Carmen Hertz, a Chilean human rights attorney, struggled in vain for 26 years to pierce the military brotherhood protecting the officers who tortured and killed her husband during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s. So when the Chilean Supreme Court ordered the aging retired officers arrested seven weeks ago, at first she could not believe it. Then, she said, she felt "a relief of the spirit that only comes from justice long delayed."

An extraordinary thing has happened to Chile in the 10 months since British authorities seized Pinochet and detained him on a Spanish extradition request. It is as if the physical absence of the 83-year-old former dictator and the international discrediting of his memory have removed a psychological barrier that had kept a lid on the dictatorship's atrocities here for nearly a decade.

Pinochet's detention in Britain has finally diminished his larger-than-life image in Chile and dispelled the lingering mystique of the once omnipotent military. Political analysts say the often tense democratic transition since Pinochet stepped down in 1990 has been fortified by the arrest. In the past few months, they note, Chile's emboldened judicial system and democratic politicians have accomplished more on human rights than they had in years.

In the strongest sign of a willingness to confront the legacy of the Pinochet years -- and of the military's declining influence -- the Supreme Court ordered Sergio Arellano Stark, a retired general, and two other retired officers arrested in June. Like virtually all officers alleged to have been involved in atrocities here, they had been enjoying lives of impunity and privilege despite the restoration of democracy.

The three officers were among those who had been protected by strong laws passed during Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship that prevented any prosecutions in connection with most of the 3,000 deaths and disappearances of dissidents during his rule. But the court issued a novel ruling that said the retired officers could be charged with "perpetual kidnapping" for having never produced dozens of arrested people, or their bodies, during the regime's crackdown on dissidents.

Legal analysts here say the decision has set a broad precedent on which to build similar cases against other current and retired military leaders -- and perhaps even Pinochet himself. Until now, many Chileans had seemed to accept the government's contention that probing too deeply into the Pinochet era could strain their fledgling democracy. But since Pinochet's arrest, that acceptance has begun to fade.

"After so many years of ignoring our past, we as a nation in Chile have finally become brave enough to begin soul-searching and to seek justice," said Hertz. "And it could not have happened without the arrest of Augusto Pinochet."

Juan Guzman Tapia, the crusading investigative magistrate responsible for the arrest of the three officers, is in the midst of several other inquiries, including one aimed at Pinochet -- who is the subject of 35 other pending lawsuits in Chile. Facing unfamiliar pressure, the military command opened talks this week with human rights lawyers seeking information on people who disappeared during the military government's crackdown on its opponents. The meetings are aimed at creating a Chilean truth commission akin to the panel formed in South Africa to investigate crimes during the apartheid era.

Whether such a commission is established here or not, the once palpable fear of the military is fading as it becomes clear that the threat of violence has essentially disappeared. The army is headed by Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, a relative moderate, and virtually everyone here agrees that economic considerations in Chile -- Latin America's most open market -- would not permit the return of authoritarian rule.

"Regardless of what action is taken by the courts, another coup is simply out of the question in Chile," said Ricardo Israel, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Chile. "Chile would be totally isolated by the world, and nobody here would stand for it."

As a result, Chileans are openly discussing human rights in a manner rarely seen here. The issue is consuming newsprint, television and radio time and even dethroning soccer as the hottest subject at office water coolers. Furthermore, some analysts say that Ricardo Lagos, the Socialist candidate for president in the December election, is enjoying some measure of support from a public backlash against the military.

Such attitudes show how far Chile has come since Pinochet's detention. Although an official report here in 1991 documented aspects of crimes committed under Pinochet -- including mass executions and torture -- guilty parties were not named and 1,200 victims were unaccounted for. With the notable exception of former military intelligence officers Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza -- who, under pressure from the United States, were jailed for the 1976 assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington -- military excesses went largely unpunished.

But as Pinochet awaits an extradition trial set to begin in London on Sept. 27, the climate back home has changed so much that even foes who long said he would never face trial here if he fends off extradition are beginning to believe that Chile's legal system may be able to prosecute him.

"Until a very short time ago, I would have said that a trial of Pinochet in Chile would be utterly impossible because of the influence of the military and the amnesty laws," said Congresswoman Isabel Allende, a Socialist Party member and daughter of Salvador Allende, the elected Socialist president who died during Pinochet's 1973 coup. "But with the changes that I have recently seen take place, I see an opening now. . . . It is no longer impossible to imagine."

What is happening in Chile, analysts say, highlights one of the most important successes of the young democracies in Latin America during the 1990s. Although the passing of military dictatorships and the rise of elected governments in the region have yet to cure such fundamental problems as social inequity and corruption, the shift has largely succeeded in placing heavy-handed militaries under civilian rule.

Argentina is conducting new trials of former military junta leaders for their role in abducting babies of female political prisoners, and civilian prosecutors there have raided military archives to build corruption cases. In Brazil, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed a landmark bill in June that finally put its armed forces entirely under civilian rule.

Still, the Chilean military even today maintains a stronger national influence than its counterparts in most neighboring nations, and the human rights debate has provoked resentment within the armed forces and criticism by Pinochet's supporters among wealthy businessmen.

"This isn't right, and it is distressing the army to see indictments and charges against their friends," said Sen. Hernan Larrain, a conservative with close ties to Pinochet. "It is setting us back on human rights, not moving us ahead. . . . I don't see the Russian government going after the old Communists for what happened in the former Soviet Union. I know we need to deal with human rights, but it should be done at a certain pace."

Among many families of those who disappeared under Pinochet, distrust of the military still runs so high that they have boycotted the new talks, suggesting they are a ploy to demonstrate to courts in London that Pinochet should be returned to Chile because it is now dealing with its human rights issues.

But many more perceive the shift as real. "We are seeing a breakthrough in Chile right now," said Pamela Pereira, a human rights lawyer involved in the talks with the military -- and also the daughter of one of the "disappeared." "We just have to pray that we find the strength to keep up the effort of what has started here if Pinochet does come back."