In the days leading up to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 military coup d’état in Chile, the United States officially announced the declassification of documents that had been kept secret for five decades: see RFI’s 9/09/2023.

These new documents come in addition to others released in past years by some US administrations, and are registered on this site of the George Washington University : an extensive research programme dedicated to Chile – which is not limited to the declassification of US documents – and which has this link with a wealth of information.

In its official communiqué, the US State Department referred to this declassification, stating that:

“The Biden Administration has sought to be transparent about the U.S. role in this chapter of Chilean history by recently declassifying additional documents from 1973, as requested by the Chilean government”.

(see text in Spanish released on 11/09/2023).

Documents still sensitive, 50 years after

Although the international press has highlighted the reasons why this 1973 coup d’état shook Latin America and the international community in general (see, for example, this BBC article of 11/09/2023, which we recommend reading), the widely documented involvement of the United States since then is an aspect that deserves to be added (for example, to the four points mentioned in the aforementioned BBC article).

It is not superfluous to refer to this 1970 handwritten document authorising the overthrow of the future President of Chile if he were to take power (see link when declassified in 2020, which states that: “Fifty years after it was written, Helm’s cryptic memorandum of conversation with Nixon remains the only known record of a U.S. president ordering the covert overthrow of a democratically elected leader abroad”).

In this other note, we read that the most recent declassification of documents by the United States in May 2023 was due to express requests made by the current Chilean authorities:

“After withholding this document in its entirety for decades, the CIA finally released the September 11, 1973, PDB today in response to a formal petition from the Chilean government of Gabriel Boric for still secret records as the 50th anniversary of the coup approaches. The CIA also partially declassified a second PDB, dated September 8, 1973, which erroneously informed President Nixon that there was “no evidence of a coordinated tri-service coup plan” in Chile and said that “should hotheads in the navy act in the belief they will automatically receive support from the other services, they could find themselves isolated.”

The two PDBs are among the most historically iconic of missing records on the September 11, 1973, military coup because they contained information that went to President Nixon as a military takeover that he and his top advisor Henry Kissinger had encouraged for three years came to fruition”.

The two aforementioned quotations refer to the English text that reads, elaborated by the George Washington University’s declassified documents research programme, which situates in time and analyses each of the documents released in recent years by the United States.

However, Chile’s request to the United States probably concerns many more documents still in the possession of the US administration, which has limited itself to declassifying only two of them. What about the rest?

In a recent interview conducted on 12 September 2023 in the United States (see full text), we read that for one of the George Washington University researchers with the best knowledge of the subject:

“There are other secrets that we want to get out. The Chilean government has asked the Biden administration for a special declassification diplomacy gesture for this 50th anniversary. So far, only two documents have been declassified. There are many more that have been asked for, that hopefully, you know, at some point will come out”.

The release of official documents in the face of the right to truth: light and shadows

From the perspective of public international law, there is no obligation for a state to release documents from the reserve in which they are held because they are considered “sensitive”. Each state has a national archives system with internal reports, data and registers of various kinds: its highest authorities are the ones who decide whether to keep them out of the public domain or to reveal their existence.

Thus, Panama had to wait 30 years after the US invasion in 1989 for the United States to finally agree to release a large number of classified documents (see article in El Pais – Spain of 17/12/2019).

In other cases, police or military documents and reports are “found”, such as the so-called “archives of terror” discovered in a house in the town of Lambaré in Paraguay in December 1992 (see publication of the Paraguayan Supreme Court of Justice and interesting video of the moment in which a Paraguayan judge enters the house to verify the presence of these archives and seize them).

The files found in Paraguay documented a large number of cases in different parts of the Southern Cone. They also enabled the Italian justice system to convict 14 people on 8 July 2021 for the deaths of 43 people, victims of the Condor Plan with dual nationality (namely 6 Italian-Argentine, 4 Italian-Chilean, 13 Italian-Paraguayan and 20 Uruguayan): see note in Italian by the Italian NGO CILD.

Returning to the case of Chile, the iron will of the current Chilean authorities to obtain the release of classified documents by the current US administration is to be welcomed.

