- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

SANTIAGO, Chile — Amid jubilation from human rights groups at the unprecedented flurry of victories before Chile’s highest courts, a silent storm is brewing among retired and current members of the country’s armed forces who feel the quest for justice has gone too far.

“There’s a feeling of frustration, of being abandoned and hung out to dry,” said retired Gen. Rafael Villarroel, summing up the sentiments of the more than 200,000 retired military officials who make up the veterans union Chile mi Patria (“Chile my Homeland”), of which he is president.

This frustration found a disturbing expression Jan. 17 when retired Col. Germain Barriga Munoz leapt from the 18th floor of an office building.

He was facing four separate trials on human rights charges stemming from his years as a member of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which with other branches of the military was responsible for the deaths or disappearances of more than 3,000 people in Chile between 1973, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power from an elected government, and 1990, when he was ousted.

In his suicide note, Col. Barriga said the years of public persecution related to his past had become overwhelming, and he told of his difficulties in trying to support his sick wife after losing his job for a third time.

In the note, he complained of “being subject to legal restrictions, which meant I had to testify before four different courts a month, having my resume tarnished by special-interest groups, having friends turn their backs on me, and finding it impossible to find work in an honorable way. … Please forgive me and try to understand that for me, this has become unbearable.”

After retiring from the army in 1991, Col. Barriga worked for two years but was fired after his employer learned he had been part of the DINA. He later found work in a frozen-foods company but was let go. The third firing came last year, after he was targeted by a “funa” — a march by family members and sympathizers of those he was accused of killing. The marchers, carrying signs and chanting “assassin,” appeared outside his home and at the supermarket chain where he worked training security guards.

Such demonstrations have taken on strength in recent years.

In response, Col. Barriga had begun organizing an underground group called the 10th of September Movement, made up of 300 retired military officials opposing the funas — some say with violence.

David Alvarez, a researcher with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, an independent think tank, said the funas were born of the frustration of families who weren’t finding justice before the courts. “So they decided to take matters into their own hands, to try to ensure that these people wouldn’t live in impunity, leading a normal life.”

The human rights abuses committed by military and police officers after Chile’s 1973 coup were protected for decades by an amnesty law. But in November, a Supreme Court ruling struck down the amnesty in the cases of “disappeared” detainees. Human rights attorneys successfully argued that because the detainees’ bodies have never been found, these constitute “permanent kidnappings,” which go beyond the 1973-78 amnesty period, and thus can be prosecuted as continuing crimes.

Retired military officers have expressed outrage at the court’s acceptance of what they call a “legal fiction.”

The amnesty ruling already has started to yield convictions in the more than 300 disappearance cases before the courts, and the government of President Ricardo Lagos has announced the construction of a new penitentiary to house convicted retired generals.

Other military cases also are making headway. Gen. Pinochet is facing trial on charges of ordering nine kidnappings and a murder.

On Jan. 28, 15 former members of National Information Central were convicted after a six-year investigation of Operation Albania, which involved the slayings of 12 foes of the military regime in 1987.

Also on Jan. 28, five former members of the DINA whose convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court were imprisoned. Gen. Manuel Contreras refused to appear in court and resisted arrest at his home, having to be restrained by a dozen policemen.

When he was taken to the courthouse, a waiting crowd shouting “assassin” threw bottles, eggs and fruit at him. It was a display of anger that many retired military officers fear is growing.

Gen. Contreras even lashed out against the commander of the army, calling him a traitor for not having protected him as a retired “general of the republic.”

Since the flurry of convictions, the funas have tapered off in recent months. But the parade of officers before the courts angers retired officers.

“We are slaves of the past,” retired Gen. Sergio Espinoza said after the funeral of Col. Barriga. “The elastic is being stretched too far.”

“This country has been very unfair with its military,” said Gen. Villarroel. “There’s a feeling of impotence before this warped state of law. But politicians of all stripes, even the right, have said this isn’t their business. And there’s a disturbing atmosphere of national indifference to this important sector of Chilean society which has values, principles, patriotism.”

Chile’s military has long been revered and many people still support the 1973 coup, arguing that it was the only way to stave off civil war. Gen. Pinochet also retains avid supporters.

Gen. Villarroel said a feeling remains in military circles and among conservatives that the courts are being controlled by the Lagos government, and that the quest for justice has gone from attempts at reconciliation to a campaign for vengeance.

He says the courts also have been forgetting the chain of command, convicting soldiers “who were only carrying out orders.” Col. Barriga is a case in point — a lieutenant plucked from the barracks and installed in the DINA.

His daughter, Maria Isabel Barriga, said her father could have been killed if he had refused to join.

“If my father at some point was ordered to kill or bury someone, it would have been an order and he would have done it. He was a soldier,” she said in an interview published by El Mercurio.

“The day they told him that he was going to the DINA, he told my mother and they cried together — maybe because he suspected the kinds of orders he would have to carry out. The generals of the time, like Augusto Pinochet and Manuel Contreras, who was in charge of the DINA then, are the ones responsible for what happened to my father.”

Such blame is not echoed by many within the military. In fact, Gen. Villarroel said the abuses in the days and years after the military coup must be understood as “a necessary evil,” given the historical context.

“Chile was living a spiral of violence because of terrorist left-wing groups, which started as early as 1964 and peaked during the Allende government,” said Gen. Villarroel.

He added that in the same way the government examined the military through the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture — popularly known as the Valech Commission for its chairman, Bishop Sergio Valech, which submitted a 1,200-page report to the government — Chile Mi Patria wants it to invest equal resources into examining the political oppression between 1960 and 1973.

“Allende’s government had been declared unconstitutional. Just like what happened in Haiti last year, there was mayhem on the streets. So the military responded to restore peace.”

However most Chileans interpret the military’s excesses, most agree on the need to resolve the past soon. The day after Col. Barriga’s suicide, the Supreme Court declared that all human rights cases now before the courts must be resolved within six months.

Human rights attorneys oppose this deadline, saying it will lead to rushed rulings and incomplete investigations.

“This decision is fatal because it sets an arbitrary and irrational deadline,” said human rights prosecutor Nelson Caucoto. “The accused could simply duck their heads underwater for six months, delaying or refusing to testify, until the case is declared closed.” He added that it takes a good two years to properly move a case through Chile’s slow judicial system.

Attorneys have filed a constitutional challenge against the court’s decision.

Meanwhile, the government has drafted legislation that would cap human rights cases at two years — a move that has been rejected by the Socialist Party in the ruling coalition.

But the court insists these cases have dragged on too long, and closure must come soon.


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