Defending human rights in Latin America

It was a watershed year for bringing human rights abusers to justice in Latin America.

The recent election of Otto Perez Molina, an alleged war criminal, as president in Guatemala, is symbolic of the challenges human rights defenders continue to face in Latin America [EPA]

Scranton, PennsylvaniaTime Magazine recently named The Protester as its person of the year 2011. If I were to confine the choice to Latin America, I would have to support the human rights defender. While there have been previous successes, 2011 seems to have been a watershed in which nearly every country has made some progress in bringing those responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses to justice.

During the Cold War in Latin America, the military governments of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and Brazil – as well as civilian governments in Colombia and Peru – killed tens of thousands of people. In addition, thousands of others suffered torture, imprisonment, rape, and other human rights violations.

The military and, then, civilian regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala committed atrocities on a scale that exceeded those of South America. In most cases, the United States supported the government side, which was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights violations. The violence was carried out in order to protect the western hemisphere from a communist threat being orchestrated from Havana and Moscow.

Human rights groups emerged during the 1980s throughout Latin America in an effort to prevent the continuation of human rights abuses, as well as to hold leaders accountable for what they had already done. As the military returned to the barracks in South America in the mid-1980s and the civil wars in Central America ended in the 1990s, these human rights organisations continued to work for justice.

However, they were often hindered in the efforts by amnesty laws that made it difficult to prosecute those responsible for the majority of the violence. For the past 25 years, these human rights organisations have worked tirelessly to chip away at the impunity that shielded human rights violators from justice.

Crimes in Guatemala

In Guatemala, United Nations and Catholic Church human rights investigations also found that the Guatemalan state’s security forces committed the majority of crimes that occurred during the 36-year conflict. In the end, they attributed more than 90 per cent of the documented violations to the state and its allies. The United Nations even found that the Guatemalan government had committed genocide.

In August, a Guatemalan court sentenced four former Special Forces soldiers to over 6,000 years in prison for the December 1982 massacre of more than 200 men, women and children at Dos Erres in the Petén Department.

In recent months, the government has also moved to arrest several high ranking officials for their participation in the government’s early 1980s scorched-earth programme, including retired general Hector Lopez, accused of genocide in the massacres of more than 300 persons between 1978 and 1985 – and former president Oscar Mejia, who ruled from 1983-86. A former chief of police, Hector Bol, was also arrested for orchestrating the kidnapping and forced disappearance of student union leader Fernando Garcia.

President Alvaro Colom also apologised on behalf of the Guatemalan government to former president Jacobo Arbenz’s family on Thursday. Arbenz was deposed in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. His overthrow was one of the main catalysts for the 36-year conflict that would soon follow. 

Political prisoners

In October, Alfredo Astiz, Argentina’s infamous “Blond Angel of Death”, and 11 other death squad members from the country’s period of military rule received life sentences following a 22-month trial. Astiz had been accused of having participated in the disappearance, torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group.

In July, two former military officers, general Hector Gamen and colonel Hugo Pascarelli, were sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping, torture and rape at Vesuvius concentration camp. Alejandro Duret was expelled from Chile in order to face charges in Argentina.

Another dirty war suspect, former La Pampa police chief Luis Enrique Baraldini, was extradited from Bolivia last week. Upwards of 30,000 Argentines were killed under the civilian government of President Isabelle Perón and the military junta that followed her into office.

In July, the United States extradited Telmo Hurtado to Peru. Hurtado is a former military officer wanted in connection with the massacre of 69 people in Accomarca in 1985. The Uruguayan congress voted to overturn the amnesty law that had protected former military officers from prosecution in November.

Uruguayans had previously supported the amnesty laws through successful national referendums in 1989 and 2009. While Uruguayan security forces were reluctant to kill, it has the distinction for having had the highest per capita percentage of political prisoners in the world, about 7,000 in total.

Brazil is also now reopening investigations into human rights abuses committed during the second half of the twentieth century. One time prisoner under military rule, President Dilma Rousseff signed the National Truth Commission into law. The commission will investigate crimes committed between 1946 and 1988.

Apology for massacre

Like Uruguay (180 murdered), the Brazilian military (475 murdered or disappeared) is not known for having killed large numbers of subversives during its 21-year rule. However, 50,000 Brazilians were imprisoned and at least 20,000 were tortured.

The UN Truth Commission that was conducted at the end of the Salvadoran civil war found that the state was responsible for having committed 85 per cent of the acts of violence. Approximately five per cent of the acts of violence were attributed to the insurgent Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front or FMLN.

In March 2009, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN was elected president. Since then, he has apologised on behalf of the state to the family of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, to the families of the Jesuit martyrs of the UCA and their housekeeper and daughter, and to the hundreds of victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre. They were all murdered by the military or other right-wing elements linked to the military government and the country’s economic elite. For that, Funes should be commended.

Also in Central America, Manuel Noriega was recently extradited to his native Panama. In addition to the 60 years in jail he is already facing, he should stand trial on several counts of murder and other human rights violations committed while he was de facto ruler during the 1980s.

In July, the Colombian government apologised for a massacre of at least 60 people carried out in 2000 by paramilitary forces. And in October, the government issued a public apology and accepted responsibility for the 1994 extrajudicial execution of leftist Senator Manuel Cepeda Vargas. 

Underming human rights defenders?

However, it’s is not certain that the momentum that has built up this year will continue. An alleged war criminal, Otto Pérez Molina, was recently elected president of Guatemala. Many are concerned that he will work to undermine Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s recent efforts to prosecute former human rights violators.

Perez has been connected to the torture and disappearance of Efrain Bamaca and to the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In addition, he denies that genocide occurred during the civil war, one of the key findings of the United Nations truth commission. Perez has said that Paz y Paz will remain in her position once he assumes office, but there is a concern that he and others will make it difficult for her to continue to prosecute human rights violators.

In recent weeks, Guatemalan courts have received three complaints against former guerrillas and human rights advocates. Some of those named in the lawsuits are relatives of Paz y Paz. Although Paz y Paz does not look like she will be forced out, some appear to be working to ensure that she fails.

In El Salvador, a Spanish court began legal proceedings against 20 former Salvadoran military officials for their involvement in the deaths of the Jesuits and the two women. Five of the six Jesuits were born in Spain, so Spanish authorities have a special interest in the case.

President Funes and the Salvadoran legislature have shown little leadership in trying to repeal the amnesty law so that prosecutions against human rights violators can move forward in El Salvador. However, Funes might be forced to act as the Spanish government recently issued a formal request that the Salvadoran government locate and begin extradition proceedings against the 10 former officers. The matter is now before the Salvador Supreme Court of Justice.

In Uruguay, former armed forces officers have threatened to seek prosecution of former Tupamaro guerrillas should they come under scrutiny. Manuela Picq has written in response to the Brazilian Truth Commission that it is “equipped solely to unveil crimes, shedding light on what really happened during those dark years. Its purpose is to construct memory. It is an effort to establish an official history, not to punish”.

Various groups are now mobilising to undermine the progress that human rights defenders have accomplished this year in Latin America. They are trying to stymie their work in the courts through a variety of legal challenges. They are threatening to bring countercharges against former guerrillas and guerrilla sympathisers in order to obscure the overwhelming responsibility of the state for human rights violations. And human rights defenders continue to be threatened and killed at an alarming rate. It is in no way certain that progress will continue into 2012, but for 2011 in Latin America, it has been the year of the human rights defender.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American Politics here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.