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Copa America: Chile's Estadio Nacional stands as reminder of dark past, hope for future

SANTIAGO, Chile — For more than two months in 1973, Manuel Mendez was held at the Estadio Nacional against his will. Now, it's Mendez who holds the keys, rushing over to unlock another portion of the memorial sites now occupying the stadium during a media tour.

Mendez is a survivor of a campaign that had dozens killed or disappeared, scores tortured, and several thousand imprisoned at Chile's most important soccer venue after a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Mendez regularly returns to the Estadio Nacional not to see Chile's matches, but to share his story and show visitors what life was like for those the military government deemed to be in opposition.

There are 10 sites the National Stadium National Memory group of former political prisoners have been able, with the help of Chile's ministry of sport, to turn into locations for reflection and remembrance. What Mendez remembers is the illusion of hope he forced himself to thrive on.

Costilla 8 still stands as the closest entryway into the stadium from the street, and prisoners would line up at the gate as family members tried to deliver messages or gifts through sympathetic guards or other means. Typically, though, the distance was too great.

"Realistically, you couldn't make out a single person, because there was a huge amount of people. Sometimes people would say, 'I saw my wife dressed in red. I saw my mother,'" Mendez said last week as he gazed out of Costilla 8 across the several hundred yards from the entryway to the street. "In reality...we didn't see anything. That's the truth."

What now stands in the chasm is a fountain dedicated to the memory of the prisoners who never left and in honor of those who, like Mendez, will always carry what happened with him. Another of the sites sits in the stadium itself. Despite Estadio Nacional being full for Chile's group matches against Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia, a group of bleachers remain perpetually empty, lit up as a reminder of those who can't join the crowd cheering on their national team. Behind the stands is a sign reading, "A people without memory is a people without a future."

"To see these stands illuminated for Chile's first match in the Copa America was moving and to see the text means a responsibility for the government," Natalia Riffo, Chile's minister of sport said. "For us, as the Ministry of Sport, the Estadio Nacional is much more than a sporting venue. We have to have the responsibility in marking this stadium as a memorial site."

Wally Kuntsmann, the president of the National Stadium National Memory group of former prisoners, said she is a fan of soccer and the Chilean team, despite the atrocities she witnessed while imprisoned. She's particularly fond of Carlos Caszely, the forward whose mother was put into a jail and who refused to shake Pinochet's hand in a meeting before the 1974 World Cup.

Chile qualified for the tournament in part because of the USSR's refusal to travel to the stadium for a World Cup qualifier after hearing the reports of prisoners being kept and murdered at the Estadio Nacional. FIFA came to investigate the stadium and, apparently finding no evidence of the prisoners being kept there, decreed the match would go on. Most of the prisoners were transferred to another site soon after. The USSR stayed the course and Chile qualified by scoring a goal against no opponent.

Estadio Nacional was just one of thousands of camps where communists, political protesters or even simply workers like Mendez were taken after Pinochet's rise.

And while the stadium has a dark history, it also stands a symbol of the hope. Pinochet's government was defeated in a 1988 vote when nearly 56 perfect of Chileans voted against him serving eight more years as president. A new government was organized with Patricio Aylwin emerging as the new head of state. In a 1990 rally to celebrate Chile's return to democracy, a small girl gave Aylwin a book in which Chilean exiles had written their hopes and goals for the new Chile. 

Those dreams haven't all been realized. Political problems persist in Chile with teachers and transportation workers among those protesting during this year's Copa America. Despite those issues, Chile has still taken large strides as a nation . Mendez and Kuntsmann hope that development continues with the nation's youth learning about what the past the government's opponents endured and making sure Chile does not dip into another dark chapter.

"Young people are going to direct the future of our country," Kuntsmann said. "They need to see how grave these things were."

But it also serves to let those imprisoned - in the Estadio Nacional and elsewhere throughout the country - know they're not forgotten.

"I feel that the Estadio Nacional is the most representative place of Chile," Kuntsmann later continued. "I believe that every Chilean that knows about the horror of the military coup should feel that the stadium represents them to remember and to feel the violations of human rights that occurred here,"