Dealing with Torture in Chile Achievements and Shortcomings of the “Valech Report”

Jun 3rd, 2005 | By | Category: America, Regions

by Roberta Bacic (1) and Elizabeth Stanley (2), May 2005

After giving his testimony about a friend and compañero who had been with him in prison and then disappeared, a survivor of torture was about to leave the Corporación Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación. Then, he had second thoughts. He turned around, lifted his brown T-shirt and pointed at the scars on his stomach and asked ‘Should I have better died so that my family could get some reparation for what they have gone through?’ (3)

Until the establishment of the Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisión Polí­tica y Tortura (National Commission for Political Imprisonment and Torture, hereafter the Comisión), the issues of political imprisonment and torture had been neglected in Chile. This is not to say that there has been no movement at all on the issue. In 1991, the Rettig Report acknowledged torture as a recurrent and institutionalised event, and torture was shown to have preceded most of the executions and ‘disappearances’ of victims. Further, in the transition from dictatorship, some torture survivors have been able to receive personal medical assistance from the Government, others were able to regain their civil rights by challenging official documentation that presented them as criminals, while some have been accepted as viable witnesses in human rights court cases. However, these rights were hard to attain and, at an official level, those who survived imprisonment and torture were not generally acknowledged.

The Comisión was established on 12 August 2003 by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Operating under the banner ‘There is no Tomorrow without Yesterday’, the eight Commissioners published their findings in November 2004. The full Report, spanning 638 pages, is only available on the internet (4) and has not been made widely available in printed form.

What does the Comisión tell us?

Despite the short time-frame to collate stories, thousands of survivors contacted the Comisión to relay their testimonies. Indeed, 35,868 individuals approached the Comisión and its representatives in just 6 months and in Santiago, the Comisión met between 114 and 240 people each day. Most people gave their testimony in Chile (37% in Santiago and 54% in other Chilean regions) however 9% of statements were given across 40 different countries. Such a response indicates the real need that many victims had to have their experiences officially acknowledged.

The Comisión details that there were 1,132 detention centres across Chile. Victims were tortured in police stations, military installations, schools and hospitals, among other sites. Torture was state policy and commonplace for political detainees, indeed the Report found that 94% of all political detainees were tortured. In line with the Comisión’s mandate, 33,221 individuals were proven to have been detained; these victims had spent an average of 180.1 days in prison. Out of this group, 27,255 people were officially registered as victims of torture. Approximately 19% (6845) of the individuals who approached the Comisión were not accepted as victims and are not listed in the Report.

Of those who were officially designated as victims of torture, the following statistics can be provided:

The worst period of torture occurred immediately after the coup, as more than 18,000 (67.4%) people were tortured between September and December 1973. Another 5,266 (19.32%) people were tortured between January 1974 and August 1977 and the remaining 3,625 (13.3%) victims suffered torture between August 1977 and March 1990.

The majority (87.5%) of victims were men, as women represented 12.5% of victims. A third of all victims faced electric shock torture and nearly all female victims reported that they has suffered sexual torture. The majority (27,153) were adults during detention however 102 children were also registered as victims, these children were either born during imprisonment or detained with their parents.

At the time of detention: 4% of victims were under 18; 9.7% were between 18 and 20; 44.2% were between 21 and 30 years old; 25.4% were between 31 and 40 years old; 12.5% were between 41 and 50; and, 4.3% were over 50. Most of the young adults belonged to political parties and acknowledged that they had also been trade union members. Of those victims who were under 18 years of age, 766 were between 16 and 17, 226 were 13 to15 and 88 were 12 or less. None of these children were legally responsible at the time of their detention.

At the time of reporting, the Comisión states that 9% of victims have died (their testimony was presented by their next of kin) and that 83% of the victims are over 51 years. 27% of victims are retired or unemployed; as such, these individuals tend to be in vulnerable financial situations.

How were victims counted?

