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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.

By Dudley AlthausContributor / March 19, 2013

Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt speaks to the press as he arrives to court to stand trial on genocide charges in Guatemala City.

Moises Castillo/AP



Many Latin American societies still fitfully seek justice for the torture, murder, or disappearance of hundreds of thousands of civilians that took place during the military dictatorships, leftist insurrections, and grinding civil wars that ended decades ago.

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There are some signs of progress: Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt goes to trial today in Guatemala City as one of the first former presidents to be tried for genocide in a national court, as opposed to The Hague. The trial echoes the multiple prosecutions seen in recent years of former military officers linked to human rights abuses during the dictatorship-eras in Argentina and Chile.

But those cases have run headlong into amnesties granted to soldiers, with Argentina overcoming them and prosecutors in Chile forced to work around them. And in Uruguay, where an estimated 200 people were disappeared during a 12-year military regime in the 1970s and 1980s, the high court last month struck down a 2011 law allowing the government to investigate abuses during the country's military dictatorship. That effectively reestablishes amnesty for the military officers and others involved in the disappearances and murders of several hundred people there during the military regime.

“It's a totally mixed record,” says Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a law professor at the Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, and a noted expert on “transitional justice,” or the effort to resolve past abuses.

“You think that things are going along swimmingly and then you have things like the Uruguayan Supreme Court decision.”

Many advocates argue that exposing, if not prosecuting, state-sponsored abuses is the only way to allow many of the region's often deeply flawed democracies to move forward. By collecting evidence about the extent of past atrocities, truth commissions and criminal trials provide both cathartic healing and the chance to regain citizens' trust and guarantee these crimes won't easily happen again.

But efforts to resolve past crimes too often clash with the public's desire to move on. And as the nature of large-scale violence has bled from the political to the criminal – especially in Mexico and across Central America – dealing with kidnappings, disappearances, and murders by security forces and gangsters demand new perspectives and strategies, advocates say.

"Transitional justice tools were developed in order to help understand and confront human rights abuses from the past when a change in regime happens," says Ariel Dulitzky, an Argentine human rights law expert at the University of Texas at Austin who has served on United Nations investigative commissions. "I am not sure that they provide a set of tools to confront violence coming from organized crime."

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