The Other 9/11

September 11 is a date marked by violence and sorrow in the minds of many around the world. For Chileans, it is doubly so, because on that day, in 1973, the country's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende was overthrown in a brutal military coup. What followed were years of repression, torture, forced disappearance, fear and for many Chileans, exile. This is the story of what happened in Chile, and the secret part Australia played.

Chapter 1

The Coup

“I will pay for my loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seeds that we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever.”

Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973

The last photograph of President Allende - inspecting La Moneda (presidential palace), shortly before his death.
Chilean army troop positioned on a roof, outside La Moneda (presidential palace) - Santiago, Chile, September 11, 1973.
La Moneda up in flame after the Chilean army followed up on their threat to blow up the presidential palace - Santiago, Chile, 1973.
Chilean army troop taking possession of the streets – Santiago, Chile, September 11, 1973.

On the morning of September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende, was secluded in La Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace, along with his bodyguards. For weeks there had been mounting political uncertainty, and now, there were soldiers in Santiago’s streets. The President couldn’t get solid information on what was happening. He knew that earlier that morning, the Navy had taken the port of Valparaiso, north of the capital, but since then the army had shut down several of the city’s television and radio stations and bombed most of the others.

Allende, Chile’s first democratically elected socialist, hoped that only some elements of the armed forces had betrayed him, and that the leadership of the military would uphold the constitution. But within hours the army announced that it had taken control of Chile and that Allende was deposed by a military coup d’état, led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Despite the army’s threats that it would blow up La Moneda, the President refused to surrender. Instead, he gave a farewell speech, broadcast on the last radio station still broadcasting.

“I will pay for my loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seeds that we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shrivelled forever.”

When troops entered La Moneda, they found the President dead. He had shot himself (the gun was a present from Fidel Castro) rather than allow the military to arrest him.

As bombs rained down on the presidential palace, Chile’s democracy came to an end.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, led by general Augusto Pinochet, launched an assault on the presidential palace. While under siege, President Allende chose to give a speech.
US President Nixon with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Washington D.C., 25 Aug. 1970.
General Pinochet (l) poses with Chilean president Allende, just three weeks before the coup. Santiago, 23 August 1973.
Chile President-elect Salvador Allende waves to the crowd, 24th Oct.1970.
General Augusto Pinochet (l), waving from the motorcade shortly after his coup.

Chile had boasted a long and stable democratic tradition in a politically fragile region beset by civil war and dictatorship. But democracy was not to return for 17 years.

President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had been nervous about Allende since well before his election in 1970, as they knew his socialist policies would harm US business interests, like copper mining.

“But they also wanted Allende to fail because they were very afraid that the socialist experiment would be successful and would encourage other left-of-centre parties in a variety of Latin American countries to try the same thing – bring about socialism by democratic means,” says John Dinges, a journalist and author who has written extensively about Chile and who was in Santiago at the time of Pinochet’s coup.

The CIA was funnelling cash to Chile’s right-wing media outlets and Allende’s political opponents. But when it looked like he would win the 1970 presidential election, the agency stepped up its covert activities.

Declassified CIA documents reveal America’s hand in destabilising Allende’s government in 1970.

General René Schneider, head of Chile’s armed forces, was a constitutionalist, and respected the professional, non-political role of the military. He stood in the way of the military coup that the United States hoped would work as a last-ditch effort to keep Allende out of power. So in the lead-up to the 1970 elections, the CIA provided machine guns and cash to a group of plotters who planned to kidnap Schneider and send him to Argentina, leaving the way clear for a military takeover. But the kidnapping went badly wrong, and the General ended up dead.

The CIA rushed to cover its tracks, paying the jailed plotters $53,000 in hush money and throwing the machine guns they’d lent them into the sea. The army, and Chilean society, upset by the attempt to destroy proper democratic process, rallied around Allende. He was elected on 4 September, 1970. Now, the US would focus it efforts on undermining Allende’s government.

“They were actually organising a coup in 1970,” says John Dinges, but in the lead-up to 1973, the CIA was “very much in the background, doing things like fomenting the economic subversion, paying off right wingers to do violence in the streets - stuff like that.”

