Juan Manuel Guillermo Contreras Sepulveda

16.10.2015 ( Last modified: 14.06.2016 )
Trial Watch would like to remind its users that any person charged by national or international authorities is presumed innocent until proven guilty.


Juan Manuel Guillermo Contreras was born on 4 May 1929, son of a middle-class military family.

In 1974, following the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende by the Augusto Pinochet military junta on 11 September 1973, General Manuel Contreras was appointed chief of the Army’s Intelligence Service (DINA) set up by the junta on 15 June 1974 with the assignment to crush any opposition.

He held this post up until 1998, a period during which the greatest number of crimes were committed under the military dictatorship of Pinochet. As head of DINA, Contreras was in charge of the detention centres and directed the break up and suppression of left-wing groups by the use of torture, abductions and summary executions.

As a result of this, more than a thousand people disappeared without trace. DINA held the major blame for the crimes committed during the dictatorship, particularly for its systematic use of torture according to the report of the Special Commission on imprisonment and torture transmitted to President Lagos on 11 November 2004. Being the head of DINA, the name of Contreras appeared in numerous inquiries conducted by Chilean judges into cases of human rights violations. For several years, these cases could not be brought to a close due to the application by the courts of the 18 April 1978 amnesty law decree which granted global amnesty for acts committed during the period from 11 September 1973 to 10 March 1978.

DINA and its head, Contreras, were also considered to be responsible for crimes committed abroad in the context of the “Condor” operation. This operation was part of a coordinated effort at the international level against political opponents of the SouthAmerican dictators. Its first target was theJunta for Revolutionary Coordination (JCR) which was set up in August 1973 by extreme left-wing organisations in four South American countries namely Argentina (ERP), Chile (MIR), Uruguay (Tupamaros) and Bolivia (ELN). Operation Condor also targeted several former members of the Allende government in exile: Orlando Letelier, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carlos Prats, General in Chief of the Armed Forces who preceded Pinochet in this position and Bernardo Leighton, the former Vice-President.

It is estimated that overall, the operation “Condor” left 50,000 murdered, 30,000 disappeared (and presumed dead) and 400,000 incarcerated.

Contreras was arrested on 22 September 1991 and subsequently put on trial for various cases committed whilst he was chief of the DINA.


legal procedure

Manuel Contreras was arrested on 22 September 1991 and subsequently put on trial for various cases committed whilst he was chief of the Army’s Intelligence Service (DINA).


In this case, Manuel Contreras was accused of having arranged the murder of Orlando Letelier, the former Foreign Affairs Minister in the Allende government who was assassinated in Washington, United States of America, on 26 September 1976.
His trial opened on 18 February 1993 before the Santiago Appeals Court.

On 13 November 1993, he was sentenced by this court to 7 years imprisonment.

Following an appeal, he was freed on bail.

However by decision of the Chilean Supreme Court on 30 March 1995, the sentence handed down by the Court of Appeal was confirmed.

Contreras dismissed the trial proceedings which he qualified as politically motivated and irregular.

Tension rose between the military and various state institutions.

Pinochet was still at the time Commander in Chief of the Army, but since he had excluded the Letelier assassination from the scope of application of the 18 April 1978 Amnesty Law, Contreras could do nothing but conform to the verdict of the Supreme Court.

In March 1999, a request for release was lodged and held admissible. Contreras was subsequently freed on 24 January 2001.


In this affair, Contreras was held to be responsible for the disappearance of Miguel Angel Sandoval, the young militant of the MIR (a left-wing movement) arrested on 7 January 1975 by DINA agents and who, after being tortured, disappeared without trace.

On 16 April 2003, Contreras was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by judge Alejandro Solis.

On 5 January 2004, the Chilean Appeals Court upheld the guilty verdict but reduced the sentence to 12 years imprisonment.

This was the first conviction in Chile related to the enforced disappearance crimes committed under the dictatorship.

On 17 November 2004, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Appeals Court.

On 28 January 2005, Contreras was put in prison, not without having put up strong resistance.


An investigation into the disappearance of the journalist Diana Frida Aron in 1974 led to the conviction of Contreras in 2003.

He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for having ordered this act.

His appeal was dismissed and his sentence confirmed on 18 May 2004.

However, on 1 June 2005, the Santiago Appeal Court held that the Statute of amnesty was applicable to Contreras and his four co-defendants.

Aron’s family appealed this decision before the Chilean Supreme Court.

On 30 May 2006, the Supreme Court quashed the Appeal Court’s decision and confirmed the first instance judgement which had sentenced Contreras to 15 years imprisonment.


