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Patricio Bustos says visits from ICRC delegates when he was imprisoned in the 1970s likely saved his life. Now, as head of Chile’s forensic services agency, he works, with help from the ICRC, to solve one of the country’s greatest mysteries: what happened to those who disappeared during the country’s decades of military regime?
The man escorting Patricio Bustos fumbles with his keys. Bustos doesn’t complain. After all, he has waited a long time for this. What’s a few more seconds? The heavy, steel door swings open at last and Bustos steps into a cement courtyard the size of a tennis court, surrounded on three sides by a blue, one-storey building.
“Yes, I remember,” he says quietly.
Bustos is Chile’s national coroner, the man ultimately responsible for finding answers when the government needs to know how, why or when someone died — or to find answers about who has died in cases where the remains cannot be easily identified. One of his biggest cases, which he is handling with assistance from the ICRC, involves finding answers about those who were murdered or executed, or who simply disappeared, during Chile’s years of military regime, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.
On this day, nearly 40 years later, 64-year-old Bustos is making a personal journey, a return to a painful part of his past.
The last time Bustos saw this courtyard was in 1976, under very different circumstances. Then a young doctor with Marxist sympathies, he had been arrested for actively resisting Chile’s military regime. The facility, known as Cuatro Alamos, was a detention centre in Santiago run by Chile’s secret police. Only the secret police knew he was there.
Returning to the corridors for the first time since his release in 1976, Bustos walks up and down a narrow hallway, searching his memory. Then he stops in front of a door, above which is painted number 2. “This was my cell,” he says, standing on his toes to peer through the square spaces above the door.
Bustos strides to the far end of the hallway, turns left and enters a room with white ceramic tiles and six shower heads. “This is where they beat the prisoners,” he says matter-of-factly. “This is where I was beaten.”
He lingers for only a minute. There is another place he wants to visit, a rectangular room with iron bars over the windows that served as Cuatro Alamos’ communal area. While held captive, Bustos had been summoned there one day to meet three men bearing red and white badges.
That meeting, and other similar private talks with these men in subsequent months, are almost certainly what kept him from disappearing. “This is where I met the ICRC officials,” he says, standing in the middle of the room, a slight echo from the concrete accentuating his voice’s otherwise flat, unassuming tone. “This is where I met them.”
Bustos arrived at Cuatro Alamos more than two years after the events of 11 September 1973, when tanks rolled and the air force bombed the presidential palace. President Salvador Allende and dozens of his supporters died that day. General Augusto Pinochet went on television that night to announce that the military had seized power in the name of protecting the fatherland.
The arrests began immediately and continued unabated. In just one episode on 12 October, soldiers arrested 26 leftist sympathizers in the city of Calama and held them in a prison, incommunicado. Eight days later, authorities released a statement: all of the men had been shot dead the previous day while attempting to escape after a truck transporting them to another prison suffered a mechanical failure. No further details were provided. Nor were the bodies.
So many bodies didn’t turn up throughout Chile that a phrase was coined to describe them. They became known as Los Desaparecidos (the disappeared).
For years, families of those who had disappeared in Calama and 15 other cities across the country in less than a month sought more information. After Chile returned to democracy in 1990, they finally got some answers. The military had tortured and then executed 96 people, including the 26 in Calama, as part of an infamous campaign that became known as the ‘caravan of death’.
But what about the remains? Where were they?
One of the 96 was Luis Alfonso Moreno, a 30-year-old security guard and Socialist Party activist. Investigators called his family in January 2014. They had found fragments of his body in the desert and conclusively identified them.
The family held a ceremony for Moreno at the general cemetery in Santiago, with his bones in an urn draped by the Chilean flag. Beside the urn was a black-and-white photograph of his wedding day
Mourners told stories that prompted laughter and tears. Someone played a guitar and they sang his favourite songs. This produced more remembrances. Moreno was buried in a gravesite that held the remains of other Pinochet regime victims.
“We had lost hope,” says Luis Alfonso Moreno Jr, who was 3 years old when his father disappeared. “We thought impunity would rule. Now he’s with his comrades.”
Moreno’s identification was performed by the Legal Medical Service (SML in Spanish), Chile’s national coroner’s office, the agency Patricio Bustos now heads. The SML is gaining a reputation as an agency that can serve as a model to similar agencies during or after both conflict and natural disasters. But it wasn’t always that way.
