My grandfather vanished at 30 years old, during the Chilean coup d’état: 50 years later, we are finally telling his story

When the sun went down, they took him and the others outside and put them in front of a firing squad. My grandfather and another man survived because the bullets struck only their legs.

  • 8 months ago
  • November 7, 2023
5 min read
Tomás is the grandson of José Barrera, a disappeared person in Chile, and campaigned with Amnesty International on the 50th anniversary of the coup d'état in Chile. Tomás is the grandson of José Barrera, a disappeared person in Chile, and campaigned with Amnesty International on the 50th anniversary of the coup d'état in Chile. | Photo courtesy of Tomás Barrera
Tomás Barrera is a historian, with a focus on human rights issues. He specializes in recent history, memory, transitions and activism. He is the director of the Observatorio de Derechos Humanos. He dedicates his time to educating young people on human rights issues and democracy.

September 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the moment Chilean Armed Forces overthrew President Salvador Allende through a violent coup. A military regime was installed that caused the deaths, disappearances, and human rights abuses of thousands of people. Official figures from the United Nations reported 2,296 political assassinations, almost 28,500 cases of torture, and more than 3,200 disappearances. In addition, records speak of over 40,000 survivors of political imprisonment.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Growing up with my grandmother in her small house in Chile, black and white photographs of my grandfather José Barrera dotted the living room walls. Every year on March 14, my family gathered to remember and mourn him, but we never talked about what happened. Any mention of him filled my grandmother with sadness.  We lived a happy life but staring at those pictures I always wondered, “Who is that man and where did he go?”

At the age of 13, I built up the courage to finally ask, “Why don’t I have a grandfather like everyone else at school?” I watched my grandmother’s face as she explained that my grandfather was a political militant. A few days after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état against Salvador Allende the authorities arrested him. On March 14, he disappeared, and she never heard from him again. As she spoke the words, my grandmother burst into tears. My heart broke for her.

Reconstructing the story of my family and Chile’s militaristic past

After my grandmother passed, my family rarely discussed my grandfather again. We stopped attending protests and for a while, we acted like the topic never existed. However, my curiosity compelled me to research the past. The more I read about what took place during that era, the more it felt vital to me that future generations talk about it. We had to keep these memories alive if we wanted to ensure no one suffered again in the way my grandparents did. 

As part of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, Amnesty International launched a campaign to remind future generations of what took place. In their video, I shared my story as the grandson of José Barrera. The video featured many other relatives of those who went missing during Pinochet’s dictatorship. During the first stages of the Amnesty campaign, we attended meetings to define what we wanted people to take away from our work. 

We wanted to raise awareness of the atrocities people suffered and remember and honor the victims. In a time when misinformation spreads quicker than wildfire, people often begin to deny the past. It felt vital to keep the truth alive to avoid making the same mistakes again. Through my research, I discovered that my grandfather José Barrera had signed up to join the Socialist Party of Chile for the 1970 presidential campaign in support of President Allende. At the time of his disappearance, he was 30 years old, married, and had two children. 

My grandfather was a trucker trying to supply the country during destablization

My grandparents lived in a rural area called Curacaví, far from the city. My grandfather learned to drive, bought a small truck, and transported fruits and vegetables from Curacaví to Vega Central. During a commercial blockade in October 1972, truck drivers organized a strike financed by the United States. My grandfather, along with other truckers, created the Patriot Truckers’ Front, whose objective was to continue to supply the country despite destabilization.

Reading this filled me with so much pride. While I never met my grandfather in person, I began to build this image of him in my mind. The more I learned, the more I grew attached to this idea of him. When the coup d’état took place, my grandparents still lived in the same house.

On September 16, authorities arrested my grandfather, along with five other workers. When the sun went down, they took him and the others outside and put them in front of a firing squad. My grandfather and another man survived because the bullets struck only their legs. They pretended to be dead, waiting for the shooters to leave before escaping. After two long weeks of being on the run, my grandfather and his family went to see his brother Víctor Barrera who lived in Huasco.

By that time, his brother contacted the military junta, hoping to clear my grandfather’s name. He talked to Pinochet’s secretary and even reached the lieutenant of the Curacaví police station. The lieutenant assured my great uncle that my grandfather was no longer in danger, and he should come by the police station before returning home. 

Alongside Amnesty International, we keep their memories alive

José Barrera returned to Santiago with his family. Then, on March 13 he entered the Curacaví police station to talk to the lieutenant, someone he had known for a long time. The next day at around 2:00 a.m., military personnel and Carabineros in hoods showed up at the house. They took my grandfather away, never to be seen again.

For years, my grandmother suffered day and night, aching to be reunited with her husband. In 2012, nearly 40 years later, four people were found responsible for the kidnapping and disappearance of my grandfather. One died and the others received prison sentences. The news failed to quell my anger; it did not remove the generational impact on my whole family.

I wanted to do more, not only for the victims and their families, but for the future of this world. When I first heard about Amnesty International’s video project, it felt like a huge step in the right direction. Filming took two days and I had to summarize my entire story in one minute. It felt heavy. Nevertheless, at the end, a sense of relief washed over me.

Not only did I get it off my chest, I immortalized my grandfather. Media outlets began to arrive to cover the story and ask for interviews. I felt the impact of that interest and support: people cared about what happened. Reading all the messages I received brought tears to my eyes. Although I never met my grandfather José Barrera, my love and respect for him have grown immeasurably. While I wish I could speak to him, keeping his memory alive makes him feel close by.

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