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Latin America makes strides: Former Guatemalan dictator faces genocide trial

As Guatemala's Rios Montt's trial begins today, many advocates argue that prosecuting state-sponsored abuses is the only way to allow the region's democracies to move forward.

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Peru has taken a similar path, with transitional justice advocates hailing the 25-year sentence being served by former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Mr. Fujimori was charged with corruption and human rights abuses during his government's war with the leftist Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrillas in the early 1990s.

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But the Uruguayan Supreme Court ruling echoes a decades-long public debate over how to deal with the abuses of the military dictatorship there, which ruled from 1973 to 1985. In referendums in 1989 and again four years ago, voters voiced support for amnesty.

Even Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, himself jailed for years under the dictatorship, urged amnesty during his 2009 election campaign in order to avoid political turmoil. But following the high court's ruling, President Mujica's left-leaning coalition launched protests supported by international organizations.

"With this verdict, Uruguay has slipped backward toward the situation of near total impunity that characterized its approach to transitional justice for three decades," the Washington Office on Latin America, a watchdog group said in a statement to the press.

Present day crossfire

Latin America is not only dealing with crimes of the past. As governments confront criminal threats that sometimes mirror guerrilla movements, civilians have been caught in the crossfire between security forces and the gangs.

In Mexico, efforts at finding truth – let alone justice – have barely begun amid an ongoing six-year-old military-led campaign against criminal gangs that has left as many as 70,000 people dead and tens of thousands more disappeared.

"A democratic nation, a self-respecting nation, can't accept not knowing where to find more than 20 thousand of it's children, can't accept that thousands of its children are thrown unidentified into a common grave," the poet Javier Sicilia, leader of a movement demanding an end to Mexico's violence, told lawmakers in January after passage of a victim's law aimed at reparations for the gangland war's carnage.

"There won't be sufficient justice for the dead if we don't recover their memory, their names, their histories, their presence among us," Mr. Sicilia said.

President Enrique Peña Nieto's three-month old government has promised to compile a complete roster of those who've disappeared. But military and other security forces largely remain immune from prosecution. And Mexican organizations comprised of victims' families who have demanded that the government act are facing both official and public if not outright hostility.

“Society doesn't listen,” says Diana Iris, a middle-aged housewife whose 23 year old son is one of more than 1,800 people who have disappeared in Coahuila state, which borders central Texas.

“People as a defense say that it is not going to happen to them. They continue living as if nothing is happening. They don't realize the level of violence we are living, the tragedy we are enduring.”


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