SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Manuel Contreras, who led Chile’s now-defunct and much feared secret police force for several years under Augusto Pinochet, has died at the age of 86, provoking mixed reactions in a country still dealing with the dictatorship’s legacy.
Contreras died on Friday night after being admitted to a military hospital due to his deteriorating health, several years into a 505-year prison sentence for human rights violations committed during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 rule.
Under Contreras’ leadership in the 1970s, Chile’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) carried out a campaign of repression against political allies of socialist President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide in 1973 during a coup.
Over 3,000 people died or were ‘disappeared’ during the Pinochet years. Courts have so far attributed around 400 crimes to the DINA, including kidnapping and murder, some on foreign soil. Many more are still passing through the courts.
Most Chileans now revile the human rights abuses of the era, and reactions to his death were mostly jubilance at his passing or sadness about his lack of repentance and the little time he had spent in jail.
“Last night one of the darkest persons in our history died,” the government said on Saturday.
“He has died taking with him information valuable to knowing the truth and ensuring justice in terms of the horrors that were committed by the dictatorship.”
The center-left government is led by President Michelle Bachelet, one of an estimated 28,000 people tortured during the dictatorship.
After Contreras’ death was announced, dozens of people gathered outside the hospital to celebrate, chanting ‘Murderer!’.
Although polls show support for the policies of Pinochet, who died in 2006, has gradually fallen in the last two decades, he retains a bedrock of respect in the country among those who argue that he rescued Chile from Allende’s socialist policies.
A secretary for the right-wing UDI party unleashed a storm of protest on social media on Saturday after tweeting: “Thank you for your services to the country. RIP Manuel Contreras”.
The waves of human rights cases keep the over 40-year-old coup still fresh in the minds of many Chileans. Last month, a court ruled that six former military officers would be charged with murder over the killing of a U.S. student during a Santiago labor strike in 1986, after a military witness changed his testimony.
Reporting by Gram Slattery, Antonio de la Jara and Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and James Dalgleish