Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005.
Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005. (Tom Uhlman/AP)

By Matt SchudelJan. 23, 2021

Juan Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who was the first person to prosecute the country’s onetime military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, using novel legal strategies to hold him and members of his regime accountable for killings and human rights offenses in the 1970s and 1980s, died Jan. 22 at age 81.

Chilean newspapers, including La Tercera, reported his death, which was confirmed by his family to Spanish-language news services. Other details were not disclosed, but Judge Guzmán lived in Santiago and had dementia, said a friend, Peter Kornbluh, the author of “The Pinochet File.”

Judge Guzmán, who was the son of a Chilean diplomat, said he and his conservative family celebrated in 1973 when Pinochet and his military supporters overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, in a coup. It took years before Judge Guzmán understood the full extent of the terror that was then unleashed by Pinochet, his secret police and other henchmen.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Judge Guzmán led an often risky legal campaign to redress rampant human rights abuses that left thousands of Chileans dead.

“He has become the iconic pursuer of justice in Chile — the first judge to indict and began a legal process to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice for crimes against humanity both within Chile and elsewhere,” said Kornbluh, who is director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

Judge Guzmán, who became a regional magistrate in the early 1970s, was an appeals court judge by the time Pinochet relinquished power in 1990. Pinochet maintained control of the military until 1998, and the country’s judicial system and leading media outlets were also aligned with him.

A Chilean Dictator’s Dark Legacy

After democratic rule returned to Chile in the 1990s, accounts began to surface of systematic kidnappings, torture and murder carried out at Pinochet’s behest. Lawyers for victims and their families filed suit against Pinochet, and Judge Guzmán was assigned to investigate the cases, becoming, in effect, a special prosecutor. (In Chile’s judicial system at that time, judges had investigative and prosecutorial authority, in addition to the role of presiding in court.)

Judge Guzmán was appalled by what he began to learn about his country.

Soon after Pinochet seized control in 1973, he launched a purge of local government officials associated with Allende known as the Caravan of Death. Military squads arrived by helicopter, rounded up local officials and shot them. Their bodies were buried in remote places. Pinochet loyalists were installed in their former offices.

Pinochet was also a central figure in a second wave of repression, called Operation Condor, which linked several military regimes in South America, reportedly with support from the CIA. Students, professors and dissidents were hounded and sometimes kidnapped, many of them never to be seen again. These people became known in Spanish as the desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.”

A Chilean commission on truth and reconciliation later documented 3,197 victims of extrajudicial execution or disappearances. A separate commission estimated that there were more than 80,000 survivors of torture. Against that background, Judge Guzmán assembled a team of detectives and forensic experts to investigate Chile’s bloody past.

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