On May 18, 2005, five army companies were sent on a routine training mission to the Antuco volcano despite bad weather conditions resulting in the death of one sergeant and 44 conscripts. The conscripts had been serving their mandatory year of military service, resulting in a full-blown scandal for the army. The event brought an end to widescale mandatory military service which had been in place for over 100 years.
The tragedy of Antuco took place on May 18, 2005, when over 400 military conscripts were sent by Major Patricio Cereceda on a routine training mission to the Antuco Volcano. This was done despite warnings of bad weather conditions. Five hours into the march, the soldiers were hit by a snowstorm resulting in most of them becoming disoriented and lost.
After an exhaustive search, 45 bodies were found frozen under piles of snow. This event resulted in a scandal that ended the career of many of the officers involved and ended the mandatory military service in the country.
Every year during May, Regiment 17 of Los Ángeles would lead its new recruits up the Antuco volcano, where they would engage in various exercises before arriving at a military shelter in the mountains. After that, they would continue traveling higher up the volcano before returning back down. In 2005, the tradition was kept despite warnings of an incoming snowstorm.
Before the five companies participating in the exercises reached the refuge, they were hit by the snowstorm. Despite the harsh conditions and the recruits’ lack of experience and equipment, they all made it to the refuge. The commanding officers of two of the companies then forced the soldiers to continue going up the volcano despite the freezing conditions and waist-deep snow.
Of the over 400 soldiers originally sent to Antuco that day, 77 continued the trek up past the refuge. During the journey, many of the soldiers became disoriented and separated from the group due to the heavy snowfall. Some soldiers managed to make their way into an abandoned shelter that was nearby. When they arrived there they found hiding inside nine officers who had left the conscripts on their own.
In the end, 44 conscripts and one sergeant died from hypothermia. When higher ups learned of the event, they began an exhaustive search for the missing bodies, some of which were found under four meters of snow. The last body was not found and identified until Jul. 6.
El Ejército de Chile conmemoró ayer el 15° aniversario de la Tragedia de Antuco y Día del Soldado Conscripto, con un emotivo responso en el Destacamento de Montaña N° 17 "Los Ángeles". pic.twitter.com/8FzKY4zW2a
— Ejército de Chile (@Ejercito_Chile) May 19, 2020
Aftermath of ‘Antuco’
The resulting military investigation focused on the officers’ decision to force the conscripts to continue with the military exercises despite the severe weather warnings. Ultimately, six commanding officers were convicted for their role in the fatal event, and Major Cereceda was sent to prison for five years (of which he served three before being released on parole).
As for the survivors, they were each given CLP$10,000,000 (about US$12,000), which they claimed wasn’t enough, considering the psychological scarring and physical wounds that they still bear from that day.
The army was also forever changed by the event. Among the measures taken to prevent a similar disaster was the creation of a mountain rescue division and the introduction of “reflective obedience,” which gave subordinates the capability of questioning the orders of their commanding officers.
One last repercussion was a change to mandatory military service. Ever since the 1900s it had been mandatory for every 18-year-old male to serve one year in the army, with some exceptions. Since most of those who died on Antuco were simply doing their mandatory service, however, it was decided that mandatory service would be reduced to a smaller pool of the population selected by a draft.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.