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

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, September 2003

VI. Civil Military Relations

The relatively smooth relationship that exists today between the elected government and the armed forces should not disguise the fact that Chile's military leaders remain powerful actors in the political process. The relationship in the past has been punctuated by tense standoffs, including two displays of force by the army in 1990 and 1993.36 Chile is still far from being a country in which the military commanders behave like public servants with solely professional functions, subordinate to civilian leaders and answerable to the courts. Indeed, there is little press comment about the fact that high-level military officials persistently opine on political matters.37

President Lagos, a socialist, gained political standing as an outspoken opponent of General Pinochet. The father of the current minister of defense, Michelle Bachelet, Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet, died after torture in the public prison of Santiago six months after the military coup. Despite these historical antecedents, the Lagos government has a cordial working relationship with the armed forces, particularly with the army, now under the command of Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre. The entente between Lagos and Cheyre has not been seriously affected even by the de facto challenge to the amnesty decree.38

While Cheyre frequently expresses frustration at the "military parade" (desfile militar) of former soldiers through the courts, the army under his leadership has taken steps toward greater cooperation with the courts and the police. Nonetheless, the cooperation has been more formal than real, in the sense that the army responds to judges' investigative requests, but offers the bare minimum of information.

Significantly, Cheyre chose to open the anniversary year of the military coup with a statement distancing today's army from those events, and from the military government itself. "I am not a political actor and I do not desire to be one. Nor am I, or the institution I command, heir to a particular regime of government. Its defense, if any defense is needed, is up to other people or entities," said Cheyre in a widely commented article in the newspaper La Tercera on January 5, 2003. There was no triumphal evocation of the "military pronouncement" (the phrase Pinochet and his civilian supporters used to refer to the coup). Instead, Cheyre deplored the "acute civic enmity" of the time. "Those violations of human rights have no justification," the general stated categorically.39

Cheyre made public comments on June 13 in the northern town of Calama in which he sharply criticized civilians who had encouraged military intervention. "Never again, the [civilian] sectors that incited us and officially backed our intervention in the crisis that they provoked. Never again, excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism."40 He also extended his earlier condemnation of human rights abuses: "we are building an army for the 21st century. At the same time we have given proof that our process has committed itself never again to repeat human rights violations."41 The most striking indicator of the changed civil-military climate was that Cheyre ran his January article by Lagos, and met the President privately before his Calama speech.

Cheyre also obtained support for his position from a number of retired generals. Eight former junta members and ministers of the military government signed a July 3 statement recognizing that violations had been committed that could not be repeated, and expressing their intention to cooperate with the courts.42 Most notable about this statement was that it omitted any criticism of the judiciary or any reference to judges' obligation to apply the amnesty decree.43

As can be seen from these examples, the army discourse has changed. However, the institution still has far to go before it fully severs its ties with the military regime. For example, it continues to deduct a percentage of soldiers' pay to cover the legal costs of retired personnel facing criminal charges for torture and "disappearances."44

Legal reforms needed to restore the authority of the elected government over the armed forces are still pending after thirteen years of democratic rule. These include constitutional amendments to end the armed forces' official role as guardians of the constitution, and to restore the president's powers to remove the commanders-in-chief. Military courts still have jurisdiction over civilians for a variety of offenses, including assault on a police officer, and over military personnel accused of human rights violations committed while on active duty. The overhaul of the military justice code to limit the jurisdiction of military courts to purely military offenses is a long overdue reform to which Human Rights Watch attaches great importance.

Furthermore, the army must carry out internal investigations into abuses committed by its intelligence agents since 1990, and turn over the results to the courts. A dark shadow still covers the activities of the Army Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia del Ejército, DINE) during the 1990s. This agency is alleged to have spied on politicians, judges, and police, and smuggled former military agents wanted for judicial questioning out of the country. 45

Even more serious, credible recent testimonies by former secret police agents suggest that DINE agents were responsible for the assassination of police and army personnel who had information on cases under judicial investigation that compromised senior officers.46 One of them was Eugenio Berríos, a chemist who had worked for the DINA and was wanted for questioning in the Letelier case. DINE agents escorted him secretly to Uruguay, where he "disappeared" in suspicious circumstances in 1992, and was later found dead.47 None of these cases have yet been clarified in the courts, and the government has still not made public the results of any investigation into the DINE's activities during this period.48

36 The first was the so-called liaison exercise (Ejercicio de Enlace), a state of alert called on December 19, 1990, to protest corruption scandals involving Pinochet´s family. The second, on May 28, 1993, involved the threatening appearance on the Santiago streets of commandos in full combat gear, the so-called Boinazo. There have been minor moments of tension during the Lagos administration, such as a well-publicized lunch of the commanders-in-chief in a fashionable Santiago restaurant on May 15, 2000, organized to protest the legal proceedings against Pinochet. The incident was later dubbed the Servilletazo, after the Spanish word for table napkin.

37 An exception was a recent newspaper interview with a former minister in the Frei government, John Biehl, who remarked that he found it "very sad that the army commander makes declarations and afterwards the president congratulates him on them. That's not good in a democracy. It's been too many years for us to be still in the same situation." Juan Andrés Quezada, "Ya está bueno que los jefes de las FFAA dejen de hacer declaraciones políticas," La Tercera, August 23, 2003.

38 Cheyre's position has caused tension with most of the retired officers who participated in the coup and its aftermath, gaining him the sympathy of the government. "La soterrada guerra de los generales," El Mercurio, July 9, 2003. "¿Como rescatar al soldado Cheyre?" El Mercurio, July 13, 2003.

39 "Exclusivo: General Cheyre habla del golpe," La Tercera, January 5, 2003.

40 "Cheyre critica por primera vez a los que avalaron el golpe militar de 1973," La Tercera, June 14, 2003.

41 Ibid.

42 "Texto Completo de la Declaración de los ex altos mandos del Ejército," El Mostrador, July 4, 2003.

43 Pamela Jiles, "Cheyre y el nuevo Ejército," El Mostrador, July 11, 2003. (retrieved on August 17, 2003).

44 Patricio González, "Exoficiales valoran apoyo de las FFAA," El Mercurio, August 23, 2003.

45 Jorge Molina Sanhueza "Lo que debiera investigar el Ejército para aclarar hostigamientos de la DINE", El Mostrador, August 5, 2003. (retrieved on September 1, 2003).

46 Mónica González, "Yo sobreviví a la Operación Silencio," Siete Más Siete, No. 76, August 22, 2003.

47 Verónica Foxley and Mónica González, "Yo amé a un asesino," Siete Más Siete, No. 73, August 1, 2003.

48 See Human Rights Watch, "Unsettled Business: Human Rights in Chile at the Start of the Frei Presidency," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. VI, No. 6, May 1994, pp. 19-20.