Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia: A Tribute

National Security Archive Remembers an Icon of Justice, Truth, And Dignity
Judge Guzmán Was First Chilean Judge to Prosecute Augusto Pinochet for Human Rights Crimes

Photo credit Sofia Negron @Charles Horman Truth Foundation

Washington D.C., January 26, 2021 – The celebrated Chilean judge, Juan Guzmán Tapia, best known for his principled stand against human rights abuses and his pioneering prosecutions of former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, died on January 22, 2021.

Originally a supporter of the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Guzmán eventually recognized the horrors of the repression under his military regime. Acting on evidence brought to him by human rights lawyers representing the families of Pinochet’s victims, Guzmán became the first Chilean judge to hold Pinochet legally accountable for his human rights crimes. His inspirational pursuit of justice was notable for its ingenuity, fearlessness, and tenacity.

In today’s posting, Archive Senior Analyst and Chile specialist Peter Kornbluh pays tribute to Guzmán’s historic contributions to truth, justice and dignity in Chile.

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Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia: A Tribute

By Peter Kornbluh

On March 6, 2000, just three days following General Augusto Pinochet’s return from England after spending seventeen months under house arrest and evading extradition to Spain, a little-known Chilean judge named Juan Guzmán Tapia filed legal papers to strip the former dictator of his self-bestowed immunity and prosecute him for human rights crimes in his homeland. In December of that year, Judge Guzmán stunned Chileans and the world by formally charging Gen. Pinochet for death squad operations committed shortly after the September 11, 1973, military coup. And in early 2001, Judge Guzmán issued a dramatic legal directive that most Chileans would never have imagined possible: he placed Pinochet under house arrest and ordered his interrogation for human rights atrocities. Four years later, Guzmán indicted Pinochet again for murders and disappearances related to Operation Condor, and once again ordered him detained and interrogated.

“Among those who had suffered from repression in Chile, an immense thirst for justice was unleashed after the decades of cries and tears,” Guzmán wrote in his 2005 memoir, At the Edge of the World, about the quest for accountability in Chile that started with Pinochet’s dramatic arrest in London in October 1998. “Pinochet would, of course, benefit from the procedural guarantees that his victims and their relatives had been denied. Pinochet would not be tortured; he would not face a death sentence. But at least, they hoped, he would be judged.”

On January 22, 2021, at age 81, Judge Guzmán died after a long decline in health.  Obituaries that appeared around the world lauded him as “the judge who first indicted Pinochet.” Among his other groundbreaking cases, he exposed operations used by the Chilean secret police, DINA, to disappear hundreds of political prisoners – dropping them from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean, their bodies stuffed into burlap sacks and weighted down with pieces of railroad ties – and convicted those responsible. His pioneering judicial investigations opened the door to hundreds of human rights prosecutions in Chile, resulting in the convictions of dozens of Pinochet’s top military officers who engaged in human rights crimes.


I first met Judge Guzmán in December 2000, when I accompanied Olga Weisfeiler to his “office” to file a formal case on her brother, Boris Weisfeiler, who remains the only U.S. citizen among more than 1100 Chilean desaparecidos from the Pinochet era. After receiving death threats for his efforts to prosecute Pinochet, for security reasons Guzmán was working out of a police station in downtown Santiago, using a small, barren, room as his workspace. What struck me immediately was Guzmán’s demeanor—a combination of serious determination, soft-spoken resolution and gentle respect for Pinochet’s victims and their families.  “He was kind, sincere, very attentive,” Olga Weisfeiler recalls. “He gave us hope that perhaps the Chilean judicial system would work out and we would find justice for Boris.”

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That same week, Judge Guzmán accepted another case of a U.S. citizen killed in Chile—Charles Horman, who was detained and executed in the days following the coup, and whose fate became the subject of the Oscar-winning Hollywood film, Missing. Horman’s widow, Joyce, traveled to Santiago to present the formal legal petition. “Judge Guzmán was my hero,” Joyce Horman wrote in a special tribute on Facebook. “He was courageous and generous of spirit. I cannot express enough gratitude for this giant hero of human rights law.” Guzmán opened investigations into the murder and disappearance of these two U.S. citizens shortly after he took the historic step of formally charging General Pinochet with human rights crimes.