Contreras was the subject of several requests for extradition (which all fail with regards to the crimes committed within the scope of Operation Condor):

– From the United States of America for the murder of Orlando Letelier and his secretary, a US citizen;

– From Argentina for the murders of Carlos Prats, who had preceded Pinochet in his post as Commander in Chief but had gone into exile in Argentina where he was assassinated on 30 September 1974, and his wife;

– From Italy for the murder of Bernardo Leighton, Vice-President in the Allende government, in Rome on 6 October 1975. He was sentenced in absentia in Italy to 18 years imprisonment.

Contreras was also the subject of an arrest warrant issued by a French judge concerning his liability in the Alphonse Chanfreau and Jean-Yves Claudet-Fernandez cases, where these two members of the MIR after being tortured, went missing.

Without any response from the Chilean authorities to the requests of the French magistrate, the French authorities announced in February 2008 that a trial in absentia would be held in May 2008 against Contreras and 16 other persons, most of whom were military officers. They were to be tried on charges of “arbitrary detention accompanied, or followed, by the aggravating circumstances of torture and barbarous acts” which carried a life imprisonment sentence.

The trial was postponed several times for procedural reasons.

On 8 December 2010, a trial in absentia began before the Paris Justice Tribunal against Contreras together with other 12 Chilean and an Argentinean.

Contreras and the other defendants were accused of participating in the kidnapping and torture of French-Chilean citizens Etienne Pesle, Jean-Yves Claudet, Alfonso Chanfreau and Georges Klein between 1973 and 1975, during the rule of the late Augusto Pinochet.

Since the victims were notably French, the trial could take place in France by virtue of the principle of passive personal jurisdiction.

Contreras was condemned to life imprisonment in France on 17 December 2010.


Contreras was first put under house arrest in Chile in January 2002 to await the result of four decisions, some of which were related to his participation in the Condor plan.

Contreras has then been detained in Chile since January 2005 when he was first sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

This first sentence was followed by several others:

– The Chilean Appeals Court issued another sentence of 10 years imprisonment for war crimes against Contreras on 11 January 2008.

– On 17 April 2008, Contreras was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for the disappearance of a political opponent.

– On 30 June 2008 he was condemned to two consecutive life imprisonment sentences for a 1974 car bombing in Buenos Aires that killed, General Prats and his wife.

Contreras has been condemned as a whole to 537 years and 203 days of imprisonment.

On 7 August 2015, Contreras died at the age of 86 after having been admitted to a military hospital in Santiago, Chile, since September 2014 due to his deteriorating health.



In the Miguel Angel Sandoval affair, the decision of the Fifth Chamber of the Santiago Court of Appeal is of historical significance.

This judgement constituted case law and denoted the end of impunity in Chile for crimes committed under the Pinochet dictatorship.

From a judicial point of view, this decision is interesting from several viewpoints:

– it affirmed that due to the “ongoing nature” of the crime of forced disappearance, the amnesty law decree of 18 April 1978 is inapplicable and criminal proceedings cannot be barred;

– it established the pre-eminence of International Conventions on Human Rights over domestic law;

– it demonstrated an interesting application of Article 18 of the Vienna Convention of 1969 on the Law on Treaties.

The Court in fact concluded, with respect to the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances which came into force on 29 March 1996 (signed by Chile and under the process of ratification at the time of the affair), that Chile was in breach of the purpose and goals of this Convention, if the crime of forced disappearance was to go unpunished.



For the world, Augusto Pinochet, who held Chile in his grip during 17 years, embodied the ruthless tyrants of every continent and age. As counterpoint, (11 Sept. 1973 – 10 March 1990), an exemplary human rights defense movement paralleled the systematic practice of state terrorism during Chile’s military dictatorship. This dual legacy has been ever-present since human rights shifted primarily to the judicial front in the post-dictatorship period.

When military forces seized power on 11 September 1973, they closed down the National Congress and created an all-powerful executive branch vested with law-making authority. Only the judiciary was not directly intervened, a privilege attributed to the military rulers’ interest in maintaining a façade of legality.

The Supreme Court judges responded wholeheartedly, lending legitimacy to the regime through symbolic acts, public speeches and its resolutions. In late September 1973, when thousands were still imprisoned in stadiums and other places, the four members of the ruling Junta arrived at the court building where the Supreme Court president formally acknowledged their authority, expressing “satisfaction for the change in government.”

From the initial moments of the dictatorship, attorneys in Chile mobilized to demand respect for fundamental rights, despite a judicial structure that legitimized the military regime’s trampling of those rights. The first habeas corpus writs for arbitrary arrests were filed within days after the coup and in October the Santiago Archdiocese created the interfaith Pro Paz Committee. Subsequently, attorneys of the Vicariate of Solidarity, Christian Social Assistant Foundation (FASIC) and Committee for Defense of the People (Codepu), continued to denounce human rights violations, file complaints and habeas corpus writs (recursos de amparo), despite repeated refusal of the courts to accept these pleas. Elements of proof gathered immediately after the occurrence and criminal complaints filed during dictatorship provided the groundwork for pursuing justice years later when rule of law was restored.