It should be pointed out that in terms of “soft law”, resolution E/CN.4/RES/2005/66 of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – today known as the “Human Rights Council” – adopted by consensus in 2005, at the initiative of Argentina (the text is available online), and entitled “The right to the truth”, limits itself to stating that:

“5. Encourages States to provide the necessary assistance to the States concerned in this regard”.

The right to the truth in the face of the hidden truth

The absence of a legal obligation between two states to hand over information held by one to the other, related to human rights violations committed in the past, in no way prevents us from having a completely different dynamic when it comes to national and international courts in the implementation of the right to the truth.

In this case, it is the victims’ collectives, family members and human rights associations that have asserted before their own authorities or before national courts (and if these have ruled against them, before international tribunals) this right that every victim of past exactions committed by state authorities (whether against themselves or against one or more of their loved ones) has the right to the truth.

In this regard, a very complete report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the Right to the Truth, published in 2014 (see text) details the scope of the right to the truth in the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights. The long list of cases heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights at the end of this academic article published in 2008 entitled “The right to the truth in non-international post-conflict war situations”, gives an idea of the guidelines that the jurisprudence of the Inter-American judge has been setting in this regard, since its first judgments against Honduras at the end of the 1980s.

It is noteworthy that the significant advances observed in Latin America in terms of the right to the truth have still not managed to permeate the judicial system in Spain: the first exhumation of the body of a victim of Franco’s regime ordered by the justice system was achieved in 2016 thanks to a request from … the Argentinean justice system (Note 1).

The current Chilean authorities: more resolute than their predecessors

Unlike his predecessor in office, the current Chilean president has shown himself to be much more demanding in the search for the truth about the events of 11 September 1973 in Chile.

On 30 August last, a decree was signed in Santiago de Chile to direct a National Search Plan for the thousands of Chilean citizens who still appear on lists of missing persons in Chile (see official communiqué). Since 2013, a report of the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances on Chile recommended this (see report). On 22 December 2017, rather belatedly and at the end of her second mandate, a first initiative had been directed by the then President of Chile (see France24 note of 22/12/2017).

Even in his fourth report (1989), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Chile, the Costa Rican Fernando Volio Jiménez, referred to the important work that awaited Chilean society in relation to finding out the whereabouts of the victims of enforced disappearance (see link to report) (Note 2).

This report by The Guardian in August 2019 entitled “Where are they? families search for Chile’s disappeared prisoners” (see link) details in a very comprehensive way the drama of Chilean families in the absence of information about what happened to their loved ones and the lack of political will that the arrival of President Piñera in March 2018 meant in terms of the search for disappeared persons in Chile.

Operation Condor in the face of the right to truth: the response of the Inter-American judge to the lack of capacity of the national justice system

Another tragic intiative for Latin America, the so-called “Condor Plan”, which involved not only Chile (and the United States), is an ambit in which many documents have yet to be declassified in the United States: this report by CELS (a renowned NGO from Argentina) explains how this coordinated plan, which was designed to erase the protective effect of crossing a border between two States, worked from 1975 onwards between the States of the Southern Cone. In its report submitted in December 2014, the Brazilian Truth Commission refers in much more detail than previous truth commissions in its chapter 6 (see text) to the level of involvement of the Brazilian military authorities at the time. An Oxford University research project (see link) centralises a large amount of data on the Condor Plan.

It is worth recalling that it was only in 2016 that the Condor Plan was the subject of a first conviction by the Argentine criminal justice system, with respect to high-ranking Argentine military commanders, several of whom were nonagenarians at the time of hearing the sentence (Note 3). Upon learning of this ruling, the aforementioned US research programme at George Washington University published this note, pointing out that the files declassified by the United States were used by Argentine judges as documentary evidence.

As of 2023, the judicial systems in the Southern Cone are still processing cases of victims and victims’ relatives: this link registers some of the legal actions before national courts related to Plan Condor.

