Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 00:27 UK

Pinochet's foot soldiers in firing line

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

A Chilean judge's move to order the arrest last month of 98 suspects accused of human rights abuses during the military rule of Gen Augusto Pinochet has raised difficult questions.

General Augusto Pinochet (file)
Gen Pinochet died in 2006 without facing trial for human rights abuses

It was the biggest round-up of its kind since Pinochet relinquished power in 1990 and it was warmly welcomed by campaign groups seeking justice for the crimes committed during the general's 17-year rule.

But for some in Chile, the detentions were a step too far.

They accuse the judiciary and the centre-left government of conducting a witch-hunt of the armed forces, in a vindictive bid to put everyone associated with the Pinochet regime behind bars.

With Pinochet dead and democracy firmly established in Chile, many Chileans are now asking: how far does one go in pursuing justice for the crimes of the past?

When, if ever, does one draw a line under the horrors of history in the interests of reconciliation?

Bottom rung

Since 1990, scores of officials from the Pinochet era have been brought to trial for kidnap, torture and murder, and the process is ongoing.

Map showing Chile

According to court sources, there are about 120 judicial investigations open for human rights abuses dating from the dictatorship.

But these days, for the most part, the only men left alive to try are the "youngsters", Pinochet's foot soldiers who were on the bottom rung of the military ladder at the time of the coup.

Some say it is unfair that they should bear the brunt of the investigations.

"What power did any of these men have at the time of the coup in 1973?" asked Guillermo Garin, a retired army general and former spokesman for Pinochet who has himself been prosecuted. "None!"

'No choice'

One such foot soldier is Gonzalo Santelices, who in February this year resigned from the Chilean army after a career spanning 34 years.

Failure to carry out an order would have meant the death penalty
Gen Gonzalo Santelices
Former Chilean army officer

Days earlier, a national newspaper had shed light on his role in a massacre of 14 leftist prisoners shortly after Pinochet's military coup.

Gen Santelices confirmed the details of the report but pleaded for understanding, saying that as a fresh-faced military graduate in 1973, he had had no choice but to take part in the atrocities.

"Failure to carry out an order would have meant the death penalty," he argued, portraying himself as yet another victim of the massacre. "Since the age of 20 I've been carrying this around like a cross."

Gen Santelices's defence appeared to strike a chord with some Chileans.

Even Juan Guzman, one of Chile's most tenacious human rights lawyers, expressed some sympathy with him, describing him as "the dregs at the bottom of the cup" - a minor figure who should not necessarily be brought to account.

"You can't put the whole army on trial," Mr Guzman said.


The relentless search for justice for the crimes of Chile's past has undoubtedly taken its toll on a generation of soldiers and police officers who came of age at the time of the coup.

Some have gone underground, living as fugitives rather than facing the law.

Chilean protester holds a placard calling for justice, truth and an end to torture (file image, 2004)
Many people in Chile have been calling for truth and justice for years

In January this year, police hunted down Ivan Quiroz, a former intelligence officer who fled on the eve of being jailed for his role in the murder of seven left-wing activists in 1987.

He had been on the run for four months and struck a pathetic figure when he was captured, disguised with a pair of glasses, long hair and a bushy white beard.

Other military officers have committed suicide rather than face trial.

In January 2005, former soldier German Barriga leapt to his death from the 18th floor of an apartment block in Santiago while under investigation.

He had been subjected to the "funa", a tactic developed by human rights campaigners to name and shame members of Pinochet's regime. Activists gather outside the house of their victims, bang pots and pans, shout, sing and generally do all they can to make life hell for those inside.

Last year, retired army Col Luis Alejandrino Hidalgo killed himself after being charged with a 1973 kidnapping and retired army officer Carlos Munoz committed suicide while in custody accused of human rights abuses.

"The psychological pressure on these men is enormous. I've seen it happen to my own friends," Gen Garin said.

"Some have had to take their children out of school to prevent them being victimised. In other cases it's led to the breakdown of marriages."

Dark past

In a bid to bring respite to such suspects, one right-wing politician recently proposed a maximum prison sentence of 10 years for members of the armed forces found guilty of human rights abuses.

It's not good enough to simply say you were following orders
Gabriela Zuniga
Widow of Pinochet-era victim

However, Chile's Supreme Court dismissed the suggestion, saying all were equal in the eyes of the law.

And for many in Chile, of course, the trial of Pinochet's foot soldiers is entirely justified, given the crimes committed under his rule.

For Gabriela Zuniga, whose husband was one of about 3,000 people who were murdered or "disappeared" during the dictatorship, "age and the passing of time are not excuses".

"These men had a choice," said Mrs Zuniga, a director of a support group set up to help relatives of those killed under Pinochet. "It's not good enough to simply say you were following orders."

The 98 arrests ordered last month were a reminder of this country's dark past.

And they will ensure that Chileans continue to ponder themes of justice, reconciliation, punishment and forgiveness for months and years to come.

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