Chile launches push to find people disappeared in Pinochet era

National Search Plan aims to locate remains of people who were forcibly disappeared during post-coup authoritarian rule.

Rows of framed pictures in black and white
The Jose Domingo Canas memorial house in Santiago, Chile, displays photos of people who were arrested or went missing under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet on August 30 [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

As Chile approaches the 50th anniversary of its 1973 coup, the country’s government has launched an initiative to search for people who disappeared during the authoritarian rule of General Augusto Pinochet.

Progressive President Gabriel Boric announced the National Search Plan on Wednesday, saying that the country deserves answers about the fate of the people who remain missing. The push coincides with the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Pinochet came to power in the military coup, which saw the overthrow and death of the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

During Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, 1,469 people went missing as a result of forced disappearances. Of that number, 1,092 disappeared after being imprisoned, and 377 were executed, but their remains never returned.

“We had the illusion that they were alive, but over the years, we realised they weren’t,” Juana Andreani, a former detainee and friend of a person who disappeared, told the Reuters news agency.

“At least they should tell us what happened to them, what was done to them. That is the worst part of these 50 years.”

Pinochet’s rule came amid a wave of military United States-backed coups in Latin America during the Cold War period.

Reporting from Chile’s capital Santiago, Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman said successive Chilean governments have failed to seriously search for the disappeared people since Pinochet left power in 1990.

Newman noted that mass graves have been previously discovered in Chile near former interrogation centres, but not all the human remains found have been properly examined or identified.

“The forensic science has advanced quite a lot, so there is hope that at least some of the disappeared will be identified, even if it’s just a bone,” she said.

“A lot of people here told me, even if it’s just a little piece of the person that went missing that [they] can bury, that will help a lot to put their pain to rest.”

Earlier this week, a 42-year-old lawyer, who was taken from his family at birth during the Pinochet era, met his biological mother for the first time after finding her through DNA tracing. He had been raised in the US.

“I was suffocated by the gravity of this moment,” Jimmy Lippert Thyden told The Associated Press after reuniting with his mother in the Chilean city of Valdivia. “How do you hug someone in a way that makes up for 42 years of hugs?”

On Wednesday, Boric said justice had taken “too long” for the victims.

“This is not a favour to the families. It is a duty to society as a whole to deliver the answers the country deserves and needs,” the president said, as reported by the New York Times.

Victims and their relatives have called for the Chilean armed forces to release more information about the fate of missing people.

“Obviously, the higher ranks of the armed forces are responsible. What did they do with the corpses?” Carlos Gonzalez, who was jailed and tortured by the military during the dictatorship, told Reuters.

“It can’t be that we don’t know what happened with around 1,000 Chileans. This just can’t be.”

Advocates have also pushed for US files related to Chile to be made public.

Earlier this week, the US Department of State declassified a 1973 intelligence briefing to then-President Richard Nixon informing him of the “possibility of an early military coup attempt” in Chile, days before the putsch took place.

The US has admitted to engaging in covert propaganda operations against Allende even before his election. It also funded opposition groups during his tenure.

“Broadly speaking, US policy sought to maximise pressures on the Allende government to prevent its consolidation and limit its ability to implement policies contrary to US and hemispheric interests,” a 1975 US Senate report reads.

But it remains unclear whether Washington played a direct role in the coup.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies