Obituary for Juan Guzmán

From The Washington Post —
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Juan Guzmán Tapia, judge who battled Chilean dictator,
dies at 81

Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005.
Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005. (Tom Uhlman/AP)

By. Matt Schudel – – – – – Jan. 23, 2021 at 11:23 p.m. EST

Juan Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who was the first person to prosecute the country’s onetime military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, using novel legal strategies to hold him and members of his regime accountable for killings and human rights offenses in the 1970s and 1980s, died Jan. 22 at age 81.

Chilean newspapers, including La Tercera, reported his death, which was confirmed by his family to Spanish-language news services. Other details were not disclosed, but Judge Guzmán lived in Santiago and had dementia, said a friend, Peter Kornbluh, the author of “The Pinochet File.”

Judge Guzmán, who was the son of a Chilean diplomat, said he and his conservative family celebrated in 1973 when Pinochet and his military supporters overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, in a coup. It took years before Judge Guzmán understood the full extent of the terror that was then unleashed by Pinochet, his secret police and other henchmen.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Judge Guzmán led an often risky legal campaign to redress rampant human rights abuses that left thousands of Chileans dead.

“He has become the iconic pursuer of justice in Chile — the first judge to indict and began a legal process to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice for crimes against humanity both within Chile and elsewhere,” said Kornbluh, who is director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

Judge Guzmán, who became a regional magistrate in the early 1970s, was an appeals court judge by the time Pinochet relinquished power in 1990. Pinochet maintained control of the military until 1998, and the country’s judicial system and leading media outlets were also aligned with him.

A Chilean Dictator’s Dark Legacy

After democratic rule returned to Chile in the 1990s, accounts began to surface of systematic kidnappings, torture and murder carried out at Pinochet’s behest. Lawyers for victims and their families filed suit against Pinochet, and Judge Guzmán was assigned to investigate the cases, becoming, in effect, a special prosecutor. (In Chile’s judicial system at that time, judges had investigative and prosecutorial authority, in addition to the role of presiding in court.)


Judge Guzmán leaving a court building in Santiago,
Chile, in 2001. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Judge Guzmán was appalled by what he began to learn about his country.

Soon after Pinochet seized control in 1973, he launched a purge of local government officials associated with Allende known as the Caravan of Death. Military squads arrived by helicopter, rounded up local officials and shot them. Their bodies were buried in remote places. Pinochet loyalists were installed in their former offices.

Pinochet was also a central figure in a second wave of repression, called Operation Condor, which linked several military regimes in South America, reportedly with support from the CIA. Students, professors and dissidents were hounded and sometimes kidnapped, many of them never to be seen again. These people became known in Spanish as the desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.”

A Chilean commission on truth and reconciliation later documented 3,197 victims of extrajudicial execution or disappearances. A separate commission estimated that there were more than 80,000 survivors of torture. Against that background, Judge Guzmán assembled a team of detectives and forensic experts to investigate Chile’s bloody past.

“I traversed Chile city by city to piece together the macabre puzzle left behind,” he wrote in a 2005 memoir. “We found eyewitnesses, people who’d been waiting for decades for the judicial system to pay attention to what they had to say.”

He interviewed relatives of people who disappeared and others who had been tortured. He found mass graves and secret prisons. He interviewed helicopter mechanics who described how bodies were loaded onto military helicopters, then dumped in the Pacific Ocean, weighted down by sections of railroad track.

Judge Guzmán often brought journalists with him to document the grisly discoveries, which included skulls and skeletons dug from the earth. Judges on higher courts admonished him for being a publicity seeker, but he pressed forward.

“The deeper I got into my inquiry into the crimes of the dictatorship,” he told the New York Times in 2006, “the more I realized that people in Chile were either unaware or wanted to be unaware of those crimes.”

The bulk of the human rights abuses had occurred during the first five years of Pinochet’s regime. He later issued a blanket amnesty to military and security officials for any crimes committed before 1978. After Pinochet lost the presidency in 1990, he was named a senator-for-life, which granted him immunity from prosecution.

