Chile From Within

The Shadow Crusader

Posted in chile by tomasdinges on November 19, 2008

There are public heroes and private heroes in this world. Spanish judge Juez Carlos Castresana is a private hero. His legal strategy set in motion the downfall of now deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This article was from 2006.

Juez Carlos Castresana has three young children, all of whom now have medals to wear when imitating their father. One was acquired in Spain as a recipient of the National Human Rights prize, another was granted by Guadalajara University for his legal work in Spain. Last week, a third medal was granted to him in Santiago, Chile, the country which has most dramatically benefited from his fastidious and meticulous legal work as a Judge in Spain’s Supreme Court.

Castresana is the architect of the legal strategy that resulted in the dictator Augusto Pinochet being captured in London. Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1989. Under his regime tens of thousands of people were systematically tortured and more than 3,000 died.

Castresana was in Chile for the reception of an honorary degree at the Universidad Central Law School, where the former Chilean prosecuting judge in the Pinochet Case, Juez Juan Guzman is now dean.

The ceremony was held in a cavernous, gray atrium at the law school. Hundreds of people sat on the floor, stood in the aisles and hung off of balconies.

Judge Baltazar Garzon, the prosecuting judge of Castresana’s investigation, took the stage expectantly, with the stride of a heavyweight champion. Castresana took his ovation like he really appreciated it. A broad smile and proud chest communicated how “emocionante” the experience was. He would confess later to be most concentrated on keeping his knees from shaking.

This is an emotional first visit to Chile he told me later, “after ten years of knowing its cities, the people, the events, the places and the circumstances…all on paper,” and in personal testimony.

“You can get some sort of an idea. You obsess over something for one reason or another, for good or bad, and you are working for ten years on that country, a place where you have never set foot,” he explained to me in a rushed ride to the airport. “And then, one day you find yourself there.”

In 1996, Castresana worked at the recently formed Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption in Madrid. The caseload was non-existent. Him and a few others in the office spent all day reading newspapers. When he opened up a paper to see photos documenting the routine of notorious former Argentine military dictator Jorge Rafaél Videla and news that he strolls leisurely through posh neighborhoods in urban Buenos Aires, Castresana began to plan action.

Looking through the legal library led him to a one-line reference in the Spanish Legal Code that asserted universal legal jurisdiction for “crimenes de lesa humanidad” or crimes against humanity. That principle had never been tested. But really, “I was just dusting off the Nuremberg principles”, something which has been buried by the great powers of the Cold War, he said.

So, two years before General Augusto Pinochet took his ill-fated trip for surgery to London in 1998, a legal strategy was in development. For the untried legal concept to have an effect within the Spanish legal system there needed to be two cases, one to set the precedent and the other to confirm the original court decision. The first case, in 1996, was against the Argentine dictator for the murder of Spanish citizens. The second case was to be against General Augusto Pinochet. Both murders were conducted within the aegis of Operation Condor, a transnational effort coordinated by Augusto Pinochet to eliminate armed leftist organizations and political threats throughout Latin America and Europe

“Very shortly after I began to understand that my job was really just beginning, when I begin to meet with the victims,” said Castresana.

In 1973, Joan Garces was a young advisor to the former president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Now, the Spaniard was a lead lawyer for la Fundación Allende of Spain and closely connected with the Chilean exile community in Europe. Garces saw the developing case in the newspaper and immediately called up Juez Castresana. “Whatever you need, I am here to help,” said Garces, recalls Castresana.

“When the people come to you and they explain that for 25 years they have been seeking someone to listen to them. I realized I had gotten into something that was not going to be very easy to get out of,” said Castresana. “Things from there on exploded, it’s Pinochet, just imagine.”

For two years, Chileans knowledgeable of the experience of the Spanish citizens and others killed in Chile and Argentina filed into Castresana’s office in Madrid to leave their testimony with these judges. They were promptly put in contact with local media.

Slowly, the experiences of torture, disappearance and terror began to unfold with regularity for the Spanish public. The Spanish had been prepared for the great protagonism that their country and legal system would take on when Juez Baltazar Garzon received the case, says Castresana.

