusto Pinochet’s intelligence service to cover up the murder of 119 political dissidents. 

“Exterminated like mice: 59 Chilean Miristas fall in a military operation in Argentina,” that was the headline of daily newspaper La Segunda on July 24, 1975.

It referred to the presumed discovery of the bodies of dozens of disappeared members of MIR, a Chilean leftist revolutionary movement that opposed the right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. La Segunda reported that the MIR-members did not disappear but had fled to neighboring Argentina. There, the story went, they killed each other in a bloody internal conflict.

We now know the story was a complete fabrication. In October 2019, the Santiago court ruled that the article had been part of “Operation Colombo,” a large-scale media operation by the DINA (Chilean National Intelligence Directorate) to cover up the disappearance and murder of over 100 political opponents. The disappeared MIR members did not escape Chile, they were murdered by the military regime.

Viviana Uribe, the sister of the disappeared Barbara Uribe, described what the defamatory headline provoked in her family. It meant “immeasurable pain, not only because of the crime against our loved ones, but also because of the false, violent, and insulting nature of the news. It was not even possible for the families to live and express their grief, since for the whole community we were relatives of terrorists.”

Also read: 

Dozens of boxes of skeletal remains of disappeared persons remain unexamined

No rectification, no justice

Encouraged by the court’s verdict, legal teams of the victim’s families filed a case for rectification under article 19 of the Chilean Constitution. This article guarantees, among other things, the “the respect and protection of the private life and honor of the person and [the person’s] family,” and that anyone “offended or unjustly alluded to by any means of social communication has the right to have the statement or rectification disseminated.”

The La Segunda story was objectively false and ignominious, and the headline straight-up insulting to the victims, thereby damaging their honor. The families filing the case were therefore in their right to request rectification.

Chile’s law on the freedom of opinion, information, and the practice of journalism makes certain demands for a rectification. It states that “the clarification or rectification shall be published in its entirety, without insertions, on the same page, with similar characteristics to the information that gave rise to it or, failing that, in a prominent place in the same section.”

La Segunda has failed to follow this law. On November 12, 2019, the newspaper published a small correction:  “Supreme Court confirms that MIR members were kidnapped by the DINA in 1974,” on April 27, 2023, on page 14. A second correction followe, but again without respecting the demands for length and visibility as established by law, and without accepting the families’ request or a public apology.

In a statement, La Segunda replied that, were it to accept the demands of the victim’s families, “it would have catastrophic consequences for freedom of the press.”

Unable to obtain justice in their own country, Uribe’s family continued its search for rectification with an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Operation Colombo’s origins

About a year after the 1973 coup d’état, the international community started to question Augusto Pinochet’s military junta for its human rights abuses. More and more stories came out about systemic detention, torture, killing, and disappearance of political dissidents by order of the regime. The United Nations and the Organization of American States appointed investigative committees.  

In order to avert international scrutiny, the DINA conceived a strategy to convince the public that there were no disappeared or killed detainees; instead, the people who were desperately sought by family fled the country, the government claimed.

Mid-1975, newspapers like El Mercurio, La Tercera, and La Segunda, having been on the side of dictator Pinochet the entire time, started publishing articles to substantiate these claims. Stories were printed about disappeared Chilean “extremists” and “Marxists” who had appeared in Argentina. There, they were supposedly training in guerilla warfare.

When the dead bodies of disappeared political dissidents (mostly members of the revolutionary leftist movement MIR) started turning up in various Latin American countries, the papers wrote that they had died in clashes with the Argentine military, or that they were killed by their own comrades in an internal vendetta.

The infamous La Segunda headline about the MIR members being “Exterminated like mice,” was only one of many such headlines. Other’s included “Sixty murdered Miristas identified: Executed by their own comrades” (El Mercurio), “The MIR murdered 60 of its members”(La Tercera), and “The bloody internal vendetta of the MIR abroad” (Las Últimas Noticias).

The media front did not hold for long. The dissident’s families never trusted the stories, and the countries where the disappeared Chileans supposedly fled to started denying the existence of confrontations with Marxist guerillas. Simultaneously, renowned international newspapers began to publicly question the narrative maintained by Chile’s military government.

The junta has always stayed behind its official explanation and dismissed any critique as slander.

In 2005, the Chilean Association of Journalists received a request from the families of Operation Colombo victims to investigate the involvement of the Chilean media. It ruled that the former directors of Las Últimas Noticias and La Tercera were complicit in the operation, and sanctioned them with public censure and a six-month suspension of their membership in the Association. The former directors of El Mercurio and La Segunda were also found responsible, but they had already passed away.

Agustín Edwards, the owner of the media conglomerate behind all the aforementioned newspapers, was sued in 2013 for being the “intellectual author of the crime of homicide.” Edwards passed away in 2017 before the case was resolved.

Also read: 

Supreme Court sentences ex-DINA agents for Operation Colombo

Dozens of Pinochet Agents Acquitted in Colombo Case


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