Reappearance of Chile's 'disappeared' raises old doubts
BY ALEJANDRA MATUS
Fourteen years ago, a judge handed a widow and her three sons a coffin with bones that, according to forensic analysis, matched the presumed corpse of her husband, Germán Cofré.
The body had been buried in the General Cemetery next to 100 other people killed in the early years of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and unidentified until the return of democracy.
According to official figures, more than 3,000 people were killed by the military or secret police when Pinochet ruled from 1973 to 1990. But some 1,000 others constitute the ''disappeared'' detainees, people whose bodies were never returned to their families.
Recent judicial investigations demonstrated that most of them were secretly buried or thrown into the sea. The name of Germán Cofré was on the list of the ''disappeared.'' But late last year, he roamed the streets of Lo Sierra, his old neighborhood. He was confused, though little has changed in the 35 years since he was last there.
The self-constructed houses of wood and bricks looked very similar to those standing when the army patrolled the streets, pushing half-dressed men from their homes to take them to secret jails. Cofré knocked on the door of his old home, surprising one of his sons and an entire nation to become the first of the ''disappeared'' detainees to return home -- alive.
During Pinochet's dictatorship, hundreds of people reported the arrest and subsequent disappearance of a family member to the Vicariate of Solidarity, an institution created by the Catholic Church. The Vicariate presented all the cases to the courts. But none was clarified.
In those years, the authorities denied the existence of such victims: ''The detainees disappeared are an invention of Marxism,'' Pinochet used to say.
In 1990, Patricio Aylwin -- the first democratically elected president following the dictatorship -- created the Truth and Reconciliation National Commission (TRNC), which for the first time officially recognized the existence of the missing detainees. Compensation, pensions and scholarships were given to the families of victims of human rights violations recognized by that institution.
Cofré, a former municipal employee and a member of the Communist Party, was put on the official list in 1994 at the request of his Chilean wife, María del Carmen Cisterna. She said he disappeared from prison after being arrested by the Air Force, when in fact he emigrated to Argentina upon liberation.
CONTACT KEPT UP
She must have known it, because he remained in contact with her until 1976, according his own testimony to authorities. Her false claim entitled her family to receive benefits from the government, a sum of about $130,000.
On Nov. 14, Marcelo Cofré, one of Germán's son, called the Human Rights Program to report that his father had reappeared. The HRP is a bureau of lawyers within the secretary of interior (a cabinet-level department equivalent to the U.S. vice presidency) that represents the families of Pinochet's victims.
''It did not entirely surprise me, because the case was not among those we received in the years of the Vicariate. It was a complaint presented after the dictatorship ended and that was poorly investigated by the justice [department],'' said Rosemarie Bornand, current executive secretary of the HRP. "Obviously, I thought of the consequences. I knew that we would hear the old voices of those who denied the existence of the missing detainees.''
Germán Cofré, a 65-year-old, thin, gray-haired man, was taken immediately before the judge who investigates the mistaken identifications of bodies exhumed from the General Cemetery, where his alleged bones were discovered. The government suspended the scholarship his son Marcelo was receiving to study journalism and announced that Cofré would face trial on fraud charges.
A month after Cofré's return, on Dec. 28, the government acknowledged there were three more false ''disappeared'' cases.
''We started reviewing and crossing information,'' said Luciano Fouillioux, an advisor to President Michelle Bachelet. ''These errors jumped and now are being forwarded to the secretary of interior'' for investigation.
However, Jorge Correa Sutil, former vice secretary of interior, told The Miami Herald that one of those cases was known by the government in 2005, when President Ricardo Lagos was in power.
That was the case of Carlos Rojas, a communist leader who used to live in Calama in northern Chile and fled to Argentina in 1977 for fear of persecution. His family stopped hearing from him in 1978 and thought he had been arrested by the secret service in Argentina.
However, when his wife tried to collect benefits granted by that country, the Argentine authorities discovered that Rojas was living in Buenos Aires and reported it to the HRP in Chile.
''I decided not to inform to the press,'' Correa Sutil said. "I did it for humanitarian reasons. The family of the alleged victim had acted in good faith, and I thought that revealing the error would send a swarm of journalists to their home, as has happened with Cofré.''
Lawyer Raquel Mejías, who at the time held the position of HRP's executive secretary, said Correa decided to suspend payment of benefits to a son of Rojas, but was unable to remove his wife's pension.
''The law says that all persons referred as a victim in the official list are entitled to the benefits, but the law did not establish a mechanism for correcting errors. To legally remove someone from this list, the government should have sent a bill to Congress to change the law,'' Mejías said.
That bill was never submitted. Following the end of Lagos' administration, the Rojas family recovered the suspended benefits. Later, under the Bachelet administration, HRP was informed of a new error.
Edgardo Palacios, a union leader, disappeared in 1974 after being arrested twice in Talcahuano, the city in which he lived in southern Chile. His family was entitled to economic benefits. But in 2007, it learned that Palacios had died in the streets and discovered that he had spent years living as a homeless man in Santiago.
Mejías reported the new case to Bachelet's former secretary of interior, Belisario Velasco, who also opted for silence. In this case, no measure was taken to suspend payment of benefits received by the Palacios family.
Later, the case of Emperatriz Villagra was discovered by the HRP while it was reviewing some files on the request of the justice department. The woman had died during childbirth in 1955, but her husband, for unknown reasons, reported her as a ''disappeared'' victim during Pinochet's dictatorship. He has since died and it appears no family members benefited from state compensation. The case was forwarded to the secretary of interior but not made public.
Gen. Guillermo Garin, a former Pinochet spokesman, said in a public stament that these errors give the people ''the right to doubt'' the real magnitude of human rights violations during the dictatorship.
Lawyer Roberto Garreton, one of the former members of the Vicariate of Solidarity, said that it is unacceptable that the governments of Lagos and Bachelet kept secret three cases so far.
''It is likely that among more than 3,000 deaths and more than 1,000 disappearances, you would find some errors, but it was necessary to correct and denounce them publicly as soon as detected,'' he said. "That's what we did in the Vicariate, because the only capital of a human rights defender is credibility.''
HOPING FOR RETURNS
Some relatives of the documented 1,180 disappeared still set a place at the table for their missing loved ones, hoping they will return home. On their behalf, Lorena Pizarro, president of the Relatives of Disappeared Detainees Association, said: "I want to say to the Cofrés that by their irresponsibility, by their lack of ethics, by their unscrupulous attitude, today some are saying that all cases of missing persons should be reviewed. We will not allow anyone to muddy the historical truth.''
This past week, the government acknowledge a new case of error.
Gustavo Soto was supposed to have disappeared after being arrested at the beginning of Pinochet's regime, but now it seems he died in a street fight a month before the coup d'etat. The government accused his widow of lying to collect money.
In the Lo Sierra neighborhood, Germán Cofré is uncomfortable.
His unannounced arrival sparked public complaints about a father who neglected his sons and brought suspicions that his wife, now deceased, faked his death to collect benefits.
The justice department has ordered Cofré to remain in Chile and he does not know when he will be able to return to Argentina to resume his life. He says that he does not want to give interviews yet but makes it clear that he never knew his wife had declared him missing.
And he has yet to explain why he returned.
''I left for fear of a regime that persecuted me and I returned to be persecuted again,'' he said before closing the door of his home.