The Inter American Human Rights Commission confirmed that of more than 5000 habeas corpus writs filed between 1973 and 1987, the courts granted only 10 – of these, by the time the writs were conceded, the victims were already dead. In 1991 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report concluded that the courts could have saved lives and protected prisoners from mistreatment had they accepted the thousands of habeas corpus.


The military regime that so gravely and systematically disregarded human rights took precautions to protect itself from prosecution through the amnesty decree, DL 2191, in 1978.

When DL2191 came into effect in April 1978, Chilean jails and prison camps contained hundreds of political prisoners, most of whom had never been charged, much less sentenced. In January 1978, discovery of the remains of 15 people in an abandoned limestone mine in Lonquen had provided the first concrete evidence of the fate of disappeared persons, while pressure was mounting from the United States to extradite perpetrators of the assassination of Orlando Letelier committed in Washington DC September 1976.

A “self-pardon” by the military rulers to benefit agents who carried out their repressive policies, DL2191 shields from criminal prosecution all persons who were authors, accessories or had concealed crimes committed from the day of the coup, up to 10 March 1978, when state of siege was lifted temporarily. When the transition to democracy ensued, DL2191 and other de facto laws – most notably the Constitution of 1980 – were not repealed as democratic parties had pledged, in part, due to lack of congressional majority. International human rights agencies such as the Inter American Human Rights Court have condemned the amnesty decree as an infringement of treaties of which Chile is signatory (See Luis Almonacid Case, 2006).


During dictatorship courts applied the amnesty law without investigating cases. To accuse military personnel of a crime was sufficient cause for ordinary courts to declare themselves incompetent and transfer a human rights case to military tribunals, which automatically closed the cases.

During the early post-dictatorship years, courts continued to follow this formula, systematically dismissing cases involving disappeared persons on the basis of the amnesty law. Yet, by late 1994, President Patricio Aylwin fostered a reinterpretation of DL2191 that led to a new willingness on the part of the courts to investigate the facts of a case and identify the responsible parties, rather than automatically invoking the amnesty decree.

On 21 September 1994 the First Bench of the Santiago Court of Appeals unanimously ruled to reopen the investigation phase of the case involving Anselmo Radrigan, abducted on a public street in 1974 by DINA secret police. Revoking the application of the amnesty law, the court ruled that the crime of abduction is permanent until the victim is located either alive or dead. Other appellate courts followed suit a few days later with similar rulings that upheld the Geneva Convention over domestic law.

On 12 September 1998 a Supreme Court ruling set an historic precedent when it ordered the reopening of a case involving the 1974 disappearance of Enrique Poblete Cordoba, echoing the argument of the ongoing crime put forth by the appeals courts four years earlier.

Since then, judges have rarely invoked the amnesty decree, allowing judicial investigations to advance for the first time. However, unless DL is repealed, there is no assurance that a changed political climate may send the courts a different signal and reverse this trend.


The Military Junta’s Decree Law 5 defined state of siege as synonymous with state of war. (State of siege, implying suspension of individual freedom, was in effect from the day of the coup until March 1978, replaced by state of emergency from 11 March 1981 until 27 August 1988.) Throughout the years of dictatorship and up to the present day, the former military rulers and their civilian collaborators employ this interpretation to justify their practice of terror as a necessary response to war.

In declaring Chile at war, the Junta unwittingly invoked the Geneva Conventions that demand protection of prisoners of war and prohibit summary executions. Yet during 25 years Chilean courts denied the Geneva Conventions as grounds for justice in human rights. Not until the Poblete case, cited above, did the judiciary begin to accept preeminence of international treaties over Chilean law as well as the concept that human rights violations committed by the military dictatorship are crimes against humanity.

Following Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London on October 15, 1998, the crime of genocide became one of the most prevalent causes of action in the hundreds of criminal complaints filed against the former dictator and his collaborators.

This represents one of the most significant jurisprudence developments in Chile, overcoming the amnesty decree and statutes of limitation claims, thus opening the way to advances in numerous cases.

Significantly, on 5 January 2004 the Santiago Court of Appeals, citing the Geneva Conventions and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued the first convictions in the case of a disappeared person, 26-year-old tailor Miguel Angel Sandoval arrested on 7 January 1975.


In March 2005 Appeals Court judge Alejandro Solis issued the first indictments for the crime of torture in a case filed by survivors. Citing the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel Treatment or Punishment, Judge Solis identified three elements that define the act of torture in Chile:

“1) It inflicted extreme pain or suffering, either physical or psychological; 2) It was inflicted with a deliberate intent, and 3) It was inflicted by public employees or by persons who exercised public functions, upon instigation by officials or with his own consent and acquiescence.”