Only a few years earlier, before Bustos became director, the SML had misidentified dozens of people who had disappeared after Pinochet and the military took power. The episode is remembered as ‘Patio 29’, a reference to an area in the general cemetery where the victims were buried. Between 1994 and 2002, the SML claimed to have identified 98 bodies from Patio 29 and delivered the remains to the families for proper burial. But in dozens of cases, the SML later said that the identifications were mistaken.
Relatives of the 1,200 victims whose remains had not been positively identified were especially outraged. “We lost confidence in the SML,” says Alicia Lira, who heads a group that represents relatives of people executed by the military regime and whose remains have still not been found.
When the SML’s director at the time resigned, Bustos, who held a senior post in the health ministry, applied for and got the job. Bustos immediately made changes. On his second day, he met with several relatives of Los Desaparecidos and told them that he would establish stricter rules to end misidentifications, be accessible to them and ensure that his agency treated the families in a more humanitarian way.
The effort to rebuild the families’ trust continued in 2007, when the Chilean government created a DNA-sampling centre that enabled forensic scientists to match DNA from found bones with the living relatives of the disappeared. The agency also signed agreements with foreign accredited, genetic-analysis laboratories and began working more closely with the ICRC, which has significant expertise in the identification of human remains.
Two years later, the SML launched its first public campaign inviting family members of the disappeared to donate blood to see if their DNA matched unidentified remains that had already been found or that might be discovered. The SML collected more than 3,500 samples.
Collecting blood is a simple task. But for many family members, the process awakens painful memories. “When a family member gives a sample, they inevitably get emotional, because they feel there is the possibility of finding your loved one some day,” says Lorena Pizarro, representative of the Families of Disappeared Detainees Association.
Last year, the SML went a step further with a new programme, called ‘A drop of your blood for truth and justice’, which aimed to reach out beyond relatives of Los Desaparecidos to others who think their family may also have been a victim of the regime.
Since 2007, the SML has definitively identified 138 remains — meaning 138 families now have a place to visit their loved ones. Of those, 58 were among those that had been previously misidentified.
Despite the successes, many challenges remain. While Bustos says the SML still has work to do in gaining the trust of those who lost loved ones, the problem has not been getting the relatives to provide blood samples. The problem has been finding the remains of Los Desaparecidos.
According to records revealed during various investigations into the regime, the military and the secret police took deliberate steps to hide the remains. In one notorious operation, code-named ‘Throw out television sets’, the military dug up and moved remains in order to hide the evidence. Some of these ‘television sets’ were dug up from secret gravesites, loaded onto military aircraft and dropped into the sea.
But when remains do appear, the blood samples from relatives greatly increase the chances of a definitive match. Using DNA can be important, says Olga Barragán, forensic adviser in the ICRC Brasilia Regional Delegation, covering Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. But DNA is only part of the overall puzzle.
“You try to get as much information as you can from the families,” Barragán adds. “The colour of the eyes, the skin, the sex, the weight and height, dental records, any surgeries, implants or x-rays. The region has made big advances in forensic science in recent years, not only because the technology is better but also because forensic workers are better prepared, with a holistic humanitarian vision. So, they are getting better results.”
The ICRC’s forensic work in Chile is not limited to the disappeared, however. It also assisted the SML following an earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 500 people and a prison fire, also in 2010, that killed 81 inmates.
And in two other high-profile cases, the ICRC was brought in as a neutral observer after Chilean judicial authorities ordered the exhumations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and former Chilean president Salvador Allende in order to definitively determine the cause of their deaths. The ICRC role in the Neruda exhumation, conducted by the Chilean forensic service with help from other Chilean and international experts, was to help ensure that the exhumation followed international standards and that the rights of family members were respected during the process.
From note cards to DN A samples
Late last year, the ICRC’s role took on a new dimension when it became one of four institutions to permanently store DNA samples of Chile’s disappeared in its archives in Geneva, Switzerland. “This is the first time the ICRC has received DNA samples for future use, for the identification of human remains strictly for humanitarian purposes,” says Morris Tidball-Binz, director of the ICRC forensic services unit based in Geneva.
Since the First World War, the ICRC has relied on personal information to reconnect family members separated by conflict. A hundred years ago, it was collected on note cards and stored in warehouses filled with filing cabinets. Later, it was secured on computer networks. The storage of DNA samples is unprecedented.
