Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Historic Mass Arrest of Soldiers

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, May 26 2008 (IPS) - In an unprecedented decision, Chilean Judge Víctor Montiglio ordered the arrest of 98 former members of the security forces in connection with the abduction and killing of 42 leftists in 1974.

Never before have so many people been arrested in connection with human rights abuses committed by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The retired military personnel – who make up a majority of those to be arrested – will be held in preventive detention in military compounds, while the few civilians in the group will be taken to the Santiago 1 high security prison in the capital.

They face “aggravated kidnapping” charges in the cases involving 42 of the victims of “Operation Colombo”, carried out in 1974.

“Operation Colombo” was a disinformation ploy mounted by the regime’s secret police, DINA, to cover up the forced disappearance and murder of 119 leftists, most of whom belonged to the insurgent Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), who were referred to as “Miristas”.

The media campaign, which was carried out in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, was a forerunner of Operation Condor, a coordinated plan that emerged in late 1975 among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing and eliminating left-wing opponents.

In 1975, the obscure newspaper “Novo O’Día” in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, and the Argentine magazine “Lea”, which consisted of a single edition, reported that 119 Chilean “extremists” were killed in internal disputes or in firefights with police in other countries.

The Chilean newspaper “La Segunda”, which still circulates in Santiago today, picked up the reports that had appeared earlier in the Lea and Novo O’Dia publications, under the headline “Miristas Exterminated Like Rats”

On Monday, Chilean Justice Minister Carlos Maldonado described Operation Colombo as “sinister” and “repugnant.”

The local press reported that the 98 accused included 40 members of the army, 30 members of the Carabineros militarised police, 10 detectives, two members of the navy, a few members of the air force, and several civilians.

The members of the security forces, who are all retired, include senior officers, soldiers who stood guard while the victims were tortured, and people who drove vehicles and provided other logistical services during the operation.

The highest-ranking officers are former DINA chief, retired General Manuel Contreras, who is already in prison for other human rights violations, and retired Brigadier Generals Pedro Espinoza and Miguel Krassnoff.

The heads of DINA were already prosecuted in 2004 in connection with the disappearance and murder of other Operation Colombo victims.

Laywer Boris Paredes of the Interior Ministry’s Human Rights Programme applauded Montiglio’s decision, while noting that “DINA was heavily involved in criminal activities.”

Some 3,000 people were killed and disappeared, 35,000 were tortured, and thousands went into exile during Pinochet’s 17-year regime.

In the other camp, Jorge Balmaceda, Brigadier General Espinoza’s defence lawyer, said the charges of “aggravated kidnapping” were “legal fiction.”

“This crime does not exist, because everyone knows that these people have been dead for years,” said Balmaceda.

For his part, Sergio Laurenti, executive secretary of Amnesty International in Chile, told IPS that the mass arrest is “very good news.”

He underlined the large number of accused and the fact that they range from senior officers to low-ranking soldiers who, he said, were sure to have also taken part in other murders, forced disappearances or cases of torture.

Laurenti believes that Montiglio’s decision and other resolutions and verdicts handed down in recent weeks indicate a “revitalisation” of human rights trials.

But “so far there have been no substantial advances” because of a “lack of cooperation” on the part of the security forces, which have failed to hand over all of the information they possess, he said.

The Cooperativa radio station reported that Lutheran Bishop Helmut Frenz, founder of the humanitarian Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile, had made a representation to the court on behalf of corporal Samuel Fuenzalida, one of those prosecuted by Montiglio.

Fuenzalida, who worked as a guard in several torture centres, has provided important information in the case, and Frenz is seeking to keep him out of preventive detention in recognition of his cooperation.

Pinochet was stripped of his legislative immunity from prosecution in 2005 to allow him to be investigated in connection with Operation Colombo. But the elderly former dictator died in December 2006 without ever being brought to trial for his responsibility in the human rights crimes committed by his regime, or for the illicit enrichment and corruption with which he was charged.

A group of around 100 people gathered Monday outside the Santiago courthouse to protest the recent decision to close the investigation of the torture and murder of folksinger Víctor Jara, who was killed just after Pinochet’s September 1973 coup that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

The demonstrators demanded that the judge, who found a retired colonel guilty, but was unable to identify the officer who actually pulled the trigger, reopen the case and continue investigating until Jara’s killer is brought to justice.

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