Chile's Copa America stadiums haunted by dark past

Santiago (AFP) - Chile will be in party mode when it hosts the South American football championships, but a dark past lurks in several stadiums used as torture chambers during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.

The Copa America, the top international football contest on a continent with renowned passion for the game, will be held in eight cities across Chile from June 11 to July 4.

But beyond the bright lights, the cheering crowds and the magical moves of the players' feet, grisly memories will haunt at least three of the host stadiums, where Pinochet's troops tortured and killed his left-wing opponents in the wake of his September 11, 1973 coup.

"Where you're standing, that's where our beds were. Our bed was the floor. They just gave us a blanket to cover ourselves. If we left it on the floor, they'd beat us," said former detainee Manuel Mendez, seated in a section of old wooden stands at Santiago National Stadium.

Mendez, a 66-year-old retiree, was herded into the stadium along with thousands of other people in the aftermath of the coup that overthrew Socialist president Salvador Allende.

He was held there for 50 days.

"In Chile, there's a common saying that a man doesn't cry. But we cried here," he told AFP.

"We were hungry and cold, we were beaten, we saw people die."

- 'Missing' journalist -

The stadium was one of the main detention centers for the 40,000 political prisoners held by the new regime's security forces.

Thousands of others were detained at the stadiums in the host cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion.

Many of the prisoners' families never knew what happened to their loved ones, violently arrested without warning and hauled to the stadiums in large trucks.

Among those held at National Stadium was American journalist Charles Horman, whose disappearance in the days after the coup is the subject of the critically acclaimed 1982 film "Missing."

Horman, who was working in Chile and had gathered information on US backing for the coup, was last seen alive in a section of the stadium beneath the presidential box that prisoners called the "VIP area" because union leaders and politicians with ties to the ousted government were held there.

"We thought they received better treatment, but that wasn't the case. There the abuse was worse. They had to go to the bathroom right where they were and sleep curled up against each other to stay warm," Mendez said.

Horman was later executed at an unknown spot in the stadium, which will host the tournament's opening and final matches.

His bullet-riddled body was buried inside one of the stadium's walls.

- Keeping memory alive -

During the 17-year dictatorship, more than 3,200 people were killed or "disappeared" (abducted and presumed killed), and 28,000 were tortured.

After his forces bombed the presidential palace, Pinochet moved with swift brutality to exert his grip on the country, said historian Mario Garces.

"It had to be an efficient, brutal coup. And they pulled it off. All reports registered by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission indicate that within 48 hours, 72 hours at most, the army had control of the country," he said.

In March last year, groups of former political prisoners created a memorial to the victims at a spot inside National Stadium.

They also installed giant black-and-white photos taken at the time, showing prisoners crowded into the stands, wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cold.

The stadium's main gate also has a memorial, as does a former dressing room where women prisoners were held.

Every year on the anniversary of the coup, thousands of people light candles outside the stadium in memory of the victims.

The stadium was recently renovated, but authorities left one section of stands intact in memory of the prisoners.

Today, the old wooden benches stand out against the bright red plastic of the new seats.

It is an important memory for Chileans to hold on to, said Wally Kuntsmann, head of an association that seeks to preserve the stadium's history.

"This policy of state terrorism was perpetrated by Chileans against Chileans. An army funded and trained with the Chilean people's money repressed, murdered and tortured Chileans. These sites are the proof that this happened," she said.