Isabel Hilton
Thursday August 10, 2000
The Guardian

When General Pinochet despatched General Aurellano Starck in October 1973 on the operation that became known as the Caravan of Death, he cannot have imagined that the orders he gave would come back to haunt him more than a quarter of a century later. No doubt it seemed at the time like a routine operation to eliminate some potential opponents of the dictatorship.
General Starck left Santiago by helicopter on September 30, heading first south, then turning towards the copper-rich north of the country. Everywhere Starck's helicopter landed, prisoners were taken out and murdered - four in Cauquenes, 12 in Valdivia, 15 in La Serena - until the final stop in Calama on October 19, where 26 political prisoners were killed. The Caravan had lasted 19 days. In total, 72 prisoners were dead.

The episode was not the biggest in a series of death-dealing events initiated after that year's coup of September 11. But it has proved to be the one that has opened a crack in General Pinochet's immunity large enough for the astute and determined judge Juan Guzman to drive in a wedge. Guzman's case rests on a series of arguments that the Chilean Supreme Court has now not only accepted but reinforced. This week's decision is an important step forward in the painful process of putting Chile's legal system to rights after the systematic distortion of justice that took place under Pinochet's dictatorship.

The first hurdle that Guzman had to overcome was the amnesty law that Pinochet had passed to insure himself and others against the possibility of ever facing justice. Decree law 2191, personally drafted by the then justice minister, Monica Madariaga, a relative of Pinochet's, was published on April 19 1978. It exculpates from criminal responsibility anyone who committed crimes, was an accomplice in crimes or covered up crimes between the day of the coup and March 10 1978. It is still in force.

The list of crimes that the amnesty law pardons offers an illuminating glimpse of the methods employed by Pinochet's security forces: falsification and cheque swindles, for instance, are pardoned, along with all crimes committed by public employees through the exercise of their office, except for fraud. Homicide and physical injury are pardoned along with property damage, abortion, the abandonment of minors and, curiously, bigamy.

Technically, the law applied to crimes committed by the regime's opponents as well as its servants and its stated purpose was to reunite a divided nation. Some 69 political prisoners were released under its provisions, but the impression of even-handedness was a fig leaf. Most of the beneficiaries were the members of the security services who had committed crimes against humanity. Such few human rights cases as had been accepted by the criminal courts were promptly handed over to the military system of justice - a network greatly expanded by Pinochet for the purpose - where the amnesty law was applied wholesale.

The law was challenged, though, in 1986, when Ana Luisa Gonzalez filed a criminal suit for the premeditated abduction and homicide of her son, 17-year-old Jose Gregorio Saavedra Gonzalez. Jose had been president of his high school student body association and was in prison in Calama on October 19 1973, when General Starck's helicopter touched down.

General Starck was an enthusiast for the coup - in fact, he persuaded an initially reluctant General Pinochet to lend it his support. He was an ideal man, therefore, to entrust with the Caravan of Death and had no scruples about ordering the 17-year-old to be murdered, along with 25 others. Like the families of 18 other victims of the Caravan of Death, Jose's family has never recovered his remains.

Mrs Gonzalez argued in 1986 that the crime of abduction is expressly excluded from the amnesty law because, until the victim or his remains are found, the crime is ongoing. The military courts promptly claimed jurisdiction and applied the amnesty law. Mrs Gonzalez had not achieved justice, but the principle she had argued survived and has been used by Judge Guzman as a key element in his strategy.

Judge Guzman's second stroke of luck was a matter of evidence. Like other mass murderers before him, Pinochet has not left a paper trail linking himself to his crimes. No written orders have come to light from Pinochet to his subordinates ordering them to carry out arbitrary detentions, torture and killings. But the events of the Caravan of Death do provide a direct link.

The 72 victims who fell on each stop of General Starck's helicopter convoy were largely connected with the copper mines - trade unionists, mine workers, engineers, mine managers. Many had reported voluntarily to the military bases when they were called in after the coup to be relieved of their jobs, only to find themselves imprisoned. Chile's armed forces, it is easy to forget, were at the time seen as less prone to the overthrow of democracy than many others in Latin America. It had been a matter of some pride in Chile that democracy had deeper roots than elsewhere on the continent. It was a matter of pride, too, to many of the officers.

So when General Starck arrived and ordered that prisoners be shot without trial, he occasionally encountered some resistance from constitutionally minded officers in charge of the jails. They demanded to know on whose orders such atrocities were to be committed. General Starck answered that he had the authority of the supreme commander, no less - thus supplying Judge Guzman with a vital link in the chain of evidence.

Pinochet's next defence, his immunity as a self-appointed senator-for-life, was perhaps the gravest insult to Chile's still partial return to democracy, however much Chile's elected representatives might struggle to live with this stroke of realpolitik. Whatever the final outcome of Judge Guzman's case, the supreme court, by a majority of 14 to six, has restored both dignity and credibility to Chilean democracy and for that alone must be applauded.

It remains to be seen how many heads of the Pinochet hydra still have life in them. It is still open for a military court to claim the case, but since the supreme court has ruled that the amnesty law does not apply, that option is neither as quick nor as convenient as it used to be.

The head of the armed forces has been quick to express his support for Pinochet, but otherwise there is little the military is able - or is prepared - to do to affect the judicial process. The case will take its course. The mental health of the general must now be examined, though his family are presently refusing to permit what they term an "indignity". To that, Judge Guzman replies that nobody is above the law. Until this week in Chile, that principle was more dishonoured than respected. Today, at least it has a chance

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