Human Rights and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, June 1999 Spanish Translation 

Prepared for the Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean: Rio de Janeiro, 28-29 June 1999.

Human Rights Developments

  • Fidel Castro celebrates forty years in power; tries political dissidents

  • Latin nations restrict individual rights, due process in struggle against common crime.

  • Freedom of expression under attack in Chile

  • U.N.-sponsored truth commission in Guatemala releases report, accusing state of acts of genocide, massive rights violations. Logbook reveals executions and torture committed by Guatemalan military. President Alvaro Arzú lashes out at non-governmental organizations.

  • Leftist guerrillas carry out mass kidnappings in Colombia.

    Democracy in the region

    As the millennium draws near, multi-party democracies appear stable throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean, with the notable exception of Cuba, where the government of Fidel Castro celebrated its fortieth anniversary in power on January 1, 1999, with no sign of a significant political opening on the horizon. On March 1, the government conducted a closed trial for four prominent dissidents imprisoned since July 1997. Meanwhile, the anti-democratic tendencies of Peru's President Alberto Fujimori have become ever more pronounced as he maneuvers to seek an unprecedented third term in office, despite a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms for any president. Widespread harassment and intimidation of opposition journalists in 1998 and 1999 has been attributed to the national intelligence service, whose de facto head, Vladimiro Montesinos, is a close advisor to President Fujimori.

    Chile's willingness to use antiquated desacato (contempt for authority) laws to repress speech embarrassing to high-level military and civilian officials became glaringly apparent in April 1999 when a judge impounded all available copies of the newly published Black Book of Chilean Justice, by journalist Alejandra Matus. Matus left the country before being prosecuted under Chile's forty-year-old National Security Law, which provides special protection to government and military officials from offenses. However, on June 16, the manager and editor of Planeta, the publishing house that released the book, were arrested.

    Violations of the laws of war in internal armed conflicts

    The internal armed conflicts that only a few years ago engulfed countries including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Peru have all but ended, with the notable exception of Colombia, which alone in the region remains awash in political violence as all parties to that country's internal armed conflict commit egregious violations of the laws of war.

    The greatest portion of atrocities in Colombia have been attributed to paramilitary groups, which continue in many instances to receive support from the armed forces. When not directly participating in paramilitary massacres, government security forces have done nothing to protect the population from them. The government has taken some steps towards purging the military of known human rights abusers. On April 9, President Pastrana cashiered Generals Rito Alejo del Río and Fernando Millán , the highest-level army officers ever fired for alleged human rights violations. The Attorney General's Office is pursuing a case against Del Río for alleged support for paramilitary violence. A similar case against Millán remains before a military tribunal and will likely end in impunity. Colombia's military courts are notoriously lenient in judging members of the armed forces accused of human rights violations.

    In May, the Attorney General's Office suspended Gen. Jaime Humberto Uscátegui, commander of the second army division, from active service, for failing to prevent a massacre in the village of Mapiripán, Meta, in 1997. Unfortunately, his case has also been referred to a military court, leaving little chance for successful prosecution.

    Meanwhile Colombian guerrillas continue to systematically violate the laws of war. In February 1999, militants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) seized, then executed three U.S. citizens who had visited the U'wa indigenous group in Northeastern Colombia.

    Another Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), committed a series of mass kidnappings in 1999. ELN leader Antonio García defended kidnapping as a "taxation policy" in press interviews and said the group would continue the practice. On April 12, the ELN seized forty-one passengers and crew members of an Avianca airline flight. A month later, over 140 worshipers at a Cali church were taken.

    In Peru, Shining Path forces continued to use vicious methods against civilians. On May 28, 1999, some thirty members of the group entered the town of Uchiza, in the department of Huallaga, in four vehicles. During a frustrated bank robbery the group opened fire on civilians, killing trade unionist Jesús Espinoza León, and two schoolchildren, as well as a policeman.

    Accountability for past human rights violations

    Guatemala, at peace since 1996, witnessed publication of the most comprehensive study yet of the massive human rights violations that accompanied its thirty-year armed struggle. The March 1999 report of the U.N.-sponsored truth commission found state forces and paramilitary groups responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations it documented. Eighty-three percent of the victims of arbitrary execution or disappearance were Mayans, leading to the conclusion that the state was responsible for acts of genocide.

    On May 20, Human Rights Watch and three other human rights organizations released a document smuggled out of Guatemalan military files that revealed the fate of more than 180 individuals "disappeared" by Guatemalan security forces between August 1983 and March 1985. Most of the individuals listed in the logbook were apparently murdered, several were turned over to military bases to act as informers, and a few escaped or were freed. The document constituted the first evidence of its kind to come from within military files.

