Latin American history is littered with cruel military dictatorships. The toll has been thousands of deaths, tortured victims and “disappearances”. Putting these dictators on trial is how democracy demonstrates justice and heals the wounds inflicted. But the majority remain unpunished.
Noelia Ceballos Terrén
In the second half of the 20th Century 18 countries in Latin America experienced the violence of military dictatorships at some point. There have been 31 dictators who have held the reigns of power in these countries without any respect whatsoever for democratic values or human rights.
Putting those responsible for the thousands of deaths, victims of torture and “disappearances” that took place during their regimes is what the victims and families demand as moral reparation for their suffering.
Victim figures for the region are difficult to determine but can be estimated at more than 470,000 including the dead, the disappeared, the tortured and political prisoners.
In total, ten former dictators face trial for crimes committed under their leadership and five are serving sentences or are in the process of being tried.
But an assessment of the situation reveals that more than half of these dictators died without ever being held accountable for their crimes. For this reason impunity is seen as an issue which has blighted Central and South America more so than in the rest of the world.
According to Abel Escriba Folcha’s study in the Mexican Sociology Review (Revista Mexicana de Sociologia) just 31% of the dictators who governed between 1946 and 2000 across the world remained unpunished. Today four former dictators are living out there final years without ever having seen the inside of a prison cell.
The last two presidents of El Salvador’s military dictatorship continue to live far away from their country: Arturo Armano Molina who governed between 1972 and 1977 and Carlos Humberto Romero who reigned during the final phase of the regime between 1977 and 1979. It is believed that the former shares his time between Miami and Panama whilst the latter would appear to be living in the US after an initial exile in Guatemala.
For his part the soldier Guillermo Rodriguez Lara who wielded power at the helm of Ecuador’s government between 1972 and 1976 has retired from politics and lives on his farm, free from fear of any form of prosecution.
Another case is that of Guatemala’s Rios Montt, accused of genocide. The Mayan victims of ethnic cleansing who were murdered during his term in office (1982-1983) number 1,771. On the 10th of May 2013 a Guatemalan court sentenced him to 80 years in prison.
However the country’s constitutional court overturned the sentence following the initial sentencing court’s failure to comply with due process. Today this perpetrator of genocide remains a free man.
Despite all this, five of those responsible for the atrocities that have marked the 20th century in South America are paying for their crimes.
Argentina’s judicial system has been one of the toughest. All the presidents who led the country during the so-called Process of National Reorganisation were punished(Jorge Rafael Videla, Roberto Eduardo Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri all died in prison).
This was possible because the Full Stop Law and the Law of Due Obedience, which protected those responsible for crimes during the dictatorships, were abolished (it is calculated that between 1976 and 1983, 30,000 people were disappeared).
It is known that Reynaldo Benito Bignone the last president of the Argentinian dictatorship entered prison at the age of 82 to serve a 25 year sentence which was later extended to a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
For his part, Noriega – Panama’s last despot who led the Central American country between 1983 and 1989 – was extradited in 2011 to serve a sentence of 60 years for the murder of eleven Panamanians during his term in government. This sentence was handed down after he spent 19 years in US and French prisons for drug trafficking and money laundering offences. The number of victims at the hands of this dictator stands at 107.
Another case which ended with a conviction was that of the Peruvian Alberto Fujimori. During his time in office between 1990 and 2000 the then president was responsible for ordering the murder of civilians in the name of a war against terrorism. He was found guilty of crimes such as the massacres in Barrios Altos in 1991 and La Cantuta in 1992. On the 7th of April 2009 he began a 25-year sentence at the age of 70.
Bolivia joins a short list of countries that has managed to put its dictators behind bars. Despite Hugo Banzer dying unpunished – he kept the country under his rule between 1971 and 1978 and caused the disappearance of 150 political – Bolivian despots Luis Garcia Meza is being tried for his crimes. He ordered the murders of members of his political opposition during his time as governor between 1980 and 1981. For this he has been serving a sentence of 30 years since 1995 in Chonchocoro prison high up in the Bolivian Andes.
There are cases like Haiti’s where it has not been easy to bring the former dictator to justice, though finally in February of 2013 a Haitian court did force Jean-Claude “Babydoc” Duvalier to appear before the judge. Since then he has been on trial for crimes against humanity.
However, a year has elapsed without Duvalier’s reappearance in court. The victims during his tenure in office (1971-1986) number some 30,000 detained, killed or exiled.
Part of a country’s reparation process after a phase of violence is to re-establish the facts in the most objective way possible in order to seek out those responsible and recognise the harm caused to victims.
The most widespread form this has taken in Central and South America are the Truth Commissions. According to the organisation Amnesty International between 1974 and 2007 these commissions were set up in 28 countries across the world. Half of these were in Latin America.
The job of these commissions, created on the say-so of the governments and for a fixed and limited term, is to investigate violations of citizens’ human rights by the ruling power.
