General Manuel Contreras: Chilean secret-police chief who was Augusto Pinochet's right-hand man during the dictator’s brutal regime


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The Independent Online

General Manuel Contreras was Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s right-hand man, head of the DINA secret police which kidnapped, tortured or killed thousands of left-wing Chilean civilians in the years after Pinochet’ 1973 coup. He was serving a 505-year jail sentence for crimes against humanity when he died aged 86 in the intensive care unit of a military hospital in the capital, Santiago. He had been admitted almost a year ago with kidney problems which recently became critical.

According to an official Chilean report, more than 40,000 people were imprisoned, tortured or killed during Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship, with Contreras in charge of DINA for most of that time. Chile’s current socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, 23 at the time, and her mother, were among those tortured after interrogation by Contreras himself. Bachelet’s father died of heart failure after torture.

Of the more than 3,000 thought to have been killed, about 1,200 were listed as “disappeared” after interrogation by Contreras or DINA. Their bodies were never found and they included a number of foreigners who were seen as leftists and a threat to Pinochet’s rule. It emerged years later that at least 150 civilians, most students or other young people, were taken alive aboard helicopters, drugged, weighed down by bits of railway track and tossed unceremoniously into the South Pacific near Valparaiso. Contreras became almost as powerful, and even more feared than Pinochet himself.

Needless to say, when their judgement days finally came, many years later, Pinochet said Contreras had committed the horrendous crimes off his own bat. Contreras, of course, said he was merely following the president’s orders, but he also denied knowing anything about the disappearances, saying “DINA didn’t have any helicopters or airplanes.” 

Although most Chileans celebrated Contreras’s death, some did not. Pinochet, and therefore Contreras, retained a significant bedrock of support for ridding Chile of the previous  president, Salvador Allende, and “saving the nation from communism”.

Juan Manuel Guillermo Contreras Sepúlveda was born on 4 May 1929 in Santiago. He wanted to be a doctor, but under family pressure began a military career as a 14-year-old cadet, following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. He personally helped organise Operation Condor, a joint initiative by South America’s dictatorships of the 1970s to round up and “eliminate” leftists who fled to one of the other countries.

Once asked whether he was afraid of death, Contreras replied: “No. Death comes whenever it wants to. There have been 22 assassination attempts against me. How could I be afraid of death?” He is survived by his second wife, Nélida Gutiérrez, and a son and three daughters from his first marriage to María  Teresa Valdebenito.


Juan Manuel Guillermo Contreras Sepúlveda, intelligence chief: born Santiago, Chile 4 May 1929; married first María Teresa Valdebenito (three daughters, one son), second Nélida Gutiérrez; died Santiago 7 August 2015.