At the Edge of the World: Memories of a Judge Who Indicted Pinochet

Judge Juan Guzman

Judge Juan Guzmán addressing the Center for Latin American Studies in Berkeley in 2007.

I’ve come upon this a bit late, but a memoir by Juan Guzmán Tapia, the courageous Chilean judge who prosecuted the late dictator General Augusto Pinochet, has been translated into English by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley has published an excerpt.

Early in 1998 Guzmán accepted a petition from relatives of five Chilean Communist Party members who were arrested and never seen again. Their cases, and other similar instances of forced disappearance, had been documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 1990 report. But a 1978 amnesty law imposed by the dictatorship had thwarted many previous human rights cases presented in Chilean courts.  Guzmán thought of a different legal approach: such arrests could be considered kidnappings, in legal terms, and since the detainees’ bodies had never been found their cases could be viewed as continuing violations (secuestro permanente) and thus prosecuted.

Guzmán’s work opened the way for dozens more lawsuits from Chileans whose relatives had disappeared during the the dictatorship. Some of the missing were believed to have been killed during the Caravan of Death, an infamous series of mass executions shortly after the 1973 military coup.  He interviewed retired military officers who had been on duty in the regions at the time of the killings, and while many denied everything others provided chilling testimonies and confessions. Guzmán was also the subject of a 2008 documentary, The Judge and the General.

This blogger had the privilege of interviewing Guzmán as part of my research for my second book.  His original memoir had been recently published, and he autographed my copy, which is sitting on my desk as I write this.

And now for something different

This blogger recently had her very first piece published in a literary magazine. The spring issue of Slightly Foxed has my article, Gone Fishing, about my late father’s love for the works of British-Canadian poet Robert Service.  His favorite was The Cremation of Sam McGee, a ballad about a prospector in the Yukon who honors his dying friend’s request for cremation in the wild rather than interment in an icy grave.

And there is a Chile connection.  I was living and working in Santiago at the time of his death, which just happened to occur the day after gunmen made an assassination attempt against dictator Augusto Pinochet.  I was up all night filing stories, began a full day of reporting in the morning and had just collapsed into bed that evening when I got the phone call of his death.  Some bitter irony here.

I flew back to the U.S. a few days later and at the reception following my father’s funeral I read The Cremation of Sam McGee.  And then returned to Chile, and the dictatorship’s crackdown.