Judge Guzmán was particularly troubled by the cases of people who had vanished.

“I was convinced the amnesty did not apply to disappearances,” Judge Guzmán said in a 2008 documentary, “The Judge and the General,” directed by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco Leverton. “The bodies of the disappeared had never been found, and so the crimes never ended. It was continuing crime.”

Another term used for the disappearances was “perpetual kidnapping.” In other words, if a criminal act had no clear resolution, the crime was still ongoing, and the perpetrators could be brought to justice.

The Chilean supreme court agreed with Judge Guzmán’s theory. He brought his first indictments in 1999 and ultimately sent dozens of onetime Chilean officials to prison.

In the meantime, Pinochet was taken into custody while visiting London in 1998 on orders from a Spanish judge who sought to have the general stand trial for genocide, torture and other crimes against Spanish citizens in Chile.

Pinochet was never extradited to Spain, but after 17 months of house arrest in London he returned to Chile in March 2000, welcomed by cheering supporters. Within 72 hours, Judge Guzmán filed documents to have Pinochet’s legal immunity removed.

He brought charges against Pinochet, connecting him to 75 killings in the Caravan of Death, and ordered him confined under house arrest at his mansion outside Santiago. The case stalled when Pinochet’s lawyers argued that the aging dictator had developed dementia and could not stand trial.

Judge Guzmán later discovered an interview that Pinochet had given in November 2003 to a Spanish-langauge TV station in Miami and asked a panel of psychiatrists and other experts to examine it. In the TV interview, Pinochet appeared coherent, reasonable and utterly without remorse.

After questioning Pinochet in person, Judge Guzmán ruled in December 2004 that the 89-year-old ex-dictator was competent to stand trial. Furthermore, he leveled nine charges of kidnapping against Pinochet and one of aggravated murder, all related to Operation Condor. Other members of Pinochet’s junta, including the chief of his secret police, were arrested.

Millions of dollars were later discovered in offshore accounts controlled by Pinochet, leading to additional charges of financial fraud. In the end, Judge Guzmán indicted Pinochet three times, but the general never came to trial.

Pinochet spent his final years in internal exile, repeatedly under house arrest and deserted by his once-loyal followers. He died in 2006 at age 91, with multiple cases still pending against him.

“The important thing is what we leave to our children,” Judge Guzmán said in 2006, “and here they are going to be able to say, ‘Look, here a dictator was judged.’ ”

Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia was born April 22, 1939, in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, where his father was serving as a diplomat. His father was also a poet, and his mother had studied theater and sculpture. Writers and artists were frequent guests at the family home.

Judge Guzmán spent his formative years, from 4 to 12, in San Francisco and Washington and was deeply influenced by his early exposure to American culture and constitutional principles.

He lived in Venezuela and Colombia before receiving a law degree from the Pontificial Catholic University of Chile. He studied at the University of Paris in the late 1960s and was fluent in several languages.

Survivors include his French-born wife, Inés Watine Dubrulle, and two daughters.

Judge Guzmán retired from the bench in 2005 and became a law school dean at the Central University of Chile and later taught at other law schools, including the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke widely about the need to pursue justice against those responsible for human rights crimes, regardless of how powerful they might be.

“Judges must speak,” he said in the documentary “The Judge and the General.” “They must be transparent. It’s important for the people, it’s important for the relatives of the victims, and it’s important for the country. . . . A wounded country needs to know the truth.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

José Zalaquett, champion of human rights in Pinochet’s Chile and around the world, dies at 77

‘Tex’ Harris, U.S. diplomat who exposed human rights abuses in Argentina, dies at 81

Matt Schudel
Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida. Follow

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Work for sustainable development of small islands and the Chesapeake Bay; ex-Peace Corps (Volunteer and staff) in LA & Caribbean; cruised Caribbean on S/Y Meander for three years; like small tropical islands, French canals, Umbria, Tasmania, and NZ. Married 52 years to the late Kincey Burdett Potter (see President of the now-sunsetting Island Resources Foundation.
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