For decades, foreign companies in Chile scraped nitrate off the desert's skin to fuel massive agricultural development in the northern hemisphere. The mines were integral to the Chilean economy, and their brutal working conditions spawned leftist movements that define, in part, Chilean politics and culture to this day.


But in Chacabuco ' a flagship nitrate town once named a National Monument ' wood and other materials continue to be stolen. Many of its historical structures are just plain missing, and the rest of the town has fallen prey to violent dilapidation, still surrounded by an estimated 98 displaced landmines from the Pinochet dictatorship.

The only full-time guardian/tour guide for Chacabuco lives there on his own, not allowed, and not salaried.

Pedro Barreda, a successor to the former guardian Roberto Saldívar, guides tours when visitors stop by. One of the foremost talking points for both him and Saldívar has been the fact that from 1973-1974, Chacabuco was a concentration camp holding over a thousand Chilean political prisoners at any given time.

Saldívar was one of these prisoners. In 1992 he came back to live in Chacabuco, dedicating himself to preserving its memory. He now suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and just months ago his condition became so debilitating that he was forced to move back to his family in nearby Antofagasta.

In over a decade of solitary residence, Roberto became a spokesman for ' even a spiritual embodiment of the town. "Chacabuco is the cross that Chile must bear," he once said.

Through Chacabuco, Roberto developed a strange sort of celebrity existence, being interviewed on numerous occasions by international media and film crews.

He also fostered an extremely devoted follower in Pedro, who first met him in Antofagasta working on the 1990 campaign to vote Pinochet out of political office.

Pedro, who hosted The Chacabuco Project crew as we stayed over and filmed, talks constantly about Roberto, relating numerous anecdotes and observations from his grand mentor. Up until we left, he was extremely eager to continue guiding us through various relics, the graveyard outside, etc.

One of Roberto's-hence Pedro's-major contentions has been that Chile is obliged to recognize Chacabuco's prison camp past, and that it doesn't-not nearly enough.

Perhaps they're right.

The government sign outside the camp ends its historical summary in 1971, two years before Pinochet's coup. In addition, there appears to be scant reference to Chacabuco's human rights legacy in Chilean press.

Poring through about 40 articles about Chacabuco archived online and at the Goethe Institute in Santiago, only a quarter of them mention the concentration camp, and even then the reference is peripheral; eight of those articles use only one line or less to note the era. The papers we looked at include El Mercurio, La Tercera, La Nacion, La Segunda, La Estrella del Norte among other Chilean press.

At certain points the articles' historical boilerplates seem to deliberately avoid a nod to its prison camp days, ending abruptly in 1971 and picking up in 1990 as if nothing had happened between these dates. And we couldn't find a single mention of the land mines in Chilean press.

Is it possible that the town's concentration camp past is being deliberately marginalized? Or is this just an irrelevant footnote to the greater themes of the nitrate boom and restoration efforts?

Most of the articles we looked through focus on the restoration efforts coordinated by the Goethe Institute and the Chilean government in the 1990's. These efforts have been targeted toward highlighting Chacabuco's nitrate mining past.

But the obvious impediment to restoration efforts in the early 1970's was the military occupation of Chacabuco-first as a concentration camp and then, after 1974, as an off-limits military base during which time its church (said to be one of the most beautiful in northern Chile) burned to the ground.

It would seem that Pinochet's use of Chacabuco would be a fundamental chapter in the discourse over restoration.

After the junta's hand had lifted from the ruins, close to USD $100 thousand from the Chilean and German governments was poured in to fix up the mining town. At the time, there were dreams to revive Chacabuco as an active museum and cultural center complete with lodging and regular festivals, film screenings etc.

It's the "Machu Picchu of the desert," said Lautaro Núñez, an archeologist from the Catholic University of Antofagasta and member of the restoration effort in a 1992 interview with El Mercurio. "Every historical period has its great city. For us, Chacabuco is that city."

Today, the efforts of the 1990's seem to have derailed. While the theater and other relics did benefit from the restoration, the vast majority of Chacabuco's infrastructure remains neglected. It's exposed to vandalism and theft to this day.

Maria Schoene, who lives and works at a truck stop up the road from Chacabuco, describes how she often finds new piles of Oregon Pine, the salitreras' lucrative lumber, neatly stacked and labeled by mysterious visitors-even the nails are removed-in the gaping ruins of the old Company Store. She makes trips into Chacabuco about once a week, in part to chronicle the ongoing pilfering that is eating away at the town.

Schoene is in talks with the recently formed Corporación ex-oficina salitrera Chacabuco or Corporación to revive education, restoration and cultural events in the town through the organization's management plan.

The Corporación Chacabuco is a non-profit recently granted administrative rights over all the salitreras in the Antofagasta region for the next 30 years.

The organization does provide a night watchman, but Pedro doesn't factor in to any plans or budgeting. He continues to live there alone, accompanied by two dogs, Pinochet and Lucia. He is the sole historical guide to Chacabuco but has no phone and no transportation, and often depending on passerby for rides here and there. When Pedro makes trips into Antofagasta, the town is typically closed off completely.

On the outside wall I read an angry denouncement written by a Venezuelan tourist, who had once been imprisoned in Chacabuco. Apparently, he'd traveled all the way to Chile with his wife, to show her the place where he was once kept prisoner. Upon finally reaching his destination, the doors were shut.

Von: 19.6.2006 by Will Sherman, The Santiago Times

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