IQUIQUE, Chile -- Locals say it was always best not to question what went on in the badlands at the edge of town, where the sterile mountains of the Atacama Desert rise like a jagged shelf.
Even when a federal judge began to dig there for clues that may bring Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice, they only shrugged and said, "It's possible."
What has long been accepted as possible here in Iquique, and elsewhere in Chile's arid north, is that the military used these desolate open spaces to hide a dirty war against leftists begun shortly after they overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.
More than 3,000 people -- union members, leftist party leaders, activists and students -- were killed or simply disappeared during Pinochet's 17-year rule, most of them in the first five years of his regime. Some may have been tossed from helicopters into the cold Pacific waters that lap the shores of this mining and fish-processing town, as witnesses attest. Some, it is now believed, may have been tossed down the dozens of abandoned shafts that pock the Huantajaya Mines 12 miles east of town.
Federal magistrate Juan Guzman, a taciturn 60-year-old jurist, is determined to get to the bottom -- in this case, literally -- of those disappearances and executions and determine once and for all what Pinochet's role in them might have been.
Set free by Britain yesterday, the ailing 84-year-old former dictator flew back to Chile, where he faces 58 potential cases against him. Almost all of them were filed in the year and a half since Pinochet was detained in England on a Spanish warrant charging him with human-rights crimes.
"We may be on a wild-goose chase," Guzman acknowledged during a break in the search recently. "But we have to know whether or not there are people down there, and if they are related to these facts that I am investigating."
Indeed, the chase in the mines has been fruitless so far and has been put off. But that has not stopped Guzman from trying to unravel the mystery surrounding what came to be known as the Caravan of Death: a visit by military officials to detention camps in the north shortly after the coup, and the subsequent disappearance of dozens of captives accused of being subversives.
Because homicides were included in a 1978 amnesty decreed by Pinochet, no one can be charged with executing those prisoners. But they can be charged with disappearances. In a legal interpretation becoming common in the nations that suffered dictatorships in South America, the Chilean courts have ruled that until the whereabouts of victims' bodies become known, the crime against them is a continual one of kidnapping, extending well beyond the 1973-1978 amnesty period.
Guzman has indicted five officers under that interpretation, and he is gathering evidence to weigh whether he can do the same to Pinochet as the intellectual author of those euphemistic "disappearances."
"If I establish that there are people who are responsible, I would have to indict them," Guzman said. "I cannot tell you if I am going to indict more people or not, but that's what a judge has to do if he has evidence that shows who the responsible parties are."
With or without evidence from the mines, it will not be an easy case to prove, Guzman admitted. First, he must persuade his fellow judges to remove the immunity Pinochet enjoys as senator-for-life. Then, he must reconstruct events from a quarter-century ago, about which there is almost no written record or willingness among military men to talk.
Ironically, if the military confessed to the long-ago slayings and revealed the whereabouts of the bodies, the amnesty would apply to them. But human-rights attorneys engaged in an official dialogue with the military over that issue say the leadership does not want to admit to a systematic extermination campaign. "They're trapped in a game," said Hector Salazar, an attorney and participant in that dialogue. "They would have to acknowledge they were responsible, and they don't want to admit they were."
Meanwhile, Guzman keeps moving, interviewing former detainees and military officers he has put under house arrest.
"Every issue of this case is very complicated," Guzman said. "There are hundreds of people, hundreds of witnesses, especially detainees, that give more evidence, and every time they give more evidence, there are more people to subpoena."
Among those already indicted is Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark, who headed a Pinochet-appointed delegation to the military internment camps of the north shortly after the coup. A formerly secret Chilean military document shows he ordered 53 prisoners killed during that visit, an allegation that Arellano fiercely denies.
In addition, recently declassified CIA documents identify Arellano, as well as Pinochet, as part of the "hard line" in the military junta's antisubversive war.