We print this article with permission from
the author who is correspondent for the Mexican magazine Proceso.
sign that Chilean courts are increasingly determined to get
to the bottom of crimes committed during the dictatorship
of Augusto Pinochet are the recent indictments of two former
government ministers of the military regime.
February 18, 2005, Judge Juan Guzman indicted former generals
Enrique Montero Marx (Air Force of Chile) and Sergio Benavides
(Army), the Interior Minister and Under secretary of the Interior
for the de facto government, respectively, as accomplices
in 20 cases of aggravated abduction, known as Operation Colombo.
former government ministers, Montero and Benavides are the
first members of a class that so far had eluded prosecution
in cases of murder, disappearances, unlawful detention, torture,
and other crimes committed during the 17 year rule of Pinochet.
Although both are retired military officers, their indictments
bring the long arm of the law closer to civilian collaborators
of the regime.
1975 the Chilean dictatorship orchestrated Operation Colombo
as a communicational ploy to explain the forced disappearance
of 119 persons, alleging that these men and women had been
killed by their own comrades. On July 15, 1975 the sole number
of Lea, a magazine fabricated by Argentine rightist extremists
for the purpose of disseminating the Chilean story, told of
the deaths of 60 members of the Movement of the Revolutionary
Left (MIR) due to internal conflict in various parts of Latin
America and Europe. A few days later a similar story appeared
in the Brazilian newspaper O Dia de Rio de Janeiro, accompanied
by a list of another 59 persons said to have died in similar
circumstances, attributed to the Chilean consul Gerardo Roa.
The stories were widely carried in the Chilean media.
families of each of the 119 disappeared persons filed habeas
corpus writs. The response from Montero and Benavides at the
time was that they had no knowledge of these arrests. The
ruling that orders the indictment and arrest of the two former
officials of the Pinochet regime states that, "in light of
the duties they carried out, it was impossible for them not
to be unaware of the systematic and illegal imprisonment routinely
practiced in those years. Nonetheless, they contend that they
had no information concerning the arrest of these victims,
thus contributing to the series of aggravated abductions."
importance of this ruling lies in an interpretation of law
that opens the way for prosecution of other former officials
for human rights violations. It is a hard blow for one of
the men closest to Pinochet, as is the case of Montero Marx,
who swore in as Interior Minister under the Military Junta
on the very day of the coup, September 11, 1973.
Once Judge Guzman had handed down his ruling, panic shook
the ranks of Renovacion Nacional (RN) and Union Democrata
Independiente (UDI), political parties comprised of many former
collaborators of the dictatorship. They pressured President
Ricardo Lagos, who had publicly accepted the opinion of the
court that the defendants held criminal responsibility. Right
wing politicians, with support of the daily El Mercurio, threatened
Lagos with reviving an old case of improper election campaign
financing known as "MOP-Gate." To an extent, the pressure
tactics achieved their goal. Government spokesperson Francisco
Vidal, shifting from the initial reaction of President Lagos,
expressed concern for the former government officials indicted.
"Penal responsibilities differ from political responsibilities,"
Yet another ruling from Guzman, issued March 16, seriously
undermined the situation faced by the right. Accepting a petition
from prosecuting attorneys in the Operation Condor case, Guzman
asked the full Court of Appeals to deprive former Interior
Minister and present senator Sergio Fernandez of immunity,
on grounds that sufficient evidence exists "to justify ordering
his arrest." Plaintiff attorney Eduardo Contreras had
petitioned for removal of immunity that same day. His petition
was accompanied by arrest orders Fernandez had signed for
people who were imprisoned and subsequently disappeared.
journalist had access to documents that describe the modus
operandi. One case links Sergio Fernandez to the disappearance
of Lisandro Sandoval Torres, who was arrested together with
his wife May 1, 1980 as they were leaving an ecumenical service
in the cathedral of the city of Concepcion. Security agents
took the couple from a public bus and brought them to the
First Police Precinct of Concepcion. Later, they were transferred
to a taxi that transported them to a basement of a house.
There Lisandro was separated from his wife, who was eventually
freed. He was interrogated while agents applied electric current
to his feet and testicles.
In a telegram dated June 2, 1981 the Concepcion Court of Appeals
requested that the Interior Ministry justify the arrest of
Lisandro Sandoval. Sergio Fernandez replied that the arrest
was justified by Decree Law 81 of 1973, "that in article one
specifies the authority of to arrest due to reasons of State
security." Sergio Fernandez answered another telegram
from the Concepcion Court, by giving himself powers that belong
to the Judicial Branch: "This habeas corpus writ is improper
as Decree 3055 set forth the measure that affects the individual."
The Concepcion Court of Appeals requested a copy of Decree
3055, but Interior Minister Fernandez denied the request through
a confidential writ number 1560 that bears his signature and
the date March 12,1981.
Judge Alejandro Solis already issued a conviction in this
case for former DINA agent Alvaro Corvalan Castilla, who he
sentenced to 15 years in prison for the crime of first degree
murder. In light of the new information obtained, plaintiff
attorneys asked Solis to consider reopening the case.
learning that Judge Guzman had requested that Fernandez be
stripped of immunity, attorney Eduardo Contreras stated, "It
is impossible that the most important official after Pinochet
did not know the whereabouts of so many disappeared persons.
Most of the abductions occurred during the years he was a
Cabinet minister." And Contreras added, "If there were
only one person disappeared, it is possible that he would
not know about that arrest and disappearance. But with more
than a thousand cases, it is hard to believe he had no knowledge
of what was happening around him."
Fernandez was Interior Minister during two terms, first from
1978 to 1982, and later from 1987 to 1988. He became the first
civilian to be entrusted with that office under the Pinochet
regime. His first mission in office was to sign the Amnesty
Decree Law enacted by the Junta to shield from prosecution
perpetrators of human rights crimes committed between September
11, 1973 and March 10, 1978.
On May 28, 1978, the indignant protests of relatives of the
disappeared persons prompted Fernandez to remark that "There
are always missing people in a war and no one asks for explanations."
A frequent visitor to the torture centers, where he was know
as El Jote (vulture), Fernandez once affirmed that the British
citizen Guillermo Roberto Beausire, a victim of Operation
Condor, had not been arrested or in custody. Villa
Grimaldi, thought to be the likely location where Beausire
was imprisoned, according to Fernandez, was not a detention
center. The refusal of the Interior Minister to acknowledge
the existence of Villa Grimaldi came at a time when it already
was common knowledge in Chile and widely reported abroad as
an infamous detention center where thousands were systematically
to Networks of Complicity