Santiago, Chile – Joan Jara, the widow of Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara who was tortured and killed following the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, has died at the age of 96. Her death comes just two weeks before the United States is set to extradite Pedro Barrientos, the retired Chilean lieutenant convicted in the US for Jara’s murder, back to Chile.
The Víctor Jara Foundation confirmed Jara’s passing in a social media post on Sunday, stating “We regret to inform you that our beloved Joan Jara at the age of 96 passed away today, November 12 at 5:30 pm.”
Jara dedicated her life to seeking justice for Víctor’s death at the hands of the Pinochet regime in September 1973. Víctor’s mutilated body was found riddled with over 40 bullet wounds following his detention at Santiago’s National Stadium along with thousands of other suspected leftist dissidents in the early days of the coup.
Born Joan Alison Turner Roberts in London, Jara was a dancer who moved to Chile in the 1950s. She was married to choreographer Patricio Bunster before meeting and marrying Víctor Jara in the early 1960s. The two shared a deep passion for the arts as well as progressive politics, with Víctor becoming one of the leading voices of Chile’s “New Song” movement that blended traditional Latin American folk music with politically charged lyrics.
After Víctor’s murder, Joan fled Chile with their two daughters, returning in the mid-1980s after over a decade of exile in the UK. Upon her return, Jara established the Víctor Jara Foundation in 1990 to preserve her late husband’s artistic legacy. She also founded the Espiral Dance Company, which trained generations of dancers and choreographers in Chile.
“With her death, our country loses a fundamental person, a human rights defender and culture promoter,” Chilean President Gabriel Boric tweeted about Jara on Sunday evening.
Long Quest for Justice in Víctor Jara’s Murder
Throughout Joan’s life, she tirelessly pursued justice for Víctor’s killing. It was not until 2009 that Chilean authorities were able to identify Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant in the Chilean Army’s Tejas Verdes regiment, as the individual who fired the fatal shots that took the musician’s life.
Barrientos had fled Chile for the United States in 1989 after Pinochet’s dictatorship ended. Despite evading justice for years, he was finally arrested by US Marshals in Florida in 2017 and extradited to Chile in late 2022 after being found liable in a civil lawsuit brought by Jara’s family.
Last month, Chile’s Supreme Court upheld the 2018 conviction of Barrientos and six other former military officers for Jara’s murder. However, only Barrientos and five other defendants remain alive to serve their prison sentences, which range from 15 to 18 years.
Joan’s death comes mere weeks before Barrientos was scheduled to be extradited back to Chile on November 28th to begin serving his sentence. While she will sadly not live to see her husband’s killer brought to justice, her tireless activism and campaigning ensured Víctor’s memory and music live on nearly five decades after his tragic death.
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Víctor Jara’s Enduring Musical Legacy
Even in death, Víctor Jara became a powerful symbol of resistance against Pinochet’s regime. His solidarity anthems such as “Venceremos” (We Will Win) continue to provide the soundtrack for social movements across Latin America today.
Born into poverty in southern Chile in 1932, Jara studied theater and was a member of Chile’s national dance company before launching a successful music career in the 1960s. He released numerous albums and composed one of his most famous songs, “Te Recuerdo Amanda” (I Remember You Amanda), in 1969.
Jara’s politically outspoken music made him a target after the September 11, 1973 coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende. The 40-year-old Jara was dragged from Santiago’s Technical University along with hundreds of students, professors, and activists who were taken to the National Stadium.
There he was tortured for days before a machine gun squad with Barrientos allegedly at the lead unloaded over 40 rounds into his body. The military then dumped his corpse outside the stadium to intimidate other potential dissidents.
Chile Continues Reckoning With Pinochet Era Abuses
Jara’s murder is one of the most emblematic crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. During this period, over 3,000 Chileans were killed by state security forces while tens of thousands more were jailed and tortured for their real or perceived opposition.
Efforts to uncover the truth about abuses under military rule were stalled until Pinochet finally ceded the presidency in 1990. However, he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces until 1998 when he was arrested in London on genocide charges.
Over the past decade, Chile has accelerated prosecutions of human rights violations from the Pinochet era. In addition to convictions in Jara’s case, scores of former military personnel have recently been found guilty of other acts of torture, forced disappearance, and murder dating back to the early post-coup years.
However, human rights groups continue pressuring the Chilean state to do more to deliver justice for victims five decades later. They are also calling for expanded reparations for survivors and victims’ families.
President Boric, Chile’s first leftist leader since Allende’s overthrow, has declared human rights a central priority of his administration. Upon taking office last March, he stated there could be “no half measures in justice or human rights” and vowed to pursue the truth about Chile’s past “no matter how painful it may be.”
With Joan Jara’s passing, Chile has lost a tenacious advocate for human rights and historical memory. But her unrelenting activism ensured her slain husband’s calls for justice have finally been answered. While Víctor Jara’s voice was cruelly silenced in 1973, the songs of resistance he inspired continue to resonate across Chile and beyond.