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'Disappeared' during Pinochet: Son vindicated by landmark ruling 40 years after father's death

Jaime Donato and his children. Source: Supplied

A violent military assault into a family home leaves an indelible trauma, especially if it happens during childhood. The Donato family was repeatedly targeted during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Their crime? Being related to Jaime Donato, a known communist. More than four decades after his father's disappearance, and two decades after a legal battle in Italy that led to life sentences for 24 perpetrators for crimes against humanity as part of Plan Condor — a coordinated operation between several Latin American military regimes in the 1970s to crush dissent — Melbourne-resident Ivan can finally take his first breaths of justice and offer this rare interview.

When Ivan Donato first experienced brutal violence at the hands of the military, he was only 14 years old.

It was a sunny day in 1974 in Santiago, the Chilean capital, at around midday, when some 15 armed officers burst into his family home shouting, "Everyone out! Against the wall!". The sudden raid interrupted the game of "pichanga" [soccer] among the Donato brothers.

The boys were home because at the time there was no school, Ivan recalls. Classes were still suspended since the coup led by General Pinochet on September 11, 1973.

“The BUIN military regiment, arrived. Two trucks pulled in with military personnel, with rifles and all. They came to the house looking for our father. They got violent, they took us out, I remember it very well,” Ivan Donato tells SBS Spanish.

The military kept asking where Jaime Donato, Ivan's father, was hiding his weapons. It was the excuse the military often used to "easily raid" the houses of dissidents, Ivan explains.

Jaime donato
Jaime donato

“They wanted to take my old man, presumably because of his involvement in certain activities. He had been the president of Chilecta, the Chilean power company. He was a trade unionist, and also belonged to the Communist Party of Chile,” he explains.

“At that time, shortly after the military coup, people did not go out. There were always very few people on the streets and there was a great sense of fear.”

Two days after the raid, Jaime returned home. He had been tortured. He and his wife, Mariana Guzman, decided to hide it from their five children.

“We learned about the torture years later. We were never told. That stayed with my mother. She later told me, ‘do you remember the year 1974 when the military arrived and took your father? Well, it was two days of torture for your father’,” Ivan recalls.

Iván Donato
Ivan Donato
SBS Spanish

“He returned home in a bad state, both psychologically and physically. He pretended nothing was wrong in front of us so that we didn't realise that he had been ill-treated - punched and battered. They did things to him like "the submarine"... submerged his body in a water barrel.”

Ivan believes the agents' actions were an attempt "to exterminate human beings" through torture.

"What kind of mindset does a person need to have to be able to do that?" he questions.

During the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), opposing views were heavily censored. Dissent was punished mercilessly. Anyone who thought differently could be denounced, arrested, disappeared and executed.

“It was a weird time. People were afraid because they didn't know what was really going on. Many people in the block would inform authorities, betraying other 'types' of people. One could ring and say, 'I think these people are weird, they are up to something...' If one had many meetings, one was 'weird'. ”

Silence, self-imposed censorship and injustice were so deeply prevalent, that to this day, many of the facts surrounding the dictatorship are still obscure.

President of Chile Augusto Pinochet is seen in Santiago, Chile in this file photo from Oct. 1983.
President of Chile Augusto Pinochet is seen in Santiago, Chile in this file photo from Oct. 1983.

According to reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation, and the National Commission on Political Prison and Torture, the total number of Pinochet-era victims exceeds 40,000 people, of which at least 28,000 were tortured. More than 3,000 were killed or "disappeared" and at least 200,000 people fled into exile.

Just weeks after the 1973 coup that ended the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende, the repressive military forces had penetrated all social spheres.

“I started classes at the high school in 1974, at the Gabriela Mistral High School in Santiago. I went to the first class and saw that the captain of the BUIN regiment is suddenly the headmaster. One asks, 'why is the captain-general of an army suddenly the director of a high school? Shouldn't it be someone else?' The purpose was to be able to keep a better grip over the kids.

"I had no idea, but the remaining teachers said that many others from the Gabriela Mistral High School had disappeared, they had been tortured. The few who were still there told us to be very careful.

“Jaime Donato, my father, was well known in the area. They told me, 'Jaime Donato ... Oh ... Be very careful, please. I know and understand your father's situation, I know what you've been through, but I ask you to please, please, be very careful, because military policies are being enforced within educational institutions.”

