Argentine junta leader Jorge Rafaél Videla meeting his Chilean counterpart, Augusto Pinochet, in Mendoza, Argentina, 1978. (Courtesy: Archivo Clarín)
Apr 12th 2007The Economist
A generation later, in both Argentina and Chile, the courts are dealing with the perpetrators of past atrocities
FOR the past 31 years, Viviana Diaz, a small, gentle woman now in her 50s, has devoted her life to finding out what happened to her father, Victor Diaz Lopez, a former leader of Chile's Communist Party.
Following the bloody coup against Salvador Allende's left-wing government in 1973, he became one of the military regime's most wanted men. After nearly three years in hiding, he was finally picked up by the DINA, the secret police of Chile's dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. His family never saw him again.
He was one of the many thousands who perished under the dictatorships that ruled many parts of Latin America in the final phase of the cold war in the 1970s and 1980s. A quarter of a century after the last successful military coup in Latin America, the region has moved on, with democracy for the most part firmly established. But in many countries, the past still poses some retribution or reconciliation? Find the truth, however painful, or prefer the ease of forgetting?
Many argue for moving on rather than re-opening old wounds. Others reply that without justice there can be no healing and no guarantee of the rule of law. No group feels this more keenly than the relatives of the "disappeared"--those kidnapped by the state and taken to secret detention centres. Their tortured bodies, dumped in the sea or buried in unmarked graves, were rarely if ever found until well after the dictators departed. Unidentified remains are still turning up.
In most countries in the region where abuses occurred under authoritarian rule--Guatemala (where 200,000 died in a civil war between military dictatorships and left-wing guerrillas), Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay—the process of dealing with the crimes of the past has barely begun. To a lesser extent, that applies to El Salvador too (see article).
The process has gone furthest in Argentina and, especially, Chile. That marks a change. In Chile, some 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared" at the hands of Pinochet's regime. But the dictatorship's amnesty for its own crimes outlived it. Only recently have most families learned the fate of their loved ones.
Take Mr Diaz's case. His family learnt of his arrest through an anonymous phone call. Then silence. After four months of searching, Ms Diaz and her mother, a washerwoman, met a woman recently released from Villa Grimaldi, a secret detention centre. She had a message for them from Marta Ugarte, another of the many communist leaders interned there. Ugarte's wrists had broken after she was strung up from the ceiling and her breasts were burned with a blow-lamp. She wanted them to know that neither she nor Mr Diaz would ever get out alive.
For years, Ms Diaz staged demonstrations, petitioned the pusillanimous courts and badgered officials. But she was met only with death threats, repeated arrest and continuing silence. When democracy returned to Chile in 1990, the government set up an independent inquiry into the "disappeared". Even then, the perpetrators could not be brought to justice. It was not until Pinochet's arrest in London in 1998 in response to an extradition request from Spain, and the British House of Lords' rulings that he lacked immunity under international law, that Chile's judges began to grow much bolder.
In a series of landmark rulings, Chile's Supreme Court removed most of the obstacles to trying the dictatorship's crimes. In 1999 it declared "disappearances" to be a continuing crime until death is proved. That meant they were not covered by the 1978 amnesty. In December 2006 it ruled that because Chile was in a situation of internal conflict after the 1973 coup, the Geneva Conventions applied. Serious violations of those conventions were war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which a statute of limitations could never be invoked, it said. Nor could they be subject to amnesty, it ruled last month.
According to Chile's Interior Ministry, 148 people, including nearly 50 military officers, have already been convicted for human-rights violations during the 17-year dictatorship. Over 400 more, nearly all from the armed forces, have been indicted or are under investigation. Pinochet was himself facing trial on several charges, including murder, torture and tax evasion, when he died in December at the age of 91.
It was as a result of one of these investigations that Ms Diaz finally learnt of her father's fate. Last month a man known (because of his size) as "the Elephant", who led the Lautaro brigade, a previously unknown elite unit of the DINA, tearfully confessed to murdering Victor Diaz at a barracks in Santiago in 1977 by asphyxiating him with a plastic bag, while cyanide was injected into his veins. His body, weighed down by a railway sleeper, was then thrown into the sea from a military helicopter. The truth, however painful, has brought her peace, says Ms Diaz.TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS IN ARGENTINA
In Argentina, at least 13,000 people (and perhaps as many as 30,000)
"disappeared" or were killed during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. Unlike Chile's, Argentina's military regime collapsed in confusion, following defeat in the Falklands war. The first act of the democratic government of Raul Alfonsin in 1983 was to annul the amnesty rushed through by the junta just before it fell. A truth commission--the world's first--provided the material for investigations by prosecutors, one of whom was Luis Moreno Ocampo, now chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Nearly 500 people, including nine members of the four successive juntas, were charged. Argentina thus became the first country to put its own military rulers on trial. The army argued that it had been forced to act by large-scale guerrilla violence. As in Chile, Argentina's military government had at first enjoyed considerable civilian support.