The mandate of the Comisión restricted cases to those who were detained and could prove that their detention was politically motivated. Generally, this was focused on cases where individuals could prove that they had been detained without due process, or that they were arrested under one of the special decrees created by the regime, or that they had been arrested by the DINA (the secret service body), or that they had been arrested on accusations of a regime-established crime (eg. being a member of a political party). Those presenting to the Comisión had to demonstrate that the regime had violated their rights as constituted by international and national law. Those giving testimony, as either a survivor or a surviving relative, had to therefore prove the political basis of the detention.

While each testimony followed a set form, so that each individual would comply with certain standards of required information, all had to be accompanied by documentation that established the nature of the individual’s detention. Evidence was based on witness testimony, detention centre records as well as other documentation from state agencies, human rights organizations, contemporary media accounts, international bodies and the armed forces.

Thus, the Comisión did not take an investigatory approach to its work. Indeed, interested parties – such as victims’ associations, human rights experts, religious and moral leaders – had to request meetings with the Comisión if they wanted their voices to be heard. This working approach, that ‘sorts out the problem by leaving out the people’ who have been affected by and have worked on the topic for years would seem to run against ‘much of the writing on societies emerging from a period of political violence has stressed that all the different voices must be listened to, if we seek to deal seriously and responsibly with the past’ (5).

Why did the Comisión emerge now?

The Comisión emerged thirteen years after the Rettig Commission. While we may never fully know the reasons why the Comisión was implemented, we can identify recent events that have contributed to a new space in which violations could be addressed.

For instance, it would seem consistent that the Comisión would occur after the torture charges brought against General Pinochet in Europe. During Pinochet’s detention in London, the Chilean government argued that the issue of human rights was one to be dealt with at the national, not the international, level. Following his release, a sequence of events has developed in the human rights arena. For example, Pinochet’s immunity has been challenged and Judge Guzmán has continued the case against him in the Chilean courts.

Simultaneously, other cases have developed and these have resulted in the conviction of many significant dictatorship figures. For example, Pinochet’s former Head of Intelligence, Manuel Contreras, together with hundred of former military and police officers have been prosecuted for their involvement in human rights violations during the first five years of the dictatorship (6) and been held at Punta Peuco, a privileged prison constructed for the purpose of detaining human rights violators. In 2003, a Florida civil court also held that a Chilean former army officer, Armando Fernández Larios, was liable for the torture and killing of Winston Cabello, an economist. Fernández was ordered to pay $4 million in damages.

More recently, a 2005 US Senate report indicated that Pinochet controlled 128 bank accounts in the United States. Using aliases to open accounts, it is thought that he held over $19 million of undeclared ‘revenue’. While such reports act as an international denouncement of Pinochet’s corrupt affairs, Chilean groups have also sought to shame human rights violators in their local environment. The well known campaign group ‘Funa’, for instance, names individuals as abusers in public. This group has consistently exposed the lack of justice and accountability for human rights violations in Chile.

With such events (7), the Chilean government has encountered a new, safer space to pursue accountability. At the start of the new century, human rights perpetrators have held less sway in Chilean politics and law. Moreover, Chile has been keen to maintain its international image and status as a country that has dealt well with its past.

The Comisión was constructed in this context. However, even the Commissioners themselves raised the question of the meaning of writing a report thirty years after events occurred. As they note,

After having listened to intimate, whispered narratives, told with pain and even with tears, and after seeing the physical and psychological evidence, as well as the family and social damage – some of which can not be repaired or restituted – of so many Chileans imprisoned and tortured, we have no doubt that we had to complete this part of the truth, as well as possible, for the reparation and justice that the country owes to its brothers and sisters, and to progress along the roads of the always difficult and necessary encounter and reconciliation among Chileans (8).

For the Commissioners, the Report emerged from the continued national need to deal with the long-standing issues of truth, reparation, justice and reconciliation.

The Comisión’s contribution to truth, reparation, justice and reconciliation

This article will now turn to a preliminary evaluation of how the Comisión has dealt with those issues – of truth, reparation, justice and reconciliation – that underpinned its proceedings.

