Uruguay Investigates Human Rights Crimes from Dictatorship Era

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Uruguay Investigates Human Rights Crimes from Dictatorship Era


Uruguayan prosecutors are looking into crimes committed during the country's 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Ex-President Juan Maria Bordaberry (1971-1976) and his foreign affairs minister, Juan Carlos Blanco, face criminal inquiries while excavations at military installations will search for bodies of disappeared persons from the era. The investigations by the recently inaugurated President Tabare Vazquez government may represent human rights activists' best hope in decades for extensive prosecutions.

Government looks for ways around amnesty law

Compared with its neighbors, Uruguay finds itself much more hampered in its efforts to punish the crimes of its dictatorship from the 1970s and 1980s. A 1986 amnesty law - the Ley de Caducidad or Expiration Law - put in place under pressure from the military, prevented prosecution of most human rights crimes from that era. A public referendum in 1989 enshrined the Ley de Caducidad and continues to hamper efforts to bring repressors to justice.

However, with the newly elected center-left government of President Vazquez's Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplia (EP-FA) having won control of the Congress, the presidency, and most of the country's departmental mayoralties (see NotiSur, 2004-11-12, 2005-03-04, 2005-05-20), activists believe they have an unprecedented opportunity to bring the crimes of the military regime to light.

The administrations of Presidents Julio Sanguinetti (1985-1990 and 1995-2000) and Luis Lacalle (1990-1995) did nothing to investigate the fate of the approximately 160 victims of forced disappearance, most of whom were disappeared in Argentina.

However, at the start of his term in 2000, President Jorge Batlle (2000-2005) set up a peace commission made up of representatives of different sectors, with a view to fulfilling article four of the amnesty law.

But the peace commission merely concluded that 26 Uruguayans died of torture in the country during the dictatorship, and stated that it had received reports that the victims were buried or cremated and thrown into the sea, although it did not say the reports were true.

Another 128 victims of forced disappearance had been detained in Argentina, seven in Chile, two in Paraguay and one in Bolivia, as part of Operation Condor. Victims' families said the report was unsatisfactory and continue to call for a more in-depth investigation.

"We believe that now it is Uruguay's turn. We have high expectations and hopes, because of the new government," said Fernando Miranda, a member of the human rights organization Madres y Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos-Desaparecidos.

In Uruguay, many of the officers implicated in human rights violations continue to get together on national holidays or to remember members of the military who were killed in what they continue to call "the war on sedition" and against "subversives." The armed forces in Uruguay argue that any abuses that were committed occurred in the context of an "urban war" against the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional-Tupamaros (MLN-T) guerrillas.

The great majority of the human rights violations, however, took place after the MLN was militarily crushed in 1972. Several former MLN guerrillas who spent years in prison are now legislators and popular EP-FA leaders.

Uruguay's armed forces, unlike others in the region, have never admitted their human rights crimes (see NotiSur, 2004-11-19 and 2005-06-24).

Bordaberry and Blanco under criminal investigation

Ex-president Bordaberry gave more than four hours of testimony on June 16 regarding a quadruple-murder committed in Buenos Aires in 1976 where he stated his total innocence, under oath. Bordaberry, 78, integrated himself into a "civilian-military" government in 1973, just over a year after he'd come into office. The government suspended constitutional guarantees and closed down all leftist political activity in the country.

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