In the international justice history, Latin America represents a peculiar case. Although no specific international tribunals were established to process the mass crimes committed in this region, the twenty-first century has seen numerous attempts to prosecute these crimes through other legal avenues.
The 1998 arrest of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet in London, executed under the mandate of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón for crimes against humanity, represents a crucial moment in this quest for justice. This event paved the way for redefining imprescriptible crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity and demonstrated the practical applicability of the principle of universal jurisdiction. According to this principle, a crime can be prosecuted by any state, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the location of the crime’s commission.
Pinochet’s arrest, occurring just three months after the signing of the Rome Statute for the creation of the International Criminal Court, is not a coincidence but rather reflects an era of increasing sensitivity to serious human rights violations and the possibility of addressing them through international justice.
Pinochet, who shortly before his arrest had left the command of the Chilean armed forces to become a senator for life, found himself at the center of a legal battle that lasted a year and a half. Returning to Chile in March 2000 for health reasons, he was re-arrested and died in 2006, still under house arrest. The amnesty law he himself promulgated in 1978 significantly complicated the judicial process and the possibility of convicting those responsible for widespread human rights violations.
In many Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Guatemala, which emerged from dictatorships between the 80s and 90s, the military managed to impose amnesty laws before allowing a return to democracy. These laws prevented the military from facing a tribunal for the committed crimes.
Judge Garzón’s initiative shed light on universal jurisdiction, a known but little-used norm, which allows a state to prosecute international crimes regardless of the nationality of the people involved, the location of the crime’s commission, or the nationality of the victims. In Garzón’s specific case, it involved Spanish citizens murdered during the Chilean repression after the 1973 coup.
This legal action reopened discussions on crimes committed during Latin American dictatorships, which, although concentrated in the 70s and 80s, have roots in much more distant historical events. Already during the nineteenth century, countries like Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru had perpetrated violence and massacres against indigenous populations. This trend continued into the twentieth century, with attacks against indigenous groups such as the Yanomani in Brazil, the Ache in Paraguay, the Wichi and Tufa in Argentina, and the Mapuche in Chile, often due to the expropriation of their lands for the exploitation of natural resources by states or international private companies.
In summary, the arrest of Pinochet and subsequent legal actions marked a turning point in the approach to justice for mass crimes in Latin America, challenging amnesty laws and applying the principle of jurisdiction.
The Era of Dirty Wars in Latin America: The Case of Genocide in Guatemala and the Trial of Ríos Montt
Since World War II, the foreign policy of the United States, oriented by the Doctrine of National Security, has had a decisive impact on the governments of Latin America. This approach profoundly influenced the course of political events in regions like Guatemala, where the so-called “dirty wars” developed – a series of internal conflicts characterized by violence and repression against groups identified as political or ideological enemies.
One of the most tragic examples is the military coup in Guatemala, sponsored by the United States in 1954, which began a long and violent civil war lasting 36 years. The state’s military and paramilitary forces, throughout this conflict, killed or disappeared over two hundred thousand people, most of whom belonged to communities, villages, and indigenous groups.
Counter-guerrilla actions began in the country from the 60s, intensifying in response to attacks, kidnappings, and murders perpetrated by rebel groups. In particular, there were entire village destructions in rural areas, aiming to dissuade the civilian population from supporting the guerrillas. However, these actions often had the opposite effect, encouraging adherence to the guerrilla.
The situation reached a climax in 1981, in response to a long crisis following the 1976 earthquake. The government, using international aid to strengthen corruption and its own power, found itself facing a growing guerrilla movement that came to control almost half of Guatemala’s provinces.
In March 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt, with the assistance of American counterinsurgency advisors, overthrew Lucas García and began a brutal campaign of violence. In just eight months, seventy-five thousand people were massacred, with a third of the population in the Ixil area exterminated.
This phase was characterized by a massive forced displacement of people and a scorched earth policy that devastated the resources and properties of thousands of individuals.