A critical part of Guzmán’s legal legacy is the compelling argument he presented to convince the Chilean Supreme Court to lift Pinochet’s immunity and set aside the amnesty laws that protected Pinochet and his men from prosecution. Drawing on a creative re-definition of the atrocity of disappearances as unresolved kidnappings that lawyers for the victims presented to him, Guzmán convinced the Court that the amnesty for crimes committed during the military dictatorship did not apply in cases of the disappeared.  “The bodies of the disappeared had never been found,” as he explained in a documentary film, The Judge and the General. “And so the crimes had never ended.”  In his memoirs, Guzmán wrote that “My central legal argument of secuestro permanente [perpetual kidnapping] rested on the concept that the impact of this action extends into the present, making it an ongoing crime and not subject to amnesty.”

“This interpretation,” Guzmán noted, “created new jurisprudence, with promising applications for the future and consequences extending far beyond my contributions.”

On December 1, 2000, Guzmán issued the first indictment of the former dictator, charging him with deploying “the Caravan of Death”—an elite death squad that helicoptered into municipalities up and down the country on a mission to execute dozens of former mayors, police chiefs, labor leaders and other local officials, often burying their bodies in the desert in the middle of the night. Eighteen of those killed had never been found, allowing Guzmán to charge Pinochet with perpetual kidnapping. In a temporary setback, an Appeals Court overturned the indictment just ten days later, ruling that Guzmán was obligated to interrogate Pinochet before filing formal charges. Guzmán re-indicted Pinochet for the Caravan of Death crimes, placed him under house arrest and on January 24, for the first time, proceeded to have him questioned by authorities for committing gross violations of human rights.


Pinochet lost the legal battle on the amnesty, but his lawyers returned to the arguments that had won the release of the 85-year-old former dictator from detention in England—that he was old and senile, and therefore unable to defend himself. Doctors presented a report to the Chilean Supreme Court that Pinochet had suffered a series of mini-strokes while under house arrest in London. On July 1, 2002, the Supreme Court closed the Caravan of Death prosecution, ruling that Pinochet was “mentally unfit due to dementia” to stand trial. Believing himself to have escaped legal accountability, Pinochet then sent an intellectually coherent, formal letter to the Chilean Senate, announcing his retirement from public life: “I have a clean conscience. I have the hope that in the future my soldierly sacrifice will be valued and recognized,” he wrote. “The work of my government will be judged by history.”

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To his credit, Guzmán contemplated how history would judge Pinochet if the Chilean courts refused to hold him accountable.  In handwritten notes he showed me in 2004, Guzmán wrote that Pinochet had “reigned over a perverse and cruel system of kidnappings, of ruthless torture, of ignominious assassinations and forced disappearances, both of nationals and foreigners, using agents of the state and dishonoring the Armed Forces previously known for their respect for the constitution and the law, and abusively utilizing an apparently legal system to cover up so much pain and so much horror.” Despite the Supreme Court ruling on Pinochet’s mental unfitness, Guzmán and the tenacious Chilean human rights community simply refused to accept the verdict of history while a legal verdict was still possible.

Two key events enabled Judge Guzmán to re-open legal proceedings against the former dictator. First, a post-9/11 investigation by the U.S. Senate into terrorism and money-laundering revealed Pinochet’s deepest secret: he had accumulated an illicit fortune of $28 million—presumably from embezzled Chilean state funds — stashed in over 125 hidden, off-shore, bank accounts opened under false identities and using false passports. These revelations generated a major corruption scandal for Pinochet and his family, bringing new investigations, interrogations, charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement, and even the high-profile arrest of his wife, son and daughter. Not only did Pinochet’s financial deceptions suggest a high degree of mental acuity, but his legal responses and efforts to defend his family reflected a competent mind. In addition, Pinochet undermined his carefully crafted image of infirmity by giving a televised interview to a Spanish-language Miami station in November 2003, in which he smoothly scapegoated his subordinates for all human rights violations that occurred during his regime.  His self-serving lucidity during the interview generated a firestorm of protest from Pinochet’s victims and their lawyers—and widespread demands to revisit the Supreme Court ruling on his fitness to be prosecuted.

