Decades after dictatorship, Chile mounts search for hundreds who vanished
By Pascale Bonnefoy
Thirty-six years after Fernando Ortíz’s abduction and disappearance, his family finally received his remains: five bone fragments in a box.
Ortíz, a 50-year-old professor, was kidnapped in 1976 during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, rounded up with other communist leaders in Chile and sent to a torture center so secret that no one knew of its existence for three decades.
No one came out alive from the black site named for the street it was on: Simón Bolívar. It was little more than a house in a rural area east of the capital run by the regime’s intelligence agency, DINA. There were no witnesses or survivors to shed light on the detainees’ fates. For decades, there was only deafening silence.
Ortíz 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, before the 50th anniversary of the coup that toppled one of Latin America’s most stable democracies and installed the 17-year dictatorship that imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of its opponents, Chile has enacted a national search plan to track down the remaining disappeared.
“Justice has taken too long,” President Gabriel Boric of Chile said during a ceremony Wednesday in which he signed a presidential decree to codify the plan. “This is not a favor to the families. It is a duty to society as a whole to deliver the answers the country deserves and needs.”
The measure marks the first time since the end of the Pinochet regime that the Chilean government has tried to find those who went missing — an effort that until now has largely fallen to the surviving family members, mainly women, who protested, went on hunger strikes and took their cases to court. So far, only through these judicial cases have burial sites been identified.
“The state took them away, and it is the state that has to be responsible for reparation, justice and sustaining the search,” Luis Cordero, Chile’s minister of justice and human rights, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Two of Cordero’s great-uncles were abducted in 1973 and never found.
Other South American countries under military rule in the 1970s and ’80s have had mixed success in recovering the remains of their disappeared. Forensics teams in Argentina recovered more than 1,400 bodies and identified 800 of them. In Brazil, efforts to find 210 people who went missing have had scant results. The Paraguayan agency given the task of finding and identifying its 336 disappeared has discovered only 34.
The plan will centralize and digitize the enormous volumes 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 exploration of sites where victims may be buried, or where excavations have been pending for years because of a lack of funding.
In general, getting justice for the dead or missing has been a drawn-out, 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 wasn’t until 2000 that the judiciary stopped using it to dismiss cases, and special judges were appointed to investigate these crimes. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued about 640 rulings, sending hundreds to prison, and has 17 judges exclusively dedicated to nearly 1,500 cases, as of January 2023.
It often took the victims’ families years to acknowledge that the disappeared would never come back.
“The idea of their death seeps in slowly,” says María Luisa Ortíz, the daughter of Fernando Ortíz who is now the head of collections and research at the Memory and Human Rights Museum in Santiago, Chile’s capital.
The families know that the likelihood of finding the disappeared is slim. In 1978, when the remains of 15 missing men were discovered in an abandoned limekiln, Pinochet ordered the military to exhume hundreds of victims buried secretly around the country and dispose of them permanently. Bodies were dumped in the ocean or volcanoes. Others were blown up or incinerated. Most of what has been discovered are bone fragments, teeth and shreds of clothing.
Pinochet gave up his rule in 1990, but he continued to command Chile’s army until 1998. Later that year, he was arrested in London to face charges in Spain for human rights abuses, but he was ultimately released and sent back to Chile because of his poor health. Pinochet lived his final years in relative seclusion and died in 2006.
Efforts to put Boric’s plan into motion are underway. Forensics experts have started excavating new sites. The judiciary has begun digitizing its human rights files. A new director at Chile’s national forensics agency, which holds 896 DNA samples from the relatives of the disappeared, hopes to erase the negligence that has plagued it in the past.
Missing from Boric’s project is any plan to pry information out of the military or those serving sentences. Only a few convicted agents, facing terminal illnesses or nearing death, have provided new data, said Cordero.
“The plan has to result in information about the perpetrators,” said Congresswoman Lorena Pizarro, who is the daughter of a communist leader abducted 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 stop saying that it doesn’t exist.”
The armed forces have never turned over their files from the dictatorship era, claiming they no longer exist. Some, converted to microfilm in the 1970s, were incinerated in 2000. The military provides specific data to the courts only when requested, but no action has been taken to retrieve all their records.
Nelson Caucoto, a human rights lawyer who has handled hundreds of cases, says he believes the key lies in approaching former low-ranking agents, conscripts and civilian collaborators who may not know the names of the people they killed, but can remember where they buried them.
“The state has to be proactive and go to their homes,” he said. “These are agents who are completely abandoned, sometimes living in poverty and outside the control of the military. They are vulnerable, and as they get older, they are more prone to repent and reveal secrets.”
But even with the government’s involvement, the process of finding and identifying the victims could take many more years.
In 2001, the Chilean army revealed information that led to excavations in Cuesta Barriga, a mountainous area west of the capital. María Luisa Ortíz and other family members were on site the entire 90 days as bits and pieces of remains were unearthed.
“That was a brutal shock,” said Ortíz. “No one ever thought we would find tiny pieces. We imagined finding their entire bodies.”
Later in 2006, a DINA guard at the Simón Bolívar barracks revealed the black site’s existence and described in graphic detail the torture that prisoners endured there.
Fernando Ortíz was clubbed to death, his family learned. His broken body, along with others, was thrown into a mine shaft in Cuesta Barriga. Other bodies were dropped from helicopters into the Pacific.
It took 12 more years before the nearly 200 bone fragments and bits of clothing found in Cuesta Barriga were identified, including those of Ortíz. The legal case took even longer. In June, 47 years after the disappearances, the Chilean Supreme Court issued its final ruling: up to 20 years in prison for 37 Simón Bolívar agents.
“I spent practically my entire life mired in the horror,” said María Luisa Ortíz, who for 47 years was immersed in court documents and human rights organizations. “Nothing repairs the damage. You are given five bits of bone and that is supposed to be your father. For me, he is still, in a way, disappeared. There is no closure. It’s too late.”