(i) Truth

The impact of the official acknowledgement of the extensive use of torture during dictatorship can not be denied. To view the extent of the lists of torture victims is overwhelming. However, on reflection, the list in itself cannot be the only manifestation of what happened and the decision that victims’ testimonies cannot be disclosed for fifty years will ensure that the truth that is exposed is a partial one. While some torture survivors may have the ability to make public their suffering, most will not. This lack of exposure of detailed testimonies will mean that the Chilean population will not understand the diverse ways in which people endured detention and torture.

The truth of torture is also tested by the fact that lists detail the tortured but do not identify torturers. Those who suffered torture are the only ones who are exposed in this official truth-finding. This has resulted in sharp criticism of the Report. After all, in such a safe political situation, why has the Comisión continued to protect perpetrators? If an official body like this can not face truth as a whole, then who could? In response to these omissions, a counter-report has been established, by a group of ex-political prisoners in Santiago, to identify and castigate torturers as well as those who actively supported torture (9). Such actions represent an attempt to devalue the status of torturers within Chilean society – an action that should be undertaken by the government.

Given the lack of official recognition of torturers, perpetrators have also continued to disseminate messages and threats to the population. Some officials from the armed forces have claimed that torture was an aberration, only attributable to individual, unruly officers while others have refused to accept any institutional responsibility at all. For example, Rodolfo Stange and Fernando Cordero, high-ranking police officials, argued that they had no reason to argue for forgiveness. Cordero even went so far as to say that the ones who would have to ask for forgiveness were the ones who were responsible for events before 11 September 1973.

Finally, despite the vast number of individuals who have come forward to give their testimony, we must also be mindful that there are many others who did not. For instance, as far as we have been informed (10), in some countries only a few individuals gave their testimony to the Chilean Consulate while most individuals collectively agreed not to engage with the process. As far as these groups were concerned, government officials could not be trusted to effectively represent their needs. Fear and mistrust are still present in their lives.

(ii) Reparation

The Comisión itself has detailed that the damage inflicted against torture victims cannot be adequately repaired or restituted. As a symbolic gesture, each identified victim will receive an equal monthly payment of 112,000 pesos (US$190). This amount was not criticised by right-wing parties in Chile but by Gonzalo Martner, previous President of the Socialist party, who stated that ‘the amount of payment should be differentiated according to what was endured’. Presently, the amount received by an individual who was held over several years is the same given to a victim detained for a week.

Reparations are not, however, confined to financial payment. The Comisión also provides for practical measures and the Report states that victims will receive health, education and housing benefits. Some of these services will provide welcome relief. However a question may be raised about access to education. Given the reality that most victims are over 50, this seems to be a benefit that can promote governmental good-will without too much cost.

The President’s plea to victims to contribute their reparations to a special human rights fund, set up by the government also raises some consternation. The idea that a proposed National Human Rights Foundation might be funded by victims of torture, without asking perpetrating individuals and institutions to contribute to it, seems quite inappropriate. Let us remember that perpetrators have received well-paid salaries and pensions over the last 30 years while victims have had to wait to receive any symbolic reparation.

(iii) Justice

As detailed above, a protective position for perpetrators and violating institutions has been set up. Perpetrators have not been named in the Comisión Report and the Chilean Congress approved a law, in Dec 2004, to
ensure that testimonies can not be revealed in court procedures over the next fifty years.

It is clear, then, that the Comisión has not contributed in any way to the criminal prosecution of perpetrators. This has ensured that the equilibrium of power has been maintained in Chile; there has been no loss of prestige or status for perpetrators or violating institutions, and some individuals remain in powerful positions (11). With a recent Supreme Court decision to only allow judges six months to conclude human rights investigations and governmental announcements of a law to expedite human rights trials, opportunities for justice are being drastically curtailed. Such actions undermine the truth-finding of the Comisión.

