The Case of Leopoldo Benítez
(c) Mario Aguilar Benitez
Born in Concepción on the 12th of March of 1936, Benítez studied at the Instituto Alemán of Frutillar, at the Instituto de Humanidades Luis Campino and at the San Pedro Nolasco schools in Santiago. Benítez spent six months as part of a research team at the Chilean bases in the Antarctic territories and later studied architecture at the Catholic University in Santiago, graduating in 1964. Immediately after his graduation he gained a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and studied for a master’s degree in architecture at Rice University, Houston, Texas, from where he graduated in 1966. On his return, he worked on several urbanisation projects in Santiago and joined the teaching staff at the Catholic University’s School of Architecture, where from 1970 he served as director of the Department of Architecture. At the same time, he built a wooden house in the hills of Santiago on plots of land commonly owned by families who knew each other from their younger years. There he could paint and draw his architectural projects.
In 1969, within the turmoil of the university reforms in which traditional roles and divisions were questioned, Benítez, along with other university professors, signed the political manifesto ‘Yes, to the revolution’. In accordance with that manifesto, on the 24th of November 1969 those university professors who had signed the letter resigned their posts, but were reinstated through the efforts of the university rector, the architect Fernando Castillo Velasco, who did not want to lose them. However, the School of Architecture was divided between a department of urbanisation and works and another of architecture, which amalgamated all those professors for the revolution under the academic leadership of Leopoldo Benítez. The mission undertaken by those university teachers was to contribute with their skills to the advancement of a more just society not only in Chile but throughout Latin America.
Benítez had in his younger years supported the Christian Democratic Party (PDC); however, after the formation of the Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitaria (MAPU) on the 9th of May 1969 he joined them. The MAPU was a splinter group of the PDC that amalgamated Christians who embraced Marxism, and who therefore supported the Popular Unity coalition of Salvador Allende. As part of that political party, Benítez spent his weekends painting houses in shantytowns and supporting the solidarity campaigns with workers and peasants. At the same time, he underwent a personal conversion: he had been brought up as a middle-class person, an economic situation reinforced by the fact that he was a well-paid architect who had studied in the United States. His search for his own personal commitment to a socialist society made him change his own life style and his time became dedicated to community work as well as personal reflection on the motivations for a new man and a new society in Latin America. Shortly before the military coup, Benítez joined the Chilean Communist Party.
Behind every one of those killed or made to disappear there was an idealistic human being who, instead of seeking refuge and comfort, dreamed of a new world and a new and more just society. The case of Benítez followed those lines, and his complex family life has not been discussed within the legal processes and the summary investigations. He was married twice. With his first wife, Jacqueline, he had two children: Carolina and Cristóbal. After he separated from Jacqueline and during the summer of 1970 at the sea resort of Tongoy he met a pair of twins: Miriam and Magdalena Bessone. He fell in love with Miriam and they married in February 1971. In March 1972 their son Leopoldo Daniel was born with a chronic illness, and died after twenty-one days. However, in March 1973 their daughter Katia was born.
After the military coup, Benítez tried to continue a normal life, even when so many of his friends were being arrested and taken by the new authorities. On the 17th of September he was staying at his parents-in-law’s house (Los Olmos Street 2930, Macul, Santiago) together with his wife and daughter. At 7:30 pm a group of twenty carabineros (uniformed police from the Escuela de Suboficiales de Carabineros) entered the house. They asked for the identity of all those present and became particularly interested when they found out that Polo (the nickname of Leopoldo Benítez) was there. The policemen found some hunting guns and a revolver, property of Benítez’ father-in-law, and took the arms together with Benítez into a police bus that arrived at 8:00 pm. They were going to take his brother-in-law Eduardo Bessone as well, but after pleas from his mother he was not taken.
The family looked for his name in the list of prisoners at the National Stadium; while on the morning of the 18th of September the flat of Benítez’ sister, Gabriela, in Obispo Donoso Street 20, Providencia, was searched by the police. His wife managed to check the prisoners’ book at the Training School of the Carabineros in Pedro de Valdivia Avenue with Rodrigo de Araya Street and found an entry in which he appeared accused of having shot a policeman a few days before his arrest. The officer-in-charge gave her a couple of phone numbers in which to request information through Lieutenant Sergio Jiménez Albornoz. As the family could not get through, they requested help from a neighbour, Lieutenant Hernán Covarrubias, who managed to contact Lieutenant Jiménez and then phoned Dr. Mayne – a friend of Leopoldo Benítez – telling him that they should look for an unidentified body in the Santiago Morgue with a particular number. Thus, on the 24th of September Dr Mayne found the body that had been brought to the Santiago Morgue on the 18th of September at 1:35 pm and showed multiple bullet wounds. The body was found on the street (Aguilar 2006e).
The legal case for the assassination of Leopoldo Benítez was only filed on the 25th of June 1990, because his widow worked for the civil service and because his parents did not want any publicity. His wife did not want to lose her job in the civil service, although she was let go in 1980. His father, Raúl Benítez, had been a supporter of the military government and was placed in charge of the Intercontinental Bank the day after the military coup. He resigned from his post, and led a secluded life until his death in January 1994 of Alzheimer’s disease. Leopoldo Benítez’ mother, a distinguished poet, wrote a moving poetic tribute to her son and faced the censorship of the military authorities. Leopoldo Benítez’ former wife and their children Carolina and Cristóbal left for France in December 1973 (they had French passports) while his widow Miriam and their daughter Katia remained in Chile. Katia years later studied at the same School of Architecture where her father had taught. The legal case was closed in 1995 due to the fact that Lieutenant Covarrubias denied having provided any information about the location of Leopoldo Benítez’ body. However, in 1998 the Chilean College of Architects filed a new legal demand involving all architects who were killed or disappeared during the period of the military government. Benítez’ widow and Dr. Mayne gave sworn legal declarations to the ongoing legal process on the 5th of March 2004.