Human Rights in Chile
Many Chileans refer to “the other 9/11” — the September 11, 1973, coup led by General Augusto Pinochet against the democratically elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende. The coup left thousands of Chileans dead, tortured or “disappeared.” Allende committed suicide. The ensuing 17-year dictatorship was embraced then, and even now, by a large segment of Chilean society. In the United States, CIA complicity in the coup was hotly debated, and the 1976 car-bomb assassination in Washington, D.C., of anti-Pinochet exile Orlando Letelier, along with his American associate, Ronnie Moffit, alienated many of the general’s North American supporters. That double assassination, committed by the DINA, Chile’s secret police under Pinochet, helped begin the slide in the regime’s international legitimacy as domestic opposition reignited and spread. The murder would later be identified as being part of Operation Condor, in which the Pinochet government pursued Chilean exiles, targeting dissidents for kidnapping, rendition, detention, torture and death. Because it took place in the United States, the assassination triggered an FBI investigation that would ultimately reveal some of Pinochet’s abuses and contribute to his downfall.
By the late 1980s, Pinochet and his colleagues sensed the waning of their military rule and engineered a transition to civilian government intended to guarantee them a heavy hand in succeeding governments — and immunity from prosecution.
Pinochet’s immunity was not challenged throughout most of the 1990s by elected center-left governments. When relatives of victims filed a criminal complaint against Pinochet in 1998, no one expected anything to happen — an expectation reinforced when the case was assigned by lottery to appellate court judge Juan Guzmán. (For human rights cases in Chile, judges are responsible for investigating and prosecuting, as well as trying, cases.)
Guzmán was seen as a conservative judge who, as a young law clerk, had penned some of the denials of habeas corpus, which were signed by higher judges. A man from a wealthy and patrician family, Guzmán believed the Pinochet version of events: that the army had saved the country from a Communist revolution and that any excesses committed by the military were the inevitable consequences of a dire struggle. Then the unexpected happened — Judge Guzmán began investigating the allegations in detail and in earnest.
Judge Guzmán’s investigation included over 1,000 cases. One of the many victims was Manuel Donoso, a young sociology professor who was killed during the “caravan of death.” Pinochet’s right-hand man, General Sergio Arrellano Stark, flew in a helicopter from town to town, marking on lists the names of those to be executed. Guzmán’s disinterment of Donoso’s remains, which proved that he had been murdered rather than killed in a road accident as the army claimed, provides a dramatic foreground to the heart-rending account of Mónica Moya, Donoso’s widow, of his arrest and torture.
Left: Cecilia Castro and husband Juan Carlos Rodriguez on their wedding day.
Another prominent case involved the “disappeared” Cecilia Castro, a young law student and political activist, whose mother, Edita, was forced to lead Pinochet’s secret police to her daughter’s hiding place in order to save her granddaughter’s life. Guzmán and his detectives determined that some political prisoners, perhaps including Cecilia, had been made to disappear by having their bodies tied to iron rails, then thrown into the sea.
In 1998, General Pinochet was arrested in Britain while undergoing medical treatment. Initially, a Spanish court requested his extradition for human rights violations and the British government placed him under house arrest. Doctors deemed Pinochet too ill to stand trial, and he stayed in Britain until 2000, when he was flown back to Chile. His immunity was taken away, and in 2006, several judges indicted Pinochet and high courts ruled him mentally competent to stand trial. He was placed under house arrest and awaiting trial on multiple counts of fraud, torture and murder until his death on December 10, 2006.
Timeline of Events
1970 — Salvador Allende, a Socialist, is elected president of Chile.
1972 — Allende nationalizes many of the nation’s resources. The economy begins to falter and the inflation rate surges. The nation is plagued by frequent strikes and political protests.
Allende promotes military officer Augusto Pinochet to be commander-in-chief of the army.
1973 — Pinochet leads a military coup that topples the government.
Manuel Donoso is killed.
1973 — An ecumenical committee is created (Comité Pro Paz) to help those persecuted by the dictatorship.
1974 — Pinochet creates the National Intelligence Agency (DINA).
1976 — Pinochet shuts down the Pro Paz committee, and the Catholic Church creates the Vicariate of Solidarity to protest human rights violations and to gather evidence on all those killed and disappeared. The church-run organization also provides legal aid for families of Pinochet’s victims.
The us Congress passes the Kennedy Amendment, which bans military aid to the Pinochet government.
Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States, is assassinated by car bomb. His American colleague, Ronnie Karpen Moffit, is also killed.
1977 — Pinochet dissolves the DINA (though it is replaced by another agency, the CNI).
1978 — Pinochet grants amnesty for acts that representatives of his government committed between 1973 and 1978. He also rewrites the constitution to assure his rule until 1988.
1980 — In a dubious referendum process, the country votes to endorse a new constitution giving Pinochet unfettered rule for another eight years while also creating the appearance that the government is legitimate and working to reestablish democracy.
Some Chileans begin armed resistance against the Pinochet government. Over the next few months they especially target power stations and supply lines, creating blackouts across the nation.
1983 — The first national protest takes place, organized by a union of copper workers. There have been sporadic protests both in and outside of Chile for a decade, but this consolidates the opposition. The military responds by occupying working-class neighborhoods of Santiago; but monthly protests would continue for the next two years.
