Juan Guzman stands on a street corner wearing sunglasses

My afternoon with the judge who put Pinochet on trial

The morning had been eventful enough. I’d just finished double-ending an interview for CBC radio’s The Sunday Edition and then conducted my own with former judge Juan Guzmán, the Chilean judge who prosecuted Pinochet for crimes against humanity in Chile. As our interview wrapped up, I made an off-hand comment that set me up for an amazing afternoon.

Judge Guzmán was heading downtown for a meeting, he told me. For some reason, I felt I should mention that I was heading the same way. Like the humble and generous person I had discovered he was, he offered me a ride, as long as I didn’t mind picking up his colleague first. Not at all.

On the way, we chatted politely and like a good investigator, he started questioning me. What was my last name? Where was I from? Why was I there? I told him my name and that my parents are Chilean. I was there doing some journalistic work related to the 40th anniversary of the military coup. My family had been directly affected when my grandparents’ house was raided in the Santiago neighbourhood of Indepedencia.

the courtyard inside a colonial house in Santiago

Something clicked. “Do you have a relative who’s an author?” he asked. Yes! That’s my uncle, Leandro, I answered. Juan Guzmán had been to my grandparents’ house, where my uncle now lives. He knew my uncle. But what was the connection? A mutual friend named Arturo had introduced them. Guzmán very much enjoys the company of authors, playwrights and artists. He’d had a role in Costa Gavras’ political thriller, State of Siege.

That day, Guzmán was having lunch with mutual friend, Arturo. One hands-free phone call later and “a Canadian journalist” was invited to join.

We arrived at the downtown apartment around 2 o’clock, the typical lunch hour in Chile. And there was Dr. Arturo Gallo, welcoming us in. This mutual friend, it turns out, knows my family intimately. He grew up in the same neighbourhood as my father’s family and went to primary school, high school and medical school with my youngest uncle, Sebastian. He knows my father and my mother and the whole family on my father’s side.

two men talk while sitting at a table

So there we were, like three old friends, having a glass of wine and reminiscing about the dictatorship and old times. Me, the judge who put Pinochet on trial and an esteemed doctor who knows my family at least as well as I do. All in a day’s work?

After lunch, Juan and I, by then on a first-name basis, stopped by a small music and video shop. On the way, a couple of people recognized him in the street and said hello. He used to get that a lot, he said, while he was investigating the crimes against humanity of the dictatorship. Once in a while, it would be a threat.

The owner of the shop knew Juan well and recommended a couple of old films: two Hitchcock’s the judge hadn’t yet seen; something to do while he and his colleagues push for a new constitution to replace that of the Pinochet era. As he headed to another meeting, he guided me to my next destination where I and the man who judged Pinochet parted ways.

Note: For those less familiar with the history, Judge Guzmán was originally a right-wing supporter who voted for the conservative candidate in the election that made Salvador Allende president of Chile. He cheered the military coup d’état when it happened and supported the military junta. As the dictatorship dragged on, his position began to change and he ultimately investigated and prosecuted Pinochet and high-ranking military officers for the dictatorship’s crimes. He says he regrets his previous position and is “embarrassed” about those early views. His personal transformation is told in the documentary film, The Judge and The General.

a medium shot of a man stand in front of a bookcase

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3 responses to My afternoon with the judge who put Pinochet on trial

  1. Ramon Sepulveda January 10, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Many thanks, Tomas, for such an interesting piece. I enjoy knowing that people like judge Guzman can be such interesting characters. Maybe worth noting is that judge Guzman was originally a supporter on the cut d´Etat, Augusto Pinochet included. There is hope when people like him are able and willing to get to the bottom of such cases.

    • Thanks Ramón. Good point about his previous position as a right-wing supporter who originally cheered the coup. I picked up the story after the interviews that discuss those aspects, but it’s certainly worth noting for those who may not be familiar with the history.

  2. Francisco Urbina January 10, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Excelent writing we need more.