As the British government worked toward its decision that former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet was too sick to stand trial, Baltasar Garzon spent the last week of the year taking aim at the next target in his crusade against dictators accused of abusing human rights.

On Dec. 30, Garzon issued arrest warrants for 48 members of Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship, even as it became apparent that his more celebrated case against Pinochet might never come to court. That night, Garzon played goalie in a charity soccer game in Madrid, making a couple of saves as his team won 4-1.

The challenge facing Garzon today is to move beyond the Pinochet case and work toward a larger victory in his campaign to change the way the world treats tyrants accused of violating international human rights laws.

The quiet but tough Spanish magistrate, who struck fear into the hearts of dictators around the world with his indictment of Pinochet in 1998, suffered a severe setback last week when the British government, acting on the advice of four doctors, moved to abandon the case against the retired Chilean general. It appears likely now that Pinochet, who has been under house arrest in Britain for 15 months, will be sent home to Chile and never face trial on the criminal charges brought against him in Spain.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw set a seven-day deadline--which expires Tuesday--for interested parties to appeal his ruling, and lawyers working with Garzon petitioned on Thursday for a further medical examination of Pinochet. But this request is unlikely to alter the conclusion of the British medical panel that the 84-year-old defendant is medically unfit to withstand a criminal trial.

Even if Garzon does not get to see his most famous case come to court, those who know and work with the magistrate say they have no doubt he will continue pursuing what he calls his "mission" to chase down human rights violators, wherever they may be.

During his 10 years in the wide-ranging post of investigating judge on Spain's National Court, Garzon has indicted mafia chieftains, drug lords, international terrorists and even a notorious murder squad set up by his own government.

Since 1996, however, Garzon has poured most of his formidable energy into a wide-ranging investigation of alleged murder, kidnapping and torture by military juntas in South America in the 1970s and '80s. That probe spawned the Pinochet indictment, as well as the related charges Garzon has filed against leaders of the former military government in Argentina. Garzon has been criticized by his government for damaging Spanish relations with its former South American colonies.

The threats and the political opposition won't deter him, the steely 44-year-old investigator said in Madrid late last year. "I don't have time to be afraid. Anyway, it's my choice to do what I do. This is the mission I have chosen."

The pursuit of that mission has taken Garzon down some surprising paths that led over the past year to the creation of a landmark precedent in international human rights law.

In 1996, Garzon received a formal complaint from a Spanish lawyers' group asserting that the junta in Argentina had been responsible for the torture, murder or kidnapping of thousands of people. The case was different from the usual agenda of drug dealing, corruption and murder that comes before the National Court. Garzon has said he felt obliged to follow it up because the victims in Argentina allegedly included hundreds of Spanish nationals.

Digging into the case in his usual relentless way, Garzon began to sense that the pattern of the torture and forced disappearances of political adversaries was not restricted to Argentina. He expanded his probe to look into Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing network used in the 1970s by the ruling juntas in Argentina and Chile--and later, allegedly, by rulers in Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The Chilean investigation moved faster than the others, and by the fall of 1998 Garzon felt he had enough evidence to indict Pinochet on a broad range of Condor-related human rights crimes committed during his 17-year rule, which ended in 1990. Then, in October 1998, he heard that Pinochet was in London.

On Oct. 14, 1998, Garzon sent a letter to British prosecutors, asking them to arrest and hold Pinochet for questioning by Spanish officials.

"And then something interesting happened," recalled Ernesto Ekaizer, a close friend of Garzon's who is writing a history of the case.

"The British replied that they had no procedure of arrest for questioning. But, they said, if you want to seek extradition for specific charges, then there could be an arrest. And Judge Garzon was smart enough to take this advice."

Pinochet's arrest in a London hospital on Oct. 16, 1998, set the stage for a 15-month legal and political drama that captured the world's attention. Pinochet argued that neither Spain nor Britain had authority to hold him for acts committed in Chile, and he took his case all the way to Britain's highest judges, the Law Lords.

Last March, with their landmark ruling in the Kingdom of Spain v. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the Law Lords held that a former head of state accused of violating an international human rights treaty can be tried in the criminal courts of any country that has signed the treaty.

"The Pinochet decision was a wake-up call to dictators around the world," said Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "If you torture somebody today, you can get arrested for it tomorrow almost anywhere."

Garzon emphasized the power of the Pinochet precedent in November with a new indictment against three leaders of Argentina's former military junta and 95 of their lieutenants. On Dec. 30, he activated 48 of those warrants by sending the arrest warrants to Interpol. The charges were denounced by the government of Argentina--and by the Spanish government, for that matter. But it is unlikely the Argentine generals will be flying off to holidays in Europe any time soon.

Garzon concluded years ago that it is often the fate of a public prosecutor to be out of favor with the high and mighty, a point he illustrates with a picture hanging on the wall of his Spartan little office. It shows a proud Garzon mugging with his personal hero, another investigator who has known political controversy--FBI Director Louis Freeh.

"In a nation of laws, the politicians do politics but the law must be left to judges and lawyers," Garzon has said. "And it is fundamental that the law cannot be bent for political purposes."

The son of an olive farmer, Garzon spent years preparing for the priesthood before switching to legal training. Many people here say he has brought a cleric's religious fervor to the job of law enforcement. He is devoted to his work, but finds time for the occasional soccer game and vacations with his wife and three children.

"I think Judge Garzon is driven by his belief in justicia universal, the idea that justice is a universal concept," said Natalia Rues-Martinez, Garzon's veteran law clerk. "On the National Court, we receive complaints from everywhere in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. Judge Garzon feels that it is our job to see justice done, no matter where and no matter whom the case involves."

CAPTION: Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon says it's his "mission" to chase down human rights violators wherever they may be.