contact us




Seeking Justice in Chile: A Personal History

This article originally was presented as a lecture by Professor Volk during Commencement Weekend 2002.

by Steven Volk

JUNE 26, 2002--On May 8, an unusually warm fall day in Santiago, I found myself seated in the chambers of Appellate Court Judge-Magistrate Juan Guzmán Tapia. I had been called to testify as a material witness in a criminal complaint filed by Joyce Horman against Augusto Pinochet, Chile's military dictator between 1973 and 1990. Horman asked Guzmán, who under the Chilean legal system acts both as judge and investigating magistrate, to determine why and how her husband Charles, a North American living in Chile, was killed in September 1973 following Pinochet's military coup, and to what extent U.S. officials were involved in his arrest and murder. This case ultimately involves not only Pinochet, but Henry Kissinger, Nixon's National Security Advisor and Secretary of State; Nathaniel Davis, U.S. Ambassador to Chile in 1973; and Frederick Purdy, the U.S. Consul General in Santiago at the time. It stands to be one of the most important cases testing the possibilities and limits of international human rights law since the British Law Lords ruled against Pinochet in 1998-99. And there I sat, a historian called to play a role in history.

In September 1973, I was a 26-year old doctoral student finishing my dissertation research. I selected Chile for my work both because it offered a good place to carry out my research and because it gave me a chance not only to study history, but to live it. In 1970, Salvador Allende, representing a progressive coalition made up primarily of the Socialist and Communist Parties, edged out two other candidates for the Chilean presidency. Allende promised to lead Chile through a peaceful transition to socialism, using the legal system to establish a new economic and political order. The United States violently opposed Allende's election, and immediately set out to prevent his confirmation by Congress (required when candidates receive less than a majority of the vote) or, if unsuccessful, to plan his overthrow. U.S. efforts to block his confirmation ultimately resulted in the assassination of General René Schneider, the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Armed Forces, known to be a strong supporter of constitutional succession. (The fact that Henry Kissinger authorized the planned kidnapping of Schneider is at the heart of attempts by journalists and others to bring the former Secretary of State to trial in a separate case as a criminal defendant.)

If U.S. attempts to prevent Allende from reaching the presidency were unsuccessful in 1970, they found their mark in September 1973. Three years of grinding opposition led to his overthrow on September 11, 1973. The fact that "9/11" now stands for a different act of terrorism is bitterly ironic, for on September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, supported, supplied, and trained by the United States, unleashed their bombs on Chile's presidential palace, initiating a war against a democratically elected government. According to a 1990 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reign of terror spawned by these events claimed more than 3,000 lives, nearly the precise number of lives lost in the September 2001 attacks in the United States.

Although I was in Chile to work on my dissertation, my own political interests soon brought me into contact with a small group of progressive, young North Americans. Together, we published a small news magazine called FIN, Fuente Norteamericano de Información (North American Information Source). FIN was designed to keep interested Chileans informed about the activities of the U.S. government and corporations around the world, and to demonstrate solidarity with the Chilean left by calling attention to progressive movements in the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Santiago, as far as we could tell, didn’t particularly like us. Soon after we rented our first office and installed the phone, a young Finista picked up the receiver to make our first call out only to hear, instead of a dial tone, a secretarial voice saying, "U.S. Embassy, how can we help you?"

By September 11, 1973, eight members of FIN were still in Chile. Of these, three were arrested within a week of the coup and two, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, were murdered--the only two U.S. citizens to be killed during the coup. Horman's case has been made widely known through the 1982 Costa-Gavras film, Missing. Teruggi's case has not been as widely circulated. I became involved because I was their friend and colleague, and it was my particular fate to attempt to work through the U.S. Consulate and Embassy to help them when their fates were still unknown, to identify their bodies when we learned that they had been murdered, and, now, to assist in bringing to justice their killers and all those who were complicit in their deaths and those of the thousands of others killed or disappeared by the Chilean military government.

On September 10, Horman went with a friend to the port city of Viña del Mar and was stuck there, the "ground zero" of the coup, for nearly a week because a complete curfew kept anyone from traveling. Horman and his friend came into contact with several U.S. military personnel biding their time in the same hotel. Feeling perhaps more loquacious than normal after four days indoors, the men struck up some conversations with Horman and his friend, the only other English-speakers in the hotel. In the process, they darkly hinted that they had come to Chile to do "a job" and that they would soon leave now that it was completed. Horman returned to Santiago on September 16 and was alone in his house the next day when a military patrol arrived and carried him off. That was the last time that he was seen by his friends. The next morning an unidentified body thought to be his arrived at the Instituto Médico Legal (the Santiago morgue), and--even though the Consulate was notified that the body was likely his--U.S. officials did not "locate" Horman's body or notify his desperate parents or wife for an entire month.

When the Hormans, finally given the disastrous news of their son's death, asked that his body be returned immediately to the United States, the Embassy agreed, but, remarkably, the body was re-interred in Santiago's General Cemetery. It remained there until March 21, 1974 at which point Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) bluntly threatened to cut off aid to Chile unless some action was taken. After seven months of burial and repeated autopsies by Chilean authorities, the body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that no useful autopsy could be performed by a forensic specialist hired by the Hormans. ...<more>

<1 | 2 | 3>




Please send comments, questions, and suggestions about Oberlin Online news and feature articles to online.news@oberlin.edu