The odor of decay wafted from the depths of an abandoned mine shaft, stirred by a fresh excavation. Amid the sand dunes 1,000 miles north of Santiago, in the badlands of Chile's great Atacama Desert, the stately figure of Judge Juan Guzman, 60, grabbed a hard hat and crouched into a battered wire cage dangling from a steel cable.
Giving the signal to start a precarious 700-foot drop into the shaft, he cocked his head to one side. "If there are bones down there" he said, "we're going to find them." And then he descended into a dark place where no Chilean judge has dared go--deep into this country's brutal past in pursuit of evidence for a once unimaginable trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Chile's notorious former dictator has been under house arrest in London for 15 months, fighting extradition to Spain. As British authorities seem poised to release the 84-year-old former dictator because of his failing health, Guzman's dogged investigating has made it likely that Pinochet's arrival home will not be the end of his struggle, as his supporters hope, but rather the beginning of a new chapter--prosecution on his native soil.
Guzman, who under Chile's legal system acts as judge and prosecutor in 57 criminal suits filed against Pinochet, steadied himself as the cage struck a rocky outcropping on the wall of the shaft. His hard hat jostled, his flashlight went out. In the darkness, Guzman spoke over the echo of workmen digging below for remains of Pinochet-era victims.
"I think many people expected that I wouldn't take this process seriously, but I have and I will," he said. "It's not being brave. There comes a time when a man faces something greater than his image . . . and this investigation into Pinochet is just that."
Guzman has issued almost a dozen indictments against Pinochet underlings and unearthed the bodies of nine people who dropped out of sight during the Pinochet era. The two-year investigation, sources said, has yielded a room full of documents and testimony to link Pinochet to crimes here.
In a country where not so long ago people were afraid to speak Pinochet's name in public, Guzman is preparing a request to remove Pinochet's immunity as senator for life, a status the former dictator arranged for himself before stepping down in 1990. That request, along with a demand for a deposition from Pinochet, will be filed as soon as Pinochet arrives back home, sources close to the investigation said, as a preliminary step in the first attempt to indict Pinochet in his home country.
For Guzman, being suspended in a cage in the darkness would once have been a good metaphor for his investigation. When his grinning superior approached him in the summer of 1998 with the first case filed against Pinochet--by Gladys Marin, head of the Communist Party of Chile and the wife of a dissident who disappeared--prosecution of the former dictator seemed impossible. Marin had been arrested only months before for insulting Pinochet.
But Chile--along with Guzman's case--has changed in profound ways since the arrest of Pinochet, whose government is said to have tortured hundreds and killed or caused the disappearance of more than 3,000 people from 1973 to 1990. Pinochet's disgrace abroad has largely set Chileans free of deep-seated fears of their old master.
Ricardo Lagos, one of the most outspoken dissidents of the Pinochet era, was elected president of Chile this month, promising an unhindered route for Guzman's case. And in an extraordinary moment 10 days ago, a crowd of 60,000 stood in the same square where Pinochet's bomb blasts forced the ouster of President Salvador Allende in 1973, screaming for the prosecution of their former ruler.
Enter Guzman. The former Washington-area resident--he grew up on Western Avenue in Bethesda during his father's tour as a diplomat during the 1940s and 1950s--was picked at random to handle the Pinochet case. But Guzman, whose mother is the doyenne of one of Chile's oldest military families, was one of the most objective figures the country could have found to investigate Pinochet, legal experts here say.
Guzman gained prominence by cleaning up a lending institution controlled by the military government in the 1980s, indicting a director named by Pinochet himself. Guzman says he retains a high respect for Chile's military, but his commitment to human rights and his distaste for abuse of power are perhaps equally strong. Of the Pinochet era, he said, "Many of the victims were almost children--mere lambs."
Although experts say Guzman has made a Pinochet trial more likely than ever, it is still far from a sure thing. Appeals courts, and then the Supreme Court, must grant any request to lift Pinochet's immunity. And even then, punishment for Pinochet is considered a long shot.
"If Guzman can get this to trial, that's where it will likely stay--for years and years," said Ricardo Israel, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Chile. "But Guzman will have accomplished a lot by taking it that far; he will have changed Chile's history."
In Chile, only severe mental illness is grounds for avoiding trial, and some critics have said Pinochet will seek an out on the grounds that he suffers from depression. But Guzman said Pinochet's lawyers have assured him the ex-dictator is not mentally unfit, and he plans to order a mental examination for Pinochet on his return to Chile.
In a country where powerful interests support Pinochet, going after the military patriarch has not been easy. Since August, when Guzman lodged a high-profile indictment of retired Gen. Arellano Stark, one of the cruelest characters of Pinochet's rule, human rights attorneys who presented the cases before Guzman have been under police protection. Death threats have been common.
Guzman, who also is under 24-hour guard, has long mingled in circles in which Pinochet is revered. He has come under a more subtle form of pressure. When Stark, for instance, first caught wind of the investigation, he appealed to Guzman's friends and family for assistance. Guzman issued the indictment anyway.
Like Stark, Pinochet, if indicted, would be charged with "perpetual kidnapping"--a legal creation of Guzman's. More than 1,000 dissidents are still unaccounted for, and Guzman has argued successfully that they could still be alive and that their cases should be treated as kidnappings--something not covered by Chile's broad laws granting amnesty to Pinochet-era officials.
At the abandoned mine, the cage carrying Guzman reached an earthen shelf where diggers were still excavating. A former miner had passed along a tip that soldiers had tossed "something" into the shaft and set off explosives to cover it up in the final days of the dictatorship in the late 1980s.
Diggers making their way through heaps of rotting trash had found evidence of an unusual explosion, but after eight days of labor they still have two yards to go before reaching the site where any remains might be found.
"We've got to try, because recovering the bodies restores part of the damage that was done," Guzman said. "When we returned past remains to families, some of them kissed the skulls. They had found peace."
The next day, Guzman led a caravan to Pisagua, an infamous military prison on the nearby Pacific coast. In 1990, one of the first mass graves of the Pinochet era was found there.
As Guzman's truck crossed the dunes above Pisagua, he pointed out a paved area where the military was allegedly constructing a World War II-style concentration camp with the help of a former German Nazi living in Chile. The camp was never finished. Pisagua prison closed under pressure from the United Nations in 1974, although other torture and murder centers continued to operate for years.
The prison, a two-story structure where 80 men were packed into some cells, has now been turned into a run-down hotel. Hector Taberna, 50, a former inmate who returned with Guzman on the survey mission, walked past a cell in which a pool table now sits. It is where he last saw his brother, the regional head of the Socialist Party of Chile, who was led away bleeding one day in late 1973. His body has never been recovered.
Taberna, a plaintiff in one of the cases against Pinochet, said he was tortured here. He filed a case in the 1980s against Pinochet that was quickly dismissed. But Guzman, he said, has given him new hope.
"He is the first judge to listen to us, the first one who has opened his ear to hear our pain and tried to do something about it," he said. "God, please, let him succeed. Let justice be done here at last."