One year after his first arrest, Jaime Donato was forced to leave his home permanently to protect his family from persecution. He lived in several Communist Party "safe houses". Again, the boys received no explanation as to why their father could no longer live with them. But despite his apparent absence, Ivan remembers that his father always remained somewhat present.

"We were into soccer, all of us brothers. We played in our local neighbourhood club," he recalls.

“My dad always liked to watch the games. That is a beautiful memory I have because, every time the game ended, we went to the house to chat. We usually liked to ask him, 'what did you think, daddy? How did I play?' He always told us what he thought, how we'd played, and how we could change our techniques. Those were great, social weekends. There he was, the father we knew, we talked football and he never failed.”


The last time Ivan saw his father was about a week before his disappearance. By that time, he was 16 years old.

"My mum tells me, 'would you like to go see your dad?' And I said, 'of course. Where is he?'. 'In the safe house, I'll take you',” Ivan recalls.

“He was very surprised when he saw me. He told me, 'you are so big!' 'Yes,' I replied. There, he explained to me that the situation was very difficult for his return home. He asked me to please understand that was the case. It was very nice to see him a week before because I had not seen him for some time."


Jaime Donato was kidnapped on May 5, 1976, as part of the infamous Conference I case.

Conference Street, in Santiago, was where one of the houses belonging to the Central Committee of the Communist Party was located. There, agents of the Intelligence Directorate (DINA) set up their “Mousetrap Operation”. DINA agents stalked and hid at the house. Every time someone linked to the party arrived, they were arrested and taken to an unknown location.

Decades later, it was learned that some of the disappeared from the Conference I and Conference II cases were transferred to the barracks of Villa Grimaldi, Tres Alamos and Simon Bolivar, detention centres where prisoners were brutally and systematically tortured to extract information.

The Donato family learned of Jaime's disappearance days after his kidnapping.

“I remember it well. I was at my aunt's house, my dad's sister. My aunt Judy says, 'your mother called and has very bad news. Apparently, your father Jaime is missing. They took him prisoner and they don't know where he is,” Ivan recounts.

“People told my mother to go to the Vicaria de la Solidaridad (Vicar Solidarity church). When she arrived, she found out that there were others whose relatives had been 'disappeared' with my father. There, they were able to piece together what had happened.”

At the church, Ivan's mother became an active member of the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees, an organisation dedicated to seeking answers regarding the whereabouts of the regime's hostages.

"That's where the search began to find out the truth of what happened to him. And the most terrible thing was that more people, and more people, and more people, started to turn up, going through the same situation," Ivan says.

Mariana, who never remarried, due to her wish 'to honour her husband's memory', took part in several hunger strikes. She filed a series of legal complaints against DINA and its top boss, General Manuel Contreras. 

According to Jaime Donato's record file found in Memoria Viva, a digital archive that collects information about the victims of the Chilean dictatorship, Mariana made multiple attempts to locate her husband.

In 1976, she filed multiple lawsuits (both individually and collectively), before the Court of Appeals of Santiago, requesting information about her husband's whereabouts. These were rejected.

Given the constant refusals, the families of the disappeared filed a criminal suit in June 1976 for kidnapping. They requested that General Contreras be called upon to testify. In response, the DINA filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, alleging it was "arrogant and insolent" to call "their top boss to testify", according to Memoria Viva records.

Over the years, a countless number of legal proceedings ended with refusals from authorities; they were dismissed alleging technicalities, excuses, and 'incomplete information'. Then, more appeals, and more rejections.

“It was like hitting yourself against a wall and having no concrete answer regarding my father's situation and others involved in the case. It's like, it hits you every time. You end up not believing in the justice system,” Ivan says. 

"Now we know that the Chilean justice system was in favour of the military; we know it was all coordinated."

The hard work of looking for Jaime wreaked havoc on the Donato family. The aftermath of hunger strikes, feelings of hopelessness and constant anxiety continue to impact on Mariana's health even to this day.

Ivan stood by his mother through every step of this ordeal. At age 16 he had become "the man of the house". He had no choice but to leave school to work in the market selling vegetables and fruit to provide for the whole family.

“It was very confusing, confusing for us too because my father had been disappeared, and it was he who brought the food, he fed us. Growing up without a father is terrible because you're left with a huge void that one needs to fill,” Ivan laments.

But despite the fact that the Donato family tried to carry on with life, authorities kept them under constant surveillance, according to Ivan.