    Like its neighbors, Guatemala's peace has remained uneasy, as soaring rates of common crime replace political violence as the greatest threat to public security. In Guatemala as in the region's other transitions from political violence, impunity remains the Achilles' heel of the peace process. Violent crimes remain unpunished, and the shocking assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in April 1998 show the limits of a peace process that failed to establish accountability for egregious human rights violations. Additional acts of violence and intimidation in 1999—including the assassination in Guatemala City of opposition politician Roberto Belarmino González in May and threats to other members of his party—suggest a worsening situation.

    In Chile, the Senate is currently discussing a measure that would further impunity for gross human rights violations, in the purported interest of establishing the fate of those disappeared during Chile's seventeen-year military dictatorship (1973-1990). The Senate bill would offer complete anonymity to anyone implicated in human rights violations who provides information that would clarify the fate of disappeared individuals. Combined with the amnesty law enacted by the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1978, this new measure would reduce even further the narrow possibilities for establishing accountability for the egregious human rights violations practiced by the military government. In addition, it would be unlikely to prove useful in the discovery of human remains, as Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission established that many victims' bodies were thrown into the sea or destroyed by explosives. Passage of this measure would be a serious setback to efforts to establish truth and justice regarding thousands of "disappearances" from the time of the dictatorship.

    Human rights violations as crime control

    Impunity for powerful, violent criminals, a yawning gap between rich and poor, and corrupt and ineffective police and judiciaries have conspired to leave many Latin American and Caribbean nations victim to seemingly uncontrollable crime. The inability of police and courts across the continent to control common crime by legal means have produced serious setbacks in human rights. Amid intense public pressure for crime control, several governments have made the rights of defendants a scapegoat for the failure of law enforcement, making irresponsible public statements that seemed to justify or even invite police brutality. Some governments went so far as to enact legislation to curtail defendants' rights in criminal proceedings.

    Mexico and Peru in 1998 developed legislation that chipped away at due process rights of individuals suspected of common crimes. Arguing that human rights guarantees constituted a strait jacket in the fight against increasingly sophisticated crimes, President Ernesto Zedillo sent new anti-crime proposals to the Congress that would facilitate detentions based on slim evidence — a serious problem in a country noted for illegal arrests, fabrication of evidence, and a barely functioning system of public defenders.

    More drastic measures were taken by Peru's President Alberto Fujimori in 1998. Following an upsurge in violent crime in Lima, the Congress gave Fujimori decree-making authority on national security matters for fifteen days. The president issued a number of decrees that severely eroded basic due process guarantees for common crime suspects and reproduced some of the worst features of the now-defunct faceless court system that had been used to try terrorist suspects. Under the new system, those accused of gang-related activities could be detained without charge for up to fifteen days and under no conditions could be released before trial. Those accused—including minors between the ages of sixteen and eighteen—are subject to trial by military courts. Other decrees drastically reduced the effectiveness of habeas corpus against arbitrary arrest.

    Meanwhile President Fujimori has abruptly stopped processing pardon recommendations presented to him by the government's own Ad Hoc Commission, set up in 1996 to review the cases of innocent prisoners convicted by the so-called faceless anti-terrorist courts. Established by decree in 1992, the faceless courts sent thousands of terrorism suspects to serve lengthy prison sentences based on trials that violated the most fundamental due process rights. After accusing the Ad Hoc Commission, whose three members include Fujimori's minister of justice, of presenting to him as innocents cases of genuine terrorists, the president in February ceased granting pardons to cases brought before him by the commission. President Fujimori has rejected outright thirty-five cases presented to him by the respected commission, and the cases of an estimated 200 imprisoned individuals deemed innocent by human rights groups are now bottled up.

    Police brutality remains notorious in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. In São Paulo, military police forced three youths aged fourteen, seventeen, and twenty-one into a squad car in the dawn hours of February 17, 1999, the morning ending Carnival. The detention and subsequent "disappearance" of the youths provoked outrage and reaction from authorities largely because none of the three had criminal records and were all from relatively affluent families. On April 2, their bodies were discovered in a nearby wooded area, each bearing the marks of a single well-placed shot to the head.

    Prison conditions

    Conditions of detention remain horrendous in much of Brazil, Venezuela, and Central America. Throughout the region, the practice of holding detainees in pretrial detention creates situations in which the vast majority of the prison population is unsentenced, usually sharing overcrowded cells with convicted criminals. In Venezuela, prisons are severely overcrowded, understaffed, and, above all, violent. In police lockups in Minas Gerais, Brazil, where more than 80% of the prison population is held for months or years in small cells designed for short term detention, torture has been routinely applied, including such methods as electric shock and near-drowning. Meanwhile severe overcrowding, official violence, and appalling conditions continue to provoke rebellions in Brazil's prisons, jails, and police holding centers, some of them ending in extrajudicial executions of escaped prisoners by police.

