Discreet Path to Justice?: Chile, Thirty Years After the Military Coup

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, September 2003

III. Progress In Other Human Rights Trials

Since 1998, there has been notable progress in holding to account those responsible for human rights violations under military rule. As of the end of July 2003, an additional twenty-two defendants had been convicted. Even more stunningly, no fewer than 334 individuals were facing charges such as kidnapping, murder, and illegal arrest.10 Among the defendants were twenty-two generals, and forty colonels and lieutenant colonels.11

The most dramatic increase in prosecutions occurred during the first six months of 2003, when 120 members of the armed forces were charged in thirty-eight separate cases.12

These cases include some of the most emblematic ones of the years immediately following the coup. Others from the period between 1978 and 1990 have also been advancing with surprising speed, particularly compared to earlier years.

Nevertheless, due in large part to military intransigence, progress toward clarifying the fate of Chile's 1,102 "disappeared" has been painfully slow. Overall, only about 10 percent of the victims have been accounted for.13 Most of those whose bodies have been recovered were abducted and believed killed between 1973 and 1974, when the repression was still decentralized and disorganized. A civilian-military round table set up in August 1999 to discuss the issue of "disappearances" led to an agreement between human rights lawyers and the armed forces that the latter would obtain information from their members who participated in the atrocities. This information was made public in January 2001, with the military acknowledging for the first time that the bodies of some 151 prisoners had been thrown from aircraft in the sea, rivers and lakes of Chile. Yet, although this admission was itself important, the information provided on burial sites was full of inaccuracies. Moreover, the military's report revealed nothing about the fate of the hundreds of victims who "disappeared" at the hands of the DINA between 1974 and 1978.

Advances in pre-1978 cases owe much to the conscientious work of special judges-appointed in 2001 and in the years that followed-with a mandate to devote themselves full time to human rights cases.14 The distress caused to relatives of the victims by the serious errors in the information provided by the armed forces generated wide public sympathy for these measures.15 In mid-2001 the government approved a budget supplement of 500 million pesos (approximately U.S.$714,000) to cover the costs of the special judges. Their number has fluctuated, but since 2001 their mandate has been renewed several times. Indicative of the increase in judicial activity, in October 2002, part of the enormous caseload taken on by Judge Juan Guzmán (ninety-nine cases in all) was redistributed to four other special judges.

10 Another thirty-one were under investigation, although not yet charged. 113 of those convicted, charged, or under investigation belonged to the army, seventy-seven to Carabineros (the uniformed police), twenty-six to the air force, fourteen to the navy, and nine to Investigaciones (the criminal investigations branch of the police).

11 Nómina de Procesados y Condenados por Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos al 31 de Julio de 2003. Programa de Derechos Humanos, Ministerio del Interior.

12 Fundacion Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad, Informe de Derechos Humanos del Primer Semestre de 2003, p. 7. Initially, the Supreme Court appointed two ministros en visita (judges appointed to dedicate themselves exclusively to a single case) to investigate information provided by the army about six bodies thrown down an abandoned mineshaft on the Cuesta Barriga, a hill outside Santiago, and others buried at the army base of Fort Arteaga. These burial sites were among the few identified by the armed forces in their January 2001 report to the civilian-military roundtable. Of 180 victims listed, the military stated that some 150 had been thrown from planes into the sea, lakes, and rivers of Chile. After compiling a register of all the cases then under court investigation, in June 2001 the Supreme Court announced the assignment of nine judges to work full-time on human rights cases, while fifty-one others were assigned to work on them as a priority. The judges were required to report every month on the progress of their investigations. Fundacion Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad, Informe de Derechos Humanos del Primer Semestre de 2001.

13 Mireya García, vice president of the AFDD, cited in Vicaría de la Solidaridad, Informe de Derechos Humanos, Segundo Semestre 2002, p. 37.

14 According to the Fundación Social de las Iglesias Cristianas (FASIC), which has provided legal assistance to victims of human rights violations for nearly thirty years, "this judicial initiative has constituted the most efficient, appropriate and productive mechanism ever created in our judiciary to tackle a challenge of this nature, and the results are evident." FASIC, "Derechos Humanos Chile: Un Nuevo Escenario". (retrieved on August 10, 2003).

15 As an example of the mistakes, the remains of Juan Luis Rivera Matus, said by the military to have been cast into the sea, were found in March 2001 in a grave at Fort Arteaga. Furthermore, forensic investigators at the Cuesta Barriga and Fort Arteaga sites soon realized that bodies had been secretly removed at a later date, leaving only fragments behind. Other cases of the removal of bodies had been discovered in earlier years. Of this the armed forces had said nothing in their report.