The second reason why the cases have recently sprung ahead is that the region has elected liberal and left-leaning governments, all of whom have received a popularity boost by prosecuting military officials from the region’s former dictatorships. In Argentina, for instance, one of Nestor Kirchner’s first moves after taking office amidst economic crisis in 2003 was to pass a law through the Congress annulling the amnesty laws of the 1980’s, to consolidate his electoral legitimacy.
The process is not without its critics. Rule of law adherents have criticized courts here for refusing to respect the region’s amnesty laws, and argue that prosecuting former military officials is a clear violation of due process. They also argue that prosecuting these officials is not helping the cause of democracy and human rights, as the traditional problem in Latin America has been a failure to adhere to the rule of law. These commentators view the prosecutions as evidence of a long line of powerful Latin presidents and dictators who shape the law to their political needs.
Others have criticized the form the trials have taken. Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a long-time human rights activist in Argentina, and a former politician, has criticized the Argentine judiciary for not offering leniency to the defendants in these trials in exchange for cooperation, such as reducing sentences for officials who help locate missing bodies. Meijide’s son, Pablo, was taken by Argentine security forces more than 30 years ago when he was 17 years old. She has not seen him since, and has no idea of the location of his final remains. Meijide, however, has received a tepid and sometimes hostile response from the broader human rights movement, which believes it is unconscionable to negotiate with military defendants.
Neither have the trials been an unqualified success. In Argentina, the process began in 2001, when a lower court judge ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional. Since that time, many defendants have languished in jail without bail, awaiting trial. Though the speed of the cases is picking up – there were two trials with judgments in 2006, two more in 2007 and six in 2008 – hundreds of former military and police officials sit in jail, awaiting their day in court.
The verdict in the case in Rosario is expected in December. Only time will tell if justice has been done.
Sam Ferguson is currently a Yale Law School Robina International Human Rights fellow, and is residing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is writing a book about prosecuting military atrocities committed during the Dirty War. In March, he will begin a Fulbright Fellowship.