Juez Juan Guzman, Juez Carlos Castresana

Juez Juan Guzman, Juez Carlos Castresana



The fascist image of Franco, thirty years dead, became reincarnate in Augusto Pinochet.

On October 15, 1998 General Augusto Pinochet was in London, England for medical care. He was preparing to return home the next day.

In Madrid, Judge Garzon made a late night decision and formally sent an order of detention to Scotland Yard and the English legal system before Pinochet departed that next morning for Chile.

Juez Baltazar Garzon Real (yes, Royal) is a man with movie star good looks, more than thirty honoris caucis and a penchant for the media spotlight. As a prosecuting judge, characteristic to the Spanish legal system, he would be in charge of the most visible aspects of the case against Pinochet.

Upon his visit to Chile, accompanied by Castresana, two weeks before the 32nd anniversary of the military coup, it was Garzon who received the epithets from tens of Pinochet supporters, generally older women, outside of the Universities, or shouts in airplane cabins and threatening heckles in airports. His comments appeared on the front pages of newspapers documenting his travels. A right-wing politician whose father, the former military general Fernando Matthei, was subpoenaed in the Pinochet case, called him a “desgraciado”, the equivalent to “bastard” or “asshole.”

But the surprise for many was Castresana. “The first day I was here no one knew who I was or what I did, and then…hugs and slaps on the back, which, truthfully, communicate their thanks,” he said.

His rousing speech brought the audience at the Universidad Central to their feet and individuals to glassy-eyed emotion.

Both Spanish judges have a deep commitment to human rights, but the words of Castresana were particularly eloquent. He spoke from the perspective of a creator and witness to the genesis of a legal strategy that he thought would be good for law schools, but had no chance of success.

His colleagues in Spain and Argentina had called him crazy, but it was that spirit that set in motion the multinational judicial process and a reevaluation of the concept of universal jurisdiction of human rights.

“If they call the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo crazy, then I must be going in the right direction,” he commented in his speech. He spoke from a personal perspective forged by repeated interactions with witnesses and victims of abuse, he said, that has galvanized a seemingly indefagitable quest all around the world for a legal system to effectively defend human rights, everywhere.

He spoke eloquently and maybe it is because of his total immersion in the case. Castresana researches, investigates and crafts methods exploring human rights and law in a modern context, based in real experiences in warehouses, courthouses, and with documents and victims.

In meetings with victims groups, legal associations and immigrants rights groups, like the hot, cramped conference room of a group, a two-hours before his flight from Santiago, he talks about the “Pinochet precedent.” But, he also forcefully asserts the universality of human rights and highlights how far behind the curve of globalization that judicial systems have fallen.

“We are currently facing a battle against impunity. Victims fall, without a capacity to respond or rescue them. The laws are there, but we are not capable of applying them. A very simple concept is that judges should apply the law correctly.” With impunity present in a system, there is no democracy, he said.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to violence in the Congo, to the illogical immigration laws in the United States, it is people who are subjected to this impunity.

“The State has lagged behind in guaranteeing the minimum protection for individuals,” he said. “The Law of the Weak is best represented by what happened in Hurricane Katrina, where those who suffered and died where the most poor and the most forgotten in society.”

In the speaking hall a distracted hum persisted in the moments before Castresana’s speech. There was a sense that no one really knew who Castresana was then and didn’t care much when he was introduced. On the thick matte invitation, Garzon had the face of a gallant crusader who had been photographed before. Castresana appeared meek and boring, as the civil servant that he is.

All this contributed to a speech that had an astounding effect. After riveting the crowd he spoke the words of the former president Salvador Allende.

It was especially resonant for the standing-room only crowd of law students a generation distant from the infliction of the wounds that still traumatize Chilean society: “Sigan uds,” said Castresana, to rising applause, “Carry on.”

“Carry on, knowing that much sooner that later, the great boulevards will open.”- Salvador Allende

In 2007, Castresana was named the head of the International Commission against Impunity for the United Nations in Guatemala.


One Response

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  1. carlos castresana said, on November 21, 2009 at 3:07 am

    Gracias Tomas, no lo habia leido hasta hoy,20-11-09. Paradojas del destino, hoy es el aniversario de la muerte de Franco. Carlos

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