Chile's Disappeared: Will the Search Ever End?

Though Pinochet is awaiting trial, hundreds of cases remain unresolved, and many Chileans fear that justice won't be done

By Louise Egan

Mireya García has waited more than 20 years for this moment. But now that it is here, she fears it will slip away -- again. The man she holds responsible for her brother's death and disappearance, former dictator General Augusto Pinochet, has been under house arrest since Jan. 31 and is awaiting trial for human-rights abuses committed during his 1973-90 regime.

At the same time, a new report from the Chilean military recently revealed the identities of 200 people who disappeared under Pinochet's iron-fisted rule. In some cases, military officers loaded the bodies of victims on to helicopters and dumped them into the waters of the Pacific Ocean or buried them in mass graves in remote areas of the country, the report says. The revelations are doubly shocking because Chile's top brass has never come clean on its role in the dirty war.

But García, whose brother's name did not appear in the report, believes the military still isn't telling the whole truth. She also suspects Pinochet may ultimately get off the hook. "After 27 years of incompetence, denials, and complicity, it is pretty hard to start believing in the judicial system again overnight," says García, who gave up her job as a social worker to devote herself full-time to the Association of Families of the Disappeared, a nongovernmental organization based in Santiago.


  Many Chileans share García's skepticism. Her mother got no help from the courts back in 1977 when she desperately tried to locate her 19-year-old son, a Socialist Party activist, who was last seen at a torture center in Santiago run by Pinochet's secret police. In those days, it was common for judges to tell the mothers and wives of the disappeared that their men had simply abandoned them or were living abroad.

It has been a long, tough road to achieve justice, thanks to a blanket amnesty that protects the military from being tried for crimes committed between 1973 and 1978, the bloodiest years of the dictatorship. Still, families' newfound hope is tinged with anxiety. Chile's right-wing political parties are vigorously pressing for a negotiated solution to Pinochet-era crimes. That would most likely take the form of an agreement guaranteeing impunity for human-rights violators in exchange for information on the whereabouts of the disappeared. Only 175 of those have been found so far. And if the military's new data on 200 victims is verified by the courts in a follow-up investigation already under way, that still leaves 677 unresolved cases.

Those awaiting justice aren't alone in their anxiousness. Human-rights experts still harbor doubts about the accuracy of the military's report. For one thing, there's no way to confirm whether bodies were dumped into the ocean. And weeks of searching at two mass grave sites have so far produced only a few bone fragments. The report even contains some bizarre contradictions. Human-rights lawyer Carmen Hertz was puzzled to learn her husband was reported to have been thrown into the ocean just one day after he was detained by the army, when eyewitnesses reported seeing him alive several days after his detention. "The report says nothing new. It is a fraud," says Elias Padilla, a member of Amnesty International.


  But why would the Chilean military go to the trouble of compiling a bogus report? The answer may be that officers are trying to save their own skins. Until quite recently, most military personnel, Pinochet included, could rest easy in the knowledge that the amnesty law would shield them from prosecution. But that was before human-rights groups discovered a loophole in the law that allows the courts to treat some disappearance cases as kidnappings, a crime that has no statute of limitations.

Human-rights groups maintain that by purposely withholding information on the whereabouts of the disappeared, the military is trying to pressure President Ricardo Lagos into dropping all lawsuits against Pinochet and other military personnel. Lagos -- a socialist who lost friends in the 1973 coup -- has refused to intervene, saying this is a matter for the country's courts. "It's the weapon of silence," says García, who can rattle off the names of a dozen torturers and spies who lead normal lives in Chile today.

The current head of the Chilean armed forces, Ricardo Izurieta, who is more moderate but still intensely loyal to Pinochet, swears the military has given the public all the information it has. However, rumors circulate that Pinochet's despised former secret police chief Manuel Contreras, who recently finished serving a prison sentence for masterminding the 1976 car-bomb murder of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C., personally keeps data on at least 400 cases. Others say the intelligence service burned the files on the disappeared in the final days of the military regime.


  Even if all the disappeared are found, their families vow to plug away until justice is done. "For me, finding my brother's remains is a necessity of life," says García. "But equally important is knowing and punishing whoever arrested him, tortured him, murdered him, and hid his body."

All eyes in Chile are now on the nation's judges, as they attempt to bring the 85-year old Pinochet to trial on charges of kidnapping and murder. It's history in the making. And 25-year old Carola Peña doesn't want to miss any of it. Cheering outside the Santiago courthouse where a judge issued the order to place the former dictator under house arrest, she says: "I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I was there the day Pinochet was arrested." This may the end of the Pinochet saga -- or another tortured chapter.

Egan is a freelance writer living in Santiago

Edited by Cristina Lindblad

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