Many Chileans refer to “the other 9/11” the Sept. 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 died, apparently by suicide. The ensuing 17-year dictatorship was embraced then, and even now, by a large segment of Chilean society, as is made chillingly clear in the new documentary The Judge and the General. But many Chileans resisted Pinochet at first covertly and then more openly even as the regime was increasingly isolated abroad.
Sensing the waning of their military rule in the late 1980s, Pinochet and his colleagues engineered a transition to civilian government intended to guarantee them a heavy hand in succeeding governments and immunity from prosecution. The Judge and the General is the unusual story of the man who challenged that immunity, Juan Guzmán, a modest, conservative judge who had long been a Pinochet supporter. But he is also an idealistic man whose courage in unearthing the truth of the Pinochet years including his own blindness to that truth has unleashed a whirlwind of repressed emotions in Chile, and written a new chapter in human rights law for Chile and the world.
The Judge and the General is an important and incisive update on a watershed episode of the Cold War that continues to bitterly divide Chilean society by two veteran journalists who have reported on Chile for four decades. The film features a secret army recording of communications on the day of the coup played for Guzmán by a journalist imprisoned under Pinochet which makes it clear that the General had decided on Allende’s death from the start. “If you kill the bitch, you get rid of the offspring,” Pinochet snarls to his commanders. The film is also a fascinating snapshot of evolving international human rights law and its application to nations torn by war or civil disorder, seeking both justice and reconciliation.
Pinochet’s immunity was not significantly 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. (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, signed by higher judges, that abetted Pinochet’s coup. A man from a wealthy and patrician family, Guzmán believed the Pinochet version of events: that the army had saved the country from 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.
Guzmán’s story is as revealing for his worldview before taking on the Pinochet case as for his change of heart. How could he not know of the regime’s systematic brutality when the rest of the world knew? In the United States, CIA complicity in the coup was hotly debated, while the 1978 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 assassination, committed by the DINA, Chile’s secret police under Pinochet, helped begin the slide in the regime’s international legitimacy as domestic opposition revived and spread.
And yet, until that criminal complaint filed by the families of victims landed on his desk, Guzmán, who knew there had been violations, believed that tales of mass murder and systematic violations of human rights to be mostly ”communist” propaganda. Eduardo Contreras, lawyer for the families, was hardly encouraged in his first meeting with Guzmán, whom he found polite but skeptical. In the film, Guzmán explains his attitude as the natural product of his environment, the highly insulated world of the Chilean elite, and a family tradition of military service. In this respect, Guzmán presents the classic conundrum of the “good German,” who is neither an ideologue nor an extremist, but who nonetheless does not challenge the rise of an extremist ideology.
Guzmán’s investigative and prosecutorial efforts afterwards provide atonement. With little support from the Chilean judiciary, and in growing personal danger, he undertakes an arduous examination of cases offering both physical evidence of systematic crimes and a legal strategy of overcoming Pinochet’s immunity.
The Judge and the General follows two of Guzmán’s investigations: the killing of Manuel Donoso, a young sociology professor, during the “caravan of death,” when 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.
The second case involves 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, thrown into the sea.
One of the things that most struck Guzmán in his investigations was that few of the victims could be described as violent revolutionaries. They were union or peasant organizers, or members of the intelligentsia writers, teachers, and lawyers who supported Allende’s vision of a socialist Chile.
The Judge and the General follows the twists and turns of the efforts of Guzmán and others to overcome Pinochet’s immunity, his claims to be too ill, even too senile, to stand trial, and then his final defense when significant proof of his crimes had been gathered that he had known nothing of them. Was Pinochet, who died in 2006 while under house arrest, brought to justice in the eyes of society? Or did he escape being “touched” as his supporters jubilantly proclaim? What are the prospects for the cases against Pinochet underlings that are now underway? Most importantly, what are the prospects for Chile finding both truth and reconciliation through a legal accounting of its recent violent past?
For Judge Guzmán, a man who says that his investigations “opened the eyes of my soul,” there is one clear choice: “A wounded country needs to know the truth.”
“I was especially interested in understanding the phenomenon of ‘the Good German,’ the conscientious person of high ideals who goes along with state terror because it offers safety and order in a time of chaos,” says co-director/co-producer Farnsworth. Adds co-director/co-producer Lanfranco: “I was driven to explore more deeply the nature of hope. How could people have dared act as if justice would, in fact return, and gather evidence at a time when they could have been killed in retaliation?”
The Judge and the General is a co-production of West Wind Productions and Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).