Of the 18 countries that have had military dictatorships in Latin America, 14 have set up these commissions, which receive reports and witness statements from victims of the repression and their family members. The cases are examined one-by-one to verify the legitimacy of their claims as victims and hence quantify the numbers involved. The most common recommendations of the final reports is the recognition of victims’ rights and their subsequent financial compensation.
Despite this, only eight Latin American governments are granting compensation to victims of the violence in these regimes.
Argentina is one of them. Between 1991 and 2004 their congress passed three laws that compensate political prisoners, families of disappeared victims, and children born in captivity. Hence, families of disappeared victims were compensated with US$224,000 and ex-convicts of the regime stood to gain 74.66 Argentinian pesetas (£5.71) for each day in captivity. Children born in captivity stood to receive between 70,000 and 245,000 pesetas (£5,333 – £18,664).
The Paraguayan state took the step of setting up its Truth and Justice Commission in 2009. As a result it established a figure of 20,090 direct victims of Stroessner’s repression.
In 2011 the government spent US$9.4 million in financial reparations to victims and family members of disappeared victims under the regime. But since then more than 2,400 recognised victims are yet to receive this promised compensation.
Another of the nations which recognises entitlement to reparation is Chile. Political prisoners, sacked public officials and victims of torture and the disappeared get allowances of between US$2,314 and US$2,648 for life since the 2004 law. Moreover, they get free health treatment and the benefits extend to their children who benefit from free education and are exempt from otherwise mandatory national military service.
The system is different in Peru where the main reparations are made on a group basis. At the end of 2013 1,946 communities had received 100,000 sols (£20,000) for economic development schemes. But these populations do not consider it reparation for violence they suffered during the conflict. Recently the executive gave the go ahead for compensation of 10,000 sols (£2,000) to parents and spouses of victims though to date only a fifth of the almost 79,000 recognised beneficiaries have received it.
Uruguay’s plan for recognising victims is more extensive. In addition to granting 277 family members of the dictatorship’s victims US$15,000 in damages, they are also giving them free medical and psychological aid.
By contrast, in Bolivia, despite the approval of a consignment of US$3.6 million for the 6,221 victims of Hugo Banzer and Luis Garcia Meza’s despotism the law allows for only 20% of those affected to benefit from this aid.
At the tail end are states like Guatemala – whose toll is 200,000 dead as a result of state violence in particular Rios Montt’s Mayan genocide – who are not granting compensation of any type.
Recognition of “victims of past state violence” remains unresolved
“Historic recognition” of victims of state violence is a concept that creates controversy. Recognition by a part of the government institutions of past atrocities and the resulting damage wrought, as well as encouraging measures to bring the past to light, are very much welcomed by those who believe that people must keep the memory of such atrocities alive in order to avoid a repetition of the same catastrophe.
In Latin America the political will to preserve the notion of this historic recognition has gained momentum in recent years though it is not prevalent in the majority of the region. Venezuela alone boasts an historical recognition law.
Fewer than half of the former dictatorships have seen the head of state or other agents of the administration plead forgiveness for their past crimes: something which has only occurred in seven countries.
Exhumations are another issue which remains unresolved for families and victims, as half of the countries have still not carried out the necessary forensic investigations to identify and return victims’ remains.
Nonetheless, official symbolic commemoration of victims is the tool most used by these countries to keep the memory of these atrocities alive. In 11 of the 18 former dictatorships there are monuments, museums and centres dedicated to the memory of victims and human rights in general.
Argentina’s case is impressive. This is the country with the highest incidence of convictions for crimes against human rights and where those responsible for the crimes have been pursued most strenuously. However, no president since the country’s return to democracy in 1983 has so far officially asked for the forgiveness of the victims. The only gesture of acknowledgement was the establishment of a National Day of Truth and Justice on the 24th of March.
In Chile, the process of exhuming bodies goes on and has had great impact in cases such as the poet Pablo Neruda. A government apology for the Pinochet era has still not been forthcoming but judges apologised publicly on the 5th of October for their “actions and omissions” in denying protection to those who exposed the repression between 1973 and 1990.
Guatemala also received apologies on the part of ex-President Alvaro Colom for the systematic genocide committed by the state apparatuses between 1960 and 1996.
And last May a court resolved that the president will have to apologise again to the Ixil people – an indigenous Mayan people in its El Quiché region. The army and defence force, as well as government ministers must also join in this public apology.
Paraguay is another country which is working to ensure victims’ and family members’ rights are respected. On the 14th of February a consignment of US$72,600 was made available for the identification of 20 corpses, which was added to the US$72,400 that was allocated last August to the Office for Reparations and Remembrance of Victims of State Violence.
In 2008 President Fernando Lugo came out in public to apologise to the victims of Stroessner’s persecution.
Colombia, Honduras, Cuba, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti are the countries that have done the least for groups of victims who suffered at the hands of past dictatorships.
And given this injustice, victims of state violence are far from finding the solace needed to heal these open wounds.
Fotos: Pixabay – (Translated by Nigel Conibear – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)