SANTIAGO, Chile — Hundreds of former military draftees are making a provocative offer to Chile's government: They will reveal details of crimes committed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship — but only if their safety is guaranteed.
The draftees fear that if they reveal where the bodies are buried, they will face prosecution by the courts or retaliation by the superiors who ordered them decades ago to torture and kill political prisoners.
The information they once promised to carry to their graves has become both a heavy psychological burden and a bargaining chip. By offering confessions, the former draftees hope to improve their chances of securing benefits from pensions to psychological treatment.
"We were executors and witnesses of many brutalities and now we're willing to talk about them for our own personal redemption," said former soldier Fernando Mellado, who is organizing a Sunday gathering of draftees outside Chile's presidential palace.
"So if there is any opportunity in which we can testify, maybe anonymously, then we'd be happy to oblige."
Mellado leads the Santiago chapter of the Former Soldiers of 1973 and has been working with similar groups across Chile to figure out whether and how to turn over the information. He is calling on draftees to tell what they know.
Of the 8,000 people drafted as teenagers from Santiago alone in the tumultuous year when Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende's government and cemented his hold on power, Mellado believes "between 20 and 30 percent are willing to talk."
Chilean security forces killed 3,186 people during the dictatorship, including 1,197 who were made to disappear, according to an official count.
In nearly two decades of democracy since then, less than 8 percent of the disappeared have been found, said Viviana Diaz of the Assembly of Family Members of the Disappeared Detainees.
Hundreds of recovered remains, some just bone fragments, have yet to be identified. Only those who buried the bodies know where other common graves lie.
Diaz, for one, hopes the former draftees start talking, even if they do so outside the courts. "People have come to us and all we tell them is, 'It doesn't matter that you don't reveal your identity, just tell us the location, details.'"
Chilean law allows for a "just following orders" defense for former soldiers who submit to the mercy of the courts, naming names and providing information that could help resolve some of the thousands of crimes committed under Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule.
The defense "theoretically applies and exists" in Chile, and judges can even have people testify in secret, said attorney Hiram Villagra, who represents families of the dead and disappeared.
But most former soldiers fear the consequences for themselves and their families. Some worry that judges who rose through the ranks under Pinochet might protect their former superior officers instead.
In a lengthy interview with The Associated Press, Mellado said the former draftees also are victims — forced into service as minors and made to do unspeakable things or be killed themselves. He said many have told him of horrifying crimes they want to get off their chests.
One confessed to shooting an entire family. Another — now an alcoholic who sleeps in the street in Santiago — said he was forced to drown a 7-year-old boy in a barrel of hardening plaster. Others describe harrowing torture sessions, and loading bodies onto helicopters to be dumped at sea.
"Our mission was to stand guard outside, and listen to their screams," said former draftee Jose Paredes, who described his service at the Tejas Verdes torture center in an AP interview. "They would end up destroyed, torn apart, their teeth and faces broken."
"There are things that I've always said I will take to the grave," Paredes said, his grizzled face running with tears as he named a half-dozen officers who he said gave the orders. "I've never told this to anyone."
The Chilean government has made several high-profile efforts to resolve dirty war crimes, but Mellado said former draftees who wanted to testify were turned away: the Defense Ministry sent them to civilian courts, while civil authorities considered them to be military.
Villagra agrees the time is overdue for the soldiers to seek redemption — and sent a message of support for Mellado's efforts to gather their testimony.
"Clearly there is no desire from our part for these soldiers to carry the burden of guilt of the officers, who were the ones who made the decisions," Villagra said.
An AP review found 769 current and former security officers, most of them military, have been prosecuted for murders and other human rights violations. Almost all deny committing crimes. Only 276 have been sentenced.
Much of the evidence came from former prisoners. Testimony from former soldiers could do much to resolve these cases.