    In a positive development, Peru's Congress in February 1998 passed a law specifically outlawing torture, providing appropriate penalties, and ensuring that military and police officers accused will be tried in civilian courts. Nonetheless, the practice of torture has continued. A case being investigated under the law was that of Pablo Pascual Espinoza Lomé, who was beaten to death on January 18, 1999, at the Yanamilla Prison in Ayacucho by a prison guard after he was discovered to have drank an alcoholic beverage made of corn ("chicha"). His spleen was ruptured and he suffered an internal hemorrhage.

    Persecution of Human Rights Defenders

    Colombia stands out in the region for its shocking record of assassination of human rights defenders, at a time when such crimes have become more unusual throughout the hemisphere. During 1998, six human rights defenders were murdered, among them government officials investigating human rights abuses as well as nongovernmental defenders.

    On January 28, 1999, four members of the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitación, IPC), were kidnaped by hired gunmen acting for paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. The victims were Jairo Bedoya, Claudia Tamayo, Jorge Salazar, and Olga Rodas. Castaño released the four defenders in February; however, his forces subsequently abducted Sen. Piedad Córdoba, a vocal supporter of human rights, for a brief period in May.

    The following Saturday, two human rights workers were hauled off a bus in Medellín and shot dead. Everardo De Jesús Puerta and Julio Ernesto González worked for the Committee to Support Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos, CSPP) and were headed for their annual planning meeting.

    Guatemala has yet to make progress in solving the shocking murder in April 1998 of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death days after the church human rights office he directed issued a four-volume study of atrocities by all sides in Guatemala's three decades of internal armed conflict. The government's shoddy investigation into the case brought into serious question its ability to make a break with the nation's tradition of granting impunity to human rights violators. Days before the first anniversary of Gerardi's assassination, armed men raided the home of Ronalth Ochaeta, staff director of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala.

    President Alvaro Arzú only made matters worse in June when he used the occasion of his opening speech to the meeting in Guatemala of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States to denounce non-governmental organizations as "sly instruments of foreign policy" and "small groups of self-styled spokespeople, whose representativeness is debatable..." This kind of statement is reminiscent of those repeatedly uttered in the past by Guatemalan military leaders seeking to distract attention from human rights violations.

    On March 1, 1999, Cuban authorities convicted four leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group on charges against the security of the state emanating from their pleas for release of political prisoners. The four dissidents—Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and René Gómez Manzano—had been in pretrial detention in maximum security prisons since their July 16, 1997 arrests.

    On a positive note, following information provided by Human Rights Watch, federal authorities located the murder weapon used to kill Brazilian human rights lawyer Gilson Nogueira on October 20, 1996 in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. The police found the weapon during a search of property belonging to one of the principal suspects, who has since been arrested. Nogueira had been actively investigating a death involving police and employees of the state public security secretariat and had received numerous death threats prior to his assassination.

    The role of the international community

    Spain and the United Kingdom made historic strides towards establishing accountability for crimes against humanity in October 1998, when British police arrested former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in London. Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón asked that Pinochet be detained for the presumed murder of dozens of Spanish and Chilean citizens during the seventeen years in which Pinochet and the military governed Chile, a time of widespread and egregious violations of the right to life, liberty, and physical integrity, including some 3,000 assassinations or "disappearances." Pinochet's detention was an important victory for the rule of law, suggesting that tyrants could no longer terrorize their own populations, secure in the knowledge that at worst they would face a tranquil exile. In March 1999 a House of Lords appellate panel ruled that Pinochet could be extradited for torture committed after December 8, 1988, the date that the Convention Against Torture entered force in the three countries concerned. The extradition of a former head of state for torture is unprecedented and will set a milestone in international accountability.

    The United States policy of unrelenting confrontation towards Cuba came under increasing attack from all corners of the globe. By a record margin, the United Nations General Assembly in October 1998 approved a nonbinding resolution calling for an end to the nearly forty-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, with only the U.S. and Israel objecting.

    European policy towards Cuba has rested on firm human rights principles without resorting to such a blunt instrument as the U.S. embargo, which the E.U. is on record opposing. Yet the E.U., whose members have become important investors in Cuba, has been unable to translate a principled policy into human rights gains on the island. Canada's constructive engagement policy has been similarly unproductive.

      For further information, contact:
      In Washington, José Miguel Vivanco (Spanish, English):
      (202) 612-4330
      In Rio de Janeiro, James Cavallaro
      (English, Spanish, Portuguese):
      (5521) 549-9174
  • Sections

    Human Rights Developments
    Democracy In The Region
    Violations Of The Laws Of War In Internal Armed Conflicts
    Accountability For Past Human Rights Violations
    Human Rights Violations As Crime Control
    Prison Conditions
    Persecution Of Human Rights Defenders
    The Role Of The International Community

    Related Material

    Americas - HRW World Report, 1999