One hundred and five years ago today, a shocking massacre of striking workers and their families occurred in the city of Iquique, Chile. While unbelievable numbers of up to 3000 were brutally murdered in cold blood, even more unbelievably, the government of Chile succeeded in suppressing its own shameful crime for nearly one hundred years. If not for the testimony of witnesses passed down to new generations through oral tradition and an art form unique to Latin America, this tragic episode and the gruesome truth of the thousands of bodies only recently excavated might never have come to light. As Chile underwent a Socialist revolution in the decades following World War II, the victims of the so-called Santa Maria School Massacre became mythical hero-martyrs – symbolising the depth of social injustice and the necessity of struggle. The emblematic significance of the massacre peaked in the early 1970s during Salvador Allende’s presidency, after the Inquique musician Luis Advis – a leading composer of Latin America’s political and socially committed “New Song” movement – released his painstakingly researched cantata, Santa Maria de Iquique. The epic 18-song narrative achieved great success and is considered by musicologists to be one of the most important compositions in Latin American history. And, for the first time, it finally exposed to the world what had occurred at the Santa Maria School – a colossal tragedy that so easily might have remained forever buried…
At the turn of the twentieth century, nitrate was the most lucrative of all Chile’s exports. The nitrate mines, owned by Chilean and British capitalists, were notorious for treacherous working conditions and labour exploitation. Workers were paid in tokens that could only be spent in the mining camps, and even then payment was often delayed for up to three months. Mobilised by anarchist groups and the nascent labour unions, in early December of 1907 thousands of nitrate workers carrying the flags of Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina descended from the hills to the northern provincial capital of Iquique to demand better conditions. So infamous was the misery of these miners that they were joined in solidarity by 12,000 labourers from all trades, bringing nearly all commerce and industry in the north of Chile to a halt. An estimated 5,000 workers occupied Iquique’s Santa Maria School for over a week while Chile’s President Pedro Montt – who’d come to power through the support of the labour movement – initially attempted to facilitate talks between workers and the mine owners. But as the numbers of strikers continued to swell and the mine owners refused to negotiate, President Montt did a cynical volte-face, and ordered General Roberto Silva-Renard to end the strike.
At 2:30pm on December 21st, Silva-Renard issued a warning to the leaders of the workers’ committee to disperse within an hour or else. The leaders refused, and stood firm atop the school’s roof. True to his word, one hour after issuing the warning, Silva-Renard ordered his soldiers to aim their guns at the rooftop. All the strike leaders fell dead with the first volley. The amassed workers and their families desperately fled in all directions in a futile attempt to escape as they were shot down mercilessly with machine guns. The soldiers then stormed the school grounds, firing frenziedly into the classrooms with no regard for the women and children screaming in vain for mercy. At nightfall, they hauled and dumped the thousands of bodies into a clandestine mass grave. The survivors were ordered at sabre point to get back to work, whereupon they were subjected to a decade-long reign of terror before the labour movement at last began to slowly recover.
Silva-Renard, known as the Butcher of Iquique, never faced justice for the wanton killings he ordered and escaped an assassination attempt on his life by an anarchist seeking retribution.
In August 2007, as the centenary of the massacre approached, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet ordered a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists to excavate the site that was for so long rumoured to be the mass grave of the Santa Maria School Massacre victims. Nearly 2,500 bodies were exhumed. As Chile owned up to the truth of its shameful past, public exhibitions were mounted, a monument to the dead was erected and a national day of mourning was decreed on 21st December 2007.