Chile's post-dictatorship 'luxury jail' nearly full

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Paulina Abramovich
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Til Til (Chile) (AFP) - Twenty years after it was built to hold those convicted of committing atrocities during Chile's dictatorship, Punta Peuco prison is nearly full and increasingly under attack as a "luxury jail."

Nestled in a bucolic setting with sweeping views over the snowcapped Andes mountains, the prison currently holds 104 ex-members of late dictator Augusto Pinochet's security forces.

They are serving time for kidnapping, torturing and murdering many of the 3,200 people killed or "disappeared" by the regime (1973-1990) during its war on leftist opponents.

The inmate population is rapidly approaching its maximum capacity of 120 inmates, after guilty verdicts were handed down in several landmark trials in recent months.

The recent convictions include that of 14 army officers jailed last month for kidnapping and killing Pinochet's chemical weapons expert, Eugenio Berrios, in 1995 in order to silence him.

The cases of scores of other agents under Pinochet's regime are nearly done working their way through the courts.

"This prison could receive another 140 to 150 inmates next year. From that point of view, it's important to clarify that in that case the building would be completely saturated," said Oscar Benavides, the head of the Chilean Association of Prison Officials.

Authorities have proposed building new annexes at Punta Peuco -- which is located in Til Til county in central Chile, 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside the capital Santiago -- or transferring some of the inmates to special wings at other prisons.

But victims' family members want the jail closed altogether and its inmates to finish their sentences in the same conditions as any other prisoners.

"Closing Punta Peuco is an ethical and moral duty the government owes this society, the families, the victims," said Alicia Lira, president of an association for victims' relatives.

- Tennis courts and terraces -

From the outside, with its guards, lookout tower and fences topped with barbed wire, Punta Peuco looks like any other prison.

But conditions inside resemble no other jail in Chile.

Inmates have individual rooms, tennis courts, terraces and barbecues.

Visits are allowed all day long inside the cells -- a level of privacy the rest of Chile's 54,000 inmates can only dream of, in a country whose prisons are 70 percent over-capacity.

"It's a resort hotel," said Lira.

The inmates include Miguel Krassnoff, an ex-officer sentenced to more than 100 years for multiple kidnappings and murders; Alvaro Corbalan, the former head of one of Pinochet's intelligence services, the CNI; and Pedro Espinoza Bravo, one of the leaders of the so-called "Caravan of Death" that killed 75 regime opponents.

The prison also held one of the most infamous perpetrators of dictatorship-era abuses, ex-general Manuel Contreras, until his death last month at age 86.

Contreras was the head of Pinochet's secret police, the DINA, the organization blamed for most of the regime's atrocities.

The prison was built in 1995, five years after the return to democracy, when Pinochet was still the head of Chile's armed forces and remained a powerful figure.

He died in 2006 without ever facing trial, despite a string of international attempts to bring him to justice.

"Punta Peuco is a reflection of the deals struck by Pinochet in the early years of the transition, when there was a policy of 'doing what's possible,'" said Lira.

An even more luxurious prison for human rights offenders, Cordillera -- which featured not just tennis courts but a pool -- was closed in 2013, around the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Pinochet to power.

Its 10 inmates, including Contreras, were transferred to Punta Peuco, which is now the last such prison in Chile.

No journalists have been allowed inside Punta Peuco. The only photos of the inside come from a lawmaker's visit in 2013.