U.S. woman refuses to let Chile forget about ‘disappeared’ brother

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Published On: Sun, Apr 7th, 2013

Olga Weisfeiler returned to Chile to continue her search for the truth about her brother’s disappearance during the Pinochet dictatorship.


Boris Weisfeiler is the only U.S. citizen on the list of “disappeared” from the Pinochet dictatorship. Now, with a criminal case underway, his sister is back in Chile, hoping the truth is within reach, and has asked the new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for help

Originally, Chilean officials claimed Boris had drowned while hiking alone near the southern city of Chillán. After key documents were declassified by the U.S. State Department in 2000, it became clear the story was far more complicated and sinister.

Boris, a renowned mathematician and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, arrived in Chile on Dec. 25th, 1984 and planned to trek from Los Ángeles to Lake Laja, then to the mountains east of Chillán through to San Carlos, and finally back to Santiago. However, the accomplished outdoorsman only made it as far as Valle Hermoso, about 50 miles south of Chillán.

It is there that the story gets hazy and incomplete. Officials at the time said they found his footprints leading up to a major river, where they presumed he attempted to cross and drowned. Despite the lack of a body, this account was not challenged officially until the United States declassified hundreds of documents in 2000.

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. and author of “The Pinochet Files,” said that these documents brought to light questions that Boris’s family had not considered.

“These documents were unbelievably revealing in the Weisfeiler case,” Kornbluh told The Santiago Times. “They also brought a sense of tragedy to the family.”

Olga was not expecting to read that U.S. officials have known about her brother’s likely murder since shortly after his disappearance.

“I was shaken,” she said.

Olga had suspicions beginning in the late 1990s, when a Chilean journalist contacted her about information that had been leaked from an informant about her brother’s case. Since then, she has dedicated herself to uncovering the whole truth about Boris’ time in Chile.

This past week, Olga made her 13th trip since 2000 to the Andean country where her brother was last seen. Her goal for this trip was to present new connections she had found between documents that reference Boris’ captivity and the possibility that he was alive for a year after his disappearance. She met with the U.S. ambassador to Chile, Alejandro Wolff, as well as lawyers and the judge in the case.

Colonia Dignidad

Boris was last seen in the area of the notorious Colonia Dignidad, a cult-like commune created by former Nazi Paul Schäfer. The commune was also being used as a detention and torture center by Pinochet’s military regime.

The declassified U.S. documents show that embassy officials believed it was likely he was being held there, but that they were unable to persuade the Chilean government to cooperate. They include preliminary theories, and later taped conversations with witnesses and informants who showed contradictions in the Chilean police reports and first hand accounts of seeing Boris in Colonia Dignidad.

These documents were compelling enough for the criminal case investigating the death of Boris Weisfeiler to be reopened. There are likely thousands of more documents that would propel the case forward but that have not been released. Chile has not released a single document in the case.

“There has been a huge cover-up about what happened to Boris Weisfeiler,” Kornbluh said. “That cover-up would have generated quite a few documents, none of which have been seen.”

In 2012, Judge Jorge Zepeda charged eight former police and military officers in connection with Boris Weisfeiler’s death and the ensuing cover-up.

A plea to John Kerry

In an effort to move her brother’s case forward, Olga has reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Until now the Department of State has had a relatively poor track record in helping to move the investigation forward,” Olga wrote in a letter to Kerry.

In addition to urging Kerry to declassify all remaining documents in the case, Olga renews her request that the United States hire a lawyer to represent them in the Chilean courts and improve communications.

“The point of a lawyer is that the embassy would get direct access to the case,” Olga told The Santiago Times.

Kornbluh agreed that a lawyer would be an important step for Olga and her brother’s case.

“The best way to move the case forward is to hire a lawyer and have a legal presence in the investigation, protecting the interests of the United States of America in the well being and fate of one of its own citizens,” Kornbluh said.

Secretary Kerry sent a response to Olga’s letter to The Boston Globe, saying he has nothing but respect for what she is doing, but did not directly address her requests.

“It takes a moral fortitude and incredible character to go back to Chile 13 times to find answers and refuse to quit,’’ Kerry said. “It’s also important in the context of finding closure regarding a tragic era in Chile’s history.”

Greater impact

This case is striking not only because it involves the one U.S. citizen on the list of the Chilean “disappeared,” but because of the undeniable power of declassified documents in bringing his murder to light, Kornbluh said.

“If this case was resolved and this family found closure, it would definitely put pressure on Chilean authorities to press forward in finding as many of the remaining disappeared persons from the Pinochet era as possible,” Kornbluh said.

“This could be a test case to getting a hold of some of those Chilean and military intelligence documents,” he added.

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis (kwillis@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis

- Charlotte specializes in foreign relations, law, and human rights. Her work can also be found on Mapuexpress, The Center for Justice and Accountability, and InterAmerican Security Watch. Charlotte is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio5 program Up All Night as a Chile correspondent. Contact her at kwillis@santiagotimes.cl

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