Sins of the Past: Will All of Latin America Find Justice for Cold War Atrocities?

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General view at the Chamber of Deputies during the discussion of a bill - put forward by the ruling party - against the prescription of crimes against humanity committed during the country's dictatorship (1973-85), at the Legislative Palace (Congress) in Montevideo October 26, 2011. (Photo: Pablo La Rosa / Reuters)

Now that Uruguay has revoked a 25-year-old amnesty for human rights crimes committed during the country’s 1973-85 military dictatorship, citizens are coming forward in droves this week to file charges against former officers, soldiers and cops. Uruguay was one of South America’s last holdouts when it came to annulling amnesty laws passed in the wake of the continent’s cold-war atrocities. As a result, human rights experts hope that its decision will now push nations in Central America – where Guatemala, the site of some of the Cold War-era’s worst massacres, is holding a presidential run-off election on Sunday – to drop their own forgiveness policies, which many believe have only deepened that region’s culture of impunity.

Uruguay’s Congress overturned the 1986 amnesty law last week, Sept. 27, opening the door to legal action by hundreds of people who claim they were politically jailed and tortured, or that their relatives were abducted and murdered. President José Mujica – a former leftist guerrilla who himself was imprisoned by the dictatorship, on occasion at the bottom of a well – signed the bill, which had been a goal of legislators from his liberal Broad Front coalition for years. The Uruguayan Supreme Court, which in the past had suggested the amnesty was unconstitutional because it protected alleged violators of international laws the country had signed onto, is expected to uphold the revocation measure even though Uruguayans have twice voted in past referendums to keep the amnesty in place.

Uruguay is simply following a trend that’s been building in South America for the past decade. In 2001, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Peru’s amnesty violated due process, the country overturned the law, which led to the eventual conviction of former President Alberto Fujimori for crimes committed in the 1990s. Argentina did the same in 2005 – on the same day as the Uruguayan vote, in fact, a court there sentenced a notorious enforcer of the 1976-83 dictatorship, Alfredo Astiz, known as “the Angel of Death,” to life in prison – while Chile has all but cancelled the amnesty stemming from the brutal 1973-90 dictatorship of the late General Augusto Pinochet.

Brazil, whose 1964-85 military rule wasn’t as vicious, has yet to really confront its amnesty, even though the Inter-American court last year ruled it invalid, too. But President Dilma Rousseff, a former urban guerrilla tortured by that dictatorship, backs the formation of a truth commission to start the process.

Jettisoning amnesty laws was inevitable, say experts like Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America in Washington, D.C. “Uruguay is just another example of the fact that these human-rights crimes issues do not go away, that you cannot mandate that the cases be closed and that the country just move on,” says Burt, a political science professor at George Mason University. “People will always want answers and justice, and you can’t make that go away.”

What’s at stake besides addressing past abuses, Burt adds, is ensuring future rule of law. And that’s why Central America’s refusal so far to discard its own amnesty provisions is particularly troublesome. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, for example, the violence of the civil wars of the 1980s has simply been replaced by the even worse violence of drug gangs – which have thrived under a culture of impunity that legal experts say the amnesty laws help encourage.

In Guatemala, some of the worst massacres, like the 1982 butchering of 251 men, women and children in the village of Dos Erres, were perpetrated by a special army unit called Los Kaibiles. Many of its members today are gangsters committing horrors like the murders and beheadings of almost 30 peasants on a ranch in northern Guatemala last May. Fortunately, in recent years Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has ordered that the need to prosecute the more heinous crimes of the 1980s overrides the amnesty – and in August four former Kaibiles got life sentences for their roles in the Dos Erres massacres.

(SEE: “Guatemala’s Kaibiles: A Notorious Commando Unit Wrapped Up in Central America’s Drug War.”)

Even so, Dos Erres is only the second of 669 Guatemalan civil war massacres documented by the U.N. to be prosecuted thus far, and many see removing the amnesty completely as the only way to expedite the remaining cases. As Guatemalan attorney Edgar Pérez, who represents Dos Erres victims, told me last summer, “It’s the only way to make sure massacres like these aren’t repeated.” It’s doubtful, however, that either candidate in Sunday’s presidential race – former army general Otto Pérez Molina and right-wing businessman Manuel Baldizón – will see it that way once he takes office.

Right-wing army generals weren’t the only ones committing atrocities in Latin America a generation ago: left-wing guerrillas have their share of innocent blood on their hands, too. While Mujica’s predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez, also a leftist, was the first Uruguayan President to greenlight certain prosecutions of dictatorship cases, he favored keeping the amnesty law itself (which gave the President discretion over which cases could be tried) intact. So, until this year, did Mujica; and while he often said the will of Uruguayan referendum voters should be respected, others speculated that he worried that the same cases brought against former military and police personnel could also be brought against former comrades in rebel groups like the Tupamaros guerrilla band he once belonged to.

Latin America’s post-cold war amnesty laws may have been understandable in the 1980s and 90s: they reflected a desire to get on with the work of democracy-building without the distraction of further bad blood. But former soldiers and guerrillas alike will have to get used to the fact that in the 2000s and 2010s, Latin Americans are increasingly deciding that getting on with the future requires taking on the past.