Chile's MIR: The Revolutionary Left Movement

Urban Guerrillas Declare War on the Pinochet Dictatorship

Young Leaders of Chile's MIR
Bautista Van Schouwen, Marcello Ferrada-Noli and Miguel Enriquez in their college days. Photo courtesy of Marcello Ferrada-Noli

The MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left) is a Chilean insurgent group that was formed in the mid 1960's. During the 1970's, after the fall of President Salvador Allende, it actively attempted to overthrow the Chilean government, at that time led by Dictator Augusto Pinochet. After several key leaders were captured and/or killed, the MIR ceased being a legitimate threat to the Chilean government.

It still exists today as a political party: it has renounced violence and terrorism and is instead seeking change through political action.

Beginnings of the MIR

The MIR was founded in 1965 by a union of leftist student groups, primarily in Santiago. They primarily took their inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, which they hoped to replicate in Chile. They soon found some support in Santiago's poor and working-class neighborhoods and among unions. The most important leader was the charismatic Miguel Enríquez (1944-1974), a tireless, idealistic doctor who served as the MIR's General Secretary until his death in 1974.

The MIR and Allende

In 1970, Socialist politician Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile and immediately began reforms, including nationalization of key industries (such as copper mining), taking over education and health care and beginning work on a land reform plan.

There was a personal connection between Salvador Allende and the MIR: his nephew, Andrés Pascal Allende, was one of the MIR's young leaders. The MIR supported Allende, but felt that he was too centrist and that his reforms, while a good start, did not go far enough.

When it became apparent that the military was likely to overthrow Allende, the MIR began an active program of making contacts within the armed forces.

Their plan was to convince junior officers of the need to support the civilian government: they hoped that when the time came, these young men would disobey the orders of their superiors and support Chile's democracy.

Chile's top army officers learned of the plan and were horrified: their worst nightmare was a divided army, which could lead to an all-out civil war. They made efforts to identify those young officers and soldiers who had been contacted by the MIR and weed them out: they also increased their pressure on Allende. In early September, 1973, General Carlos Prats, head of Chile's armed forces and a supporter of democracy, stepped down, knowing that his departure would speed up the coup d'etat. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Allende that ended with the President committing suicide inside the presidential palace.

The MIR and Pinochet

Pinochet had struck too hard and too fast for the MIR: sympathetic army officers had been rooted out and the army quickly moved to take the streets of Santiago. A wave of terror spread over the city: the military arrested anyone even remotely suspected of being a communist or an insurgent, setting up concentration camps in the stadium and all over the city.

Thousands were rounded up: many were killed. The MIR decided not to face the mighty Chilean army directly, but rather go underground and wait for the perfect time to strike. Many of the leaders of the organization fled abroad.

Meanwhile, Pinochet began modifying the army to fight an urban war against its own citizens, enlisting the help of nations like the United States and Brazil. He created the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate), which soon became known as DINA. He placed a ruthless colonel named Manuel Contreras in charge of rooting out the MIR and other insurgents.

The JCR

The Cuban Revolution had spawned many attempts at imitation, not only Chile's MIR. There were several groups in South America who had similar goals and beliefs, including the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo ("People's Revolutionary Army," known as ERP) in Argentina and the Bolivian ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or "National Liberation Army," several of whose leaders had fought alongside Ché Guevara in Bolivia in the mid-1960's).

As early as October of 1972, the various groups had begun discussing working together, pooling resources, information and safehouses. The union of these groups was the brainchild of MIR's Enríquez, who hosted his fellow revolutionaries in Chile when they came for meetings and military training at the MIR's facility deep in the Andes Mountains.

After the fall of Allende, it was decided to formalize the alliance between the four groups. At a meeting in Buenos Aires, it was decided to name the group JCR, or Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria ("Revolutionary Coordinating Junta"). Enríquez himself had remained in Chile: the JCR would be headed by Mario Santucho, leader of Argentina's ERP. The JCR seemed poised to take on the Southern Cone dictatorships: the Bolivians, with their ties to Ché, brought revolutionary credibility, the ERP had money from a string of political kidnappings, the MIR has a clandestine weapons facility and the Tupamaros were experienced urban guerrillas.

Setbacks and Repression

The MIR was hit hard by Pinochet's ruthless tactics. Among the thousands of ordinary Chilean citizens that were detained and tortured (and often killed) were several hundred young men and women with ties to the MIR. They confessed under torture and gave away names of other members, locations of safe houses, information about attacks, etc. Many important MIR leaders were rounded up early; one such leader was Marcello Ferrada-Noli, one of the founders of the MIR and writer of its mission statement: he was locked up from 1973 to 1975 before going into exile. Although the MIR had built up a solid network of safe houses, arms dumps and information sharing during the Allende years, it was all quickly and irrevocably compromised during the first few months of the Pinochet era.

