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Amazon pulls Chile dictatorship 'death flights' T-shirts after backlash

Uki Goñi
Photograph: Amazon

Amazon has come under fire for selling T-shirts glorifying the “death flights” of Chile’s military dictatorship in which leftwing opponents of the regime were dropped from helicopters in an attempt to hide their murders.

More than 3,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, and in 2001, the then president, Ricardo Lagos, revealed that at least 120 of them were later thrown to their deaths from helicopters into “Chile’s ocean, lakes and rivers”.

Related: Chilean army admits 120 thrown into sea

T-shirts making light of such atrocities have become popular among the far right, and were openly on sale on Amazon – where shoppers could choose garments emblazoned with Pinochet’s face alongside images of helicopters or slogans such as “Free Helicopter Rides”.

Survivors of the dictatorship expressed outrage that the e-commerce giant could sell T-shirts mocking violent killings.

“It is unbearable for people like me who had to endure that time when people were thrown alive into the sea from helicopters,” the Chilean author Diamela Eltit told the Guardian.

“This is not only hurtful, it is also of incomprehensible cruelty. It shows how the worst part of humanity can be absorbed by the market and transformed into an object of consumption,” she said.

Other T-shirts available on Amazon depicted a body in freefall from a helicopter beneath the caption “Wanna take a ride?” or showed a helicopter with the legend “Pinochet Is My Co-Pilot”.

One shirt – depicting a helicopter beneath the legend “Anti-Commie Action” – was advertised on Amazon as “the perfect gift for any Patriot, Trump supporter, conservative, republican person you may know.”

When asked for comment by the Guardian on Thursday afternoon, Amazon declined to comment. Most of the garments disappeared from the website soon afterwards, but several were still available.

The popularity of Pinochet T-shirts among the US far-right was first highlighted during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the white nationalist Christopher Cantwell wore one in an interview with Vice.

A T-shirt alluding to helicopter flights by the Chilean military dictatorship of Gen Augusto Pinochet that cast political prisoners to their deaths in the ocean, as presented for sale on Amazon on 5 December 2019. Photograph: Amazon

Last year, a political storm erupted in Chile when the far-right politician José Antonio Kast – who came fourth in the 2017 presidential elections – was pictured alongside a supporter wearing a T-shirt saying “Pinochet’s Helicopter Tours”.

Although Kast has often spoken favourably of Pinochet’s dictatorial regime, the politician said he did not realise what the T-shirt said when he was asked to pose for the selfie.

Tens of thousands of people were detained or tortured following Chile’s 1973 coup.

In the first month after coming to power, Pinochet ordered his military to round up more than 10,000 students, workers and political activists in Chile’s National Stadium, which became an improvised concentration camp and torture centre.

Earlier this month, Amazon was forced to pull Christmas ornaments decorated with images of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where over 1 million people were murdered during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Eltit, who founded the Collective of Art Actions (Cada) in 1979 as an act of resistance against censorship during the dictatorship, described the sale of such items on Amazon as a tear in the fabric of society.

“These examples – the Auschwitz Christmas ornaments, or T-shirts depicting bodies thrown alive into the sea – are a metaphor of how the social pacts that bind us together are being broken by free-market consumerism,” she said.