The situation changed in 1996, when civilians returned to the government and a peace agreement was signed with the remaining guerrillas. Under the auspices of the United Nations mission in Guatemala, the Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento histórico, CEH) was established. In 1999, the Commission presented a twelve-volume report confirming the genocide committed between 1981 and 1983 against Maya population groups, identified by the army as internal enemies.
In March 2013, more than thirty years after these events, the trial against Ríos Montt began at the Supreme Court of Guatemala. On May 10th, Montt was sentenced to eighty years in prison, fifty for genocide and thirty for crimes against humanity, all committed against the Maya Ixil people. However, ten days later, the Constitutional Court suspended the proceedings due to a technical error. After various delays and legal obstacles, the trial resumed in October 2017, but on April 1st, 2018, Ríos Montt died of a heart attack, sentenced but without having served his sentence.
The Reconceptualization of Genocide in Argentine Courts During the Military Dictatorship
In the context of the violence perpetrated during the military dictatorship in Argentina (1974-1983), characterized by the disappearance of twenty to thirty thousand people (the desaparecidos) and the existence of about five hundred detention and concentration camps, a significant legal discussion on the nature of genocide developed. Unlike other cases of genocide, in Argentina ethnic and religious issues did not play a central role; rather, it was a persecution based on political beliefs.
The Federal Criminal Court of La Plata played a leading role in this discussion. In September 2006, the court sentenced Osvaldo Etchecolatz, a former Buenos Aires police chief, for crimes against humanity, qualifying these crimes as part of a genocide. This was the first sentence that interpreted the actions of the Argentine military junta, which had defined its repressive campaign as a “National Reorganization Process,” as genocide.
The crucial point of this sentence was the interpretation of genocide as the partial destruction of a national group. The court recognized that, although the victims were Argentine citizens, the same country of origin as their persecutors, the intent was to destroy a specific part of the population: those individuals who did not conform to the model of citizenship desired by the regime. This interpretation led to the conclusion that the actions of the military junta were not simply a series of isolated crimes, but rather a systematic campaign of destruction that could be qualified as genocide.
This sentence and others like it generated extensive debate among jurists and scholars. While some argued that the victims were individually selected for their political beliefs and not for belonging to a specific group, others highlighted that the systematic nature of the persecutions against militants of trade unions, student organizations, or neighborhood groups could be seen as an attack against a distinctive group of “political dissidents” within the Argentine nation.
This reconceptualization of genocide in Argentine courts offered a new approach to understanding and prosecuting crimes against humanity, extending the traditional meaning of genocide beyond ethnic and religious boundaries.
This innovative legal interpretation has broadened the scope of what constitutes genocide, moving beyond the conventionally recognized categories of ethnic, national, religious, or racial groups. It acknowledges that any substantial part of a national population can be a target of genocide if there is an intent to destroy that part because of its political identity or ideology.
This judicial perspective in Argentina has had profound implications. It challenges the conventional understanding of genocide, expanding its definition to include the systematic targeting of political groups. This redefinition has sparked a global discourse on how international law understands and addresses crimes against humanity and genocide, particularly in contexts where political, rather than ethnic or religious, groups are targeted.
Moreover, these legal proceedings in Argentina and the trial of Ríos Montt in Guatemala have served as significant precedents in international law. They demonstrate a growing willingness of national courts and international tribunals to interpret and apply international law in ways that respond to the complexities of modern conflicts and human rights abuses.
The developments in Latin America, particularly in the cases of Argentina and Guatemala, represent a significant evolution in the pursuit of justice for victims of state-sponsored violence and oppression. By acknowledging the broader implications of genocidal acts, these legal precedents contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of crimes against humanity. They also serve as a warning to those in power that the international community is increasingly equipped and willing to hold them accountable for their actions against their own citizens, regardless of the guise under which these acts are committed.
In conclusion, the steps taken in Latin America towards recognizing and prosecuting mass crimes, including genocide in a more expanded form, highlight a critical shift in international justice. They underscore the importance of holding perpetrators accountable, regardless of their status or the nature of their victims, and they pave the way for more inclusive and effective legal responses to atrocities worldwide. These cases from Latin America not only shed light on a dark period in the region’s history but also contribute significantly to the global discourse on human rights and international law.