Chile’s coup 50 years on: cries for justice are waiting for answers

The Pinochet dictatorship disappeared and murdered over 3,000 people, tortured up to 40,000, and installed a constitutional and economic order with a lasting influence on Chilean society

Ana María Rojas was growing impatient. Her husband, Jorge Ortiz Moraga, was supposed to come to her brother’s house in Santiago, where they were staying for the night. But hours had passed, and there was still no sign of him. 

A 20-year-old medical student active in the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR, by its Spanish acronym), a guerrilla group that fought against the criminal regime of Augusto Pinochet, Ortiz was scheduled to meet a fellow MIR member at a punto de contacto (point of contact) on December 12, 1974, one year and three months after the coup d’etat that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. 

Unbeknownst to Ortiz, his contact had been tortured into revealing the location of their rendez-vous. Forced by the officers to show up, she tried to warn him that he wasn’t safe. But military officers from the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) arrested Ortiz and transported him to a clandestine detention center known as Venda Sexy in Santiago. 

Several survivors of the center later testified that they saw him or even talked to him there, and that he was tortured over a period of 12 days until his removal on Christmas Eve. Rojas would never see her husband again.

Ortiz was one of more than 1,000 people who were detained and disappeared during the Chilean dictatorship that began on September 11, 1973, 50 years ago on Monday. Pinochet ruled until March 11, 1990, and remained head of the Chilean Military until 1998. His government tortured as many as 40,000. Around 2,115 people were executed for political reasons during the dictatorship — unlike the disappeared, their bodies have been found and identified.

The Chilean dictatorship was part of the international plan called Operation Condor, which aimed to systematically exterminate growing left-wing political organizations and install a neoliberalist economic model in the region. The plan, which counted with backing from the United States, involved the military regimes from Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. It was formally signed in November 1975 in Santiago, although collaboration between the countries had started in the 1960s.

As in other countries of the region, Chile’s military officers have kept the secret of what they did to the disappeared and executed people. Their families believe most bodies were thrown in the sea or buried in the Atacama desert.

“The dictatorship never admitted to the detentions and disappearances,” Ortiz’s nephew Álvaro González, who is the vice president of the Families of Detained-Disappeared People Group (AFDD, by its Spanish acronym) told the Herald. “They don’t acknowledge those who remain disappeared, or even that they were detained. In the first years of the dictatorship, families even had to prove their loved ones had existed.”

Over 200,000 people were forced into exile in that period, according to Amnesty International Chile. Rojas, Ortiz’s wife, went into hiding after her husband was disappeared because the military started looking for her. She went first to Colombia, and then France, where she has been living for the past 48 years. Rojas returned to Chile for the first time in 2015, when a court sentenced five military officers to prison for Ortiz’s kidnapping and granted his mother and Rojas economic compensation. 

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Seeking truth and justice

After democracy was restored in 1990, the judiciary conformed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by lawyer Raúl Rettig, a former ambassador during Allende’s government. The commision investigated the cases of those who were executed and disappeared. This led to the first official registry of the dictatorship’s victims, known as Rettig’s Report. 

In 1998, Augusto Pinochet — who was granted a seat in the Senate for life — was arrested in London under a Spanish court’s orders, charged with the kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearance of several Spanish citizens in Chile during the dictatorship. He spent two years in prison until the British government released him due to ill health, and he returned to Chile. 

It was the only jail time he served for his crimes: although he was indicted for several crimes against humanity, he was ultimately not sentenced for any of them. He died in 2006.

The investigations initiated after Pinochet’s arrest led to several other cases against military officers. Around 500 of them have been indicted, but “only 23% of the detained-disappeared cases have been taken to trial,” González said. It goes up to 34% when also taking the political executions into account, according to Rodrigo Bustos, managing director of Amnesty International Chile.

Recently, President Gabriel Boric launched a National Search Plan aimed at discovering what happened to the 1,101 victims of forced disappearance. “There’s no doubt that this plan is valuable,” Bustos told the Herald. “It’s key that the state does everything it can to move towards justice and truth about what happened to the victims of forced disappearances.”

“This is the first state policy that takes responsibility on the matter permanently, because it will survive through time, from government to government,” González said, but added that it will not ensure success in the search for the disappeared, because “the armed forces still keep their silence pact, and the far-right’s denialist ideas are gaining significant ground.” Since 1990, the bodies of 307 disappeared people have been identified and reclassified as executed.

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A new Constitution?

Pinochet’s regime didn’t limit itself to torture, disappearances, murders, banning of political parties and attacks on press freedom. “The dictatorship also installed through blood and fire an economic model that privatized basic social rights, like pensions, health care and education,” Bustos said. This was formally established in the 1980 National Constitution, which remains until today, although it was partially reformed in 2005. 

After the 2019 social uprising, Chileans voted in October 2020 in favor of writing a new constitution. But the first draft of the document, which was promoted by Boric’s progressive government, was rejected in a referendum in September 2022.

In May, the people voted for the 50 constitutional counselors in charge of designing the second version of the new constitution. Most are from far-right parties. The new text will be put to referendum in December.

“The advance of the far right is so significant that they want to do reforms that would make [the new constitution] worse than Pinochet’s,” González said, adding that he doesn’t think the reform will be approved, but rather the dictatorship’s constitution will prevail.

Fifty years later, many of the perpetrators of these atrocities have already passed away or been deemed unfit to stand trial.  Meanwhile, thousands of families are still seeking answers about what happened to their loved ones. Their stories show that without memory and truth, there can be no justice.

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