The healing process

No deal is ever perfect. The deals that were done in Latin America - the price of returning to constitutional rule after the military dictatorships that ravaged the sub-continent in the 70s and 80s - varied in detail but had one thing in common: they sacrificed the claims of justice for the victims in favour of a sometimes queasy political normalisation.

But if the politics made sense, the detail did not: tens of thousands of families were left to live with their trauma unresolved, with no answer to anguished questions about the fate of children, parents or friends. They were arrangements designed as political sticking plaster, under which private injuries continued to fester. The arrest this week of 98 of the late General Pinochet's secret service officers is only the latest eruption of uncleansed wounds.

The men are charged with the disappearance in 1975 of 119 opponents of the regime, and of having taken part in the so-called Operation Colombo, an attempt to deflect international condemnation of the regime's human rights abuses by portraying the deaths as the result of internal disputes.

In Chile, it has been left to the judges to find their way round the obstacles the political settlement placed in the path of the victims' families, and some have responded with more enthusiasm than others. The larger picture of the repression that followed Pinochet's coup in 1973 was painted by the Rettig commission, appointed in 1990 by the then president Patricio Aylwin. Aylwin had been president for a year, but Pinochet remained head of the army and a senator for life, in theory a position that gave him immunity from prosecution. The commission was appointed to establish the truth about the 3,000-plus disappearances that had taken place under the dictatorship - and in some ways it succeeded: thousands of witnesses testified and, in 1991, the commission produced its report.

But the compromise - an understanding that the report would not be used as the basis for criminal prosecutions - allowed the perpetrators to remain anonymous. Bizarrely, this defect was to provide the judiciary with its opportunity to circumvent Pinochet's defences.

Decree Law 2191, promulgated by Pinochet's regime in 1978, had prevented investigation of human rights crimes committed from the day of the coup, September 11 1973 to March 10 1978. The law, and the continued strength of the armed forces, had its effect until the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998. When Pinochet was returned to Chile 17 months later, with the judgment of the House of Lords against his claim of sovereign immunity, Chilean justice began to recover its courage.

Though the prosecution of Pinochet himself was never concluded, a few judges began to take the victims' cases, accepting the argument that, since the whereabouts of the victims remained unknown, the cases remained open, and were not subject to amnesty. The reluctance of the Chilean security services to produce evidence to the real fate of the victims proved their achilles heel.

Now 650 former officers have been prosecuted. Such prosecutions are not universally popular: the crimes are more than 30 years old, and Chile has long since returned to democracy. But democracy is not just a matter of regular elections and a military obedience. For some of Chile's judges, silenced for the years of the dictatorship, there could be no return to normality without justice.

The crimes of the dictatorship created many more victims than the 3,000 who were murdered: families were impoverished, young lives ruined through grief and exile and the trauma of living with the daily oppression of memories that could not be shared. For them, each step towards justice matters.

Isabel Hilton