50 Years After Pinochet's Coup, Chile Is Ready To Recover The Disappeared
The government of Chile's young new president, Gabriel Boric, has begun to develop the National Plan for the Search for Victims of the Dictatorship, half a century after the coup.
SANTIAGO — In what resembles an endless human chain, hundreds of people hold signs displaying black and white portraits with one question: where are they? Every September 11, the day of Chile's 1973 coup d'état, they follow the same route through streets that for one day become the setting of a pilgrimage to the General Cemetery of Santiago. They cry out for justice and demand answers.
They are, for the most part, women who know what it means to care for someone, even when the person they loved — they love — is no longer there. Wives, mothers, daughters, and granddaughters of the disappeared or other victims of the dictatorship who have not given in to oblivion.
This coming September 11, it will be 50 years since a group led by Augusto Pinochet shattered democracy and forever changed the history of a country whose wounds are still exposed : 17 years of a dictatorship would follow, in which thousands of people were sent to prison, tortured, murdered, or forcibly disappeared.
Five decades that take their toll with a large debt in terms of historic memory building and human rights and that represent a long enough period for the new president, Gabriel Boric, to be able to give priority to the National Search Plan, an ambitious, participatory and government-wide project, led by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.
A national search plan
Alicia Lira is happy with the news. The president of the Association of Relatives of the Politically Executed (AFEP) recognizes the immense contribution that this national and international plan means since it also includes relatives of victims who today live outside the country. “For us it is very relevant because previous governments have always further marked impunity, trying to turn the page."
307 bodies have already been identified.
Now they see a different attitude. Last year, Boric received them at La Moneda presidential palace to communicate the details of this proposal, part of his campaign promises. In a country where the exact number of those who were disappeared is not yet clear, nor has it been possible to identify all the bodies found, the government's announcement is the closest thing to hope for the relatives and groups that have had to work for decades with little support and funding.
The National Search Plan, which has already launched its first stage, includes several points, amongst which are the georeferencing of sites, the review of hidden folders, the creation of a single national registry and the constant participation in the process of relatives and other human rights organizations. The Medical Legal Institute estimates that 1,469 people were detained, disappeared, and executed without returning the body, of which 307 have already been identified.
Gabriel Boric giving his victory speech at 2021 Chile Presidential Election
The never returned bodies
When Lira talks about her husband Felipe Rivera, she lets out a spontaneous smile. She remembers him with joy. How they met and their marriage in 1970, in the middle of Salvador Allende's presidential campaign, which both had joined as militants of the Communist Youth. Sixteen years later, during the dictatorship, Rivera would be assassinated after being taken from his home by civilian agents of the dictatorship. Since then, Lira has embarked on a long journey of fighting for truth, justice and reparation. With more than a decade presiding over the AFEP, she has seen first-hand the institutional ups and downs and the empty promises of past governments.
“The State never had the political willingness. Governments have not had the political will to hand in those who were responsible and they have never issued a rightful investigation into the Armed Forces. None of the previous presidents or state secretaries have required the highest authority of the Armed Forces to deliver information," continues Lira, who assures that her group has raised all its concerns with Boric. Their frustrations, fears, and lack of trust. "And we told him that as victims organizations we are always going to be on the other side, assessing what must be assessed and reporting what must be reported," she explains.
She says that she feels privileged that she was able to see and say goodbye to her husband's corpse. But other members of her group have not had the same experience, since their relatives were executed and their bodies were never returned. Those who are still grieving and who had to assume the solitary search for their loved ones.
Some in the Atacama desert, in the North; in the valleys, on hills and even in the sea. Lira remembers, for example, the women searchers of Calama, a spontaneous search group that, with no other tools than the unwavering desire to find their relatives, traveled many kilometers between the desert and the salt, without many results.
“It is unlikely that we will have another opportunity like this, with the political will, which is what the organizations value. The president has been explicit in indicating that he is politically committed to this and we are somehow the concrete expression of carrying out these initiatives,” says Haydée Oberreuter, Undersecretary for Human Rights.
Not enough from the government
Oberreuter explained the steps of this unprecedented plan and what it means to put it into operation.
A survivor of political imprisonment and torture, Oberreuter has worked for years in human rights organizations and has walked "shoulder to shoulder" with organizations such as the AFEP and the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (AFDD). She has suffered the indifference of the authorities who did not commit to advancing in the search, do reparations or provide justice.
Oberreuter details the challenges and acknowledges that, although there were attempts in previous governments, they have not been enough. She is considered a valid intermediary between organizations, memory spaces, and activists. The undersecretary affirms that part of her policy is to function as an open house that takes the time to welcome and listen to the demands of those in need.
For this reason, she believes that the mission of this plan is to work closely and talk with the people directly involved in the search for their loved ones. “They don't just have a buildup of pain. They have extensive experience in navigating requests to different institutions. They know where things flow, where they don't, where information has been hidden, what has happened in the courts,” she says to explain the importance of working together.
Oberreuter assures that she wants to provide the dignified and fair treatment that she would have liked to receive. She acknowledges that she was in a situation very close to forced disappearance on more than one occasion and fully understands the role that searchers, organizations and relatives of the disappeared play today. "When we search for the person, we are not only looking for their body, we are looking for their story, we are looking for the dignity that belonged to them, which was taken from them," says the undersecretary.
Monument in the cemetery of Santiago, Chile, containing a partial list of leftist political activists killed by the military dictatorship of Chile, between 1973 and 1990.
Horrors of the past
Gaby Rivera has chaired the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (AFDD) since this year and, like Lira, enthusiastically welcomes this government's initiative, but warns that political will is not enough. “It is also important to provide the tools for this to take place. Today there are many unresolved questions accumulated in these almost 50 years in which we don't know what happened to our relatives, we don't know what they did with them, or where they were buried. We only know that at some point during the dictatorship they were tortured and assassinated,” says Rivera.
The AFDD president goes over not only the horrors of those years but also the cruelty that followed: their bodies were discarded, many of them were thrown into the sea and there were no clues to know where to look. And when there were, they were deceiving clues.
We are going to search until we find the last disappeared detainee.
Rivera shares the apprehensions of other human rights organizations because for her the key is that the military discloses the information. She says it is the beginning of the 50-year thread of secrets, during which they exercised impunity.
“We do not have more time. The murderers are dying and our relatives have died without knowing where their loved ones are.” She says it without hesitation and points out that the political commitment must be accompanied by the deep gesture of bringing clarity and closure.
“We are going to search until we find the last disappeared detainee," concludes Rivera. "Even if we do it as it has been done all these years — tearing up the soil in each of the places where they say our relatives were buried."