Impunity Challenged in Chile. . .

September 25, 2007

SANTIAGO—It has not been a banner year for Chile's former military tyrants. October 16, 1998, saw the arrest in London of their maximum leader, the ex-dictator and Senator-for-life Augusto Pinochet, on charges, originating in Spain, of torture and genocide. On September 29, 1999, the man who ordered the bombing of the La Moneda presidential palace during the military coup of September 1973 and promised to "eradicate the Marxist cancer" from Chile, retired General Gustavo Leigh, died. In between, retired Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark, commander of the "Caravan of Death," which roamed Chile "disappearing" political prisoners in the months after the military coup, and retired Gen. Humberto Gordón Rubio, a former junta member and head of the Chilean secret police accused in the 1982 assassination of labor leader Tucapel Jiménez, have been arrested on human rights charges—in Chile.

Chilean prosecutor Juan Guzmán Tapia, who is pursuing human rights investigations against Pinochet and other officials of the dictatorship, brought the Caravan of Death charges. The accused in the Caravan case include former secret police second-in-command Brigadier Pedro Espinoza and three other former army officers. Espinoza is currently imprisoned in Chile for his role in the 1976 assassination of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington, D.C.

The Caravan of Death case produced a milestone Supreme Court decision last July denying the officers' claim of immunity under the 1978 amnesty law promulgated by the military dictatorship. The Court found, in agreement with Guzmán, that the amnesty did not apply to 19 disappearances attributed to the unit in which the bodies of the victims have never been found. It judged these to be an ongoing crime of "perpetual kidnapping," opening the possibility of other prosecutions on similar grounds.

The September 14 arrest of Gen. Gordón, a Pinochet loyalist who headed the secret police when Tucapel Jiménez was assassinated, signals the growing momentum against military impunity. Jiménez was the head of Chile's public- sector workers' union at the time of his February 25, 1982 murder. Originally sympathetic to the dictatorship, he grew critical of its repressive labor decrees and its embrace of free-market policies, and organized a coalition of labor groups opposed to the dictatorship. Though a previous head of the secret police, Gen. Manuel Contreras, was tried and imprisoned in Chile for the assassination of Letelier and Moffitt, the arrest of Gordón is the furthest the Chilean judicial system—itself deeply implicated in the dictatorship—has ever gone in the prosecution of human rights abuses.

Pinochet remains under arrest in Britain, facing extradition to Spain. Guzmán, meanwhile, continues his pursuit of the former dictator in Chile, seeking to interrogate him in connection with 41 separate human rights cases. The judicial reinterpretation of the amnesty law clears an important legal obstacle, though there remains Pinochet's immunity as a Senator-for-life.

The role of legal persistence and creativity aside, the prosecution of Pinochet and other human rights violators in Chile depends on a political balance of power. The pressure of the international case against Pinochet, along with the efforts of human rights activists and the relatives of the disappeared, has opened the way for the current prosecutions of Arellano and Gordón, which many observers considered impossible until recently. Pinochet may escape to the grave, but the recent prosecutions are heartening steps forward in Chile's incomplete "transition to democracy."

Alejandro Reuss is a member of the Dollars & Sense editorial collective.


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