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Chile’s dictatorship-era children demand legal recognition

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Two months before Tamara Lagos was born in 1984, her father was killed by agents of the Chilean dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Soon after, her mother took her into exile in Argentina. But when Lagos finally returned to Chile five years later, she was unable to secure a birth certificate with her father's surname because he wasn't alive to claim her as his child. The quest for redress eventually led her to the Supreme Court, which finally ordered the Chilean civil registry in April to correct Lagos' identity document.

Even so, she doesn't have a sense of closure.

"My father was killed 35 years ago, the same 35 years that I've been on this Earth," she told The Associated Press. "The ruling is not enough to repair it. It's not enough to do justice. It's not enough to become a source of joy."

Like many others, Lagos is one of Chile's "posthumous children," those who lost one or both of their parents during the 1973-1990 Pinochet regime. Some have fought decades-long legal battles demanding to be recognized as offspring of victims, while others have struggled to obtain accurate identification with the names of their biological parents.

Chile's Human Rights Program declined to give AP the number of cases similar to that of Lagos. But there are nine instances listed in the 1991 records of a Chilean truth commission that quantified the number of people killed and entitled their direct relatives to compensation.

Luciano Aedo, whose father was also killed by dictatorship agents in the same operation that left Lagos' father dead, said he has been attempting to be recognized as Luciano Aedo Arias' son since he was 19.

"I had to sue my (adoptive) father," he said. "In the beginning, it hurt him."

Since the Supreme Court ruling applied only to Lagos, Aedo is currently considered a legally illegitimate son and carries the name of his stepfather — another example of the difficulties faced by family members in the pursuit of justice for Pinochet-era crimes.

During the dictatorship, at least 3,095 people were killed, according to government figures, and tens of thousands more were tortured or jailed for political reasons.

Chilean courts have made progress by appointing special judges exclusively dedicated to cases of human rights violations, with 447 defendants sentenced and an additional 1,328 put on trial between 2000 and 2018. An amnesty law issued by Pinochet in 1978 shielded offenders who committed human rights abuses during the dictatorship's first five years, but has also not been applied since 1990, leading to the prosecution of hundreds of others.

Despite the strides, however, Chile continues to uphold deep barriers against the children of leftist dissidents killed during the brutal regime.

In 1994, Lagos was formally recognized as an illegitimate daughter. That allowed her to pursue a university degree for free and obtain a monthly pension of about $57 while she studied — one of the benefits granted to the relatives of dictatorship victims. But the designation still suggested she had been born out of wedlock.

In 1998, legislation retracted the requirement that children's status at birth be listed on their legal document. The law, however, only applied to children born after that year, leaving many — including those orphaned for reasons unrelated to the dictatorship — at a loss.

For a long time, Lagos focused on a lawsuit against the government aimed at securing justice over her father's execution. A court eventually ruled that two assassins were involved in the killing, but said it could not determine who took the fatal shot. That case is currently being appealed.

Separately, Lagos filed a formal suit in 2018 against the Chilean civil registry over the exclusion of her father's name on her identity document. Rodrigo Bustos, head of the National Human Rights Institute's legal department, said the institute helped with the case because Lagos "was suffering an infringement on her human rights."

"She wasn't being recognized as a daughter," Bustos said.

More than three decades after Lagos was born, such efforts finally paid off when the country's highest court said she had been discriminated against and was the legitimate child of Mario Lagos Rodríguez.

The civil registry declined repeated requests for an interview.

But in a written response to a questionnaire from AP, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said challenges remain.

"There's still a lot to be done until we can fully achieve the objective of knowing the truth, achieving justice, the reparation of victims and establishing the no-repetition guarantees," said Bachelet, who endured torture during the dictatorship and is now the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "These goals are essential and they're irreplaceable."

Bachelet added that renouncing the search for truth about the whereabouts of those who were forcibly disappeared "is not an option" and that those responsible must be chased and tried for their crimes "regardless of how much time has passed."

But for Lagos and others, prosecution is still lacking — partly because testimony revealing the names of some 28,000 torturers remains a legal secret and can only be released in 2054.

Lorena Pizarro, president of a group of relatives of the detained and disappeared, said Lagos' situation and her long wait "is part of the tragedy."

"It's part of the demand for total truth and full justice," she said.


Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia; Pedro Servín in Asuncion, Paraguay; and Leonardo Haberkorn in Montevideo, Uruguay, contributed to this report.