This led directly to the loss and/or exile of much of the MIR’s leadership. In December of 1973 Bautista Van Schouwen, one of the student leaders of the MIR, was detained and “disappeared.” In October of 1974, about a year after the coup, tortured MIR members revealed the location of a house in Santiago where MIR leader Miguel Enríquez had been hiding. On October 5, Chilean security forces swarmed the house.

Enríquez was killed while trying to save a wounded companion, Carmen Castillo. Castillo, who was also an important member of the MIR, was captured.

On February 19, 1975, four captured MIR leaders went on national television to urge their comrades to lay down their arms. They said that the military government was interested only in reconciliation and national unity. According to the four, the MIR leadership was in ruins: of the 52 members of the MIR Central Committee, nine had been killed, 24 were in custody, ten were in exile, one had been expulsed from the group, and eight were still at large. The MIR quickly issued a statement declaring the four to be traitors, but much damage had been done.

In October of 1975, Chilean police were again alerted to the location of a safe house where MIR leaders were hiding out, this time in the small village of Malloco, outside of Santiago. Andres Pascal Allende, who had assumed leadership of the MIR in Chile after the death of Enríquez, was forced to flee, eventually seeing asylum at the Costa Rican Embassy.

Several other important MIR leaders were killed or captured.

In April 1976 Edgardo Enríquez, brother of Miguel and then-leader of the MIR, was arrested in Buenos Aires. He was never officially seen or heard from again, and it is believed that he died in custody of Argentine or Chilean security forces.

The MIR after 1976

After the Malloco raid and the loss of Edgardo Enríquez, the MIR ceased to be a legitimate threat to the Chilean government. All of its leaders were dead, captured, or in exile. Many captured MIR members were co-operating with Chilean security forces, either willingly or not. The growing reach of Operation Condor meant that nowhere was safe: Condor even carried out international assassinations, such as that of Orlando Letelier, killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C. in September of 1976.

In 1979, the MIR began to quietly operate in Chile once again. Some members who had been in Cuba to receive military training returned. The Chile they returned to was different from the one they had left, however. The economic boom was slowing and people were starting to protest in the streets. Another group, the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR), had taken the lead in Chile’s armed resistance to Pinochet, including an assassination attempt in 1986 that killed four of the dictator’s bodyguards.

In the early 1980’s, the newly resurgent MIR began a wave of small-scale attacks, killing policemen and soldiers and even robbing several banks to get funds to support their activities.

The organization sputtered along for the rest of the decade until the late 1980’s when it was clear that a return to democracy was in the works.

The MIR today

Today, the MIR exists as a minor Chilean political party, still dedicated to communism and the memory of Ché Guevara as well as all of its members that died in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The group has renounced violence and now seeks to use politics to further its ends.

Legacy of the MIR

When all was said and done, the MIR was actually responsible for very little in the way of armed Marxist insurgency. They were quiet during the Allende years and their organization was gutted by Pinochet’s ruthless tactics between 1973 and 1976. Most of their attacks too place in the early 1980’s, when they killed some policemen and soldiers in urban guerrilla attacks.

When compared to Argentina’s ERP, Uruguay’s Tupamaros and even Chile’s FPMR, the MIR never gained the level of notoriety it needed to draw many recruits to its cause.

That’s not to say that it never was a threat to Chile’s government. During the Allende years, the MIR built up a very impressive arsenal and network that it intended to use to topple the government should Allende’s reforms not last. The MIR’s inability to mount a serious insurgency is a reflection on Pinochet’s methods, which were ruthless and bloody but also extremely effective. The MIR never had a chance against a government willing to round up, torture and kill thousands of its own citizens in an effort to root them out.

Perhaps the darkest legacy of the MIR is just that: it was what spurred the Pinochet government to declare war on its own people. The dictatorship used fear of the MIR and other groups as its rationale for continuing the terrors and tortures inflicted upon the people of Chile. In a nutshell, the “cure” – the arrest, torture and murder of thousands – was eventually much worse than the “disease” – a handful of communists who would likely not have succeeded in overthrowing the government in any event, as the people of Chile were not interested in becoming the next Cuba.

The book is not closed on the MIR just yet: they continue to exist as a legitimate if radical political party and still seem eager to make their mark on Chilean history and politics, this time with votes instead of guns.

Source:

Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents

A Special Thanks: Marcello Ferrada-Noli is a founder of the MIR, a close friend of Miguel Enríquez and one of the few survivors of those troubled times. I am grateful to Marcello for taking some of his valuable time to help me with this article, and if you’re interested in the subject, I suggest you click on the link below to his informative, personal page which goes into much greater detail of those idealistic student days.

The photos on this page are courtesy of his personal collection.