Pursuing Pinochet


By Natasha Joffe

February 6, 2002

Since Jack Straw let Augusto Pinochet fly back to Chile in January 2000, ending a dramatic and prolonged legal battle over whether he should be extradited to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, the general seems largely to have faded from our collective consciousness. As a physical entity he seemed to have been fading even before he left, like an image in an old newsreel - a bleached-out spectral figure, old eyes creasing above the rampart of his moustache.

Many of those who protested at his being allowed to leave Britain predicted that there was no prospect of his facing prosecution in Chile for the crimes al legedly committed during his 17-year regime. At the time, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson commented: "General Pinochet is as likely to go on trial in Chile as he is to go to heaven."

The attempt to put him on trial has not been finally abandoned: Chile's supreme court is currently deciding whether to lift a stay of proceedings granted by a lower court in July 2001 on the basis that the 86-year-old was mentally unfit for trial. But not even Juan Guzman, the Santiago appeals court judge who painstakingly investigated the criminal complaints presented against Pinochet and indicted him, now seems to expect that the ex-dictator will ever stand in the dock.

What was unexpected, how ever, is just how far Guzman managed to get, how far he chose to get with this prosecution. He certainly did not seek out the role: "I got this case by lottery. I could have got any other case, for example a robbery in the Belgian Embassy. I would have been very happy, because that doesn't last very long. I knew when I received the Pinochet case that it was not going to be easy, nor short."

Guzman is an urbane and dapper man of 62, quietly and carefully spoken, a courtly taker of coats and holder of doors. I meet him in a hotel bar in Oxford where he was giving a seminar on human rights law. He hastily dons a tie for the photographer and poses obligingly on the dank hotel croquet lawn. Everything is done with a little flurry of politeness and a grave charm.

There seems to have been nothing in Guzman's past which marked him out for his extraordinary role in the Pinochet saga. He has no background of political opposition to the dictator's regime. Indeed it was Pinochet who appointed him to the Santiago court of appeals at a time when politically suspect judges stood to be dismissed. Almost 10% of the Chilean judiciary were sacked between 1973 and 1974.

So Pinochet supporters may have been surprised at the conscientiousness and integrity with which Guzman pursued his investigations. He travelled the country gathering extensive evidence about the notorious "Caravan of Death" - some 74 murders committed over a few days in October 1973, shortly after the Pinochet coup. All the victims were already prisoners in the custody of local military commanders in northern Chile. The purpose of the killings seems to have been less to silence dissent (Guzman says the country was calm) than to brutalise and re-programme an army which he says was professional and humanitarian. "The famous Caravan of Death was just to harshen the army."

The caravan represents only a fraction of the thousands of murders, acts of torture and "disappearances" the Pinochet regime stands accused of, but it has proved easier to find evidence of Pinochet's responsibility for these killings than for some of his later activities.

Not only did Guzman pursue his investigations to the logical end of bringing criminal charges against Pinochet, he also refused what might have been the professionally expedient option of declaring the old man unfit to stand trial after a number of minor strokes. He recalls his reaction when he questioned Pinochet in January 2001: "I thought he had the normal mentality and the normal capacities of a person past 85 years of age. I thought of my mother. I thought of my uncles and he was not better nor worse. My mother has a bank account and she doesn't make a mistake ever."

Pinochet certainly had his wits sufficiently about him to deny responsibility for the Caravan of Death.

Guzman's investigations began in January 1998, months before Pinochet's arrest in London. Did international pressure make it easier to carry on the process? Yes and no, it would seem: "We, the judges, have a conscience. We don't do what the people want to us to do, what the people are doing abroad; we do what we have to do, according to the law and according to the evidence we have. So for me it meant nothing at all for Pinochet to be within a process of extradition here, but it made things easier, it was like a vaccination, for our people and for the government."

He plays it down but it is clear that Guzman has suffered as a result of his judicial conscience. Despite reports that he had to be assigned police bodyguards, when I ask him if he was intimidated, he says, "No, not really. I've experienced where people went to my house to scream that I was a son of a bitch. My mother once was there and she said, 'It's the first time I know about that.'" He laughs.

But his career has been curtailed. He says there is no chance now that he will be appointed to the supreme court because his appointment would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in a senate still packed with Pinochet supporters. "I don't care. After this case I felt differently. I will be 63 in April and I think life's better if you do what you want to after 65. If not I would have to be, at the age of 75, sitting with old men."

Guzman's own views on the Pinochet regime seem complicated. He appears to subscribe to the notion, much derided on the left, that the general brought about a Chilean "economic miracle" with his deregulation of the market, privatisation of social and welfare programmes and destruction of labour unions. There is a sense of painful betrayal in his account of what he and some other Chileans felt about the regime initially.

"The supreme court during the Pinochet era felt very close to Pinochet. Most of the country was close to Pinochet. We thought this was going to be a good remedy. We really thought this was going to be a period from three to six months with no killings, no sacrifices, no torturing, because we knew the soldiers. They were very nice, cooperative. Every time there was a fire or calamity they were there and they were extremely professional. We did not know that our army was being trained in Panama, was being instructed in torture and killing."

As for Pinochet himself, Guzman met him at many ceremonial occasions but was never "familiar" with him: "He is a simple man. The equivalent of Pinochet would be like our Chilean landowners. He speaks as if he was speaking to people that work for him. He has no charisma at all."

Guzman is philosophical about the prospect that, despite his best efforts, Pinochet will not be tried. He agrees that the process of prosecution itself has probably been a humiliating one for a man he describes as messianic "because all the people around him told him he was the man chosen by God to save Chile so I think he's convinced about that". For the people of Chile, the indictment of Pinochet, the trials of others involved in the crimes of the regime, and the ongoing investigations into the disappearances are all paths towards the truth about Chile's past.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this modest man with his highly developed sense of judicial duty is the old conundrum: how should a person whose job it is to uphold the law operate within a system of law which has been deformed to meet the ends of a wicked regime?

We know that judges during the Pinochet regime routinely saw cases removed from their jurisdiction to the military courts, that the 1978 amnesty law for years prevented those responsible for the crimes of the Pinochet regime being brought to justice, and that Chile's own national truth and reconciliation commission found that the attitude of the judiciary had "aggravated the systematic violation of human rights". What should a decent judge have done?

My sense is that this is something Guzman himself is still working through - half-inclined to defend the judiciary's record but too honest to overlook its failings. He draws to my attention the human rights advances made even during the latter parts of the Pinochet era and the imaginative interpretations the judiciary has come up with to work around the amnesty law. He says that he himself resisted pressure he received from the Pinochet government. But later, thinking about the court system during the Pinochet era, he adds: "I think there was no negligence, I would say that there was something like an anaesthesia in our courts. I think we are starting to recover judicial power and to become the defenders of the people."

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