Nixon instructed his administration to “make the economy scream,” and before long, it would. 

“The US definitely wanted the economy to fail so that the military would overthrow Allende,” says Dinges. “They promoted an economic blockade, preventing Chile from getting credits from international aid associations like the World Bank and the IMF.”

Meanwhile, nervous that Allende had them under close watch and that he may close the US embassy, removing their cover, the CIA called on its friends and allies to help out.

Chapter 2

Australia’s Spies in Chile

“It has been written - and I cannot deny it – that when my Government took office, Australian intelligence personnel were working as proxies of the CIA in destabilising the government of Chile.”

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia, 1972-75

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia (1972-75).

After a formal request from the United States, two officers from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, or ASIS, were stationed in Santiago. By 1972, the officers had agreed to manage three agents on the CIA’s behalf and to relay information to Washington.

“The idea of taking over for one of the allies in Chile wasn’t a new thing – it was the pattern of helpful smaller ally being given pieces of work,” says Nicky Hager, author and journalist specialised in intelligence.

In 1972, Labor’s Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, bringing progressive politics to Canberra after more than two decades of conservative government. One of the things set to change was foreign policy.

Bill Robertson, then head of Australia’s Secret Service, had the unhappy task of informing Mr Whitlam that his spies were helping the CIA to undermine a fellow progressive, left-wing government in South America.

There are different accounts of what came next. Whitlam has said he was appalled at the news, and ordered the officers to be pulled out right away. But Robertson tells a different story. In a memo that he published to clear his name after Whitlam unceremoniously sacked him in 1975, Robertson refers to an “ASIS station in another country.” Expert commentators have concluded that he meant Chile. 

The memo says Whitlam “agonised” over the decision to remove the ASIS agents, worrying that the US might “react adversely.” It says the Prime Minister declined to immediately sign the order to remove the ASIS agents, which Robertson presented when he first told Whitlam about their activities, and it was a couple of months before Whitlam acted.

The mere fact of Australia’s involvement in Chile only became public in 1977 when a Royal Commission, set up by Gough Whitlam to thoroughly investigate Australia’s security services, made its report. The Hope Report, named for the Commissioner, Justice Robert Hope, was, on the whole, sanguine in its attitude to spycraft:

“Espionage is illegal and the clandestine service’s job is to break those laws without being caught. Espionage is deceptive, covert, underhand. It is probably the second oldest profession in the world.”

Redacted extracts from the Hope Report (Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security).

The full implications of ASIS’s role in Chile was never examined by the Royal Commission, and the Hope Report certainly did not condemn it:

“At no time was ASIS approached by the CIA, or made aware of any plans that may have been prepared, to affect the internal political situation in Chile. The ASIS station in Santiago was concerned only with intelligence gathering via the agents handed over to it.”

But not everyone was convinced that the Australians could have been so perfectly insulated from the CIA’s efforts – at the behest of none other than President Nixon - to unseat Allende.

Bill Robertson, director of ASIS (1968-75)

In May 1977 Whitlam himself told the Parliament:

“It has been written - and I cannot deny it – that when my Government took office, Australian intelligence personnel were working as proxies of the CIA in destabilising the government of Chile.’

“We still don’t know exactly what the agents were doing, and we’re unlikely to ever know” , says Nicky Hager. Nothing new emerged with the declassification of thousands of documents by the Clinton administration in 2000.

“I think there’s no doubt at all that there would be detailed discussions between Australia and the US and Australia would be saying ‘we don’t want this to come out’,” says Hager. “They know it would be unpopular and would look bizarre inside Australia that they were involved in Chile, so I put money on it that they’ve asked the US not to release information that shows what the Australian operations were.”

Robertson's Memorandum, lodged in National Archives in 2011.

ASIS handed back the agents it was running to the CIA around May 1973. The first of the two ASIS officers left in July, and the second was out of Chile by October – just after the coup ended Allende’s presidency. But that wasn’t the end of Australia’s spy presence in Chile.

Other accounts have emerged to show that agents from ASIO, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, which normally focuses on domestic security, were in Santiago well into Pinochet’s reign, working out of the Australia Embassy.

