As the 50th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup nears, Chile’s government launches a new plan to find and identify those who went missing
Charis McGowan in Santiago
Mon 17 Apr 2023
- Susana Barra’s home in a quiet suburb of Santiago, Chile, is only a few miles from the site of the former notorious Simón Bolívar death camp, which was operated by the secret police during the Pinochet dictatorship. Susana was eight years old when her 23-year-old sister, Jenny, was taken there in 1977, never to be seen again.
“No one left alive,” said Susana Barra, who wears a grainy, black and white picture of Jenny pinned to her chest – a symbolic gesture adopted by families still searching for relatives who disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Susana Barra looking at the government proposal. Photograph: Charis McGowan/The Guardian
This September will mark the 50th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup which overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government. During the 17-year regime which followed, an estimated 40.000 people were tortured, and more than 3,000 killed. Only 310 of the forcibly disappeared have been identified and estimates for those still missing range from 1109 to 1469.
This March, Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, announced the launch of a new plan to find the missing, part of his government’s electoral pledge to address human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.
“We have a moral duty to never stop looking,” he said on a visit to a memorial site in the north of Chile, where the bodies of 20 victims of Pinochet’s murderous campaign were unearthed in 1990.
Niches containing human remains belonging to people who disappeared during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Pinochet are seen at the general cemetery of Santiago. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
The National Search Plan is the first time in Chile’s democratic history that a government has backed a permanent search effort for the forcibly disappeared.
A monumental task lies ahead: during the regime, political prisoners were abducted and executed throughout the country: from the vast northern desert, to the dense forests of the south. More than a hundred were taken in helicopters and cast – still alive – into the sea.
The National Search Plan not only aims to find and identify the forcibly disappeared, but also to bring justice to the families affected by Pinochet’s atrocities.
“It’s about finding out the circumstances people were detained and how they were forcibly disappeared,” Luis Cordero Vega, justice and human rights minister, said.
One of the first steps will be to consolidate information gathered so far. According to the supreme court’s most recent data from December 2022, 1,482 first instance criminal cases are currently in process against ex-agents of the state, while 146 are pending.
But there is no central state body to cross-reference information from the plethora of dictatorship-era cases past and present. This had led to delays and inefficiencies, hindering families’ efforts to find the truth.
“The state of Chile has not done this work which has systematically been carried on the shoulders of the families,” said Cordero Vega.
Pinochet himself died in 2006, never having faced justice, despite his arrest in London in 1998. He spent a year and half under house arrest – during which Margaret Thatcher sent him a gift of Scottish single malt whisky – and was eventually freed on “humanitarian grounds”. He died with over 300 pending charges against him.
Protesters hold a banner with pictures of people killed during Pinochet’s dictatorship, in Santiago, Chile, in December 2022. Photograph: Esteban Félix/AP
The situation marks a stark difference to neighbouring Argentina, which swiftly prosecuted the generals who led the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
The 1985 trial, which is the subject of Oscar-nominated film Argentina 1985, saw senior commanders Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera sentenced to life imprisonment, and several other high-ranking officers receive long jail terms. About 1,000 former officers have since been convicted for human rights abuses under military rule.
In contrast, in Chile, former Pinochet agents enjoyed years of freedom during the early democratic years. When they eventually faced trial many were awarded reduced sentences in comfortable prison facilities, with instances of weekend parole and house arrest.
“[Chile’s democratic governments] have been very slow to apply justice to the crimes that occurred during the dictatorship,” said Consuelo Contreras Largo, director of the National Institute of Human Rights. “Few trials have resulted in sentences in comparison to the magnitude of the human rights violations.”
Augusto Pinochet presides over a meeting with his military staff in Santiago, Chile, in September 1973. Photograph: Associated Press
This year, Cordero Vega has convened meetings with family-led organisations to fine-tune the new search initiative. The final plan will be published in May, with the formal induction planned for August.
“This has been the only government that has the guts to say they’ll search for our families,” said Gaby Rivera, president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD). She applauded the search plan’s initiatives, yet remains wary that the state will not fulfil its ambitions.
The AFDD stresses the need to demand active participation from Chile’s tight-lipped armed forces and reform the Legal Medical Service, SML, which is tasked with forensic testing.
The SML has been accused of a series of serious blunders, including the mishandling 89 boxes of dictatorship-era evidence – including unidentified human remains.
In February, an investigation revealed that the boxes were carelessly left in a damp university basement for two decades, where they were damaged by water and mould. The SML moved them in 2019, but have still not conducted pending forensic work.
“These are the remains of our family and they were forgotten,” said Rivera.
An AFDD poster from 1978, pasted on walls during the dictatorship, where Jenny Barra’s photo is seen. Photograph: Handout
Cordero Vega described such negligence as “unforgivable” and pledged that Boric’s administration will comply with objectives and timelines of the search plan, and work alongside the families to ensure concrete action. “It’s not just an ethical commitment. It requires effective execution by the state.”
Meanwhile, Susana Barra continues to push for justice and hopes that the National Search Plan will catalyse efforts to close her sister’s case.
In 2001, former agents of Pinochet’s secret police revealed that Jenny Barra’s body was taken, with dozens of others, to an abandoned mine outside of Santiago, where they were incinerated.
“All they found of her was a small bone fragment,” said Susana. The criminal case against Jenny Barra’s murderers is still open.
Susana Barra gently touches the picture pinned to her chest as she describes her sister. “She was marvellous. She taught me to read, play guitar. She was soft. She was good.”