Given the resistance of some judges at the national level to investigate and condemn acts related to Plan Condor, and the legal manoeuvres of all kinds that the lawyers of those responsible for these acts sometimes manage to carry out, the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights has offered (and continues to offer) victims the possibility of obtaining justice.

The first judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to examine the case of a victim of Plan Condor dates back to 2006 (Goiburú et al. v. Paraguay).

Another important judgment of the Inter-American judge in 2011 (Gelman v. Uruguay) states that:

“51. The Condor Plan operated in three main areas, namely, first, in political surveillance activities of exiled dissidents or refugees; second, in the operation of covert counter-insurgency actions, in which the role of the actors was completely confidential; and third, in joint extermination actions, directed at specific groups or individuals, for which special teams of assassins were formed to operate within and outside the borders of their countries, including in the United States and Europe.

52. This operation was very sophisticated and organised, with constant training, advanced communication systems, intelligence and strategic planning centres, as well as a parallel system of clandestine prisons and torture centres for the purpose of receiving foreign prisoners detained in the framework of Operation Condor”.

In its judgment against Argentina 10 years after, in September 2021 (Julien Grisonas family vs. Argentina case), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights noted that the “inter-State criminal plan” now merits another coordinated effort by its members, stating that:

“288. In accordance with the requests made, the Court orders the Argentine State, within one year of notification of this Judgment and by the means it deems appropriate, to take the necessary steps to summon the other States that would have been involved in the execution of the facts of the case: the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and the Republic of Chile, and, in general, in the context of “Operation Condor,” that is, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the Republic of Paraguay, and the Republic of Peru, in order to form a working group to coordinate the possible efforts to carry out the tasks of investigation, extradition, prosecution, and, if appropriate, condemnation of those responsible for the serious crimes committed in the framework of the aforementioned interstate criminal plan. This coordination should be reflected in a common work plan between the competent authorities, depending on the matter in question, implemented in compliance with the applicable national and international legal framework, and with the help of international cooperation and mutual assistance mechanisms. Thus, coordinated work between the authorities of the different States will have to undertake joint efforts for the clarification of what happened during “Operation Condor”, as a scenario in which systematic human rights violations were perpetrated, including those that harmed the victims in this case.

It is interesting to note, with regard to the exact origin of the “technique” of forced disappearance by military commanders, that recent research in France (see proceedings of the specialised forum and article in 2022) shows that it was initiated by the French military in Algeria at the end of the 1950s. A 2003 report broadcast in France, entitled “Escadrons de la mort: l’école francaise” (see link and short excerpt on YouTube as well as Part I available here and Part 2 here) gathers several testimonies indicating that French military instructors “taught” in the 1970s-80s this “technique” developed by France during the so-called Guerre d’Algérie to military personnel in the Southern Cone.

In conclusion

Despite the 50 years that separate us from that fateful day for Chile and for the world on 11 September 1973, many questions still linger on: the United States could usefully clarify them by releasing all the classified documents it still has in its secret archives regarding what happened in Chile. Not to mention the documents it also still has regarding the aforementioned “interstate criminal plan”, as the Inter-American judge described it.

For the Chilean victims and their families who continue to pursue the truth over time, and seek to know the fate of their loved ones, from Chile or from abroad, their exhausting struggle is exemplary: it has inspired, inspires and will continue to inspire, we are sure, many families and several generations in Latin America and the world in their demand for truth and justice.

– Notes – – –

Note 1: See in this regard BOEGLIN N., “JusticiA con A de Ascensión: a propósito de la exhumación de una fosa española a solicitud de una jueza de Argentina”, Revista de Pensamiento Penal, 2016. Text available here.

Note 2: On the close relationship between the right to truth and victims of enforced disappearance, see FERRER MAC-GREGOR E. & GONGORA MAAS J.J., Desaparición forzada de personas y derecho a la verdad en el sistema interamericano de derechos humanos, UNAM/IIJ/CNDH, Mexico 2019. Full text available here.

Note 3: See in this regard BOEGLIN N., “Plan Condor: la justicia argentina se pronuncia”, DerechoalDia legal site, edition of 6/06/2016, text available here.