In 1983, in a documentary called “Allies”, Whitlam’s former Minister for Immigration, Clyde Cameron, told reporter Marian Wilkinson that he had known of ASIO’s work on behalf of the CIA.

'Allies', 1983 (Dir. Marian Wilkinson, prod. Sylvie Le clezio)

Chapter 3

The Sanctuary

Once in power, Chile’s military imposed an atmosphere of terror. Soldiers occupied the streets of Chile’s major cities, where gunfire was heard throughout the night, now subject to a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Suspected left-wing activists were rounded up and detained, and many of them tortured. Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional), operated outside the criminal justice system: there was no official arrest, no trial and no public record of the thousands of people who ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship. The authorities gave detainees’ families no information, and when families came looking, the regime denied any knowledge of detainees’ whereabouts. Meanwhile, it was not uncommon to see bodies alongside the road, or floating in Santiago’s Mapocho River.

In recognition of the many Chileans who needed to escape danger at home, the Whitlam government, with bipartisan support, created a special program for Chilean refugees. Between 1974 and 1981, about 6,000 Chileans were taken in, and hundreds more joined them as part of the family reunion program. In 1971, there were 3,760 Chileans living in Australia, but by 1991, just a year after Pinochet’s regime came to an end, there were 24,042.

Scene from anti-Pinochet protest captured by ASIO camera. Melbourne, September 11, 1974.

The Chilean community in Australia is, like Chilean society, divided along anti- and pro-Pinochet lines. Not everyone who arrived in Australia was a dissident seeking exile from the secret police.

Victor Marrillanca, a former public servant and long-time broadcaster for Spanish community radio in Canberra, arrived as a refugee in 1975. He says that people who had been involved in atrocities as part of Pinochet’s regime migrated to Australia, while others attempted to do so.

“It’s well known that members of the secret police and the secret services of Chile were coming to Australia,” he says. “We stopped two cases, as we found out in time that two members of the secret police in Chile were coming to Australia. They had the tickets, they had everything ready. We made enquires in Australia and Chile and we met with [then-Minister for Immigration under the Hawke/Keating governments] Gerry Hand, and he put a stop to the two cases… There are lot of cases that we’d let the authorities and also the Australian press know about - people from the Chilean secret police arriving in Australia, posing as refugees and Australia accepting them.”

“I’m sure it’s true that there are DINA people here who participated in executions and torture,” says journalist and author Mark Aarons. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I’d heard from people who were treating victims of torture from Chile that a number of people had been re-traumatised because they’d seen people who had tortured them living here, often a suburb away.”

Aarons is convinced that not all of those Chilean immigrants who had engaged in torture and extrajudicial killings had merely ‘slipped through the cracks’ of Australian immigration controls. “I had relatively good contacts in old spy circles and some of them were absolutely adamant that some of the people with whom ASIS, in particular, had been involved in the early 1970s period – the period between the election of Allende and the coup – had been resettled here in quite a deliberate way and had been utilised for intelligence purposes, mostly gathering information on the local Chilean community.”

Anti-Pinochet protest to mark the first anniversary of the coup in Chile. The protest was filmed by ASIO - Sept 11, 1974, Melbourne.

Investigations in Chile have determined that during Pinochet’s reign, more than 3,196 people were killed and some 32,000 tortured. The hundreds of bodies that have been discovered in mass and hidden graves still do not add up to the thousands of names on the lists of Chile’s disappeared.

Efforts to convict Pinochet for crimes committed under his rule never succeeded, and he died a natural death in 2006, at age 91. The former head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, is serving 25 sentences totaling 289 years in prison for kidnapping, forced disappearance and assassination.

Chapter 4

Home Truths

Adriana Rivas
Adriana Rivas with Manuel Contreras. Contreras was the head of DINA, Chile's secret police during the Pinochet dictatorship (1976).
Adriana at military parade, Santiago, Chile (1975).

Adriana Rivas

“They had to break the people – it happened all over the world, not only in Chile.”

At 20 years of age, she was plucked from her class at secretarial school – “I was one of the best,” she says – and taken to work at the Ministry for Defence. First, she was a secretary to one of the bureaucrats. Later, she jumped at the chance to move up, taking a course to become an intelligence agent. In 1974, she began working for Contreras at the infamous DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional), Chile’s secret police.

