SANTIAGO (Reuters) - For nearly three decades after Veronica de Negri’s 19-year-old son Rodrigo Rojas was burned to death by Chilean soldiers during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, her hunt for justice had been fruitless.
Two legal battles failed, as unsympathetic judges and amnesty laws foiled all attempts to bring charges.
But then in July 2015, she finally had a breakthrough. Cajoled by the Supreme Court president, prosecutors charged seven former military officers for burning de Negri’s son alive while he was photographing a political protest in 1986.
“I wanted to scream to the world what was happening,” said de Negri, who was told of the arrest warrants before they were served.
De Negri’s case is among hundreds sent to prosecutors in the past two years. Led by Supreme Court President Sergio Munoz, Chile’s courts are racing to address dictatorship-era crimes before the deaths of witnesses, victims, and the accused makes doing so impossible.
During Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, an estimated 3,200 people were murdered and another 28,000 tortured by the state.
That was not on the same scale as in Argentina, where a military junta killed as many as 30,000 during the country’s 1976-1983 “Dirty War”. But unlike Argentina, Chile’s military government retained support among conservatives after its downfall, and for years they blocked attempts to deal with the dictatorship’s crimes. Pinochet died in 2006 without ever being convicted for human rights abuses.
“What we’re doing is restorative justice,” said Munoz, an outspoken critic of Pinochet’s legacy and, at 58, Chile’s youngest Supreme Court president.
“Chile has evolved from turning away from these issues to taking them on,” he told Reuters.
In the 25 years of democracy, there have been 1,149 convictions handed down for dictatorship-era human rights crimes. But since Munoz took office in January 2014, investigating judges have sent some 400 cases to prosecutors, according to the Interior Ministry.
For Munoz, a silver-bearded, stone-eyed judge who gained a reputation for maverick decisions during his 31 years on the bench, this push is needed to close one of Chile’s darkest chapters.
“For the victimizers, this means the state has not forgotten what you’ve done, and you will be punished,” said Munoz, a law student early in the dictatorship who went on to investigate human rights cases as a judge.
“There will be no closed doors behind which you can hide.”
Munoz regularly meets with Chile’s investigating judges, prodding them to get data, dispensing firm feedback, and setting deadlines.
He has also appointed a liaison to the military, who is tasked with extracting information from officers who lawyers and rights activists say have a habit of protecting their own.
“In the past, investigators would ask the military for information, and it would come back nine months later saying ‘that document has been incinerated or destroyed’,” said Alejandro Solis, the current liaison and a former human rights judge.
“But during that time, nobody would actually ask, ‘Well, who destroyed it?’”
Investigators have also been aided by modern forensics that can now identify remains and determine foul play with smaller body fragments and less genetic material than before.
“Now, if we find remains dated from the seventies or eighties, we deploy anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists, forensic photographers - a multidisciplinary team,” said Patricio Bustos, the head of Chile’s forensic service who himself was tortured under the dictatorship.
Some politicians on the right still defend Pinochet’s legacy, saying the 1973 coup saved Chile from President Salvador Allende’s Marxist agenda.
However, polls show support for Pinochet has declined in recent years and there is little vocal opposition to the pursuit of ex-military personnel accused of human rights violations.
Defense Minister Jose Antonio Gomez has voiced support for the prosecutions, saying the military must make itself “an institution for the future.”
Even so, many Chileans believe the courts are still far from guarantors of justice.
Though there is no statute of limitations for human rights violations in Chile, there are signs the passage of time between a crime and its prosecution is leading to softer sentences.
“On the one hand, we’re putting through cases faster and they’re being resolved,” said Solis. “But some families say, ‘Right, but what justice is this?’ This man killed my husband and son and he’s condemned to spend three years in his own home’.”
Rights activists and victim groups also worry that the drive may slow, or even grind to a halt when Munoz’s term ends in January 2016.
“Under the current court things are better,” said de Negri. “But that doesn’t mean the whole government has a clear commitment to human rights.”
Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Mary Milliken