Judge Guzmán fully agreed. In 2004, he accepted a new set of cases, filed by one of Chile’s leading human rights lawyers, Eduardo Contreras, relating to Operation Condor—the transnational collaboration, led by Chile, of Southern Cone secret police services to hunt down and eliminate opponents to their regimes. (The National Security Archive provided a file of declassified U.S. documents on Condor to Guzmán as evidence, and I provided testimony to authenticate them.) To address the mental competency issue, Guzmán convened a team of geriatric specialists and psychiatrists to watch the Miami interview and evaluate Pinochet’s thought process.  They determined that Pinochet demonstrated cognitive skills related to reasoning, argument, self-defense, and self-description that belied his lawyers’ portrayal of his mental deficits.

I was fortunate enough to be in Santiago on December 13, 2004, to witness Judge Guzmán file his second major indictment of Pinochet at the Tribunal of Justice. Dozens of reporters and victims and their family members had gathered to await his decision.  After registering the paperwork on the indictment, the Judge emerged in the grand foyer of the ornate building and made a statement: “General Pinochet has been declared mentally fit for standing trial in Chile through all the phases,” he declared, surrounded by the press and the public.  “And this resolution has a second part: he will be prosecuted as the author of nine abductions and one qualified homicide.” As pandemonium ensued in the crowd, Judge Guzmán ordered Pinochet again placed under house arrest. Daughters and wives of the disappeared besieged Guzmán with gratitude; reporters pressed microphones in his face for further comment. The new indictment of Pinochet generated headlines around the world.

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“I have been attacked by the Supreme Court for being public in the things I do,” Guzmán said in an interview for the film, The Judge and the General. “But a wounded country needs to know the truth.” One of the key legacies Guzmán leaves behind is the transparency with which he pursued the evidence of the Pinochet regime’s human rights crimes, and the extra effort he made to assure that Chileans, and the rest of the world, understood the nature of those atrocities.  “The deeper I got into my inquiry into the crimes of the dictatorship, the more I realized that people in Chile were either unaware or wanted to be unaware of those crimes,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “So I told myself that one way I could contribute is to talk to the press, and take people from the various television channels to clandestine burial sites, and show the terrible wounds that were often present on the skeletons.”

Guzmán also leaves a legacy of principled accountability, having opened the judicial door to prosecute Pinochet and his men. “He was determined and decisive,” one of Chile’s leading human rights lawyers, Eduardo Contreras, told CNN after Guzmán died. “Juan Guzmán’s name marks an era, a time, a moment in the history of our country that brought honor to the Chilean judiciary.”  Indeed, hundreds of human rights prosecutions, and convictions followed Guzmán’s initial efforts to advance the cause of justice and accountability for the crimes of the dictatorship, including Guzmán’s own successful cases against secret police officials who ran “Operation Puerto Montt”—the secret missions to disappear the bodies of hundreds of executed political prisoners into the Pacific Ocean.

Although the Chilean legal system, at that time, empowered judges to investigate, prosecute and issue a verdict, Guzmán chose to turn over the evidence he had compiled on Pinochet’s guilt to another jurist to evaluate and render a final judgement. But none of the human rights and corruption cases filed against the general had concluded by the time Pinochet died, at age 91, on December 10, 2006 — by ironic coincidence, International Human Rights Day. By then, the prosecutions had established a forceful verdict of history and an inspiring story of challenging repression and impunity to advance the cause of human rights.

“Chile has lost one of its most illustrious sons, an outstanding human being, a prestigious jurist, a brave and determined judge, whose humility only enhances him,” the crusading Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, wrote in a statement of condolences. Indeed, Judge Guzmán will be remembered as a tenacious pursuer of accountability for the perpetrators of human rights crimes, and an icon in the quest for justice, truth and dignity for their victims. “The important thing is what we leave to our children,” Judge Guzmán concluded in a 2006 interview, “and here they are going to be able to say, ‘Look, here a dictator was judged.’”

Published at nsarchive.gwu.edu