Adriana, who grew up in a modestly middle-class Santiago family, has happy memories of her time working with Pinochet’s regime. “Of course, it was exciting, traveling in limousines and staying at all the best hotels in the country.”

Adriana says she was never interested in politics – not before the coup, nor after. But she thinks Pinochet was a good president for Chile.

“He was a good President,” she says. “We could go out without any fear. Everything was calm.”

She defends the former dictator, and her old boss, Contreras.

“People say, ‘the President did this, Contreras did that.’ But it’s not true,” says Adriana. “The people who did that were officers in the middle ranks. Pinochet and Contreras didn’t give the orders. I don’t think so. I can’t put my hand in the fire for them, but I don’t think they did.”

She didn’t know anything about the forced disappearances, she says, until after she left her job at DINA.

“It’s one thing to kill people, but it’s another to make their bodies disappear. Many people died – it was a civil war. But disappearing the bodies – it makes my heart ache. It wouldn’t have been so painful if they had only handed over the bodies.”

And while she doesn’t approve of torture, she says that in a situation like Chile’s, it was necessary. “They had to break the people – it has happened all over the world, not only in Chile.”

In 1978 she came to live in Australia. She went home to Chile several times, but on her last visit, she was detained for questioning over a case of kidnapping and forced disappearance by DINA, claims which she strongly denies.

Mariana Minguez.
Mariana, pregnant with her first baby. Photo taken in jail on a visiting day.
Mariana (centre, holding baby) posing with her fellow inmates
Mariana Minguez reuniting with her baby daughter on the day of her release.

Mariana Minguez

“When you disappear nobody knows who took you, what they’ve done with you. They could have killed us and nobody would find us.”

Mariana Minguez was only 19 when she and her husband were ‘disappeared’ by DINA, Chile’s secret police, in 1984.

She was held in a secret detention centre for 8 days.

“I was tortured, I was raped, I was tortured with electricity, I was hit. I was abused in all the different ways that a human being can be abused. They didn’t care that I was pregnant.”

Mariana and her husband had been working with the Church to help young people and pregnant women in the poor outskirts of Santiago.

It wasn’t political work, she says, “but it created a consciousness that the government wasn’t doing the best for the people, so in a way that was dangerous.”

They were formally arrested after the Church pressured the police about their disappearance. “We were accused of having explosives and weapons – of so many things which were not true.”

Pregnant with her first baby, Mariana was forced to have a caesarean. “I was just by myself in one room with four beds in the room. The rest of the beds were used by the secret agents - they had to be around me all the time.  There were people with machine guns, you know what I am saying?”

They separated her from her baby and none of her family was allowed to visit.

“That was my first baby. You always expect the best for your first baby and then… Yeah. I did not get that.”

After she and her husband were released on bail, they lived in fear. They decided to escape and went to the United Nations for help.

They arrived in Australia in 1988. Exile meant safety, but it meant loss, too.

“It’s been 25 years. It wasn’t an easy process. At first I was always depressed, always crying, feeling like I had to stay in bed.”

“I learned to grow up and grow out of that situation. I don’t feel like a victim anymore. A victim is someone who has been defeated by something and I don’t feel Pinochet defeated us. My husband and I, we still love each other. I studied, I worked hard, I became a nurse. I continue living.”

She would like to see the Australian government acknowledge the part it played in Chile at that time, but she doesn’t believe that will happen.

“I have never seen justice done and I don’t think I will see it. I have decided not to wait for it. I don’t want to stay stuck in that situation.”


An SBS Production

Journalist: Florencia Melgar
Writer: Sarah Gilbert


Executive Producer: John-Paul Marin
Producer: Fanou Filali
Designer: Matt Smith
Developer: Ken Macleod & Matt Smith
Video Editor: Gilbert Gaddi
Photographer: Andy Baker

Audio & Language Content

Executive Producer, Spanish: Soraya Caceido
Content Manager: Mark Cummins

News & Current Affairs

Camera person/sound: Mark Tadic


Lawyers: Adrian Craig & Lesley Power


Subtitler: Jorge Turini