The Prisoner of Til Til (El cautivo de Til Til)

Author:
Patricio Manns
Testimony by:
Renato Alvarado

I arrived at Tres Álamos on the eve of the departure for Mexico of a large group of prisoners. The group included Dr. Ipinza, who before leaving entrusted me with the job of physician, the medicine donated by the Red Cross, and his position in the Council of Elders. At 28 years of age, I found this title odd but also understandable, in light of the social esteem with which all tribes regard their healers. This tale has its origins there, as does a famous doctors’ strike, but that is another story.

The fact of the matter is that a while later we learned that an International Red Cross committee would visit our pavilion. The prisoners of the adjoining pavilion, who were about to leave for Mexico and would not be visited by the Red Cross, were keen to ensure that the visiting committee saw a list of the names of people who had disappeared by then. So they wrote the names on a piece of paper which they rolled up and pushed through a minuscule hole in the wall that separated both pavilions, near the back of the prison yard, next to the wash basins.

The man who had carried out this task called out to the person nearest on the other side of the wall, with no idea who it might be. He only asked that the piece of paper be given to a member of the Council of Elders.

As luck would have it, the person who took delivery of the piece of paper was one of the few non-political prisoners. His name was “Chico Pulento”, a member of the long criminal dynasty of the Fuentes Cancino gang, specialized in illegal gambling. He had been caught in possession of a false identification card and arrested under suspicion of being a “subversive”. Pulento knew nothing about the political prisoners’ organization, so he turned to his only friend of that group, a Mexican known as “Toluca”, who, in turn, handed the piece of paper to me.

Unfortunately, one of the spies planted among the political prisoners snitched to authorities about this whole operation. A few hours later, Pulento, Toluca and yours truly were brought before Conrado Pacheco, the Military Commander of Tres Álamos. Amusingly, by this time the case being investigated was no longer a list of people’s names which had been pushed through a hole in a wall, but a group of people who were about to pass through that hole. In other words, they thought a full-fledged, textbook case of mass escape was being planned.

They made us sit on the corridor floor outside Pacheco’s office and Pulento was the first one to be called. Through the glass door we could clearly hear how the police confronted him: “You’ve let me down, Fuentes. I thought we were going to understand each other”. From this I gathered that in the past he had tried to make the prisoner become an informant. He proceeded to punch him, but Pulento put up with it like any long-suffering roto chileno (*).

I was next and I didn’t pass up the opportunity to be as offensive as I was able to be in such situations. After all, I knew the punishment would come regardless. When the slaps in the face began, I was on guard and could handle them without problems. Then it was Toluca’s turn. This comrade was of very slight build; he cannot have weighed more than sixty kilos. All along, he had had plenty of time to plan his performance. When the cop dealt his first punch, Toluca flew over the desk, sweeping away everything in his path, and destroying the big typewriter that had stood there. Through the open door, which had been left open, I could see Toluca flat on his back in a corner, in the middle of all the debris, and he was saying to Pacheco, “What a mighty right hook, Commander!” while the police officer stupidly gazed at his own fist and the damage it had caused, trying to fathom how he had caused such destruction.

Because I had the highest “rank” among those involved, I was given several days’ stay in the gap under the basement stairs, with the right to daily beatings and a subsequent transfer to Villa Grimaldi so they could continue to punish me there. Since it wasn’t the first time this had happened, I knew what to expect and once again I made the most of the opportunity to stir bad feelings between the cops and the Dinos (**) in any way I could. The latter, when they realised I had not been sent there to be tortured for information but only to be punished, they did punish me, but without too much enthusiasm. That is how I managed to survive my stay in “the Tower”.

As it happens, it was as I returned from Villa Grimaldi after this episode, as I went through the obligatory transition at Cuatro Álamos, that one day I opened the window and in came Beethoven. Around that time one of the guys from MIR, who had taken part in the famous televised press conference calling on everyone to lay down their arms, was in a neighbouring cell, held with his girlfriend. This young woman had the most beautiful voice. Every evening, at sunset, she would sing, and always a different song, for all the rest of us prisoners. We were never able to see her, yet we will remember her forever.

One day she sung 'El Cautivo de Til Til', which refers to the death of Manuel Rodríguez, the most charismatic figure associated with Chile’s struggle for independence from the Spanish empire. This song was deeply significant for us, because Manuel Rodríguez is the mythical embodiment of the people's fighter, to the extent that his name was taken by the main organisation for armed struggle against the dictatorship. But for us he was also significant as the first of the arrested and disappeared at the hands of the Chilean government.

Toluca was eventually able to deliver the message thanks to the distinguished Chilean pianist Flora Guerra, who, like the overwhelming majority of our country’s artists and performers, always supported democracy.

(*) Roto: literally a ‘broken Chilean’, a term used to refer to common Chileans; it is used contemptuously, but is also considered a figure of national identity and pride in Chile.

(**) Dinos: Members of the DINA secret police, responsible for running the Villa Grimaldi detention and torture centre.


Published on: 25 October 2015


A pair of clear eyes
that through many swords
could be seen to sparkle,
and that laughter that hid
who knows what secrets
and was meant for me.

When head high he marched off
Amidst the shouts of the sheriff
a premonition pained me
upon seeing him leave.

They say his name is Manuel
and they are taking him
on the road to Til Til,
that the governor doesn’t want
to see his noble presence
along La Cañada anymore.

They say that in the war
he was the best and in the city
they call him the Fighter
of Freedom.

All I know is that his mind has wandered
the soldiers take him away
tied to a saddle,
the troops distance him from his General.

All I know is that the wind
ruffles his hair
and the sun shines in his eyes
as they lead him
towards Til-Til.

They say he was like a bolt of lightning
when he galloped
on his steed,
and as he rode past
everyone would call out
his name: Manuel.

I know not if I will see him again
free and noble
All I know is he was smiling
on the road to Til-Til.