“We always had cars outside the house with agents. One day my brother Alex was called. Those agents told him to 'please, tell your mum to stop looking for her husband, your dad, because your dad is dead. Why are you still searching for him?', Ivan says.

“We always had people following us. If they had wanted to do something (harm us), they could've acted without a problem, but this was the harassment that the family always suffered after my father's disappearance, because of my mother's persistence, continuing her fight to find my father.” 

Ivñan Donato con la foto de su padre
SBS Spanish


Years later, in 1986, came the last straw that broke the Donatos' back.

Nelson Donato, Ivan's brother (who at that time had recently fathered his first child), was arrested by the authorities after they brutally broke into the Donato's home.

“[The agents exerted] verbal violence. They would push you, they beat you here, in the back. Another would come with a gun and put it here (at your neck).”

Agents of the National Information Center (CNI) raided the house looking for documents relating to the Communist Party, as Nelson Donato was a member.

“I was shocked when the agents burst in. My mother was shivering. I said, 'Mum, calm down'. The boss, he didn't act violently, but the others did. They turned the beds, the documents, left everything in a terrible state, as if a hurricane had raged through,” Ivan recalls.

“When my brother was arrested, it was fifteen days of torture for him. There was a decree [that allowed authorities] to detain a person in prison for fifteen days without notifying anyone. In those 15 days, they had the possibility to extract all kinds of information. I think the family broke down completely when that happened.

“My brother Alex had to leave. I left because I didn't want to be in the house, and Mauricio left, who was the youngest. That was a terrible blow because we relived what had happened in '76. My mother was completely destroyed”.

The Donatos moved to Buenos Aires and sought refuge in Australia.

"We are very grateful that Australia took us in immediately, they quickly welcomed us as political refugees."

In this 2004 file photo, members of families of the disappeared and detained look at images of their loved ones in the main square of Santiago, Chile.
In this 2004 file photo, members of families of the disappeared and detained look at images of their loved ones in the main square of Santiago, Chile.

Italian ruling against Operation Condor persecutors

What the Donatos could've never foreseen is that their first legal victory would come in July 2019, twenty years after an inquiry began in Italy to prosecute oppressors and alleged torturers accused for the disappearance of about twenty left-wing Italian citizens who fell victim of Plan Condor: a coordinated operation executed by the dictatorships of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Chile in the 70s and 80s, with CIA support. The head of the DINA, General Manuel Contreras, is considered to have been one of the plan's creators.

The Italian proceedings began a year after the arrest of Augusto Pinochet was ordered, following a lengthy inquest led by a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon. At first, the inquiry only included Argentine victims of Italian descent, but as investigations progressed, it was discovered that the countries and regimes involved in Operation Condor shared information about dissidents in order to exterminate them. 

As a result, the process was then extended to Italian citizens residing in the other countries involved in Operation Condor, and how, eventually, Jaime Donato entered the list of victims.

“The Italians started looking into the Italian-Argentines. But as the Italian team in Italy began to investigate Operation Condor, they understood that it was not just one country involved, but that several countries took part,” Ivan explains.

The landmark Italian judicial process creates an important precedent that opens the door to other courts internationally, so that they can prosecute suspects from third countries, and in other jurisdictions, for crimes committed against their citizens.

Although the sentence came after the death of several of the accused, and the fact that the surviving perpetrators still have possible avenues for appeal, for the Donatos, it was a long-awaited victory.

“[I felt] immense joy. I believe that Italy did what Chile has not done for the families of the disappeared detainees: we have justice,” Ivan says.

Pilar Aguilera, from the Australia-based non-profit organisation “Justice in Chile”, remembers the moment when she received the news.

“I was at work when Ivan sent me a message and the link to the news. I called him and he was very excited, very excited. ”

"'We won!'" Ivan told Pilar.

"It was like a sense of joy, of winning, of winning something."

“It was a very important day because it was like, finally, an achievement for many of those families. We are glad the Italians took the case on. But we also feel angry that this didn't happen in Latin America, since Operation Condor took place there. There is much to be hoped for in terms of judicial processes in Latin America,” says Pilar.

For Ivan, the Italian inquiry leaves an important historical precedent.

"It has been established that a genocide occurred, that there are culprits who carried this out," Ivan said while stating: "I am for the establishment of a court, like Nuremberg, that processes all the people who were tortured, disappeared and annihilated."

