The Executed: Leopoldo Benítez Herrera
(c) By Mario I. Aguilar
After the 1973 Chilean military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet thousands of Allende’s supporters were arrested. Many of them remain ‘disappeared’; others were executed without trial and without the knowledge of their families. In most of those cases their families filed legal suits against the military government or reported their cases to international bodies. The life of Leopoldo Benítez was slightly more complex and his case did not appear in the legal files of the Vicariate of Solidarity until Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.
Leopoldo Benítez, aka Polo, had been born into a middle class family in 1936 in the southern Chilean city of Concepción. He was born there as he could have been born anywhere else as his own family came from Talcahuano. However, his father worked for the National Bank (Banco del Estado) and the family relocated to many towns and cities of Chile. Leopoldo Benítez finished his secondary school in Santiago and after studying at the Catholic University he graduated as an architect. Later, he pursued postgraduate studies of architecture at Rice University, Houston, Texas, in the United States. On his return to Chile he became professor of architecture and director of the School of Architecture at the Catholic University.
Leopoldo Benítez was a warm person with an intense and caring personality. He became a well-to-do architect but decided, following his political convictions, to build homes for the poor during weekends and worked in shantytowns with his hands, repairing low-cost roofs and painting together with others. Therefore the complexity of the man can be related to his fatherhood: he had four children from two different wives and he looked after many university students and young political activists working in the shantytowns. He was a very creative and successful architect but his joy was found in the weekend work from which he returned covered in mud. He was a chain-smoker who liked to play the piano and even after divorcing his first wife spent considerable amounts of time with his children [I was part of a wonderful summer month holiday with him and his children in Tongoy, northern Chile].
He severed relations with his father who was a supporter of the right-wing political alliance and he also stopped his participation in the Catholic Church, accusing her of being an instrument of the well to do while joining the MAPU after its creation in 1969. His second wife, Myriam Bessone, agrees that he was not an easy man to live with but a joyful character always on the move, always painting, always working with others.
At the time of his arrest on the 17th of September 1973 he had a 6 month old daughter, Katia, who today is herself an accomplished graphic designer who studied at her father’s own faculty. Why was he arrested and killed? It is not possible to say why even when the police was at that time looking for a certain Polo who had fired against the police. Leopoldo Benítez was at his parents-in-law home when he was arrested and he had not been involved in any confrontation with the police. The police entered the house and confiscated some rifles used for hunting and took him away stating that they had found the arms and had found Polo. While the family heard shots a few minutes later it is not clear if he was killed then or later. On the following day, the 18th of September 1973, and after a tip from a friend inside the military, his body was found in the Santiago morgue. He had been killed by several gunshots fired with a submachine gun. His wife did not file a criminal case against the police because she herself was working for the Civil Service and had a small daughter. The criminal case was finally filed on the 25th June 1990.
Leopoldo Benítez was an ordinary man like many others in that he got married, he fathered children and he also went through a divorce. However, he was an extraordinary man in that despite his good upbringing and his educational and financial possibilities in life showed solidarity to others. Finally, he lost his life because of his own beliefs in a more just society.-