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Pinochet could not silence Prensa Latina

Santiago, Chile (Prensa Latina) The Prensa Latina correspondent office in Chile was assaulted by military coup leaders on September 11, 1973, 50 years ago, but its voice at the service of truth could never be silenced.

By Omar Sepúlveda and Jorge Luna, collaborator and journalist of Prensa Latina, respectively.

Living through that coup, as well as the nearly three years of destabilization of Salvador Allende’s Government, and recounting those experiences half a century later, is more than a personal testimony, it is a claim for justice and memory for thousands of victims of the Chilean dictatorship.

After 50 years and for the first time, Omar Sepúlveda, a Chilean, and Jorge Luna, a Peruvian, then young reporters from Prelagoch (internal identification of our correspondent), recalled, from Chile and Cuba, via the Internet, some moments of that day.

The office was raided by 21 soldiers, who came from the bombed La Moneda Palace and had just viciously destroyed the adjoining headquarters of the Punto Final magazine, directed by Manuel Cabieses. They came to our door with rifle butts. They demanded that we go down “to the truck,” which would take us to who knows where.

During that military operation, in which we refused to abandon the correspondent’s office, there were, in addition to our Chief Correspondent Jorge Timossi, an Argentinean journalist and writer, our colleagues Pedro Lobaina and Mario Mainadé, who were Cuban, and Orlando Contreras, a Chilean who had arrived in the country. just the day before.

MINUTES BEFORE THE RAID The only woman on the team, the Chilean journalist Elena Acuña, had to leave the office reluctantly on instructions from Timossi, who suspected an imminent break-in and, to protect her, he asked her to save agency documents for eventual delivery to the headquarters in Havana.

She successfully fulfilled that dangerous mission, since, for this, she had to walk in front of the main entrance of the besieged Government Palace, after a brief stop of the aerial bombing. Timossi spoke on the phone with Allende’s advisers surrounded in La Moneda in flames and we transmitted the reports to our correspondent in Buenos Aires (Prelabaires), the Cuban journalist José Bodes Gómez, founder of the agency, who relayed them to Havana.

SOLIDARITY

Prelagoch was the object of numerous solidarity gestures by many Chileans concerned about our safety before and during the raid.

Jorge Luna: I always remember Augusto Carmona (El Pelao) and his partner Lucía Sepúlveda, editors of Punto Final, who arrived early to offer their collaboration, despite the danger in which our correspondent office was.

On several occasions we described it as “the mousetrap,” since we had instructions not to resist or leave the office (?), something apparently contradictory but which, in the end, saved our lives.

When Allende’s death was confirmed – news that nobody wanted to believe, let alone broadcast – Timossi asked his friends to retire to prevent further risks, but we have photos of them, who that same day went underground and joined the anti-fascist resistance.

Four years later, “El Pelao” was assassinated on the streets of Santiago.

Timossi also told the team members that whoever wanted to retire should do so at that time. Nobody withdrew.

THE RAID

The soldiers came in shouting and pushing us, and putting us against the wall, hands on our heads, with their rifles at our backs, in an aggressive mock firing squad. After body-searching us, they ordered us to sit on the floor in different corners.

At another time, they put Lobaina, the most phlegmatic of us, and Mainadé, the wittiest, as “human shields” on the balcony during a prolonged shooting. They also did it with Contreras, who warned, “Hey, here they (the bullets) are going to hit us,” a claim that the soldiers ignored.

Suspecting that it was a hand grenade, the military took away an obsolete hearing aid from Mainadé, with which he attenuated an old chronic deafness.

CHE

The monotonous sound of the teletype and the perforated yellow tapes, which for the military were something like a coded transmission, frightened the troops and their sergeant tried to relax his anger and smashed a portrait of Commander Ernesto Che Guevara against a chair.

Sepúlveda could not contain his indignation and advanced determined to confront the soldier. However, someone yelled, “Omar, it’s just a photo!” He restrained his impulse.

Omar Sepúlveda: Over time I came to understand that my reaction had endangered all of us, but at that moment I responded to what I considered an insult to Che’s memory. Seeing the picture of him destroyed on the ground, I acted and did not think, which could have cost us dearly.

I don’t remember who uttered the saving cry. The truth is that it prevented the situation from escalating. The same sergeant later decided to use me as a “guide,” at rifle point, for his tour of the two floors of the office, looking for weapons, while the others continued to sit on the floor with rifles pointed at their heads.

THE PICTURES

Jorge Luna: Omar, your agitated dialogue with the soldiers in the dark room of our photographic laboratory was also dangerous. I saw them argue, but without being able to hear them.

Omar Sepúlveda: It’s because someone said that there were photos being developed, so I shouldn’t turn on the light. The soldiers, in the dark, checked and broke everything. I didn’t know it, but there was a gun hidden in the darkroom’s security lamp, and if it had turned on, it would have been black silhouetted against the orange plastic shade.

