The recent surge of violence against government opponents once more confronts Chileans with a sensitive subject They are closely following the paces of Judge Jos'e C'anovas Robles, who is investigating three recent slayings and several kidnappings by armed squads.
Many Western diplomats and human-rights workers here say the investigation will be a litmus test for Chile's judicial system.
The Chilean government contends that it has solved 95 percent of all kidnap cases, usually by making rapid arrests. But human-rights activists and lawyers are questioning the regime's apparent impotence in solving these cases in which witnesses saw the abductors act in broad daylight.
Evidence so far points to possible government involvement in the political violence, the diplomats and human-rights workers say. If that is the case, will the Chilean court dare to accuse those involved, they ask. They note that most of the evidence has not beeen collected by police investigators but by family members, lawyers, and witnesses.
The investigation focuses on brutal events that occurred in the last week in March and the violence since then. In two separate kidnappings, armed squads seized three activists from Chile's political opposition, all of whom were linked to the Communist Party. Witnesses say that the car used to kidnap the three men had a siren and a two-way radio, and a helicopter flying ahead. On March 30, the bodies of the three men were found on the outskirts of Santiago.
On April 22, armed civilians kidnapped psychologist Carmen Andrea Hales Dib, daughter of a former state minister. She was interrogated for 23 hours about her family's political activities and released the next day. Miss Dib said that one of her captors was referred to as ``captain.''
Chile's military leader, President Augusto Pinochet, characterized the assassinations as ``a very brutal crime that I repudiate [personally].'' The chiefs of Chile's military forces and national and secret police also denounced the violence and publicly denied that their services were involved in the crimes.
Judge C'anovas has said little to the press. He has only indicated that the scope of the investigation has widened to include other kidnappings that he believes may be related. He has asked for cooperation from the various branches of the Chilean police in conducting the investigation.
``It is erroneous to think that the outcome of the legal proceedings depends exclusively on the judges,'' C'anovas said recently. On Monday, he appealed to have a military prosecutor carry out investigations for him in unnamed military enclosures. Observers say this action appears to support speculation concerning government complicity in the incidents.
A lawyer representing the families of the three slain men has told the press that the case is nearly concluded. The lawyer, Gustavo Villalobos, contended that those involved are in custody.
What still blocks the judicial inquiry, he charged, is a ``political decision'' by the regime whether or not to turn over the criminals and face the consequences of their links to the government. Some foreign diplomats concur with the assessment. They say C'anovas's inquiry could end up in a judicial showdown with the government.
``It'll be a test of Pinochet's political skills to see how he gets around it,'' one English-speaking diplomat says.
The government remains sensitive to the issue. Censors have removed reports from the opposition Hoy magazine showing how well-equipped the terror squads are -- information that has led some to think the group has ties to the regime.
Even conservative, pro-government newspapers have called for a thorough investigation, regardless of who may be found to be to blame. Such editorials have been unusual in Chile, despite its history of political violence.