Families' endless search for missing victims of Chile's dictatorship

Santiago (AFP) –


It has been 43 years since Cesar Cerda, a member of Chile's communist party, was dragged off by agents of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.

Cerda is just one of 1,000 former opponents of the far-right regime still listed as missing, despite the tireless efforts by family members to find them.

Cerda was 47, and a father of three, when he was arrested on May 19, 1976 following months of regime persecution against communist party leaders.

"Where is he? Where's his body? We've spent our lives asking those questions," Juana Cerda, his 62-year-old daughter, told AFP, standing in front of a memorial to the 3,200 people who died or disappeared during the dictatorship at the main cemetery in Santiago.

Alongside her mother, she trawled hospitals, police stations, detention centers and military barracks without finding answers to her questions, just like other family members of the missing from Chile's bloody 1973-1990 dictatorship, which also tortured 38,000 people.

"This search has been very painful. My mother went on hunger strike, she chained herself" to a fence outside the Congress building, she said. "It completely turned our lives upside down."

All she knows about her father is that he was taken off to the notorious Villa Grimaldi and Simon Bolivar torture centers in the capital.

- 'We've got nothing' -

It's a similar tale for the family of Eduardo Campos, from the Revolutionary Left Movement, who was arrested in 1973.

"We've searched for years and we've got nothing," said his sister Silvia, who has continued the search since her mother died in 1994.

Her case was made even more traumatic when the family was informed in 2006 by the forensic services that a body that had been identified as being her brother was, in fact, someone else.

Having been exhumed, it had to be reburied, and Campos's family went back to square one.

Of the 1,100 people officially registered as disappeared, only 104 have been found.

The victims' families have blamed successive governments for showing a lack of interest, and say that nothing has changed since conservative President Sebastian Pinera assumed office 18 months ago.

"I think this government ... not only isn't interested, but is actively boycotting any advances in this regard," said Lorena Pizarro, president of a group of families of disappeared prisoners, whose father Waldo Pizarro went missing in 1976.

Before handing over power to Pinera, socialist former president Michelle Bachelet, who is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and who was herself tortured during the dictatorship, launched a program at the end of 2017 to find out what happened to the missing people, with the results due in 2021.

"Work in this area has been continuous and expanded. We've expressed at every opportunity that we're holding to our commitments in this domain," said Chile's human rights under-secretary, Lorena Recabarren in an email after declining an interview request from AFP.

Recabarren said that by the end of 2018, 451 people had been prosecuted over the executions of 851 victims, and 266 people prosecuted over 618 disappearances.

Since the beginning of June, two lawyers have also been examining the cases of another 355 victims, but not as part of any prosecution procedure.

In a recent report, the UN High Commission's Committee on Enforced Disappearances expressed its concern over the small number of missing people found and advised Chile to "intensify its efforts to open up investigations or accelerate those already ongoing."

- Bodies blown up -

"It's difficult to find missing prisoners, given that the aim was exactly that: to make them disappear without leaving a trace," said Elizabeth Lira, an expert from the Alberto Hurtado University.

Many bodies were blown up using dynamite and around 180 people were dropped into the sea from aircraft.

Family associations accuse the army of withholding information as part of a "pact of silence."

"It's a wound that lacerates the national conscience," said Pizarro, who wants her country to show the political will to "reject impunity."

As well as the families' efforts, around 10 magistrates are investigating the issue and a special unit of the Legal Medicine Service is working on identifying the rare remains that have been found, despite the difficulty posed by the ravages of time and fragmentary nature of those.

"The technology is available, but the information and quality of information we're working with is very variable," said Marisol Intriago, head of the special unit currently working on identifying 45 suspected victims.

The service has around 4,000 blood samples and 1,800 bone fragments from the families of the missing people to ensure that the search continues even as those descendants die.

The families aren't willing to give up.

"We'll keep fighting until we die," said Cerda.