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Chile Searches for Its Disappeared, 50 Years After Coup


Thirty-six years after Fernando Ortiz was kidnapped and disappeared, his family finally found his remains: five bone fragments in a box.

Mr. Ortiz, a 50-year-old professor, was abducted in 1976 during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, captured along with other communist leaders in Chile, and sent to a torture center that was so secret that no one could see it until three years later. Its existence was not known for years. decade.

No one got out alive from that black spot on the street named Simón Bolívar. It was little more than a house in a rural area east of the capital operated by the regime’s intelligence agency, DINA. There were no witnesses or survivors to shed light on the fate of the captives. For decades, there was only deafening silence.

Mr Ortiz was one of 1,469 people who disappeared under Chile’s military rule from 1973 to 1990. Only 307 of them have been found and identified.

Now, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew one of Latin America’s most stable democracies and installed a 17-year dictatorship that imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of its opponents, Chile on Wednesday declared a national A search plan is planned to be announced so that they can be traced. the rest missing.

The measure is the first time since the end of the Pinochet regime that the Chilean government has tried to find the missing – an effort so far largely thwarted by surviving family members, mainly women, who protested by going on hunger strike. went and took their cases to court. So far, burial sites have only been identified through these court cases.

Luis Cordero, Chile’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, said in an interview with The New York Times, “The state took them, and it is the state that should be responsible for reparations, justice and continuing the search.”

Mr. Cordero’s two uncles were abducted in 1973 and have never been found.

Other South American countries under military rule in the 1970s and 80s have had mixed success in recovering their vanished remains. Forensic teams in Argentina have recovered more than 1,400 bodies and identified 800 of them. In Brazil, efforts to find the 210 missing people have had little result. The Paraguayan agency tasked with finding and identifying 336 missing people has only found 34.

President Gabriel Boric’s plan in Chile will centralize and digitize vast amounts of judicial case files and other archives scattered across government agencies and human rights organizations, using a special software to cross-reference information. It will also finance the search for sites where victims may be buried, or where excavations have been delayed for years due to lack of funds.

In general, getting justice for the dead or missing has been a long, painful process.

For decades, Chile’s court system was paralyzed by a Pinochet-era amnesty law that prevented prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses committed from 1973 to 1978. It was not until 2000 that the judiciary stopped using it to dismiss cases and special judges. was appointed to investigate these crimes. Since then, as of January 2023, the Supreme Court has issued nearly 640 judgments, sent hundreds to jail, and has 17 judges exclusively dedicated to nearly 1,500 cases.

It often takes years for victims’ families to accept that the person who disappeared will never return.

“The idea of ​​his death is slowly driving home,” says Maria Luisa Ortiz, Fernando Ortiz’s daughter, who is now head of collections and research at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in the Chilean capital, Santiago.

Families know that the chances of finding missing people are slim. In 1978, when the remains of 15 missing people were found in an abandoned lime kiln, General Pinochet ordered the army to exhume and permanently dispose of hundreds of victims secretly buried across the country. The bodies were thrown into the sea or volcanoes. Others were blown up or burned. Most of what has been discovered are bone fragments, teeth and pieces of clothing.

General Pinochet left his regime in 1990, but he continued to command the Chilean army until 1998. Later that year, he was arrested in London to face charges in Spain for human rights violations, but was eventually released and sent back to Chile. His poor health. General Pinochet spent his last years in relative seclusion and died in 2006.

Efforts are underway to implement Mr. Borik’s plan. Forensic experts have started excavating the new sites. Judiciary has started digitizing its human rights files. A new director of Chile’s national forensics agency, which has 896 DNA samples from relatives of disappeared people, hopes to erase past negligence.

In the mid-1990s, the mortuary misidentified 48 of 96 remains discovered in unmarked graves in Santiago, and a decade later admitted the mistake. Separately, only this year the families of the victims learned that 89 cardboard boxes containing remains excavated in 2001 had been kept unexamined for more than two decades, hidden in a university basement. This year, Mr. Cordero says, the boxes were organized and classified, and some of their contents were sent to laboratories abroad.

Missing from Mr. Borik’s project is any plan to obtain information from the military or those serving sentences. Only some of the convicted agents, who are facing terminal illnesses or near death, have provided new data, Mr. Cordero said.

“The plan is to result in information about the criminals,” said Congresswoman Lorena Pizarro, the daughter of a communist leader kidnapped in 1976 and former president of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared. “And where is this information? We have to face the fact that the armed forces have it, and it’s time they stopped saying it doesn’t exist.”

The armed forces have never turned over their files from the dictatorship era and claim they no longer exist. Some that were converted to microfilm in the 1970s were burned in 2000. The military provides specific data to the courts only upon request, but no action has been taken to recover all their records.

Nelson Cacoto, a human rights lawyer who has handled hundreds of cases, says he believes the key lies in contacting former low-ranking agents, soldiers and civilian colleagues who may not know the names of those they killed. But can remember where he was buried. Them.

“The state will have to be proactive and go to their homes,” he said. “These are agents who have been completely abandoned, sometimes living in poverty and outside the control of the military. They are vulnerable, and as they get older, they are more likely to repent and reveal secrets.”

But even with government involvement, the process of finding and identifying victims can take years.

In 2001, the Chilean military disclosed information that led to excavations in the Cuesta Barriga, a mountainous area west of the capital. Ms. Ortiz and other family members were at the site for a full 90 days as bits and pieces of the remains were searched.

“That was a brutal shock,” Ms. Ortiz said. “No one ever thought that we would get small pieces. We imagined finding his entire body.

Later in 2006, a DINA guard at the Simon Bolivar barracks revealed the existence of the black site and described in graphic detail the torture endured there by the prisoners.

His family learned that Mr. Ortiz had been sentenced to death. His dismembered body was thrown, along with others, into a mine at Cuesta Barriga. Other bodies were dropped by helicopters over the Pacific.

It took another 12 years to identify the nearly 200 bone fragments and pieces of clothing found at Cuesta Barriga, including Mr. Ortiz’s. The legal case dragged on even longer. In June, 47 years after he disappeared, the Chilean Supreme Court handed down its final verdict: up to 20 years in prison for the 37 Simon Bolivar agents.

“I spent practically my whole life shrouded in terror,” said Ms. Ortiz, who dug into court documents and human rights organizations for 47 years. “No one can make up for the loss. You are given five pieces of bone and are believed to be your father. For me, that is still missing in a way. None is closed. it’s so late.”

Lawrence Blair Contributed reporting from Asuncion, Paraguay and flavia milhorens from Rio de Janeiro.



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