The return of the right wing to power in Chile has come at the expense of those still seeking justice for crimes committed during the 17-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.
Former President Michelle Bachelet’s failure to close the luxury five-star prison of Punta Peuco that houses ex-torturers and military agents convicted of crimes against humanity has led to repercussions during the first year of Sebastian Pinera’s presidency.
Over the years, the Chilean military has lobbied for “understanding” the context in which torture and disappearances occurred, in order to procure release for convicted agents of the dictatorship. In August, seven were granted conditional release, prompting an outcry among Chileans. Raul Meza, a lawyer who represents torturers imprisoned in Punta Peuco, has stated that he will appeal for the conditional release of a notorious torturer, Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko, who is serving over 500 years for crimes against humanity.
With no support from the government, relatives are running out of time to obtain information about the disappeared. The transition to democracy in Chile has remained tethered to Pinochet’s constitution, which has sparked ongoing protests to preserve social or collective memory.
Since 1999, an organization called Comisión Funa has been committed to seeking justice for those whose human rights were violated during Pinochet’s dictatorship. It has developed a distinct form of protest that directly challenges impunity backed by both the government and the military. Their approach involves exposing dictatorship criminals at their residencies or place of work and incriminating them within Chilean society.
Exposing torturers through collective protest
Exposing and denouncing torturers, however, is not unique to Chile. “H.I.J.O.S. in Argentina also operates on similar dynamics,” said Juan Saravia Jimenez, a member of Comisión Funa. “But in Chile, we operate within a more restricted network. It is only on the day of the protest that the action is communicated. This allows us to encounter the dictatorship’s criminals at their location and hold the protest on the spot.”
Saravia’s parents were communist militants and members of the central committee of the Juventudes Comunistas de Chile, the youth wing of the Communist Party, which was at the forefront of resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship. His father was a political prisoner, tortured to death by the dictatorship when Saravia was nine years old.
Comisión Funa was born in early October 1999, after Pinochet had been arrested in London upon a request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon.
The initial activism consisted of members of Comisión Funa approaching citizens in the street with photos of the dictatorship’s victims. “But people quickly started sharing information about where former torturers were living,” Saravia said. “Names and addresses were passed on to the organization. An Argentine comrade told us what they did when they received similar information.”
Comisión Funa’s first protest exposed former torturer Alejandro Forero Alvarez, who is working to this day at a private clinic as a cardiologist. His role as an agent of the dictatorship was to supervise torture sessions to ensure that the tortured political prisoner would not die before divulging information.
Investigating the names passed on to the organization is a long process. “Sometimes it takes months, or even years, to piece together the information that leads to the hiding places of torturers and assassins,” Saravia said. “Our action is peaceful protest, but it is by no means passive. Through our action, the people get to know that their neighbor is a rapist, or a torturer, that their public space is shared by a criminal who, until our discovery, managed to hide his dark past.”
Exposing torturers at their residences or places of employment has served several purposes. “First of all, our protests have ensured that human rights violations are constantly in the news,” Saravia said. “The mobilization generates the necessary social pressure in order to advance the judicial process. We scrutinize the sentences handed to convicted agents for fairness. In the absence of such fairness, Comisión Funa ensures that the perpetrator is sanctioned within his or her immediate society.”
After being exposed, many torturers have been forced to relocate due to the public pressure.
Marco Treuer, the police officer who murdered Mapuche teen Alex Lemun, was another target of activists. “I cannot tell for sure that the case was reopened after our protest, but a few days after our mobilization, the judiciary decided to bring the accused, who is a public employee, to face trial,” Saravia said.
Ruth Loreto Lazo Pastore is a regular participant in Comisión Funa’s protests. Her father, Ofelio de la Cruz Lazo Lazo, was one of the disappeared victims of Operacion Colombo on July 30, 1974.
“We are alerting people, the residents, that there are torturers and assassins living among them, that history is much closer than they think,” she said. “Participants bring others along and encourage them to take up the struggle against impunity and to become part of this memory exercise. We cannot speak of the past as just belonging to the past.”
Comisión Funa’s protests are also an expression of indignation toward Chile’s justice system, which — according to Saravia — has handed out ridiculous and shamefully short sentences to agents convicted of crimes against humanity, not to mention the special luxury jails in which they are imprisoned.
Chile’s judicial system determines the punishment for dictatorship-era crimes, which allows indicted military agents to benefit from a reduction in their sentence for offering to collaborate during court investigations. Its response to crimes against humanity “is totally inconceivable in many countries throughout the world, especially in Europe,” Saravia said.
Fernando Burgos Diaz, a former member of the National Information Center, who participated in the killing of Julio Guerra and the kidnapping of Esther Cabrera Hinojosa, is running a lucrative family business for “esoteric and spiritual therapy.” He only served a sentence of three years and one day for both crimes and is now free.
This is only one of many contradictions that Chileans are living with in the post-dictatorship era. “There are thousands of criminals who live within our communities, close to our families, daughters and sons,” Saravia remarked. “Torturers, murderers and rapists who, today, are part of this sick society, imposed by blood and bullets by the civil-military dictatorship. Subsequent governments have followed the imposed economic model and to this day defend and maintain the 1980 constitution.”
Impunity was consolidated during the transition to democracy. “The human rights violations committed during the dictatorship imposed the cruel, capitalist system that we are living with today,” Saravia said. “Today’s impunity has created new victims — criminalizing social movements in Chile and clamping down on the Mapuche resistance through militarization — to maintain the fascist system implemented by the dictatorship.”
Loreto sees Comisión Funa as taking a stand in direct opposition to this widespread impunity in Chile. “If we are not careful, all the agents who tortured and killed our families will not serve an effective sentence for their crimes,” she said. “They will benefit from humanitarian pardons due to illnesses and old age. If the government is not diligent, then Comisión Funa and all who participate in the protests denouncing these torturers will remain alert. As we always say in our marches, ‘like the Nazis, wherever you hide, we will expose you!’”
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