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From The Economist print edition

Chile's army

Frozen in time

May 26th 2005 | SANTIAGO

A tragedy exposes military flaws

THE Chilean armed forces have long had a high opinion of their own professionalism, whatever some of their fellow-countrymen think of their abuses under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The death last weekend of some 40 troops, killed in a freak Andean blizzard, was not just the army's worst peacetime loss. It has shaken confidence in the institution just as it had finally started to reform.

What makes the disaster harder for the grieving relatives to bear is that according to Juan Emilio Cheyre, the army commander, it could so easily have been avoided. All but one of the victims were raw conscripts, part of a battalion on a training exercise. They began a 17-mile descent from the high Andes as the snowfall started. They could have holed up in a mountain refuge. But their commanders either ignored or were ignorant of a weather alert, and ordered them to march, despite inadequate clothing.

The disaster followed the deaths earlier in May of three other conscripts in separate incidents. Many will conclude that the army remains as brutally careless of the young lives entrusted to it by Chile's poorest families as it was under the dictatorship. In fact, the army has recently made efforts to improve conditions for recruits, most of whom are now volunteers. It has set up an internal ombudsman.

Last year, General Cheyre for the first time acknowledged and apologised for the army's crimes under the dictatorship. In a departure from the institution's instinctive secrecy, he tried to be open about the blizzard disaster. But the army's obvious inexperience in public relations—it did not seem to know how many troops were on the exercise—compounded the shambles.

The army has only just begun a slow transition from the antiquated institution left by General Pinochet to a modern democratic force. That process is easier for younger officers than for their older and less-educated colleagues, who tend to have command over conscripts. One lesson is that the army could rely exclusively on professional soldiers. That is something it has hinted it would like, since they are more suited to peacekeeping missions in which it is taking part in Haiti and elsewhere. Another is that the army should get used to the idea that it is no longer a law unto itself. It has made a start: the three officers in immediate command of the conscripts face criminal charges. But it may be the institution itself which was at fault.