‘Where are they?’: families search for Chile’s disappeared prisoners

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Many went missing between 1973 and 1990 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet – and relatives are still seeking answers

by Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images. Words by Paulina Abramovich

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 19 May 1976 after months of regime persecution of Communist party leaders.

  • Niches containing human remains belonging to people who disappeared during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, at the general cemetery of Santiago

  • Juana Cerda, the daughter of Cesar Cerda, in front of a memorial to the missing and executed prisoners at the general cemetery of Santiago

“Where is he? Where’s his body? We’ve spent our lives asking those questions,” said Juana Cerda, his 62-year-old daughter, who was standing at the main cemetery in Santiago in front of a memorial to the 3,200 people who died or disappeared during the dictatorship. Alongside her mother, she trawled hospitals, police stations, detention centres and military barracks without finding answers to her questions, just like other family members of the missing from Chile’s bloody 1973-1990 dictatorship, during which time 38,000 people were tortured.

  • Stefano Di Lucca, an anthropologist at Chile’s legal medical service, works on clothing belonging to people who disappeared

Juana Cerda said: “This search has been very painful. My mother went on hunger strike. She chained herself to a fence outside the Congress building.

“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 centres in the capital.

  • Top: Silvia Campos, the sister of Eduardo. Above: historical documents relating to the disappearance of Eduardo Campos during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship

It’s a similar tale for the family of Eduardo Campos, from the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, 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 Chile’s conservative president, Sebastian Piñera, assumed office 18 months ago.

  • A sign reading ‘Not one more criminal who committed crimes against humanity in the streets’ stands in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace, in Santiago

  • Relatives of people who disappeared during the military dictatorship demand Sebastian Piñera’s government speed up the search for victims, during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Santiago

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

Before handing over power to Piñera, the former Socialist president Michelle Bachelet – now the UN high commissioner for human rights and who was herself tortured during the dictatorship – launched a programme at the end of 2017 to find out what happened to the missing people, with the results expected in 2021.

  • Lorena Pizarro, the daughter of Waldo Pizarro who disappeared in 1976, holds a ‘Where Are They?’ sign

Chile’s human rights undersecretary, Lorena Recabarren, said: “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.” She added 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”.

  • Giselle Contreras, an anthropologist at Chile’s legal medical service, works on an unidentified human skeleton to demonstrate how to apply identification techniques

“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 Alberto Hurtado University. Many bodies were blown up using dynamite and about 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, about 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 bones.

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

  • Graves in the Patio 29 zone, at the general cemetery of Santiago, where people who disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship were buried without being identified

The service has about 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 are not willing to give up, Cerda said. “We’ll keep fighting until we die.”

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