Judgement Day in Chile

September 25, 2007

On May 8 of this year, an unusually warm fall day in Santiago, Chile’s capital, I found myself seated in the chambers of Appellate Court Judge-Magistrate Juan Guzmán Tapia. I had been called to give testimony as a material witness in a criminal complaint filed by Joyce Horman against Augusto Pinochet, military dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990. Horman asked Guzmán, who under the vaguely Napoleonic Chilean legal system acts both as judge and investigating magistrate, to determine why and how her husband Charles, a North American who had been living in Chile, was killed in September 1973, following Pinochet’s military coup, and to what extent U.S. officials had a hand in his arrest and murder. The case ultimately involves not only Pinochet, but Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Nathaniel Davis, U.S. Ambassador to Chile in 1973, and Frederick Purdy, the U.S. Consul General in Santiago at the time, among other U.S. officials. It stands to be one of the most important cases testing the possibilities and limits of international human rights law since the British Law Lords ruled against Pinochet in 1998-99. And there I was, a historian called to play a role in history.

In September 1973, I was a 26-year old doctoral student finishing my dissertation research. Chile gave me a chance not only to study history, but to live it. In 1970, Salvador Allende had been elected President of Chile. Allende promised to lead Chile through a peaceful transition to socialism, using the legal system of Chile to establish a new economic and political order. The United States, as is quite well known, violently opposed Allende’s election, and immediately set about to prevent his confirmation by Congress or, if unsuccessful, to plan his overthrow. U.S. efforts to block his confirmation ultimately resulted in the assassination of General René Schneider, the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Armed Forces, known to be a strong supporter of constitutional succession. The fact that Henry Kissinger authorized the planned kidnapping of Schneider is at the heart of attempts to bring the former Secretary of State to trial as a criminal defendant.

If U.S. attempts to prevent Allende from reaching the presidency were unsuccessful in 1970, they found their mark in September 1973. Three years of grinding opposition led to his overthrow on September 11, 1973. (The fact that "9/11" now stands for a different act of terrorism is bitterly ironic, for on September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, supported, supplied and trained by the United States, smashed their bombs into Chile’s presidential palace, initiating a war against a democratically elected government. The reign of terror spawned by these events claimed more than 3,000 lives according to a 1990 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nearly exactly the same number of lives lost in the September 2001 attacks. Since then we have been asked to stand fast against terrorism. In 1973 the United States and its Chilean military allies were the terrorists—and we have been asked to close our eyes to it.)

Although I was in Chile to work on my dissertation, my own political interests soon brought me into contact with a small group of progressive, young North Americans. Together, we published a small news magazine called FIN, Fuente Norteamericano de Información (North American Information Source). FIN was designed to inform interested Chileans of the activities of the U.S. government and corporations around the world, and to demonstrate solidarity with the Chilean left by calling attention to left and progressive movements in the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Santiago, as far as we could tell, didn’t particularly like us. Soon after we rented our first office and installed the phone, a young Finista picked up the receiver to make our first call out only to hear, instead of a dial tone, a secretarial voice saying, "U.S. Embassy, how can we help you?"

By September 11, 1973, some eight of us were still in Chile, working on FIN and our other jobs. Of these, two, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, were picked up and killed within a week of the coup—the only two U.S. citizens to be killed. Charlie’s case has been made widely known through the 1982 Costa-Gavras film, Missing. Frank’s case has not been as widely circulated. I became involved because I was their friend and colleague, and it was my particular destiny to attempt to work through the U.S. Consulate and Embassy to help them when their fates were still unknown, to identify their bodies when it became known that they had been murdered, and now to assist in whatever fashion to bring to justice their killers and all those who were complicit in their deaths and the deaths of thousands of others killed or disappeared by the Chilean military government.

On September 10, Charlie Horman had gone with a friend to the port city of Viña del Mar and was stuck there, the "ground zero" of the coup, for nearly a week as a complete curfew kept anyone from traveling. While there, he and a traveling companion came into contact with some U.S. military personnel biding their time in the same hotel. Feeling perhaps more loquacious than normal after four days indoors, these men struck up some conversations with Charlie and his friend, the only other English speakers in the hotel. In the process, they darkly hinted that they had come to Chile to do "a job" and that they would soon leave now that it was completed. Charlie returned to Santiago on September 16 and he was alone in his house the next day when a military patrol arrived and carried him off. That was the last that he was seen by friends. The next morning an unidentified body thought to be his arrived at the Santiago Morgue (Instituto Médico Legal), and even though the Consulate was notified that the body was likely that of Charles Horman, U.S. officials did not "locate" his body or notify his desperate parents or wife for an entire month.

