Latin America has experienced a busy couple of weeks given the recent passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the referendum in the Falklands/Islas Malvinas and the election of the first ever non-European Pope of the Catholic Church, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. These major developments have overshadowed two recent events despite their historical significance. In Argentina, former President Carlos Menem has been convicted of illegal arms sales during his rule in the 1990s. Meanwhile, in Guatemala, former President Jose Efrain Rios Montt is on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the country’s bloody civil war.
Latin America has long been regarded as a region of presidential impunity, where caudillo-like heads of state committed human rights abuses during the Central American civil wars and Operation Condor. Nevertheless, the number of former Latin American presidents that have been prosecuted since the turn of the century is staggering, and hopefully signals that judicial immunity for presidents is slowly coming to an end.
Argentina: Carlos Menem
InArgentina, a court found President Carlos Menem guilty of selling 6,500 tons of weapons to Croatia (in 1991) and to Ecuador (in 1995) while he was president (1989-1999). Menem has claimed that he is innocent and that those weapons were meant to go to Venezuela and Panama but ended up in the aforementioned countries without his consent. On April 3, 1991, the UN imposed an arms embargo on Croatia (then Yugoslavia). In Ecuador’s case, Argentina could not sell weapons to Quito, because Buenos Aires was a peace guarantor between Ecuador and Peru. Several other Menem-era government officials were also convicted of illegal arms sales. The Argentine Congress is expected to discuss Carlos Menem’s trial in the near future.
Menem had already been put on trial for similar charges in 2011 but was never convicted until now. He could serve anywhere between four and 12 years in prison. Nevertheless, it is unlikely Carlos Menem will serve any jail time given his advanced age of 82, dire health status and the influence he still possesses as former president and former senator.
Guatemala: Rios Montt
General Jose Efrain Rios Montt ruled for a relatively short period of time (1982-1983), but his actions during this brief time in power were egregious enough to put him on trial for genocide. The former general came to power and left via military coup. His own defense minister overthrew him in August 1983, due to his dictatorial power grab and unpopularity among the masses. During Montt’s arguably brief time in power he carried out extreme policies, such as “scorched earth” tactics and other government-supported human rights abuses against the guerillas. Over 200,000 individuals, mainly Mayan indigenous people, were killed throughout the country’s 36-year civil war.
Specifically, Montt’s trial has to do with the massacre of 201 villagers in 1982. It occurred in the town of Dos Erres, where the government suspected that the villagers were sheltering left-wing guerrillas. In a 2011 interview published in the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre a survivor of Dos Erres explained his memories of the massacre, the survivor recollected how the male villagers were locked in a school while the women were placed in a church. “When they finished killing the men, they started with the women and children [… I imagine that] the women were raped and then killed,” he explained.
Despite losing power in a military coup and his unpopularity among his country’s citizens, Montt managed to maintain a presence in Guatemalan politics and was elected to Congress in 2007. The BBC explains, “As a congressman, he had enjoyed immunity from prosecution for 12 years.”
“The immunity was lifted on 14 January 2012, when his term in office ran out.” Human rights organizations have regarded the Montt trial as a huge victory against the ongoing impunity of Guatemalan military officers, who perpetrated abuses (i.e. extrajudicial killings) throughout the country’s civil war.
Incredibly, Montt maintains his innocence regarding the Dos Erres massacre and other accusations against him. Even though he was the de facto president of the country, commander in chief of the military and a career soldier, Montt’s defense lawyers are arguing that “he did not determine the level of force that the army used.” In other words, they’re claiming that Montt did not have control of the military even though he was commander of the armed forces. The Open Society Justice Initiative created the websitewww.Riosmontt-trial.orgto report on the most recent developments of this historic trial.
Other presidents and impunity
The conviction of Argentina’s Carlos Menem and the trial of Guatemala’sRios Monttmust be placed in the proper context of former Latin American and Caribbean heads of state that are currently being prosecuted for various crimes. The conviction ratios vary, and understandably there is concern that the political influence of these former presidents will allow them to either be acquitted or escape with reduced jail sentences. Besides the two aforesaid examples, we can also mention how Peru’s dictator, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), is currently carrying out a 25-year prison sentence in a special detention center in Lima. Moreover, there are concerns that his family and supporters, several of which are members of the Peruvian Congress, are trying to convince President Ollanta Humala to pardon the former dictator as he may be terminally ill.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, former dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1971-1986) is also currently on trial. Surprisingly, he is being tried solely for financial crimes, rather than human rights abuses. If he is convicted of these charges, he would only face a maximum of five years in prison. But, it is perhaps the lack of a trial Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) that reminds us best that former Latin American heads of state can use their high levels of influence or successfully use excuses such as health issues to help them avoid being judged and prosecuted for crimes committed during their time in power. Pinochet managed to avoid being extradited to Spain when he was in the U.K., and Chile’s judicial branch found him mentally unfit to stand trial for human rights abuses committed during his lengthy dictatorship. He died in 2006 as a free man.
In spite of some successes to combat presidential immunity and hold former presidents accountable for their crimes, the fate of former Latin American leaders show that, paraphrasing George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, some people are still more equal than others.