Repeated barracks rebellions in protest against the prosecutions forced Mr Alfonsin to buckle. He approved a "full-stop" law halting new investigations, followed by another of "due obedience" which exonerated those who claimed to have been following orders--a defence dismissed in the Nuremberg trials after the second world war. His successor, Carlos Menem, issued pardons to 277 of those already convicted or indicted, including nearly 40 generals and several guerrilla leaders.
Argentines still argue about these pragmatic decisions. Public opinion was certainly against them, and the thirst for justice was huge. One crime was not covered by the various amnesties and pardons--that of taking away the babies of mothers who gave birth in captivity, and giving them to couples in the security forces to bring up as their own.
The real mothers were then killed or "disappeared". According to the
"Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo", who from 1977 demonstrated on the square of that name in Buenos Aires, some 500 babies were stolen in this way, only 87 of whom have so far been traced.
Pinochet's London arrest emboldened judges in Argentina too. Soon afterwards, General Jorge Videla, the junta president of 1976-81, was put on trial on charges of appropriating babies. For this, General Videla was sentenced to eight years imprisonment. He had already received a life sentence in 1985. His subsequent pardon was quashed by a judge last September on the ground that he was guilty of crimes against humanity and could never be pardoned. Because he is aged over 70, General Videla is now under house arrest.
In 2005 Argentina's Supreme Court annulled the "full-stop" and "due obedience" laws as being unconstitutional. That has paved the way for the prosecution of other junta crimes. Of the 772 people, nearly all in the military or secret police, now facing charges or investigations, 260 are in pre-trial detention (including 71 under house arrest), 46 are on bail, 41 are on the run, and 109 are dead, according to the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, a human-rights group. Five people have so far been convicted, including two on "disappearance" charges. The government expects another half-dozen trials to take place this year. Years of further trials lie ahead.
These prosecutions are backed both by the current Peronist president, Nestor Kirchner, whose government includes several former followers of the Montonero guerrillas, and by public opinion. Unlike armies in many other Latin American countries, the army in Argentina is no longer much respected. In opinion polls 70% of respondents approved of the court's annulment of the amnesty laws. No new prosecutions are being brought against former guerrillas. The government argues, with questionable logic, that they were not guilty of crimes against humanity and are thus subject to the statute of limitations.
But prosecuting Isabel Peron, the third wife of Juan Peron, the country's revered populist leader, is a step too far for many Argentines. On Peron's death in 1975, Isabel, a former cabaret dancer, succeeded him. Amid growing economic chaos and violence between the guerrillas and right-wing death-squads, she signed decrees in 1975 authorising the eradication of all "subversive elements". Some say that the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance (known as the "Triple A"), a government-backed death-squad, was responsible for at least 1,500 killings during her 20-month presidency.
Since her release from prison by the Argentine junta in 1981, Mrs Peron has lived in Spain. She claims ignorance of abuses during her rule. But in January she was arrested in Madrid at the request of an Argentine judge investigating the "disappearance" of a Peronist militant in February 1976. Four days later, a second warrant for her arrest was issued by another judge on charges relating to the "Triple A" killings. Aged 75 and said by her lawyers to be suffering from manic depression, Mrs Peron has been released on bail while awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings. Few expect them to succeed.
As the experiences of Chile and Argentina show, each country has to find its own way of dealing with past atrocities in accordance with its own particular circumstances and history. Sometimes, it may take a whole generation for society to be ready to learn the truth, as in Germany after the second world war. At other times, an amnesty, which may later be unpicked or annulled, may help to secure peace.
The rise of international human-rights law has helped those who argue that in cases involving the worst crimes justice must never be sacrificed to peace. Where conflict continues that principle may be hard to apply. Its proponents say justice is essential not just as an end in itself but to deter future tyrants. Until recently, most could expect to get off scot-free. Increasingly, other countries may follow the road pioneered by Chile and Argentina.