When the Hormans, finally given the disastrous news of Charlie’s death, asked that his body be returned immediately to the United States, the Embassy agreed, but, remarkably, the body was re-interred in Santiago’s General Cemetery. It remained there until March 21, 1974 at which point Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) bluntly threatened to cut off aid to Chile unless some action was taken. After seven months of burial and repeated autopsies by Chilean authorities, the body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that no useful autopsy could be performed by a forensic specialist hired by the Hormans.

Two vital questions still remain to be answered as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Horman’s death: First, what was the U.S. role in his arrest and death? Second, why did the United States collude with the Chilean military regime in preventing the return of Charlie’s body? In terms of the first question, we have a partial answer from a 1976 State Department memo remarking that "there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [Government of Chile]. At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware that GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia."[1]

As for the second question, only one plausible explanation exists: Neither the United States nor Chile wanted the body of a U.S. citizen exhibiting unmistakable marks of torture appearing in the United States in October 1973. The United States, for its part, would not have looked good lavishing millions of taxpayer dollars—$735 million between 1974-77—on an ally that tortured and murdered U.S. citizens. Indeed, the 1976 memo appears to confirm this directly, pointing out that "of ten Americans who required the Embassy’s attention, only these two [Horman and Teruggi] appear to have been tortured and then shot."

The case of Frank Teruggi is no less anguishing. Frank and his roommate, David Hathaway, another member of FIN, were picked up after being denounced by their neighbors as "foreign extremists" the evening of September 20. They were taken to the National Stadium which had been converted to a massive prison. Frank was called out for interrogation on September 21; a body thought to be his was brought to the Morgue the next day. Although I requested permission from U.S. Consul Purdy to visit the Morgue to identify Frank’s body, this was denied until October 2. At that point I was allowed in, and identified Frank’s body in a room that, along with adjoining rooms, must have held 150-200 bodies. We now know that a body identified to the U.S. Consulate as Horman’s was in the Morgue on the same day, but even though the Consulate knew I was friends with both men, I was hustled out after identifying only Frank’s body.

Unlike Horman, Teruggi’s body was quickly sent back to the United States. But serious questions persist. When I saw Frank’s body, he had two or three bullet wounds in the chest area and a large, open gash on his throat. To me, the nature of the wounds suggested he had been executed. Yet when the official Chilean autopsy arrived, it reported 17 bullet wounds, more consistent with the Chilean military’s story that Teruggi, outside after curfew, was machine-gunned by a passing patrol. We also know that the FBI had documents in its files suggesting that Teruggi was helping U.S. military deserters in Germany, a bizarre charge. But if U.S. officials passed this information to the Chilean military, they would have been signing his death warrant.

In May, seated in Judge Guzmán’s chambers next to former Consul Purdy, I had an opportunity to question the man who had demonstrated an intense hostility to those U.S. citizens living in Chile in 1973 who supported the constitutional government. While this "cross-examination" cannot be made public while the case advances, I can say that Purdy’s comments would have been laughable if this were not so serious a matter. When asked to explain why the U.S. Embassy in Chile did not insist that Horman’s body be sent back immediately, Purdy said that Washington had very little influence in Chile at that time. When asked how this argument squared with the fact that the Nixon administration provided Chile with more aid in 1974 than in any previous year, Purdy seemed surprised, admitting that he "didn’t know that." What the former consul, who still lives in Chile, did seem to know, with exquisite precision, were the political affiliations of the U.S. citizens arrested in the coup’s aftermath. While numerous presidents have cited the need to protect American lives as a rationale to send in the Marines, Consul Purdy demonstrated that politics trumped citizenship. The lesson: Don’t count on U.S. diplomatic support if you find yourself on the wrong side of U.S. policy objectives.

