Chile begins the search for 1,162 disappeared from the Pinochet dictatorship

Chilean President Gabriel Boric during his first address to the nation on June 1, 2022.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric during his first address to the nation on June 1, 2022.Presidency of Chile (EFE/Presidency of Chile)

On September 11, 2023, it will be 50 years since the military coup in Chile, which overthrew President Salvador Allende and began 17 years of bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The current Chilean president, the leftist Gabriel Boric, in his first speech to the Nation, on June 1, mentioned the date that he will lead as head of state. Along with reflecting that “there are still many debts that we carry”, despite the fact that Chile has carried out unprecedented policies in the world in truth and reparation to victims -such as the Valech Commission on political imprisonment and torture-, Boric announced that his Government “will continue to search tirelessly for the disappeared through a national search plan.”

“We are committed to truth and justice,” said Boric, who during his campaign and mandate has made multiple gestures towards the Popular Unity Government of Allende and has made human rights one of the fundamental emblems of his mandate.

The plan will be carried out by the Ministry of Justice, headed by Minister Marcela Ríos. According to figures compiled by the Human Rights Program Unit Together with the Human Rights Unit of the Legal Medical Service, the victims of forced disappearance are 1,469. Only 307 bodies or skeletal remains have been identified. Consequently, 1,162 people are still missing, almost half a century after the coup.

While in the world of human rights and the families of the victims there is the conviction that the Armed Forces and Carabineros have information about their fate and destiny, the uniformed deny it. In 2001, after a dialogue table that brought together military institutions, victims, churches and civil society, the military assured that many of the disappeared had been thrown into the sea, although it was later found that part of that information was not effective.

Psychologist Elizabeth Lira, an academic at the Alberto Hurtado University and winner of the 2017 National Social Sciences Prize, recalls that States have an obligation to search for the disappeared, according to a 2019 United Nations document. “Boric’s announcement is to comply with international agreements and the obligations of the State”, explains the academic, who has played a relevant role in truth-seeking instances, such as the Dialogue Table of 1999-2000 and the Political Imprisonment and Torture Commission, between the years 2003- 2005. Lira says that the UN document that governs the search for the disappeared establishes that “it must be carried out under the presumption that they are alive; respect human dignity; be governed by public policy.

For the human rights lawyer Luciano Fouillioux, “Boric has no reason not to promote an initiative of this type or a similar one, as other governments have already done in Chile from 1990 onwards (some more and others less, but all have done something in these matters, including that of Sebastián Piñera himself, from the right)”. Fouillioux lists: Boric is a young president, from a generation after the crimes of the dictatorship –but committed to these matters–, close to the world of the victims and who has the theme of human rights at the core of his government program , included in all ministries. “Another thing is that it turns out,” analyzes the human rights lawyer, who represents the family of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970) in the trial that seeks to clarify the circumstances of his death. “What he should aim at would be to make a great agreement with the Armed Forces themselves, because, perhaps, he may find more than one surprise: the current commands are totally different from those of 1973”, adds Fouillioux about the possibilities of delivering information on the fate of the disappeared.

The mother of a person who disappeared during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, at a demonstration in Osorno to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the coup in Chile, in September 2018.
The mother of a person who disappeared during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, at a demonstration in Osorno to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the coup in Chile, in September 2018.Fernando Lavoz (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The proposal of the Ministry of Justice includes extending the campaign A drop of blood for truth and justice, which refers to the taking of blood samples throughout the territory to complete the database of genetic files. The aim is to prepare a systematized diagnosis of all the information already collected that allows identifying the main lines of work that must be developed.

The Boric government wants to identify, in turn, the range of new technologies that can be used to advance investigations depending on the forms of forced or involuntary disappearance. The idea, explains the text developed by the Justice portfolio, aims to generate a methodological and procedural proposal for the development of the plan. La Moneda also wants to convene a work table that brings together the various actors involved: the coordination of the visiting ministers with exclusive dedication to the investigation of these causes, the Legal Medical Service, the Civil Registry, the Investigative Police , the Human Rights Program Unit, families and groups of victims, experts.

In addition, Boric wants to strengthen the Human Rights Program Unit with more multidisciplinary professional staff capable of carrying out an administrative search policy. The same with the Human Rights Unit of the Legal Medical Service, with the aim of “increasing its installed capacity for analysis and review of cases of forensic interest to clarify the fate of victims of forced or involuntary disappearance.”

The various democratic governments since 1990 have carried out important policies regarding the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship. Patricio Aylwin’s government carried out the Rettig Commission, on the truth of the dead and disappeared. Later, in the mandate of Frei Ruiz Tagle, the Dialogue Table was established, which represented the recognition of the crimes by the Armed and Order Forces. The Ricardo Lagos Administration, meanwhile, set up a commission led by Monsignor Sergio Valech on political imprisonment and torture, an unprecedented initiative in the world, which was followed by reparation measures in force until today.

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