Second coup attempt: El Tanquetazo (the tank attack)

By June of 1973, an important part of the high command of the Armed Forces of Chile had lost respect for the legally constituted government. As a result, they played a deliberative role within the military. These officers learned that, by exerting pressure as a group, they could achieve such things as changes in the military's high command and an increase in the Armed Force's budget.(1) And a few days before June 29th, a conspiracy against the civilian authorities was discovered in the Santiago Garrison of the army. The commander of the garrison, General Mario Sepúlveda Squella, informed his immediate superiors and José Tohá, the Minister of Defense. The latter went public with this information on the afternoon of June 28th, and nine people involved in the conspiracy were arrested.(2)

But early in the morning of the following day, the gates of the barracks of the Second Armored Battalion in Santiago opened and a column of sixteen armored vehicles emerged, including tanks.  This force, plus eighty soldiers, was led by Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper, who had just learned that he would be relieved of his command for his part in the conspiracy. The mutinous column rapidly made its way to the center of Santiago and encircled the presidential palace, La Moneda, and the building housing the Ministry of Defense, just across the Plaza de la Libertad. Two minutes before 9:00 AM it opened fire on these symbols of the constitutional government.(3)

At the Ministry, a tank made its way to the main entrance, climbed the steps leading into the building after obliterating a utility pole, and with its guns began an intense attack on the Ministry's offices.  Sargent Rafael Veillena, of the Army's Second Division, was killed when he looked out a ninth floor window.  The firing of machine guns and tanks panicked the workers and employees who in the early morning of that day had made their way to their jobs in the center of Santiago. Some men and women ran in fear, others threw themselves to the floor seeking cover. A woman who worked at the State Bank in Banderas Street was killed, as well as a couple who were strafed by machine-gun fire at the corner of Moneda and Agustinas Streets. At least sixteen people were wounded there, four of them seriously.(4)

Immediately after these initial events, Sepúlveda called the commander of the Military Institutes, General Guillermo Pickering, requesting his support to suffocate the rebellion. After securing his adhesion Sepúlveda called General Carlos Prats with a plan to neutralize Souper's rebel force.  Prats approved it without delay, and a few minutes later Sepúlveda had made the plan operational, deciding which units and miltary schools would act, from which directions they would converge on the center of Santiago, where they would position themselves, and what they would do.(5) In the meantime Prats went to the nearby military regiments around Santiago to secure their support against the mutiny.  But after confirming the cooperation of the "Tacna" Infantry Regiment, the General encountered resistance from the officers at the Junior Officers' School. One of them, a major, claimed that he did not want to fire against fellow soldiers.  Another officer mentioned that his brother was a soldier in the rebellious Second Armored Battalion. Prats would have none of it.  The insurrectionary movement against the constitutional government had to be routed, he insisted.  And as the Commander in Chief of the Army of Chile, he expressed his position as an order.  After a brief moment of indecision among the officers, they decided to support the efforts of their commander.  Soon after 10:30 AM, combat-ready units of the School joined the mission against the rebels.(6)

Earlier that morning, from the presidential residence at Tomas Moro in Santiago, Salvador Allende had spoken to the people of Chile. In his 9:30 AM radio address, the president announced his unequivocal decision to defend the constitutional government against an attempted coup d'etat. He called upon the workers of Santiago to occupy the factories "and be ready in case it is necessary to fight alongside the soldiers of Chile."(7) Now, as Prats drove his car toward La Moneda, he was thinking that it would be logical to suppose that the Second Armored Battalion was not acting alone. That other military units were either taking part in a putchist conspiracy or, at least, were waiting to act until they had seen the initial results. Prats therefore decided to use all the resources available to him to crush the rebellion before noon.(8)

At the corner of 18th Street and O'Higgins Avenue, Prats got out of his car carrying a Thompson machine gun.  A large number of people had congregated nearby, nervously watching the movement of troops.  When Colonel Julio Canessa arrived with forces from the Junior Officers' School, Prats ordered that the pieces of heavy artillery be deployed along the Avenue. Then he took what he subsequently called "a calculated risk," deciding to speak directly to the mutinous soldiers in an effort to convince them to give up their fight. By taking this course of action, Prats sought to prevent a long confrontation and unnecessary military and civilian casualties.(9) According to Prats's later account: "I then decided to advance in the company of Lieutenant Colonel Osvaldo Hernández, Captain Roger Vergara, and First Sargeant Omar Vergara. Extremely moved, Villaroel, the Military Chaplain, gave us the last absolution."(10)

