Guerrilla ‘hero’ Ricardo Palma Salamanca, who escaped a South American jail in a cage and vanished
Palma Salamanca was a key member of the military wing of the Communist Party in Chile. (Supplied: The Santiago Times)
Ricardo Palma Salamanca dramatically escaped Santiago’s Alta Seguridad prison in Chile in a metal basket dangled from a helicopter in 1996.
A convicted murderer and a highly dangerous terrorist, he and three comrades were lifted into the air while their rescuers engaged in a gun battle with prison guards.
The chopper was reportedly reinforced with bullet-proof protection and the operation overseen by his Communist compatriot ‘Comandante Emilio’.
“El Gran Escape” read one Chilean newspaper headline after the prison break.
Two decades later, after a life spent mostly in Mexico reportedly as part of a kidnap gang, Palma Salamanca was captured earlier this year via Interpol in France — to the joy of Chile’s conservative Government.
But that joy turned to anger when Chile’s President, Sebastian Pinera, learned Salamanca had been granted political asylum by an independent French authority, the Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
On Wednesday, the Pinera Government will begin a fight in the French courts to have that decision overturned and force Salamanca to return to Chile to face justice.
The case also highlights how much Latin America — post Cold War — has moved away from its support for guerrilla movements, which were born under vicious, right-wing dictatorships.
The Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front
Lionised by some leftists at home, Palma Salamanca was a key member of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front — the military wing of the Communist Party — formed to fight a guerrilla war against dictator Augusto Pinochet in the early 1980s.
It bombed restaurants and undertook assassinations, including attacking Pinochet’s motorcade in 1986.
They succeeded in killing several of the dictator’s bodyguards, but only caused minor injuries to the General.
The mural is located on the north bank of the Mapocho River at the Tirso de Molina market. (Wikimedia Commons)
The dictatorship ended in 1990 and Chile returned to a democracy, but Pinochet remained head of the military until 1998.
In 1991, Palma Salamanca killed Senator Jaime Guzman, an ally of Pinochet and former adviser to the military dictatorship.
He was ultimately caught, convicted of murder as well as the killing of a businessman’s son. His lawyers now say he only confessed to killing Guzman under torture.
Life on the run
After the dramatic escape, Palma Salamanca and ‘Comandante Emilio’ fled to Mexico, but instead of seeking the quiet life they reportedly formed a gang based in the beautiful historic city of San Miguel de Allende.
After their capture, the LA Times tracked their history in Mexico, including accusations they were responsible for the kidnapping of a former presidential candidate.
The newspaper interviewed one of their alleged victims — businessman Eduardo Garcia Valseca, who spent more than half a year in a wooden cage.
“These Chileans were complete hypocrites,” Mr Garcia Valseca said.
“They seemed like anyone else in the town San Miguel de Allende. But they destroyed the lives of many people.”
When another kidnapping was botched and Comandate Emilio was captured, other members of the gang fled.
Palma Salamanca reportedly flew to Cuba and then onto France, where he was ultimately captured.
Chile vs France
President Sebastian Pinera was asked on Chile’s TVN network if he was “humiliated” that the French asylum decision, “didn’t recognise that Chile was a nation of human rights”.
“I was surprised by the [French] office’s decision,” Mr Pinera said.
“We don’t know the reasoning behind its decision to determine why it took this path, but I am sure that the French Government and the French state knows very clearly we have a democracy with human rights and a separation of powers.
“In a clear democracy, if you commit an assassination of whomever — especially a democratically elected senator — that has to be condemned by all.”
But there are some in Latin America who believe the assassination, a year after the return of democracy, was still part of the fight against Pinochet, giving it ‘a degree of legal legitimacy’, according to ANU professor Peter Read, the co-author of Narrow but Endlessly Deep: The Struggle for Democracy in Post-Pinochet Chile.
“Depending on which side of the political fence you sit, someone like Palma Salamanca could be seen as a hero — a man who, in a time of war [as was declared by Pinochet at the start of his reign of state terrorism], risked his life for a noble cause,” Professor Read said.
Latin America guerrillas disappear
During the latter part of the 20th century (and Cold War), Latin America was awash with guerrilla groups.
The National Liberation Army is a guerilla group in Columbia. (Flickr: Julian Ortega Martinez)
Many are now disbanded or disavowed as narco-terrorists having turned to drug-running or kidnapping to support their “cause” post-Soviet collapse.
Colombia remains home to the biggest number of groups. The ELN (National Liberation Army) still carries out attacks on government or petroleum operations in remote parts of the country, as does the EPL (Popular Liberation Army).
But the ELN has sought talks with the Government to demobilise as Colombia’s most well-known guerrilla group FARC has already done. At its height, FARC had as many as 10,000 guerrillas.
In Peru, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) is mostly active in the remote east of the country and is focused on criminal activities, according to the US State Department.
The only other group that remains active in Paraguay — the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) has as few as 150 people and most recently attacked loggers.
It operates in remote and rural areas, kidnapping and drug-running.
Balancing the ledger
The pendulum of history’s long arc has swung so far that now all of Chile’s major political parties condemn Palma Salamanca’s asylum claim and have called for him to return to face Chilean justice.
All but the Communist Party, whose president goes only as far as saying “es una decision soberana” — it’s sovereign French decision.
Professor Read points out the Chilean Government is yet to successfully extradite others from the conservative side of politics accused of killing or torture.
A former lieutenant in Pinochet’s army, Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez, is accused of killing musician Victor Jara.
“The demand for Palma Salamanca’s return can be contrasted with others such as Barrientos Nunez, who has not been extradited from the US,” he said.
He described the Chilean authorities’ efforts as “tepid”.
There is also the pending demand for extradition of Adriana Rivas (‘La Chany’) who currently resides in Australia.
She denies being involved in kidnappings and interrogations under the Pinochet dictatorship, but the Chilean Supreme Court has called for her to be returned to face justice.
If Salamanca is indeed extradited to Chile, he will return to a radically different political landscape than the one he fled.