In his ruling Judge Solis traced the development of international jurisprudence related to torture from the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Geneva Conventions to the establishment of the principle of jus cogens in the case of torture.

On 27 January 2010 the Santiago Court of Appeals issued the most recent ruling that recognizes the crime of torture. A unanimous ruling from the bench confirmed the conclusions Judge Alejandro Solis reached after six years of investigation: that four secret agents tortured Sergio Aguiló during 10 days in December 1981. Today Aguiló is a prominent national congressman.


FASIC, since 1992 the principal legal representative of victims, reports that as of May 2009, 702 indictments had been issued against members of the Armed Forces, police, detectives and civilians. Defendants include 39 generals, 6 admirals, 71 colonels, 16 brigadier generals, 31 lieutenant colonels, and 313 lowering-ranking officers.

Sentences have been handed down for 109 Army officers, 11 Naval officers, 20 Air Force, 98 police, 9 detectives and 13 civilians.

General Manuel Contreras, director of the former DINA secret police, has been sentenced in several cases for multiple counts of crimes, summing 300 years in prison. Of these prison sentences, 90 years have been definitively confirmed, while the remaining are pending various appeals.

In a report issued on 1 February 2010, Supreme Court Judge Sergio Muñoz noted that 326 cases are in progress. Of these, 239 are in the investigatory stage, 14 have had first instance rulings, while another 47 await decisions from the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.

Muñoz has also instructed detectives of the Brigade on Human Rights Violation Crimes to investigate the situation of 1,167 victims of dictatorship with the aim of obtaining elements of proof to enable filing new criminal complaints. These are cases the Truth and Reconciliation Commission omitted in 1991 for lack of sufficient evidence.

Although the courts have made significant progress in the investigation of cases, a growing trend of disproportionately low sentences has been observed in recent years. An example is the case of Ecuadorian doctor Jose Felix Garcia Franco. Four retired police officers had been sentenced to 10 or 8 years in prison for the 13 September 1973 arrest of Garcia, whose whereabouts have been lost since that time. On 1 January 2009 the Santiago Court of Appeals lowered the four convictions to 5 years, the threshold period for accessing parole and avoiding incarceration. The court invoked the peculiar Chilean legal concept of the half prescription (media prescripción or prescripción gradual, under article 103 of the Penal Code) by which a sentence may be reduced when more than half the statute of limitation has elapsed.

Such rulings, which critics ironically call “sentences without punishment” (“condena sin castigo”), increasingly prevalent since 2007, effectively contradict the doctrine that predominated since Poblete Cordova, that human rights crimes are not subject to statutes of limitation or consideration of any extenuating circumstances. In this case, the court cited as extenuating factor “unblemished past conduct” (intachable conducta anterior), an equally peculiar concept, in light of the nature of human rights violations.

During the same period of time, civil suits have gained force, and in the Garcia Franco case, the court did uphold the payment of 30 million pesos ordered for moral damages.


An ambivalent approach to human rights characterized the four presidents that of the democratic alliance that governed Chile in the two decades of post dictatorship. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded more than 3000 human rights crimes that resulted in extra judicial killings or disappearances, the testimony used to document these cases is off limits to the courts. Likewise, 35,000 people testified to the Commission on Political Imprisonment in 2004 that they endured torture, yet their testimonies too are strictly reserved and inaccessible to all for 50 years. On 11 January 2010, President Michelle Bachelet inaugurated the Museum of Memory yet only 50% of victims have had legal actions filed on their behalf.

And the announcement that FASIC’s legal department has closed for lack of funding may well frustrate aspirations for justice, especially in light of the expected reopening, in mid 2010, of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on Political Imprisonment to receive new testimony.

Despite a policy that privileged truth over justice, significant strides have been achieved in justice. Detectives’ meticulous investigation of the military regime’s repressive practices convinced judges such as Juan Guzman Tapia, who Pinochet appointed to the Appeals Court as a conservative judge, of an irrefutable brutality, leading him to indict the man who had promoted him in judiciary ranks.

The coming inauguration (10 March 2010) of millionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera as president of Chile will usher in a period of uncertainty on the human rights front, and on social issues in general. While on the campaign trail, Piñera, candidate of a right-wing coalition that includes collaborators of the military regime, promised victims’ relatives not to interfere in cases, and then secretly pledged to 700 retired military officers to expedite cases by applying statutes of limitation.

Even as their rulings take distance from the military dictatorship, the legacy of judicial complicity with that regime continues to cast a long shadow over judges. The political horizon promises to test, once again, the independence of the Chilean judiciary.


©2020 trialinternational.org | All rights reserved | Disclaimer | Statutes | Designed and Produced by ACW