The cases of Horman and Teruggi are part of a growing body of legal cases brought against Pinochet and his lieutenants, cases that are also drawing closer to U.S. officials involved in designing and implementing U.S. policy in Chile. Arrested during a 1998 London visit on a warrant from Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, General Pinochet, ironically, was about to make what could be his most noted contribution to history. The British Law Lords, deciding on appeal whether Pinochet was liable to stand trial in Spain for crimes against humanity, ultimately strongly affirmed the principle that no government official could claim "sovereign immunity" from prosecution. In other words, government leaders could not escape the consequences of their actions simply by arguing that they acted as legitimate political officials.

Although Pinochet ultimately was sent back to Chile rather than to trial in Spain, the process that Garzón began would not be halted. A divided Chilean parliament stripped Pinochet of his congressional immunity and forced him to respond to one of a growing number of cases brought against him in Chile.[2] There are requests for his extradition from Spain, Belgium, France and Argentina (but not the United States). Pinochet’s lawyers have argued that he is mentally incompetent to stand trial, a case that is still before Chile’s Supreme Court, although it is likely that this court will confirm the lower court’s ruling.

The audacious actions of Baltazar Garzón and Juan Guzmán put in stark relief the Bush administration’s May 6 decision to "unsign" the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court. Under the banner of U.S. sovereignty, the administration has rejected international solutions on such diverse issues as arms control, the laws of war, human rights and environmental protection. The administration justifies this specific "unsigning" on the grounds that the criminal court will create an unchecked prosecutorial power that could bring U.S. citizens to the dock, even though the probability of successfully pursuing a politically motivated case against U.S. citizens is virtually nil. More to the point are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s objections. "By putting U.S. men and women in uniform at risk of politicized prosecutions," Mr. Rumsfeld said, the court "could well create a powerful disincentive for U.S. military engagement in the world."[3] The point remains that U.S. citizens already can be brought before foreign and international tribunals for the limited set of offenses—crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide—in the category of "universal crimes" over which the international court will have jurisdiction with or without a U.S. signature.

The decision by the British Law Lords that no political leader can claim "sovereign immunity" as a defense is of particular importance for one U.S. citizen in particular, Henry Kissinger, the one U.S. official who has been charged, by journalists at least, of "universal" crimes for his actions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Chile, among other places. The lawyers and participants in the Horman and Teruggi cases have prepared a series of questions for Kissinger to answer. Predictably, Washington reacted with fury to this request. A Bush administration official condemned the move, suggesting that this highlighted what was wrong with the (then pending) International Criminal Court. "It is unjust and ridiculous that a distinguished servant of this country should be harassed by foreign courts in this way."[4] This, of course, is the same distinguished servant who authorized the kidnapping and (unplanned) assassination of the Commander-in-Chief of a legitimate and friendly government—Schneider—and who is charged with orchestrating "Operation Condor," the coordination of terror operations among the militaries of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil during the 1970s and early 1980s.

As I sat in Judge Guzmán’s chambers some weeks ago, and thought of what he, Judge Garzón, judges in France and Belgium, and Commissions on Truth and Reconciliation in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and elsewhere were doing, I realized more clearly than ever that the fight against terrorism is being waged in many places, and that the most meaningful locales were not the battlefields of Afghanistan, the Philippines or Colombia, but places like the very courtroom where I sat. And if the U.S. government opposes these proceedings, then it will never be able to claim with the least shred of credibility that it is truly interested in waging a war on terror.

Steven Volk, former NACLA research director and long-time NACLA board member, was recently honored by the current Chilean government for his "contribution in helping to restore democracy" following the 1973 coup. Volk is now a professor of history at Oberlin College.

1. R.V. Fimbres et. al. to Shlaudeman, August 25, 1976, Re: Charles Horman Case. This State Department memo was released in June 2000.
2. This was the Caravan of Death case, in which a military unit traveled the length of Chile by helicopter after the coup, rounding up 72 leftists and executing them. See Alejandro Reuss, "Impunity Challenged in Chile," NACLA Report, XXXIII, Nov/Dec 1999. Available at http://www.nacla.org/art_display.php?art=247 See also Patricia Verdugo, Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death (Miami: North-South Center Press, 2001).
3. Neil A. Lewis, "U.S. Rejects All Support For New Court On Atrocities," The New York Times, May 7, 2002.
4. Toby Harnden, "U.S. Angry as Chile Asks Kissinger about Death," Daily Telegraph (London) August 21, 2001.

Tags: Chile, August Pinochet, justice, trial, disappeared

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