For Pizarro, this arrangement with an international organization shows that families of Chile’s disappeared are “not alone”, and that finding answers is a global responsibility. “The hope is that, even if hundreds of years go by, we will have a place to return to, in order to identify our loved ones,” she says.
For Bustos, the drive to find answers on behalf of the disappeared has been deepened by his own personal experience. It began on 10 September 1975. Bustos says had just left his place of work in Santiago when three agents grabbed him, forced him up against a wall, handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded him and then hustled him into a waiting car. They beat Bustos for 30 minutes until they reached their destination: Villa Grimaldi, the secret police’s main torture centre.
The secret police had been hunting for Bustos for months and had almost caught him several times as he constantly kept on the move, using any one of eight aliases.
At the time of the coup, Bustos says he had been the president of the medical students’ centre at the University of Concepción, a hotbed of leftist political activity. After the coup, the military government expelled him from the university. He went to Santiago to join the underground resistance movement and soon headed a mobile medical team that treated people who were also in hiding.
At Villa Grimaldi, Bustos says he was stripped, placed upon the metal coils of a bed known as La Parilla (the grill). There, he was interrogated and given electric shocks.
He was then dragged to a narrow, 40-metre tall building known as The Tower. There, his wrists and ankles were bound while his arms were looped under a horizontal metal bar that was thrust behind his knees; his head inclined downward. For hours, he was held in this excruciating position, known as the Parrot’s Perch.
Over the next two months, Bustos says he was placed repeatedly on the Parrot’s Perch and on la parrilla, sometimes alongside his wife, who had been a dentist and was also in the underground opposition until her arrest.
In November 1975, Bustos was transferred to Cuatro Alamos, where the secret police often took political prisoners to recover from torture before deciding their ultimate fate. There he met José Zalaquett, a human rights lawyer who had also been arrested. “His chances of surviving were very poor,” Zalaquett recalls, given Bustos’ importance to the resistance movement and thus perceived danger to the military regime.
Word of Cuatro Alamos’ existence filtered out. One person who learned about the secret facility was Sergio Nessi, an ICRC delegate general for Latin America. Determined to visit, he obtained grudging permission to visit the facility. No outsider had previously been allowed in.
Nessi and two other ICRC officials — Rolf Jenny and Willy Corthay — entered Cuatro Alamos on 9 December 1975. There, they met Bustos and other political prisoners in the communal room.
Nessi and Jenny registered each man’s name and Corthay examined their injuries, especially Bustos’. He could barely walk. The ICRC delegates spent about 90 minutes with the detainees and returned the following day with medicine for Bustos and supplies for the other detainees.
Most important, though, the ICRC now knew of their existence and could demand their protection. “Once he was registered by the ICRC, his life was as safe as could be possible,” says Zalaquett, who later served on Chile’s 1991 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Ultimately, in December 1976, Bustos was released from prison and expelled to Italy. There, he rebuilt his life as he practised medicine. Bustos returned to Chile in 1991 after the reestablishment of democracy. By then, he had sought out Nessi in Europe to thank him personally.
“The ICRC was an important factor in saving my life,” Bustos says. He also credited his family and other political prisoners, who, after being freed, spread the word about his whereabouts.
On a recent visit to Villa Grimaldi, which is now a memorial centre, he sat on the steps in front of The Tower. “It’s difficult to be here, but I find a way to do it,” he says, adding that he visits Villa Grimaldi several times a year in memory of those who died there or who disappeared from there.
Bustos says he feels a sense of tranquillity when the SML identifies the remains of a disappeared victim. He nearly always attends the ceremony where the remains are given to a family, making sure that agency officials explain the proof in detail. But it pains him that they have been able to identify only 10 per cent of the remaining disappeared.
Marta Vega is among the relatives still looking for closure. Her father Juan, a Communist Party activist, disappeared in 1976 when she was 17. “We have no idea where he is,” Vega says.
Vega, her siblings and her cousins have all given blood to the SML. “I feel good that if his remains appeared tomorrow by chance, we have the samples to identify him,” she says, adding, “Bustos has done a good job. Whatever need or worry we have, he addresses them.”
On the good days, when the SML is able to deliver the remains of a disappeared victim along with conclusive proof, Bustos says he does not express happiness or satisfaction to the family. “It’s a humanitarian gesture,” he says, “something the country has to do, something the SML has to do, to provide justice. It’s important to remember that we as a society still have debts to pay.”
By Tyler Bridges
Tyler Bridges is a journalist based in Lima, Peru.
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