Victims and agents of Pinochet in Australia: The case of Adriana Rivas

For decades, rumours and suspicions that Australia was harbouring Pinochet-era operatives, while simultaneously welcoming the regime's refugees, tormented much of the Chilean community in Australia.

Since the 1970s, there was mounting evidence pointing to Australia's secret involvement in the Pinochet coup.

Australian intelligence officers are believed to have assisted the CIA in undermining Chile's elected government, but the documents surrounding the coup have never been released.

So when in 2013, SBS Spanish revealed that former DINA agent Adriana Rivas, who also worked as General Manuel Contreras' secretary, had been working as a cleaner and nanny, and residing in Sydney since 1978, the community decided to mobilise.

Ivan Donato was one of the main engines behind the creation of “Justice in Chile”, a non-profit organisation that represents the families of the Chilean victims who disappeared in operations allegedly linked to Adriana Rivas.

Rivas is wanted in Chile for aggravated kidnapping and the disappearance of seven dissidents in the 1970s, including a pregnant woman. If proven, these are considered crimes against humanity.

Adriana Rivas with Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA.
Adriana Rivas with Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA.

While on a visit to Chile in 2006, Rivas was arrested by local authorities. She escaped while on bail in 2010 by illegally crossing the Andes into Argentina, where she boarded a plane back to Australia, where she lived in taxpayer-funded housing until her arrest in 2019.

Rivas has pleaded “not guilty” and denies the allegations. She is now waiting for the Australian courts to decide if she’s to be extradited to Chile.

Ivan has travelled from Melbourne to Sydney on several occasions to witness some of the Rivas case hearings.

"I feel like... I don't know ... Would it be bad to say I feel happy? Happy, that in parts of the world like in Italy, or here in Australia, it's being proved that something terrible happened in Chile?," he questions.

"It's weird, I look at her ... And I feel reassured that she's being tried for her crimes, even though she denies the claims," Ivan confesses.

Between 1993 and until his death in 2015, General Manuel Contreras was charged and sentenced to prison for multiple murders, kidnappings and disappearances committed while he was at the helm of the DINA.

Contreras died facing more than 500 years in prison for human rights violations in more than 30 court cases. 

Adriana Rivas is not accused of involvement in the Conference I case, where Jaime Donato was detained. However, the brief of evidence which seeks her extradition links her to the Conference II case, which includes the aggravated kidnapping of Victor Diaz, the second in charge of the Communist Party, the week after Donato disappeared.

Adriana Rivas
Adriana Rivas

Healing the wounds of State-sponsored terror

The Donato family is one of the few to know anything about happened to their disappeared loved one. An Armed Forces report revealed that Jaime Donato's body was disposed of at sea, off the coast of San Antonio, about 115 kilometres from Santiago.

The thought that his father's body was wrapped in a sack, put on rails, and thrown into the water, weighs heavily in Ivan's mind. His greatest wish would have been to bury his father.

“It is what one yearns for the most, to see the body and say goodbye. Seeing the body would give me peace of mind. I would feel a great sense of loss, but it would be wonderful.”

“I always tell my mom, 'I would've preferred to see my father's body so I could die in peace. And feel happy that... I don't know ... That I managed to bury my old man and always go see him. My other brothers, some disagree. My mom wouldn't like to see my dad's body. She prefers it this way.”

Despite knowing that his father's resting place is in San Antonio, Ivan chooses not to go there.

Even today, it is hard for him to tell his personal story. He rarely gives interviews or talks openly about his past. Stigma and fear penetrated deeply.  

Pilar Aguilera describes Ivan as a reserved person. 

“He is very quiet. He doesn't talk much, but when he does, he speaks with purpose, and when it's necessary. I know that he had not spoken about his dad's case for a long time. But after the whole case with Italy and Operation Condor, I think that he realised how important it is for him to tell his story.” 

Ivan says he decided to share his story now, only for the new generations to understand what many families like his suffered.

The arrival two years ago of his granddaughter, "Ambie" has helped him heal his wounds.

"[She's] beautiful. Full of joy and hope,” he says proudly.

"It's like living again, it's a new life for us..."

Ivan keeps his granddaughter's photo next to Jaime's on the refrigerator door. He says that his father always wanted to have a daughter, but he couldn't. 

However, Ivan knows that, although she lives in Australia, she will also carry a legacy she did not choose.

"The time will come when we will have to tell her everything," he laments.