For this reason, someone who did know insisted that I did not turn it on. We only found out about the gun later, after the patrol received the order to leave the office and took Timossi to the Ministry of Defense, summoned there along with other representatives of the foreign press, to impose the information restrictions on them.

I also remember Timossi’s anger with you that day, perhaps because of the tension of the moment, while you were taking photos from the balcony of the 11th floor with half your body exposed.

Jorge Luna: I see that you remember that it cost me a great scolding from Timossi. He almost took my camera away.

That morning, I took out my “Pentax” with a telephoto lens and, in a hurry, recorded a military operation on Ahumada Street, including a police officer lying on top of a car when he was shooting in any direction. I saw that image published later in various media outlets. As an amateur photographer, I learned a lot from the photojournalists who worked in Chile at different stages, such as the Cubans Tomasito García and Pablito Pildain, the Uruguayan Naúl Ojeda and the Chilean Guillermo (el Búfalo) Saavedra, all of them very professional and, let’s say, “off-land.”

Later, we heard the low passes of Hawker-Hunter planes over downtown Santiago, but – from the balcony – we couldn’t see them. So we went out into the corridor, in front of the elevators, where there was a window with a view of the roofs of the buildings around La Moneda – two blocks away – waiting for the planes.

At the sudden roar of the second or third pass, I shot in a burst, not knowing exactly what I had caught. I do not forget the columns of smoke over the Chilean Government’s palace, something unusual in the history of Latin America.

NOBODY SLEPT

That night, the two of us had to do the first watch, at the entrance door of the office, so that the other colleagues could sleep even for a while. We were tormented by the surprising noise of the building’s elevator motor, located on the top floor, in the midst of the silence of a building that at that time was supposed to be empty.

Apparently, some tenants, fearful of military searches, sought refuge in different apartments and floors without leaving the building, known as Unión Central 1010, now renamed Bombero Ossa (Firefighter Ossa).

Bursts of submachine guns, isolated shots, wailing sirens and the mysterious movement of vehicles with their lights off at the height of the curfew, altered a long night during which none of the journalists could sleep.

THE NEIGHBORS

On Wednesday, September 12, we tried a snack for the first time since Monday, thanks to “Arturo”, a Guatemalan member of Chilean resistance, who was hiding on another floor of the building, who surprised us with a large casserole of rice with lentils and a box of 24 small bottles of Coca Cola.

We did not know (nor did we ask) where the charitable donation had come from, but -sitting on the floor around the pot- we devoured what -half jokingly and half seriously- we called the “last supper.”

We were also surprised by the fleeting and sympathetic visit of some high-flying “ladies of the night”, who discreetly practiced their profession in another apartment on the same floor, who arrived with cups of hot tea, outraged by the destruction of Punto Final and worried about us.

THE DEPARTURE

On Thursday, September 13, more than 48 hours after the raid, we continued to transmit news messages by phone to Prelabaires. Later, they told us that we would be transferred to the Cuban diplomatic headquarters, some 15 kilometers away, to eventually leave at night, expelled to Havana.

Omar Sepúlveda: That afternoon I called up my parents and my then girlfriend – today my wife – to say goodbye.

A colonel and his escort (in plain clothes) arrived at dusk, together with Cuban Consul Jorge Pollo. My five companions could go, but I was not on the list. The alternative was to stay in the office or go to the Embassy as an asylum seeker.

Timossi asked me to be in charge of closing the correspondent office and terminating the support staff.

Minutes later, in front of the elevator, I said goodbye to my colleagues, one by one, almost in silence. We shared the same emotion, but mine broke after a few seconds, when successive gusts thundered the street and the night…

I only found out about them two days later, on Saturday, September 15, in a “window” of the curfew, that I was able to walk about 30 blocks to my house and that night I saw on television the departure of my colleagues to Cuba, where they would continue to work for Prensa Latina.

The emotion turned into joy. In the following weeks, I helped Elena (Acuña) and her family to leave the country and then, with the valuable help of Manuel Villar, a young Chilean teletypist who became an excellent journalist for Prensa Latina, I dedicated myself to fulfilling the task entrusted: to close the correspondent office temporarily.

Jorge Luna: You and I were the rookies in the team and we had to cover the events on the street, the marches, the protests, the mobilizations and even bombings and attacks. We also participated in almost all of Allende’s political rallies and in the visit to Chile of Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro. Thus we became friends and companions.

The game was very tense. Although the immediate future was uncertain for those of us who were going in Chilean military intelligence cars to the Cuban Embassy, we all made the trip thinking about the risks you would run in Chile.

Luckily, you escaped with skill and, shortly after, you were able to leave Chile and rejoin -for more than 20 years- the work of Prensa Latina in various Latin American places.

THE NEWS AGENCY THAT COULD NOT BE SILENCED

As the only survivors of those events, we hope that this dialogue contributes to Prensa Latina’s rich historical memory and that it serves as a four-handed tribute to our deceased comrades who deserve honor and glory.

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