1987 — Center-left opposition parties form a coalition to defeat Pinochet in upcoming elections. Voter registration happens for the first time since 1973.
1988 — Amid growing protests, Pinochet is defeated in a plebiscite. Pinochet considers ignoring the public’s decision, but the military refuses to back him. He steps down as president but remains commander of the army for another decade, during which arrests and murders of political opponents (including potential witnesses to Pinochet’s atrocities) continue. He also assumes the title of “Senator for Life,” which gives him parliamentary immunity from prosecution in Chile.
1989 — Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin is elected president in the first free elections since the coup. He pardons many political prisoners who had been arrested by Pinochet, but continues Pinochet’s free-market economic policies.
1990 — Chile creates a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (known by its leader’s name as the Rettig Commission). Its 1991 “Rettig Report” would verify that during Pinochet’s reign, more than 2,000 Chileans had suffered serious human rights abuses by agents of the state resulting in disappearance or death.
1992 — The National Corporation for Reparations and Reconciliation is created to follow up on the Rettig Report and determine reparations amounts for the families of Pinochet’s victims.
1998 — The first criminal complaints against Pinochet are presented to the courts. The case is assigned to Judge Juan Guzmán, who begins his investigation of Pinochet.
While in London for medical treatment, Pinochet is arrested. Spain asks for extradition in order to try him for the killings of Spanish nationals in Chile. He remains in London under house arrest for 16 months. Ultimately, Home Secretary Jack Straw denies extradition on the grounds that the general is medically unfit to stand trial.
2000 — Pinochet returns to Chile. Families of the “disappeared” and other victims demand that he be tried in Chile. Attorneys of the victims’ families petition Judge Guzmán to remove Pinochet’s immunity for the Caravan of Death crimes on the grounds that since the bodies of the “disappeared” had never been found, the crime is ongoing and therefore immunity for a specific time period cannot apply. Judge Guzmán takes that request to the Court of Appeals. The court agrees and lifts immunity, but also decides that Pinochet is medically unfit to stand trial.
2003 — Guzmán sees Pinochet do a television interview with Miami journalist Maria Elvira Salazar. He appears to be fit.
2004 — Guzmán declares that General Pinochet is now competent to stand trial and indicts him. He also orders Pinochet kept under house arrest.
2005 — Former DINA director Manuel Contreras is arrested.
2006 — Michelle Bachelet is inaugurated as president of Chile; she had been elected at the end of 2005. During Pinochet’s regime, she and her mother had been imprisoned, and her father died as the result of torture.
2006 — Pinochet dies while awaiting trial. Bachelet’s government refuses to declare national mourning. Former Pinochet supporters gather outside the military hospital to protest. Pinochet’s will instructs that he be cremated rather than buried so that there would never be a gravesite that could be desecrated.
By the time of Pinochet’s death, 497 agents of his government had been indicted and 30 had been convicted and imprisoned. More than 3,000 victims had been identified, though many more suffered human rights violations during the Pinochet regime.
2007 — Another 200 Pinochet agents are indicted. Investigations continue.
» The Judge and the General.
» “Augusto Pinochet, 1915-2006: He Took His Crimes to the Grave. ” The Global Policy Forum. December 11, 2006.
» “Chile and the End of Pinochet. ” The Nation. February 8, 2001.
» “Chile’s Most Famous Judge. ” BBC News. December 14, 2004.
» Federation of American Scientists.
Approximately 16.6 million people live in Chile. Most are of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent and identify as Christian (mostly Roman Catholic). Compared with neighboring countries, the Chilean economy has been relatively prosperous, with copper exports as a special focus. The nation, which gained independence from Spain in 1818, has a long history of multiparty elections, notwithstanding the interruption of democracy by the Pinochet regime.
Judge Juan Guzmán
Left: Judge Guzmán and a detective oversee the disinternment.
The son of a Chilean diplomat and famous poet, Juan Guzmán was born in 1939 in El Salvador. He grew up in several countries before returning to Chile to study law. He first worked as a financial advisor in the United States, but returned to Chile in 1970, just as Salvador Allende was elected to the presidency. Like his parents, Guzmán opposed Allende’s political agenda and was initially supportive of the Pinochet regime. But while serving as a judge, Guzmán began to have doubts as he came to understand how the government maintained its grip on power. At the time, he did not speak out and continued to perform his duties as a judge, eventually rising to serve on the Court of Appeals.
Guzmán retained his position after the restoration of democracy in 1990. When, in 1998, attorneys for the relatives of the victims petitioned the court to prosecute those responsible for the “disappeared,” a judicial lottery assigned Pinochet’s case to Guzmán. In Chile at that time, in addition to hearing cases, judges investigated and determined whom to prosecute, so Guzmán’s role in holding accountable those who were responsible was critical.
Judge Guzmán ultimately indicted Pinochet and other member of his security forces. Guzmán retired from the judiciary in 2005. He is now the director of the Institute of Human Rights, which he founded at the Central University of Chile.
» “Chile’s Most Famous Judge.” BBC News. December 14, 2004.
» “Shining a Light into the Abyss of Chile’s Dictator.” The New York Times. February 25, 2006.