Secret Unit Allegedly Regroups to Shield Chilean Rights Violators


By Gustavo González

Inter Press Service
September 10, 2002

Human rights organisations and the Chilean government filed lawsuits Tuesday demanding an investigation into the supposed regrouping of a secret unit used by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to destroy underground leftist parties. According to human rights activists, the "Comando Conjunto" has been revived to help block legal action in the courts against security forces agents accused of human rights abuses committed during Pinochet's 1973-90 de facto regime.

The centre-left government of Ricardo Lagos initially reacted with scepticism to denunciations that the Comando Conjunto had regrouped as a network to protect members of the military from action by the courts. But on Tuesday, Deputy Minister of the Interior Jorge Correa filed legal proceedings, and conceded that there might be a link between the supposed network and the difficulties that activists and lawyers have run across in their search for the remains of the dictatorship's roughly 1,190 victims of forced disappearance.

The Corporation for the Defence of the Rights of the People (CODEPU) and the Group of Relations of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) based their legal action on allegations by a purported former member of the Comando Conjunto. Interviewed for a report that appeared in Sunday's edition of the daily La Nación, the anonymous source only identified himself as "Colmillo Blanco" (White Fang).

The controversy unleashed by the newspaper report came on the eve of the anniversary of the Sep 11, 1973 coup d'etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of socialist President Salvador Allende. An amnesty law decreed by Pinochet in 1978 protects the perpetrators of abuses committed prior to that time, which includes the lion's share of the 2,000 politically motivated murders and 1,190 forced disappearances committed by the security forces under the Pinochet regime.

The Comando Conjunto was an illegal unit made up of military and civilian agents that operated in the early years of the dictatorship, with the aim of destroying the structures of leftist parties forced to go underground by the coup. The Comando Conjunto, a contemporary of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the regime's notorious intelligence service, mainly consisted of air force officers and non- commissioned officers, and one of its main tasks was to pursue, kill or "disappear" Communist Party leaders.

The report in La Nación quoted "Colmillo Blanco", who said former members of the illegal unit began to regroup last January, on orders from above issued early this year, with the aim of obstructing legal proceedings against alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses. According to the newspaper report, files have been leaked and records have disappeared in human rights cases in the courts, to the benefit of former members of the unit.

Although the crimes purportedly committed by the Comando Conjunto are covered by the amnesty law, its ex-members can be summoned to testify by special judges who are investigating the whereabouts of the remains of victims of forced disappearance. "It is certainly true that there have been leaks in the courts that must be investigated. We are clearly in the presence of a grave alteration of the work of the courts," said CODEPU lawyer Irma Villagra, referring to the alleged existence of a secret network.

Upon filing her group's lawsuit in a Santiago court, Villagra clarified that her organisation did not blindly believe everything that "Colmillo Blanco" said. But she added that "we know there is some truth in what he is saying, and that there is a network that is leaking information." She called on the appeals court to designate a special judge to investigate the case - a demand also set forth in a suit brought by the AFDD.

"An illicit association going by the name of the Comando Conjunto simply cannot be allowed to exist, when we have been working hard (since the restoration of democracy in 1990) to make sure that this kind of organisation can no longer operate in Chile, and to ensure that the branches of the state can work in an independent manner," said AFDD vice-president Mireya Garcí­a.

The air force and army issued statements denying the existence of any plan or attempt to block justice in the human rights cases. The anonymous informant said the group was protected by the air force, and was equipped with funds to trail, intimidate and threaten witnesses and activists, wiretap telephone communications, steal files from the courts, and make bribes.

The air force "categorically" rejected allegations that it was colluding with former agents of the dictatorship, and protested that "this kind of denunciation has been made through the press, rather than the courts."

Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza said Tuesday that "there is no evidence that enables us to report the obstruction of justice....which must be determined by the judges" handling the cases, he added. But shortly after he made those remarks, Deputy Minister of the Interior Correa presented a brief before Judge Mario Carroza, who is handling cases of forced disappearance blamed on the Comando Conjunto.

Correa said the government had decided to take part in the legal action, noting that if a network dedicated to obstructing justice was found to exist, that would help explain the "enormous difficulties" in locating the remains of the "disappeared." The deputy minister asked the judge to summon "Colmillo Blanco", as well as the La Nación journalists who wrote the report, to give testimony.

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