Stadium filled with tragic tales

Chile's Estadio Nacional was once used as a prison by dictator Augusto Pinochet

Stadium filled with tragic tales

A haunting, yellowish glow radiates from the tiny section of empty wooden benches and crumbling concrete behind the north goal at Estadio Nacional. All around this space there is noise: 47,000 soccer fans screaming and jumping in delight as Chile’s national team played Ecuador in the opening game of the Copa America.

But no one sits on those wooden benches. They are reserved in perpetuity, a sombre memorial to the thousands of people who were beaten and tortured here 42 years ago in the home of Chilean soccer.

The Estadio Nacional, site of six games in this year’s Copa America, including the final on July 4, is perhaps the most infamous sports arena in the world. For nearly two months after the Sept 11, 1973, military coup that overthrew Chile’s Marxist president, the stadium served as a makeshift prison camp where as many as 20,000 men and women suffered at the hands of the military junta, led by the army chief, Gen Augusto Pinochet, that had seized control of the country.

“The stadium became a synonym for the cruelty of the Pinochet regime,” said René Castro, one of the longest-serving prisoners at the stadium. “They did unspeakable things to us there. Now it is a place for football. People have fun there.”

Estimates vary for the number of people who were imprisoned there, and official records say that 41 people were murdered in the stadium in the eight weeks it served as a detention centre.

For weeks after the coup, the military rounded up political and social activists and suspected supporters of the former president, Salvador Allende, and brought them to the concrete edifice, which was built in 1938 and hosted matches at the 1962 World Cup, including Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in the final.

“I can remember some of the other prisoners talking about going to games there,” Castro said.

It was the stadium’s intended purpose -- international soccer, or at least the prospect of it -- that eventually forced the Pinochet government to end its use as a prison camp on Nov 9, 1973. That month, officials began preparing it for Chile’s scheduled World Cup qualifying match against the Soviet Union.

The teams had played a scoreless tie in Moscow in the first leg, but when the Soviets complained about the site of the return match, saying the stadium was a place of blood, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, said it would investigate.

Many of the prisoners, including Castro, were rounded up and taken below on the day FIFA officials arrived, into dressing rooms underneath the stadium where they could not be seen from the playing field. At gunpoint, Castro said, they were instructed to remain silent. But other prisoners were left in the bleachers that day, and remembered watching the men from FIFA go about their inspection.

“We wanted to yell out and say, 'Hey, we are here, look at us,'” said one of those prisoners, Felipe Aguero, who was held captive for about a month. “But they seemed only interested in the condition of the grass.”

Today, Aguero and Castro, despite the agony they endured there, endorse the use of the stadium as a venue for entertainment. Over the years, Estadio Nacional has hosted concerts and political rallies but also 70 games in the Copa America, including Chile’s 2-0 victory over Ecuador in the tournament opener and its 3-3 tie with Mexico on Monday.

In 1987, in the waning years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Pope John Paul II led a mass there, defiantly calling the stadium a place of pain and suffering.

Near the end of the Pinochet regime, Chile’s government moved to reclaim the stadium from its bloody past. It was used as a polling site for the 1988 plebiscite that signaled the end of Pinochet’s rule, and later during the first post-Pinochet democratic elections for president and Congress. In 1990, a massive and joyous political rally was held there to celebrate the victory of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically elected president.

The stadium continues its democratic role today as a voting station. But for most Chileans, it is best known as the home of the national soccer team, La Roja.

Former prisoners say they would like to see more done to memorialise what happened there. In addition to the preserved seating area behind the north goal, there is a small, dank and dusty museum underneath those stands with well-known photographs from that time, a ghostly reminder of what Castro called the “insane” mentality that produces brutality for no reason.

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