Academic journal article Social Justice

Introduction to "Shadows of State Terrorism: Impunity in Latin American'

Academic journal article Social Justice

Introduction to "Shadows of State Terrorism: Impunity in Latin American'

Article excerpt

ON THE CUSP OF THE 21st CENTURY, THE LONG SHADOWS OF STATE TERRORISM still haunt Latin America. The memory of predator states that turned on their own citizens is still present for millions of people in the region; and for some, as in Colombia today, political violence and state terrorism are still a reality. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the dirty wars of the Cold War era -- 200,000 in Guatemala alone -- and tens of thousands more suffered barbaric tortures, disappearance, and other forms of state terror. Yet most of the architects and agents of these crimes walk free today; many remain in positions of power.

In this issue of Social Justice we have assembled the reflections and analyses of some distinguished Latin Americans who lived through recent military dictatorships and who have grappled with their consequences. By listening to their voices, North American readers will understand state terrorism and impunity in new ways.

As E.V. Walter (1969: 9) once argued, states that employ terror "consciously design a pattern of violence to produce the social behavior they demand" -- and their power resides not only in their capacity to alter present behaviors, but also to prevent future behaviors. The Latin American militaries -- trained, financed, and usually supported politically by the United States -- used counterinsurgency strategies deliberately calculated both to eliminate "subversives" and to "change the mentality" of all citizens. Today the legacy of fear remains a deterrent to full political participation and a sense of citizenship in many Latin American countries. Chilean writer Isabel Allende (1999:27) compares her country to "an abused child that is always expecting the next blow." Impunity for past crimes affects the present and the future, profoundly shaping the limits and possibilities of new democracies. Given that, it is a mistake to assume that the dirty war era is a closed chapter in Latin America.

There is an integral link between state terrorism and impunity. We define impunity as freedom from accountability or punishment for state crimes or abuses of power. Without impunity for its agents, a state's strategies of terror would begin to lose their capacity to shape behavior; its organizational structures and tactics would become vulnerable. Impunity is a fundamental cornerstone of the state's terrorist machinery. Even after transitions from military rule, agents or organizations of the state's coercive apparatus, armored by impunity, can continue to limit democratic dissent and political opposition by maintaining a frightening presence in state and society. Impunity is key for the maintenance of political and social control by the powerful.

The question of impunity for the military regimes that perpetrated state crimes has been a burning issue in Latin America since the early 1980s, when military forces began to relinquish government to civilians throughout the region. Immunity from prosecution was a central demand and a primary condition placed by armed forces upon incoming civilian elites during the region's transitions from authoritarian rule. Impunity was institutionalized by various means: civil-military pacts of transition, executive decrees and pardons, amnesties or other legislation, and military court decisions. These mechanisms reinforced the status of powerful military and security personnel as a caste above the law. Essentially, patterns of impunity were reproduced in new democracies, forming an authoritarian legacy with far-reaching ramifications. One of the subtexts of the 1998 arrest of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet was the fact that the terms of such pacted transitions were implicitly called into question, their legitimacy ch allenged from a legal and human rights perspective.

The validity and morality of elite pacts were extensively debated in academic, political, government, legal, and human rights circles throughout the 1980s. …

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