Chile's secret laws

SANTIAGO — During the dark days of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, attorney Roberto Garreton stumbled across something unusual: huge gaps — marked "SECRET" — in the lists of Chilean laws.

Those classified laws — Garreton eventually tallied more than 100, most of which were related to the defense ministry — remain in effect in Chile to this day, long after the end of Pinochet's rule in 1990. The original copies sit stored in a vault in the port city of Valparaiso, while some Chilean lawmakers struggle to get them declassified. 

The laws created a bizarre situation in Chile: How should Chileans obey laws they know nothing about? 

“There was a law on the military draft, for example, that said that the crimes mentioned in one of its provisions carried a certain penalty. The law was public, but the provision detailing the crime you could be punished for was secret!” said Garreton, a prominent human rights lawyer who began making a list of all the secret laws in 1985.  

The military junta that governed Chile from 1973 to 1990 didn't much care about this surreal situation. Under Pinochet's rule, Congress was closed, the Supreme Court was eating out of the junta's hands and the federal comptroller was out of the loop. Four junta members presiding over "legislative committees" were the only people in the country deciding what laws were needed, how they should be written, and whether the Chilean public should know about them. At a time when anyone could be arrested, tortured, executed or made to disappear without reason, transparency wasn't exactly a guiding principle.

With the end of military rule, members of the recently reopened Congress were handed some of the original copies of all the secret laws (the location of all of the laws is unclear). A year later, the Senate recommended that some be declassified and the rest stored in a vault. But in the end, none of the secret laws were made public, and senators are forbidden from disclosing their contents.

“They arrived in 1990, and have been in a safebox ever since. Senators can seek permission to look at them, but in the presence of the general secretariat of the Senate, and only for reading and taking notes," said Pilar Silva, a senior officer at the secretariat. "They can’t make copies, and they are barred from revealing their contents."

There have, of course, been leaks over the years.

According to those reports, most of the secret laws relate to military personnel, salaries, hierarchy and structure, military justice, troop movements and weapons purchases. Also secret were parts of the decree that created the Chilean secret police, called DINA, and its successor, CNI, as well as laws governing money funneled to the military without any oversight.

Another set of secret laws refers to large sums of money the finance ministry was forced to include in the nation’s budget for the armed forces. Others grant millions of dollars in secret deposits for the military, and authorize the treasury to allocate $50 million to cover the cost of weapons purchases and another $100 million for unspecified purposes.

Still others establish tax exemptions beneficial to the military. One authorizes the president (then Pinochet) to funnel huge loans from the central bank to the military. Another two authorize loans (apparently from Austrian sources) for nearly $1.9 billion. The subsequent use of these funds, was, naturally, secret.

And then there is this gem: “The provision of funds … must be carried out secretly; they will be held in secret accounts, their accounting will be secret, and their investment … will be determined by secret supreme decrees … These funds will not be included in the general accounting of the Nation.”

The total number of secret laws and decrees enacted during Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship remains unknown. Some were published in a restricted gazette, to which only a handful of regime officials had access. The printing of that document was supervised by a military officer, who made sure that all traces of the document were destroyed afterwards. 

In addition, there are 69 secret laws that were issued in Chile before Pinochet came to power — from 1900 to 1973 — and two more from the late 1990s, when civilian governments were in power. No one knows for sure the content of the two most recent secret laws. 

For the most part, the secret laws are now obsolete, according to lawmakers who have read them. 

Which raises the question: If they're obsolete, then why, almost 20 years after the end of Pinochet's rule, is there still resistance to declassifying the laws?

“No one has ever really addressed this situation," Silva said. "It’s not easy to break away from this past. This is something that was just left pending, and the laws put away in a safebox and forgotten."

In August 2003, legislators introduced a bill that would declassify the secret decrees and laws enacted between Sept. 11, 1973 and March 10, 1990. A year later, it was approved by the lower house and passed on to the Senate. But it’s been stuck in a Senate commission ever since.

Even if the bill passes, there would be some exceptions. Among them are Pinochet-era changes to the country's copper law, which gives 10 percent of all copper export revenues to the armed forces for weapons purchases. Strangely, the bill calls for declassifying these exceptions by July 7, 2014. The reason is anyone's guess.

“Something tells me all these old laws will remain secret. Not everyone wants to reveal how the military spent all these fiscal funds. And who knows what other unexpected secrets they may unravel,” Garreton said. 

More GlobalPost dispatches from Chile:

History gets a rewrite at the Pinochet Museum

The salmon industry's push into Chilean Patagonia

Is a bad economy good news for Chile's low-cost grapes?