SANTIAGO, Chile — When German Cofre crossed the Argentine border into Chile last November, what many grieving families had always hoped for — but deep down believed impossible — actually happened. With Cofre's return, one of the nearly 1,200 people listed as “disappeared” during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship was back home.
But this was no tearful family reunion.
Arrested briefly after the 1973 military coup that overthrew Chile's socialist government and installed Pinochet as Chile's leader, Cofre later left the country legally and settled in Argentina, where he had a new family.
Back in Chile, however, Cofre's disappearance took on a life of its own when his “widow” presented his departure as politically motivated to the Rettig Commission, which gathered testimony and other evidence of deaths and disappearances during military rule and in 1991 published a report listing more than 3,000 victims. Cofre's "widow" and their children received generous benefits, including a lifetime monthly pension and free health care and higher education.
Cofre's return in November unleashed a round of finger-pointing about who was at fault for this mistake. It also had other, more far-reaching, consequences. Since then, other fraudulent cases of people listed as "disappeared" have emerged. Cofre is facing trial to determine whether he defrauded the State and why so many institutions failed to detect a man who never attempted to conceal his identity or whereabouts, re-entered Chile legally in the 1980s and even renewed his identity card twice.
Anticipating other potential mistakes and a jubilant reaction from the right — which for years denied or played down the military’s human rights abuses — the government cross-checked the Rettig report files with Chile's Civil Registry, and found another three cases of false "disappeared." One of the individuals was living in Argentina, another was a homeless man who died in 2006, and the third was a woman who had died while giving birth in 1955.
Congresswoman Karla Rubilar of the right-wing National Renovation party said she knew of three more false reports of disappearances. She handed the information over to the government on Jan. 5. It later turned out that Rubilar had erred in two cases, as those individuals had indeed disappeared.
For the relatives of those who disappeared during military rule, this was a dreaded scenario. They knew that the right-wing opposition and loyal Pinochetistas would feast on irregularities and question the record of human rights abuses.
Guillermo Marin, the army's former vice commander, went so far as to say that “with this evidence, it is perfectly righteous to doubt everything that has been said and politically exploited regarding the disappeared.”
However, President Michelle Bachelet — whose father, an air force general, died in prison as a result of torture — put her foot down. “Human rights violations are a national shame engraved in our history, and we will not allow anyone to cast doubt on this historical truth,” she recently said in a statement. At the government's request, the Court of Appeals assigned a judge to investigate the cases of the false disappeared.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, have argued that four false cases out of roughly 1,200 isn't bad.
The Vice President of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, Mireya Garcia, contends that the falsity or otherwise of cases is beside the point. “No one is making such a huge scandal out of the 1,289 cases that were filed but not officially recognized as victims because there wasn’t enough time or the means to fully investigate them, or the nearly 100 new cases that have been denounced since the Rettig Commission closed,” Garcia said.
And there's been little discussion on the issue of official disclosure. The military has yet to admit where it disposed of the more than 1,000 bodies still missing, even when officers have faced indictments and prison terms.