AT THE VENERABLE Tribunal of Justice in downtown Santiago, Chile, dozens of reporters and family members of the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet gathered on the afternoon of Dec. 13 to await the ruling of Judge Juan Guzman. I, too, was there to witness history being made.
"Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation," Judge Guzman told the crowd, and he would be indicted for nine disappearances and one murder relating to the infamous Operation Condor.
There were gasps, and then a ripple of applause from those who had lost husbands and wives, fathers, sons and daughters during General Pinochet's bloody 17-year dictatorship.
The victims of the Pinochet regime's human rights crimes do have reason to rejoice: Judge Guzman's ruling vindicates their efforts to keep the cause of their missing or murdered loved ones alive, in a society that has preferred to dismiss rather than confront Chile's dark past. Many have waited more than 30 years to hear the words, "Pinochet will be judged."
But Judge Guzman's decision also has implications for other Latin American nations, and the world community at large. He has indicted General Pinochet for 10 crimes relating to Operation Condor. Condor, according to declassified U.S. intelligence documents, was a sinister consortium of Southern Cone secret police agencies that collaborated in spying on, kidnapping, interrogating, torturing and eliminating opponents of the military regimes of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil.
"A third and reportedly very secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to carry out operations to include assassinations," states a secret U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report from October 1976.
Indeed, selected special targets were hunted down and killed as far away as Washington, D.C., where former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt were killed by a car bomb in September 1976.
The Letelier-Moffitt murder and other Condor crimes were clear acts of state-sponsored international terrorism. By prosecuting General Pinochet for these atrocities almost three decades after they were committed, Judge Guzman is sending an important message to the world: There is no statute of limitations on acts of international terrorism. And those who commit such acts should know that eventually they can and will be brought to justice - even if decades pass.
That message is being heard most immediately in the countries that were once members of Operation Condor - governments that are now harboring former military officers who directly participated in terrorist-related atrocities in the mid- and late 1970s.
But it also should be heard in the United States, where Congress has grilled President Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, on White House-authorized abuses of prisoners committed in the name of waging a war on terrorism - the same rationale the leaders of Operation Condor once invoked. The tactics used by the Southern Cone military regimes - kidnapping, torture, disappearance and death - are not so dissimilar from what we now know became standard operating procedures for the CIA and U.S. special forces handling "ghost detainees" in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For Chile, the dramatic decision to prosecute General Pinochet comes amid a flurry of activity around the cause of human rights. In the last several weeks, almost every day has brought a new indictment, debate or revelation that has shed further light on past horrors. Last November, the government of Ricardo Lagos released a comprehensive report from the Commission on Detained Prisoners and Torture that recorded 27,000 cases of Chileans who had suffered brutal abuses by the military authorities between 1973 and 1989. The report has prompted the commander in chief of the Chilean military, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, to acknowledge - for the first time - the "institutional responsibility" of the armed forces for the atrocities committed during the dictatorship. And Chileans now find themselves in a heated debate over the accountability of right-wing civilians who collaborated with the regime.
Judicial efforts to prosecute those guilty of human rights crimes also have accelerated. After 31 years, the first indictment was handed down in December for the murder of the famous Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was brutally tortured and executed in the Chile stadium four days after the coup d'etat. The former head of the Chilean national intelligence service, Gen. Manuel Contreras, is being sent back to prison for the murder of a political prisoner. In addition, General Pinochet was recently stripped of his immunity from prosecution in yet another case of international terrorism - the September 1974 car bomb assassination of his predecessor as army chief, Gen. Carlos Prats, and his wife, Sofia, in Buenos Aires.
On Jan. 4, the Chilean Supreme Court rejected General Pinochet's appeal of his indictment, bringing him one step closer to being convicted and incarcerated for his many crimes against humanity.
This week, the former dictator faced the ultimate humiliation - being forced to sign legal papers acknowledging that he has been placed under house arrest.
He is 89 years old. Death, or legal maneuvering by his lawyers, could still save him from a jail cell. But for now, his prosecution is both a symbol and a signal that Chile has taken the lid off the Pandora's box of the Pinochet atrocities - and that the pursuit of justice is the only way to provide final closure for the unspeakable human rights abuses of the past.
Peter Kornbluh is the author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.