A government agency has had dozens of boxes of bones in its possession for decades without examining them. As a result, the remains of an estimated 300 presumed disappeared persons remain largely unidentified. An audit was ordered to find out how this happened.
In 2001, 89 boxes of skeletal remains of some 300 missing persons were given to the University of Chile; then, in 2019, 80 of the boxes were transferred to Servicio Médico Legal (SML), where they remain unidentified.
The existence of the boxes was made public in early February 2023 and immediately sparked controversy. Relatives of disappeared persons and protest groups were outraged. The Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desparecidos (the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees) lamented, “This is part of the policy of impunity that the State has had all these years. There must be political responsibility for this new negligence.”
The controversy initially came to light last August, when SML, which operates under Chile’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, sent a report about the boxes to former Minister of Justice Marcela Ríos. Ríos in turn ordered an audit to find out how many skeletal remains SML had, when they arrived, and who was in charge of examining them.
According to the report, “The Human Rights Unit has in custody remains estimated at 300 alleged victims, found between 1990 and 2015. On this, hard work has been done to obtain their genetic profiles.” The document also states that the former Minister of the Court of Appeals of Santiago, Alejandro Solís (who retired in 2012), gave instructions to “register, inventory and evaluate the contents of these boxes … and their relationship with cases related to serious human rights violations during the military dictatorship.” Since then, more than 10 years have passed without this order being executed.
Although SML has arguably been slow to act, the delay is not SML’s fault in its entirety. By the time the remains arrived at SML in 2019, they had already been with the University of Chile for almost two decades.
Why the remains haven’t been examined in all these years?
Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia, the first judge to prosecute former dictator Augusto Pinochet for his crimes against human rights, entrusted the boxes to forensic expert Luis Ciocca. Ciocca however failed to mention to his colleagues at the University of Chile that he had the boxes in his possession. He stored them in a basement at the university, where they were only revealed after the basement flooded in 2014. Upon examination of the boxes, it became clear that their contents had been affected by fungus. The remains could not be sent to the SML in their state of deterioration. Cleaning the samples took several years. As a result, they were not sent to SML until 2019.
Why did Ciocca keep the boxes to himself all these years? The remains were delivered to the University of Chile in May 2001, as per an official letter sent by Judge Guzmán. This means that Ciocca stored them for some 13 years before they were contaminated by the flood. According to Ciocca, Judge Guzmán, who entrusted the remains to Ciocca, did not have confidence in the SML. “There was a conflict … of distrust because there were many peculiar situations. These include people infiltrating to alter the skeletons. When I started in forensic medicine, they put in old bones to mislead the experts.”
Around 2010, Ciocca started to worry about the remains. After telling a minister en visita (a minister decreed to act as a court of first instance in certain investigations) about their existence, he was told to inform the Supreme Court. The Court however did not have authority over the case and referred Ciocca to one of the ministers en visita at the time. These ministers then put him in touch with SML. Before the boxes could be moved to SML, they were affected by a flood in the university basement in 2014. The decontamination process that followed took several years.
When the boxes were finally transferred to SML in 2019, the service only received 80 boxes. According to Ciocca this is because several ministers en visita came to the university to ask about specific cases. In some cases, Ciocca delivered remains to the ministers.
Why did it take so long for a minister to order the remaining boxes to be brought to the SML? Ciocca blames that on the chaos within the Justice Department: “It’s the disorder of the justice system, because they are incapable of saying ‘this case from [Judge] Guzmán was passed to this other judge.’”
SML’s reported to Ríos that it had the skeletal remains in August 2022. Ríos responded with an audit request because she believed that the report was insufficient. She wanted to know exactly how many skeletal remains arrived at the service, when they arrived, and which persons were responsible for them all those years.
Simultaneously, the Minister of the Court of Appeals of Santiago, Paola Plaza, asked for resources to be allocated to examine the remains. This request has not been granted to this day. Current Minister of Justice Luis Cordero indicated that Minister Plaza will receive a formal response as soon as the SML audit is concluded.
Matthijs is a newly graduated journalism student from Groningen, the Netherlands. As a starting journalist and aspiring foreign correspondent, he decided to extend his 6-month university exchange in Chile to do an internship at Chile Today. He enjoys writing about a broad range of topics, but international relations, politics and conflicts are his key interests.