He once seemed a symbol of Chile’s democratic transition: an army general who condemned the Pinochet dictatorship’s human rights record and served as army commander during the government of President Ricardo Lagos, a socialist (2000-06). General Juan Emilio Cheyre published an article in 2003, saying that the military coup thirty years earlier had not been a “triumphant military pronouncement, but a time of acute civic enmity.” Six months later he gave a speech directly criticizing those civilian groups that had urged the Chilean military to stage the 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende’s government. The Chilean press described it as historic.
“Never again excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism,” he said. Chile was building an army for the 21st century and that it was time to move away from Cold War thinking.
And Cheyre’s immediate superior was none other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who was serving as Chile’s first female defense minister.
All this earned him the opprobrium of die hard Pinochet supporters, and Cheyre later said he had received death threats. But the general’s past would eventually surface. Last November he was convicted for his role in the killing of 15 people in the notorious Caravan of Death in northern Chile, where he was stationed after the coup. Cheyre was sentenced to three years’ house arrest for helping to cover up the killings. And this week police arrested him and three other former officials on charges of torturing 24 prisoners during this period.
Which makes Cheyre the most senior official to be held accountable for human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime.