U.S. Civil Case Pursues Justice in 1973 Murder of Chilean Singer Victor Jara

Posted June 22, 2016

MP3 Interview with Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Producer's update: On June 27, 2016, a jury in Orlando, Florida, found former Chilean army officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez liable for the torture and murder of Victor Jara, a Chilean musician whom Rolling Stone Magazine called one of the top 15 protest artists of all time. Victor Jara was killed in the days following Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of democratically-elected President Salvador Allende of Chile. After the civil trial, the court ordered Barrientos to pay $28 million in damages; $8 million in compensatory damages, $20 million in punitive damages. Barrientos, now 67, has also been charged in a criminal trial in Chile, but, according to the New York Times, "It is unclear whether the outcome of the Florida case will affect efforts to extradite him."

Apart from the infamous terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11 of 2001, September 11, 1973 is a day that will live in infamy. On that day, Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of socialist President Salvador Allende. Allende, in his short time in office, had greatly improved the lives of Chile's poor and provided hope for a more equal society. Chilean singer/songwriter Victor Jara was the best known popularizer of his nation’s politics of hope and social justice. Beloved in his own country, he was well known around the Americas for his beautiful songs that captured Chile’s spirit of optimism during that era.

Jara was one of thousands of Chileans rounded up after the U.S.-supported military coup and held prisoner in the national stadium in Santiago. He was later tortured and shot to death. His body was later found with 44 bullet wounds. A civil lawsuit against former Chilean military officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez for the murder of Victor Jara is now moving forward in an Orlando, Florida, court. Barrientos came to the U.S. in 1989 and is a U.S. citizen through marriage.

The case, brought under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act, marks the first time an officer from the Chilean army will appear as a defendant in a U.S. courtroom to account for Jara's death. The complaint seeks unspecified damages for torture and extrajudicial killing. A case filed in Chile has been moving very slowly through the court system there. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, which the group filed the suit against Barrientos in September 2013 on behalf of the Jara family. Here, he talks about why the case is now being pursued in the U.S. and the best outcome for the plaintiffs and justice.

DIXON OSBURN: Joan Jara, the wife of Victor Jara, has been pursuing justice for the torture and murder of her husband for 43 years. The reason she has filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. and why that trial is happening right now is that the person responsible for her husband’s torture and murder has been living in the U.S. for the last 20 years. Civil statutes in the U.S. allow individuals to pursue civil liability for people who’ve engaged in torture and extra-judicial killing. So the person living here is former lieutenant under Pinochet, Pedro Pablo Nunez Barrientos, and that is the civil trial that’s going on now. She has tried to file claims in Chile; while Pinochet remained in power those claims were barred. Now that he’s no longer in power, that investigation has taken a long time and nothing has moved yet to trial. So the significance of the case in Orlando right now is that this is the first trial to try to hold somebody accountable for the torture and murder of Victor Jara.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you have to prove to show that Barrientos is liable for the death of Victor Jara?

DIXON OSBURN: We’re proving two different things. One is that Barrientos is the trigger man. He’s the one who actually shot Victor Jara, that he killed him, and that he tortured him before that. In the alternative, and at the very least, Barrientos aided and abetted in the torture and murder of Victor Jara. In this civil trial what we have to show is that it’s more likely than not that Barrientos did do what we claim he has done. In other words, by a preponderance of the evidence, we will demonstrate either that he was the trigger man and the person who tortured Victor Jara or at the very least that he aided and abetted that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dixon Osburn, just the fact that Barrientos was in charge of what was going on in the stadium, could that fact alone be enough to convict him of these charges?

DIXON OSBURN: The level of responsibility, the duties that he had in the stadium certainly point to the conclusion, we think, that he was responsible for the torture and murder of Victor Jara. You have one of the conscripts who testified this week who said that Barrientos is the one who was in charge. You have another conscript saying that he was carrying official orders back and forth between the stadium and the military command center. He clearly exercised significant control and responsibility for the events that took place at Chile Stadium, which is where the Pinochet regime took prisoners in the immediate aftermath of the coup.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What would be the best outcome for the plaintiffs in this case?

DIXON OSBURN: Well, the outcome we’re looking for in this case is for a jury of peers to determine that Barrientos is liable for the torture and murder of Victor Jara. Not only does that finally bring resolution and accountability to this case that’s been lingering for 43 years. But, more importantly I think, it speaks to the people of Chile who have been looking for accountability in this case. Victor Jara is perhaps the most symbolic murder that occurred under the Pinochet regime, because Victor Jara was such an iconic figure there. For the listeners who don’t know Victor Jara, he was an iconic folk singer who inspired people from Bono to Joan Baez.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there a possibility that he could be extradited back to Chile, or is that not possible, or don’t you even care about that?

DIXON OSBURN: Yeah, in terms of the civil case, what we’re looking for right now and are really focused on is this case. Now, what happens after that is up to the government of Chile and the government of the U.S., so it’s hard to predict.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there anything surprising that’s come out in the trial so far?

DIXON OSBURN: Well, some of the information in fact is new. The conscripts who testified so far have not testified before. The new information is that you have one conscript who overheard Barrientos say, not once, not twice, but many times, that he was the person who tortured and killed Victor Jara. So that is new information that has come out. And you have multiple other conscripts who have placed Barrientos at Chile Stadium exercising substantial responsibility and control there. Barrientos is the past has even denied being at Chile Stadium. So there’s not only substantial new information about the torture and murder of Victor Jara that is coming out in this trial, but there is testimony that is showing what happened in those first few days of Chile Stadium, events that have been shrouded in mystery, really, for more than 40 years.

For more information on the Victor Jara trial and the center's work, visit The Center for Justice and Accountability at cja.org; Center for Justice and Equality Press at CJA Press.

Related Links:

Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!