Article's Date: Monday,  June 3,  2002


Quest for secret files

Gen. Juan Cheyre (left) and Boris Weisfeiler 

Pascale Bonnefoy

The new commander of the Chilean Army, who is accused of human rights violations, has resisted declassifying documents.

The sister of Boris Weisfeiler, the only US citizen to disappear during Chile’s military dictator ship, has called on the new commander of the Chilean Army, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, and Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet to open secret files kept by the armed forces and former secret police.

Olga Weisfeiler sent letters in April to Bachelet and to Cheyre, who became Army chief on March 10, asking them to cooperate with a court investigation. The probe, which started in June 2000, involves the disappearance of her brother. Boris Weisfeiler, a physicist and professor at Pennsylvania State University, was last seen in January 1985 while camping in southern Chile near the German enclave known as Colonia Dignidad.

Olga Weisfeiler asked Cheyre and Bachelet to turn over to Judge Juan Guzmán files from the Army and National Information Center (CNI) that could contain information about the case.

According to information in more than 250 documents declassified by the US government in June 2000, Boris Weisfeiler, who was 43 at the time, was abducted by a military patrol and taken to Colonia Dignidad, which served as a detention and torture center during the regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) (LP, May 21, 1998). One informant claimed to have seen Weisfeiler in Colonia Dignidad two years after his disappearance, living in "animal-like conditions."

"The declassified US documents leave little doubt that Boris Weisfeiler was detained by a military patrol for a crime of hiking near Colonia Dignidad, severely abused, taken to the Colonia and disappeared there. They also leave no doubt that Chilean military officials sought to cover up the true circumstances of his case — as they continue to do to this very day," said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a non governmental organization based in Washington that works to declassify and publicize US government documents.

At the time, Chile’s military government said that Boris Weisfeiler had died trying to cross the Ñuble River.

"I never believed that Boris ‘simply’ drowned and I always knew that something terrible happened to him," Olga Weisfeiler said. "The declassified documents fully described those things — brutal interrogation, torture in Colonia Dignidad, life as a prisoner in Colonia Dignidad. Nevertheless, even today I hope and believe that my brother may be found alive inside Colonia Dignidad."

Whether Bachelet can convince the Army to open the files remains to be determined.

Months ago, when courts asked the Army to turn over files from the War Council in the case of a person who disappeared in 1973, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, who was then head of the Army, claimed that the files had been destroyed in a fire that allegedly resulted from an attack by leftist groups.

Cheyre, meanwhile, has shown no interest in releasing secret files, possibly because of his own murky past. Although the government has refused to comment, Cheyre is accused of having participated in human rights violations in 1973, when he was a young officer in La Serena, in northern Chile.

In 1985, Cheyre refused to turn over a list of officers assigned to the CNI to a judge investigating the murder of Paulina Aguirre Tobar, a member of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR). In 1988, as superintendent of the Third Region, the highest regional authority, Cheyre, who was then a lieutenant colonel, was accused of covering up the torture of dozens of leftist activists by CNI agents. Cheyre denied that the victims had been detained.

The Army chief is also named in a criminal complaint filed last July in the case of two children, ages 7 and 8, who were killed by the Army on Dec. 24, 1973, in the northern port city of Coquimbo while playing near a gas pipeline being guarded by soldiers. Hugo Gutiérrez, the lawyer handling that case, has asked Guzmán to question Ariosto Lapostol, who commanded the regiment, and Cheyre, who was a lieutenant and Lapostol’s aide at the time.

Cheyre is also implicated in the deaths of 15 prisoners who were taken from the La Serena jail in October 1973 by a military detachment known as the Caravan of Death, led by Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark (LP, Dec. 11, 2000).

In a report published in the newspaper El Siglo, Eliana Rodríguez Dubó charged that Cheyre headed a troop of soldiers who detained her in October 1973, searched her house, beat her and imprisoned her for more than a month at the La Serena military base, where she was tortured and raped.

"They raped me to force me to confess that I was a political activist and to make me give them the names of the leaders of the Communist Party in the region. They gave me electric shocks on my breasts, under my toenails and fingernails and in my vagina," Rodríguez told the paper. "Lt. Cheyre gave the order to execute me because I wouldn’t reveal any names. They did a mock execution. Cheyre said, ‘Take her outside and kill her.’"

Although when he took his new post, Cheyre publicly pledged that the Army would help solve pending human rights cases, his tone changed in early April. During a visit to troops in southern Chile, Cheyre complained that military officers "who are being sued feel that they are victims of a traumatic process," and that "the continual [judicial] demands are resulting in an excessive workload."

Bachelet responded to Olga Weisfeiler in May, expressing solidarity and saying that she would cooperate with the courts. Many observers, however, say that Weisfeiler will probably never get an answer from Cheyre.