Victims have a legal right to justice for the violations inflicted against them. Yet, without doubt, the actions of the Comisión as well as the Chilean government and courts in relation to the issue of accountability indicates that justice for torture will not be upheld within Chile.

(iv) Reconciliation

With such activities exposed, the opportunities for reconciliation are hindered. The distance between victims and perpetrators together with the imbalance of power and the concessions given to perpetrators all contribute to a situation in which reconciliation can not be expected to happen. At previous reconciliation masses in Santiago, churches have been filled with military officials, politicians and judges while the relatives of the detained-disappeared have remained outside, not invited to participate. The same pattern appears to be repeated here. Those who were victimised, while publicly acknowledged, have not seen any devaluation of perpetrator’s identity or status.

To engage in reconciliation, all individuals must have an awareness and understanding of different positions. This will be a difficult prospect for Chilean society if the Comisión does not publish its findings widely. The decision to expose the Report on the internet will mean that those who read the findings will inevitably be those who are already working in human rights, academics, those who gave testimony, and so on. The limitations of internet access will mean that many of those who represented themselves at the Comisión may not even get an opportunity to read the final Report. Moreover, those who do not want to read the findings, or do not know of its existence, will continue not knowing.

Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence on Torture

In the Report, the Commissioners argued:

‘It is important to point out that the results of the Comisión would not have been possible if we had not had the collaboration of thousands of victims, who in many cases finally decided to talk about their experiences, never before narrated. This allowed to end forever the conspiracy of silence that existed about torture for decades in our country’ (12).

As argued above, given the vast numbers of victims who did approach the Comisión, it is clear that many people did have a need to be officially acknowledged. Their previous silence does not demonstrate a lack of will to communicate on their part rather it represents a lack of will by Chilean society and government to actually listen to torture testimonies.

Yet, with this Report, the Comissioners propose that the silence of torture has ended. Given the limitations on the Report, discussed above, we would argue that Chilean society still has some way to go before it could affirm such a statement. The silence continues to exist for perpetrators and their supporters and victims’ testimonies have been managed in such a way that speaking out about torture has been re-appropriated for political ends. We may acknowledge that over 35,000 approached the Comisión with testimonies of detention and torture. However, we still understand relatively little about the suffering those detained endured, how perpetrators legitimised their violations and the structures that allowed torture to flourish.

From such observations, there is a need for further, detailed work to be undertaken that addresses these concerns with those who approached the Comisión. In particular, it is imperative that we take the opportunity to examine survivors’ understandings and experiences of the Comisión’s work; to assess the personal and social repercussions of giving testimony in this way; and to address what survivors still require, in terms of truth, reparation, justice and reconciliation, to deal with their past. By asking such questions, the real value of the Comisión’s work may be understood.


(1) Roberta Bacic is a Chilean Human Rights Researcher living in Northern Ireland, at present on sabbatical. Her e-mail address is
(2) Elizabeth Stanley is Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is contactable at:
(3) Personal recollection of Roberta Bacic, Researcher at the Corporación.
(4) See:
(5) Bacic R (2002) ‘Dealing with the Past: Chile – Human Rights and Human Wrongs’, Race and Class, Vol 44, No 1, pp 17-31, at page 27.
(6) These prosecutions have been based on legal arguments regarding Chile’s 1978 amnesty law.
(7) For more information on these events, and others like it, see:
(8) Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisión Polí­tica y Tortura (2004) Sí­ntesis Informe, at page 7. (All quotations from the Comisión Report are translations by the authors.)
(9) See: Coordinadora de Ex-Presas y Ex-Presos Politicos de Santiago (2004) ‘Nosotros, Los Sobrevivientes Acusamos’, at
(10) From meetings in the UK, Spain and New Zealand, March-April 2005 with some refugees who do not want to be mentioned.
(11) The Communist Party in Chile has argued that those military and police officials who remain on duty, and who participated in torture, should be dismissed from their positions.
(12) Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisión Polí­tica y Tortura (2004) Sí­ntesis Informe, at page 11

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