The CNI-murders cross
Some 13 kilometres N of Calama, on the route to Chiu-Chiu, stands the Cruz del Paredon del Desierto (Desert’s Execution Place cross), which marks the very place where in 1981, two bank officials were murdered by being blown out to pieces by a pair of agents from the CNI (National Information Central, Pinochet’s secret police) who used their locally unbound power to make a bank robbery, by blaming the bank officials of their action.
All the truth was discovered some months later, and the criminals were tried en executed in 1982.
Relatives, friends and work mates of the two killed men erected a big cross to commemorate them, and make a pilgrimage to the site on March 9, every year, when is the anniversary of the murders.
The site itself is “in the middle of nowhere”, and no public transport reaches there, but there are signs marking the entrance to it, which is visible from the road.
At the base of the cross there’s a metal box with memorabilia and some remains of the bodies, that have been found scattered around through the years.
The site is impressive and very silent, with an almost permanent ghostly whistling of the wind on the cross’ structure.
Its GPS coordinates are S 22º 24’ 23,6” / W 68º 44’ 33,0” alt. 2517 metres.
See my Calama travelogue for other details
The local Grisly Murders tradition
"The Cross of the Desert"
On the evening of March 9, 1981, two agents from the CNI (Central Nacional de Informaciones = National Information Central), Pinochet’s government secret police, showed up at the local Banco del Estado (the Chilean state bank) office, supposedly to perform a check on security procedures and stage a simulation of “ferrying” money from one place to another. They asked for an equivalent of US$ 1 million, and the personnel agreed, since they were “the” authority there in Calama, besides the CNI being deeply feared by everybody in Chile, as they had the power to detain, torture and even “disappear” anybody they wanted.
The bank officials suspected something wrong was happening –as the murderers confessed later- but it was too late then: they were carried to the desert, tied to a massive load of dynamite and made blown out alive in the dead of the night.
The next morning, the same robber/murderer agents showed up to “investigate” the disappearing of the money at the bank, hastily blaming the bank officials as they didn’t appeared that day, nor ever again. The already dead workers were searched abroad, but they were never found, while the two CNI assassins –one of them the main chief of it in Calama- kept their life going on, and although they began to spend the money after a couple of months, they raised almost no suspicion, as the CNI was not only unquestionable, but they also had virtually unlimited resources from both the state and the thieveries they committed on the people they raided or detained.
But by June 1981, somebody stumbled on a series of human remains in the area where they had killed the bank officials, and a discreet investigation began; finding human remains in the Atacama desert is not that unusual: for decades, miners used to kill themselves by blowing out a dynamite belt, so there are traces of that in deserted areas around populated places, and more recently, military patrols got rid of the political executees by using that same technique of placing the bodies in a dynamite “bed” and making it explode.
Later, a shoe, a piece of jaw and an ID card were found, and all was clear; the CNI agents –now dubbed Los Chacales de Calama (Jackals of Calama)- were detained, interrogated and soon confessed what they did, they were tried and sentenced to death, and executed in late 1982.
Then, the relatives and friends of the bank officials built a huge cross in the mound where they were dynamited (at first it was a quite simple one, but later a taller, more elaborated one was erected, and known as the Cruz del Desierto or “the Cross of the Desert”), and make a pilgrimage to there on every anniversary of their deaths; the place is also a site of popular devotion –mostly truck drivers, but also people from all South America- full of memorabilia and even letters thanking for the miracles, it is said, they grant.
Behind the cross, there is a pet cemetery that is worth a glance too (expressionist photographers would like it...).
Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., 1/90 sec., f.16 (set for hyperfocal), POL filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film
"More stories, more crosses"
But no wonder these kind of crimes happened in Calama: the desert is immense, and has a history of violent deaths, and people has somewhat accustomed to them, or at least they know that horrible things happen, and happened, “out there”.
As I said before, the 19 and early 20th-century miners used to suicide in the desert with dynamite, leaving little trace of their fate, and horrible deaths were nothing unusual in the salitreras (nitrate mines).
After Gen. Pinochet’s 1973’ military coup, thousands of people were detained and sent to concentration camps in the desert (by the way, they converted the former nitrate factories into those camps), some of them were executed and their bodies were returned to their relatives, or buried secretly around the same camps, but usually the location of the corpses was known and, after the return of the democracy, their mummified bodies were recovered and properly buried.
Nevertheless, in Calama this happened with a horrible twist: a few weeks after the coup, in October 1973, the concentration camps received the “visit” of a special platoon of killers from Santiago, commanded by an Army colonel, who looked for selected prisoners who were taken away in the dead of the night and brought somewhere nobody knew at the time. They moved around all of the country on a military Puma helicopter, and were known as the Caravana de la Muerte (The Caravan of Death), and their roamings were detailed in a local bestseller titled “Los Zarpazos del Puma” (“The Puma pawstrokes”), and also inspired the Chilean movie “Amnesia”.
Later, in 1990, when the first corpses of the disappeared were found, rumours of the fate of those taken by the Caravan of Death were investigated and searches were carried out in precise areas of the desert near Calama; the searchers found a huge collective grave containing the remains of several dozens’ people, plus more body remains around the grave, which were removed with bulldozers sometime in the 80’s, in an effort to erase evidence of the killings by dislodging the bodies and leave them exposed to the desert’s weather. When first buried in 1973, the people –some of them still alive- was placed on a dynamite bed and made blown out, just like the bank robbers did.
Many of those involved in either the 1973 killings, and then the removal of the bodies, turned later into CNI agents, so those procedures were nothing new for them.
This collective grave is 12 kilometres east of Calama, on the northern side of the road to San Pedro, and is marked by an easily visible big metal cross, 400 metres to the left of the road (as you go to San Pedro)
Although once deemed as a “political issue”, all this is now a part of the recent history of Chile, officially acknowledged by the government, and you might find that it is a topic of conversation in San Pedro or Calama, and in the rest of the country too... and fits well into Calama’s Grisly Murders “tradition”.
Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., 1/45 sec., f.22 (set for hyperfocal), POL filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film