Feb 11, 2021
by Adele Negro, MA

Judge Juan Guzmán and Saint Oscar Romero

Reflecting on Extraordinary Spirits

Translated by MarÍa Mercedes Owen

On Sunday, January 24th, our longtime colleague and friend Bill Monning (California Senate Majority Leader Emeritus) informed us, to my great sadness, of the death of Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia on Friday, January 22nd, at the age of 81. It was Judge Guzmán who investigated and prosecuted the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, upon his return to Chile in March of 2000, after 504 days under house arrest in London. Judge Guzmán was able to link him to the deaths of thousands of Chilean civilians in the wake of the US supported coup in 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Very significantly, he managed to have Pinochet’s immunity revoked, then indicted him as the intellectual author of the infamous Caravan of Death.

Bill’s words eloquently describe Judge Guzmán: Juan was a gentleman, soft spoken, and demonstrated amazing courage in his pursuit of the Pinochet case as he and his family received death threats and required around the clock security…. He will be missed, but his contributions to the rule of law and justice for the families of the disappeared and dead in Chile will live forever.

Like many others, I had the good fortune to meet Judge Guzmán when he received an honorary degree at the Monterey (now Middlebury) Institute of International Studies in 2006, and he and I stayed in touch for a number of years. When I returned to Argentina in 2012, for the first time since the Dirty War was unleashed there in 1976, I made it a point also to go back to Chile. Juan and I spent a wonderful few hours together over a delicious steak lunch one afternoon, accompanied by un rico vino tinto chileno at one of his favorite restaurants in Santiago. We spoke of his personal life, his courageous (not his word) work in the prosecution of Pinochet, his efforts on behalf of the indigenous Mapuche, and of El Salvador and France, two countries where we both had lived and for which we held great fondness and memories. He was particularly interested in the work I was directing with Team El Salvador at MIIS, which by then had already existed for 5 years (and which now, years later, has become ECOPA).

If I am especially moved to write about Juan at this time, beyond the sorrow of his death, it’s because of the remarkable similarity in the trajectory he shares with another extraordinary man: Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez of El Salvador, assassinated by a death squad hitman on March 24th, 1980 while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel. Considered a social conservative at his appointment as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977--which seemed to ally him with the economic elites and military establishment--Oscar Romero was nevertheless deeply affected by the murder of his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande only a few weeks later, and thus began his transformation into an outspoken social activist.

Juan Guzmán came from a conservative, patrician family in Chile, the son of a diplomat who at a certain time was posted to El Salvador, where Juan in fact was born. Like Oscar Romero, Juan was part of the “established order” in Chile, and for many years was a supporter of Pinochet, until he began to open his eyes to the truth of the murderous dictatorship and to his own blindness to it. What binds these two exceptional human beings together, beyond the fact that they were both born in El Salvador, is their principled, courageous stance in the face of egregious human rights abuses; their unstoppable acceptance of personal transformation impelled by their growing awareness and irrefutable conscience. We yearn for and require such incorruptible spirits in these times!

To learn more about Judge Juan Guzmán and Saint Oscar Romero, please see the following:

!) The Washington Post obituary reporting on the death of Judge Juan Guzmán:

2) The acclaimed documentary, "The Judge and the General," which premiered in August 2008 (filmmakers Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco); http://archive.pov.org/judgean...

3) “Romero” – the 1989 Paulist Pictures production of the biographical film, featuring Raúl Julia as Archbishop Oscar Romero.