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Judging Augusto Pinochet: Juan Guzman on his investigation

Juan Guzman, the humble Chilean judge who shot to international fame when he investigated and indicted Augusto Pinochet, reflects on the 1973 coup, his investigation of the general, and the state of democracy in Chile today.

Juan Guzman threw himself into the investigation of Chile's Augusto Pinochet

Chilean Judge Juan Guzman (centre) was an unlikely candidate to take on Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In Chile’s judicial system, judges both investigate and rule on cases, and he was seen as a right-leaning judge who would be sympathetic to the former dictator. But he surprised many of his detractors - this Dec. 13, 2004, photo shows Guzman announcing the inditcment of Pinochet on human rights charges at Supreme Court building in Santiago, Chile. (Santiago Llanquin/AP)

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet 's coup in Chile, The Sunday Edition talked to Juan Guzman, the humble Chilean judge who shot to international fame when he investigated and indicted Pinochet.

Juan Guzman knew this probably wasn’t going to go well.

The senior Chilean judge had been tasked with investigating General Augusto Pinochet for complicity in atrocities committed under his brutal regime, and the time had come for a face-to-face meeting … and some tough questions.

Forty years ago, on Sept. 11, 1973, a military coup led by Gen. Pinochet toppled the democratic socialist government of Chile. President Salvador Allende killed himself as troops attacked the presidential palace.

Gen. Pinochet — with the backing of the CIA — rounded up students, trade unionists and intellectuals. In the aftermath of the coup, a quarter of a million people were detained for their political beliefs, 3,000 were killed or disappeared, many more were tortured.

Decades later, it fell to Judge Guzman to investigate if any of the brutalities could be directly tied back to General Pinochet.

It was Sept. 2004, and the judge was six years into his investigation. He had actually met Pinochet on two previous occasions; once as judge on Chile’s Court of Appeal, and once in the early stages of his investigation. Both times had been pleasant; on the second occasion Pinochet offered him coffee and biscuits as they sat down to talk in his home in Santiago.

But after several years of digging, Judge Guzman had some more difficult questions to ask.

"He got annoyed when I asked him if he was in charge of Operation Condor in which hundreds of people were killed," recalled Judge Guzman. "In a moment, he stood up. He lost his balance … he almost fell," because he was so worked up.

Chasing the truth

Under the rule of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, pictured here at a 1974 press conference in Santiago, a quarter of a million people were detained for their political beliefs, 3,000 were killed or disappeared, and many more were tortured. (AP)

Judge Guzman recalled the September 2004 encounter during a feature interview with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the coup against Chile’s Socialist President Salvador Allende that brought Gen. Pinochet to power.

The judge was an unlikely candidate to take on Gen. Pinochet. In Chile’s judicial system, judges both investigate and rule on cases. When Judge Guzman was initially appointed, human rights activists worried about a whitewash. He was seen as a right-leaning judge who would be sympathetic to the former dictator.

It was not a completely unfair characterization, at least initially. Judge Guzman had lived a privileged life among Chile’s upper middle class his entire life. He had voted against the left-leaning Allende in the 1970 election that brought him to power.

"We were not having a very good time during the three years of Allende’s rule," Judge Guzman admitted.

 "We did not imagine what was going to happen to him or what was going to happen to the country, so like many people we celebrated the coup with a toast."

When the first stories of mass killings and disappearances began to surface, the judge was skeptical. Chile’s military had a storied history of supporting the country’s democratic institutions. He didn’t believe it was capable of systematically killing its own people.

But slowly, as the stories multiplied and the military refused to relinquish power, the possibility of its complicity became harder to ignore.

So years later, when Judge Guzman was chosen to lead the investigation, he was ready to keep an open mind.

His colleagues, meanwhile, saw the case as a career-ender.

In some ways, it was. Judge Guzman had harboured hopes of an appointment to Chile’s Supreme Court, but the Pinochet case ended that possibility.

The judge threw himself into the investigation, crisscrossing the country, exhuming bodies and talking to survivors. He retraced the journey of the Caravan of Death, which rounded up leftist intellectuals, activists and enemies of Pinochet’s military rule for execution. He chased the paper trail of Operation Condor, a pan-American intelligence operation that terrorized and assassinated communist and Soviet sympathizers. He sent subpoenas to Washington demanding the extradition of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to be questioned about U.S. support of the dictatorship in Chile. The work was so dangerous that the judge wore a flak jacket while travelling.

And all roads led back to Gen. Pinochet.

Indictment

In the end, Judge Guzman indicted the strongman on numerous charges relating to the Caravan of Death, Operation Condor and the disappearance of several opposition activists.

But the charges were repeatedly challenged in court, and General Augusto Pinochet died on Dec. 10, 2006, without ever being tried or convicted of any crimes.

As for the state of democracy in Chile today, Judge Guzman is not sure the country has fully recovered from its years in darkness.

"We used to be a country of three thirds – left, right and centre. But after 1970, half of the people belonged to the left and half belonged to the right. And that’s what we still are today. We are far from reconciliation."

[Listen to Michael Enright's interview with Judge Juan Guzman in the audio player on this page, or on The Sunday Edition's site.]