Chile Dictatorship In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the coup that ousted the government and resulted in the disappearance and murder of hundreds, President Gabriel Boric has announced a new national search effort.
After 36 years, the family of Fernando Ortíz achieved closure as they finally received his remains – just five bone fragments contained within a box. Ortíz, a professor kidnapped during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, was among 1,469 individuals who vanished during the nation’s military rule from 1973 to 1990. The government has unveiled plans to locate the remaining disappeared, coinciding with the approaching 50th anniversary of the coup that instituted Pinochet’s oppressive 17-year rule.
This initiative signifies a departure from the past, as the responsibility of finding the missing had largely fallen on family members, predominantly women who fought through protests, hunger strikes, and legal battles. Chile Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Luis Cordero, stressed that the state must be accountable for reparations, justice, and the search for those taken away.
Chile’s effort draws lessons from other South American countries similarly affected by military regimes. Argentina’s forensics teams managed to identify 800 out of over 1,400 bodies, while Brazil’s attempts yielded limited results, and Paraguay found only 34 out of 336 disappeared individuals. President Gabriel Boric’s plan intends to centralize and digitize extensive case files and archives, utilizing specialized software to cross-reference data. Financial support will facilitate the exploration of burial sites and long-pending excavations.
The path to justice has been fraught with obstacles. Chile’s court system was hamstrung by a Pinochet-era amnesty law preventing prosecution for human rights abuses committed between 1973 and 1978. Only in 2000 did the judiciary cease using it to dismiss cases, appointing special judges to investigate. Subsequently, the Supreme Court issued hundreds of rulings, dedicating 17 judges to nearly 1,500 cases as of January 2023.
For families, acceptance of their loved ones’ fates came gradually. María Luisa Ortíz, daughter of Fernando Ortíz, expressed that the concept of their death slowly dawned on them. However, the odds of finding the disappeared are low. The military destroyed many bodies in various ways, including dumping them in the ocean and volcanoes, as well as incineration.
The new plan has commenced action, with forensics experts excavating sites, the judiciary digitizing human rights files, and the national forensics agency organizing and categorizing boxes of remains. Yet, information retrieval from the military remains a challenge, as many records have been claimed to no longer exist. Human rights lawyer Nelson Caucoto suggests targeting former low-ranking agents who may remember burial sites.
The involvement of the Chilean government will likely expedite the process, but finding and identifying the victims could take years. In 2001, archaeologists excavated the site of Cuesta Barriga, located west of the capital, relying on information provided by the Chilean Army. During the excavation, they uncovered bone fragments and bits of clothing. In 2006, a former DINA guard revealed the existence of the black site where Ortíz had been held and provided a description of the horrors that took place there. Although experts identified Ortíz’s remains 12 years later, many families still struggle to find closure.
Chile Dictatorship Chile’s plan to locate the disappeared, coinciding with the approaching anniversary of Pinochet’s coup, marks a significant shift in responsibility. While the government’s involvement is likely to hasten the process, challenges remain in retrieving information from the military. Closure for the families of the disappeared is a long-awaited but complex objective, as years of anguish and searching have shown that the path to justice is not easily traversed.