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Truth, Justice & Reconciliation In Latin America


Wednesday, Sep. 03, 2003

In Latin America, now as in the past, reconciliation can mean different things to different people. When, in 1990, Chile's newly-inaugurated president established an official body to investigate the atrocities committed during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's seventeen-year rule, he called it a "truth and reconciliation commission."

By including the concept of reconciliation in the name of the commission, Chile's civilian authorities were sending an unmistakable public message. Seeking to neutralize right-wing opposition to the government's effort to document the military's record of torture, killings, and "disappearances," they were implicitly promising that when the commission's work was done, the country would move on.

Reconciliation, from this perspective, meant sidelining justice. It meant that the country's amnesty decree - issued by Pinochet in 1978, at the end of the military junta's worst period of political repression - would be respected. It meant that instead of allowing prosecutors to prove the military's responsibility for horrendous crimes, the government would appoint a respected commission to issue a public report on the violence. There would be truth, at last, but no consequences.

Thirty years have now passed since the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, and more than a decade has gone by since the release of the Chilean truth commission's findings. Yet in Chile, as in several other countries that have experimented with large-scale amnesties, the formula of truth not justice has failed.

True reconciliation, these countries are recognizing, cannot be based on impunity. It requires justice, not amnesties. And it means seeing truth commission reports as a starting point, not a point of closure.

"Only the Bones Were Left"

Ask Angélica Mendoza de Ascarza about her formula for reconciliation, and she will tell you to find her son's body, and to put his killer behind bars. Mendoza, an indigenous woman from Ayacucho, Peru, heads up a group of relatives of the many thousands who "disappeared" during the country's violent civil conflict.

Last week, Peru's truth and reconciliation commission released a nine-volume report on the country's two decades of guerrilla insurgency and military repression. The report concludes that more than 69,000 people perished between 1980 to 2000, mostly residents of impoverished rural areas. About half of the deaths were caused by Shining Path, a barbaric guerrilla group, while nearly 30 percent were caused by the military, and most of the rest by government-backed militias.

Mendoza's son, a student at the time, was arrested by the military on July 3, 1983. When she testified before the truth commission in April 2001, a hearing which I attended, she brought with her a yellowing scrap of paper that is her last remembrance of her son.

Dressed in a woven hat and traditional shawl and speaking in Quechua, Mendoza described how thirty hooded men came to her house and took her son away. "I asked them why they were taking my son," she related, "and they said that he had to go testify, and that they would return him to me at the gate of the jail. At that point, I grabbed my son … I got to the door and clung onto my son, and they dragged us both. They pushed me, they hit me, they stamped on me. They were going to shoot me, and they took my son, put him in the army car and carried him off. I screamed like a madwoman."

The men brought Mendoza's son to the local army base, from which he managed to smuggle out a scribbled note. Holding the note in her hands, Mendoza read it to the commission: "Mom, I'm inside the base. Find a lawyer, some money, and please get me out of here, I'm desperate."

But like thousands of others taken away in such circumstances, Mendoza's son could not be traced. Litigation, public denunciations, and even bribery proved fruitless. Nor did Angélica Mendoza find her son's body at any of the sites where corpses were dumped. "We found corpses with their eyes hanging out, with no ears, women whose breasts had been cut off," she told the truth commission. "The soldiers guarded the bodies until the animals devoured them and only the bones were left."

Justice in Argentina and Chile and, Perhaps, Peru

The tenacity that Mendoza showed in trying to fight off her son's abductors remains evident. But now Mendoza's struggle has a different goal: justice. She sees the truth commission's meticulously-researched report not simply as an historical accounting, but as ammunition for government prosecutors.

The obstacles to justice are daunting. In Peru, as in other Latin American countries in which official violence was widespread, a sweeping amnesty law is still on the books. The law, passed in 1995 during the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori, was intended to shield military and police officials responsible for killings, "disappearances," and other crimes.

On the political side, too, the prospect of prosecutions has already raised hackles. Former president Alan Garcia is now the country's most powerful political figure. Given that in the 1980s he presided over some of the worst abuses and did little to prevent or punish them, he has little reasons to want the justice system to revisit these crimes. His political party was overtly hostile to the work of the truth commission, and it will likely try to foreclose the justice option.

The struggle for justice in Peru may be difficult, and it may take a long time. Still, Peruvians can find hope that justice will ultimately be achieved if they survey the experiences of neighboring countries.

In Chile, once the symbol of the "negotiated" transition, hundreds of former members of the armed forces have been charged and now face trial. In the past year, the Chilean courts have convicted several former military officers of heinous crimes committed during the period covered by the country's amnesty decree. Ruling that enforced disappearance is an ongoing crime, the courts have held the amnesty to be inapplicable.

Events in Argentina have been even more dramatic. Prosecutions have been ongoing over the past several years, implicating the most top-level military officials. Now, with the recent election of President Nestor Kirchner, the country has taken vigorous steps to bring about the prosecution of "dirty war" crimes.

Within days of taking office on May 23, President Kirchner fired senior military officers who had lobbied for officers under prosecution for human right abuses committed during military rule, and repealed a government decree preventing the extradition of such people to third countries. Soon after, he successfully pushed Congress to annul the country's amnesty laws.

Reconciliation not Impunity

Societal reconciliation is a commendable ideal. But it should not be used as a cynical slogan, or as a euphemism for impunity.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney who has worked in Latin America for nearly a decade. Her previous pieces on justice and accountability, including on the prosecution of "dirty war" criminal Alfredo Astiz, can be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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