When a Chilean court assigned investigative Judge Juan Guzmán the first criminal cases against former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, the odds were against prosecutions ever going forward. Not only is it difficult to prove crimes like kidnapping, torture and murder against a nation’s leader, but Judge Guzmán had supported the coup in 1973 that toppled President Salvador Allende’s government and brought General Pinochet to power.
That bloody coup left thousands of Chileans dead, tortured or “disappeared.” President Salvador Allende died, apparently by suicide. The ensuing 17-year dictatorship was embraced by a large segment of Chilean society, but many Chileans resisted Pinochet — at first covertly and then more openly — even as the regime was increasingly isolated abroad.
As a young man, Guzmán had served briefly as a clerk in the Court of Appeals during the worst years of repression under Pinochet. Judges of that court had to rule on thousands of habeas corpus petitions filed on behalf of victims, many of whom had disappeared into secret detention centers. Nearly all the petitions were denied, and — as a clerk — Juan Guzmán penned some of those denials. Had they been granted, many lives would have been saved.
Because of his background, many of Judge Guzmán’s colleagues — attorneys and judges — doubted that he would actively pursue General Pinochet and others accused of human rights crimes. By the end of the film, viewers will know whether those detractors were right or wrong.
The filmmakers were granted unique access to Judge Guzmán’s criminal investigations, which take viewers deeply into two cases (in Chile, a judge may investigate and prosecute, as well as try, some cases):
Manuel Donoso, a young sociology professor, was an activist and member of the same political party as Salvador Allende. Soldiers arrested Donoso at home shortly after the 1973 coup. The military claimed he died in an automobile accident en route to prison. As Judge Guzmán investigates, viewers learn whether the official story is true.
The other key case features Cecilia (Chechi) Castro, whose mother faced a ghastly “Sophie’s Choice.” She led Pinochet’s secret police to her daughter’s hiding place in order to save a granddaughter’s life. Guzmán’s investigations reveal the dark truth behind these cases in a heart-breaking yet ultimately hopeful tale of redemption.
The film has special relevance today, when terrorism and torture are top stories, and human rights abuses make headlines nearly every day. Human rights advocates around the world say their work is strengthened because of what Guzmán accomplished in Chile at a time when few dared take on Pinochet.