At 11:10 AM, the three men walked along Alameda Avenue carrying assault weapons.  When they reached the corner of Alameda and Teatinos Street, they were within steps of Tank E-2814.(11) The commander of the tank trained his machine gun on the group but did not fire. Prats ordered him to come down, identify himself, obey his orders, and surrender to the soldiers of the Junior Officers' School.(12) According to the account of a journalist watching the events nearby, "the soldier came down, stood at attention before the general, and saluted.  That tank would not again fire against the Ministry of Defense or La Moneda on that morning."(13) Prats successively repeated these orders to the other tanks and combat vehicles located south of the Palace.(14) Then he reached a tank from which a soldier shouted: "I will not surrender, General!," while pointing his machine gun at Prats's group.  Suddenly, Major Osvaldo Zabala sneaked up on the threatening soldier from behind and put a gun to his temple, thus disarming him and bringing the tense standoff to an end.(15)

A few of the tanks fled rather than surrendering, however, after reinforcements from the "Buin" First Infantry Regiment arrived at the scene. This military unit, led by none other than General Augusto Pinochet, quickly deployed its cannons and machine guns.(16) The last rebelling unit to flee was a group of tanks and military vehicles stationed north of La Moneda.  As this convoy fled south down Teatinos Street, Prats was able to see Roberto Souper, "who looked disoriented and lost." Immediately thereafter, Prats entered the palace and ordered that the buildings nearby be searched. Then, as he walked to his office at the Ministry of Defense, he was joined by General Pickering and Minister Tohá. Pickering had meanwhile cleared the rebels out of the western sector of Morande Street, near the presidential palace.(17) By 11:30 AM, the shooting around La Moneda had subsided and the coup attempt appeared to be over.

Souper surrendered later in the day, after units of the Tacna regiment encircled and fired on the Second Battalion's barracks, where he had taken refuge. During the evening, President Allende addressed a massive demonstration of support for the constitutional government in front of La Moneda.  As he neared the end of his speech, he said: " your government.  Go home and kiss your wives and children in the name of Chile."(18) It was soon discovered that the main leaders of the extreme right-wing group, Fatherland and Liberty, had been the instigators of the putsch. Pablo Rodríguez, John Schaeffer, Benjamín Matte, Manuel Fuentes, and Juan Hurtado sought asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy. From there they released a communique acknowledging that they had promoted the attempted coup.(19) The military officers involved in its planning were René López, Edwin Ditmer, Antonio Bustamante, Mario Garay, Carlos Martínez, Raúl Jofre, and José Gasset.(20)

(1) Ahumada, Eugenio et al. Chile: la memoria prohibida I, (1989), p. 10. Santiago, Chile: Pehuén Editores
(2) Ibid., p. 5
(3) Ibid.
(4) El Mercurio, (June 30, 1973). In Los mil dias de Allende I, (1997). Miguel González Pino, et al., eds. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios Públicos
(5) Cf. Ahumada, p. 17
(6) Prats, Carlos. Memorias: testimonio de un soldado, (1985), pp. 418-419. Santiago, Chile: Pehuén Editores
(7) Ibid., p. 419
(8) Ahumada,  p. 8
(9) Cf. Prats, pp. 419-420
(10) Ibid., p. 420
(11) Ahumada, p. 18
(12) Prats, p. 420
(13) Ahumada, p. 18
(14) Prats, p. 420
(15) Ahumada, p. 19
(16) Ibid.
(17) Prats, p. 421
(18) Ahumada, pp. 19-24
(19) Prats, p. 422
(20) Ahumada, p. 29

Photo credits (from top to bottom)

1, 6, and 7: Prats, Carlos. Memorias: testimonio de un soldado, (1985).  Santiago, Chile: Pehuén Editores

2: Rama, Carlos M. Chile: mil dias entre la revolucion y el fascismo, (1974). Barcelona, Espana

3, 4, 5, and 8: Los mil dias de Allende I, (1997). Miguel González Pino, et al., eds. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios Públicos

Army General Mario Sepúlveda Squella

Loyalist soldiers take position

A  tense moment between an officer and a tank commander

A  rebel soldier surrenders to General Pickering...

...and stands at attention while other soldiers surround him

"Prats ordered him to come down, identify himself, obey his orders, and surrender..."

General Augusto Pinochet talks with Carlos Prats

From left to right: Generals Pickering and Prats, Minister Jose Toha and Pinochet

 Allende wins the elections
 The Popular Unity government
 El Tanquetazo: June 29, 1973
 The definitive coup
  Resources and links