Civilians are Next on the Chilean Docket




By Francisco Marin
We print this article with permission from the author who is correspondent for the Mexican magazine Proceso.

A 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.

On 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.

As 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.

In 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.

The 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."

The 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," he stated.

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.

This 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.

Upon 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."

Sergio 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 tortured.


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