Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map Americas



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Human Rights Developments
Multi-party democracies remained stable throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean, with the notable exception of Cuba, where the government of Fidel Castro approached its fortieth anniversary in power with no sign of a significant political opening on the horizon. The anti-democratic tendencies of Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori became more pronounced as he maneuvered to seek an unprecedented third term in office, despite a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms for any president. Fujimori’s machinations to perpetuate himself in power continued to undermine the rule of law and independence of the judiciary: the entire National Magistrates’ Council (Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, CNM) resigned in March to protest laws restricting its powers passed by the Congress, dominated by members of Fujimori’s party. The rubber-stamp congress also altered the composition of the National Electoral Board (Jurado Nacional de Elecciones, JNE) in December 1997 in a way that gave the government greater influence over its decisions.

In Mexico, important gains in electoral pluralism followed unprecedented reforms prior to July 1997 elections and resulted in the loss of once-monolithic political power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). However, these changes did not lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in Mexico. Indeed, serious human rights problems— including torture, arbitrary detention, and a justice system unresponsive to human rights violations — continued to take place throughout the country. President Ernesto Zedillo failed to develop a strategy to respond adequately to individual cases of abuse, strengthen human rights safeguards, or promote the rule of law.

The internal armed conflicts that only a few years ago engulfed countries including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Peru were all but ended, with the notable exception of Colombia, which continued to experience high levels of political violence targeting civilians. Peru experienced continued insurgent attacks but on a greatly reduced scale compared with the early part of the decade. Guatemala joined Nicaragua and El Salvador as the last Central American conflict to end with peace negotiations and an integration of former guerrillas into political life. Like its neighbors, Guatemala’s peace was uneasy, as soaring rates of common crime replaced political violence as the greatest threat to public security. In Guatemala as in the region’s other transitions from political violence, impunity remained the Achilles’ heel of the peace process. Violent crimes continued to go unpunished, and the shocking assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi showed the limits of a peace process that failed to establish accountability for egregious human rights violations.

Impunity for powerful, violent criminals, a yawning gap between rich and poor, and corrupt and ineffective police and judiciaries 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 led to serious setbacks in human rights in 1998. Amid intense public pressure for crime control, several governments made the rights of defendants a scapegoat for the failure of law enforcement. Some elected leaders made irresponsible public statements that seemed to justify or even invite police brutality. Others went so far as to enact legislation to curtail defendants’ rights in criminal proceedings. Meanwhile a defiant movement in the Caribbean and Guatemala to expand the use of the death penalty threatened to seriously undermine regional adherence to international instruments of human rights protection.

The notion of restricting defendants’ rights appealed to governments beset by common crime as a less expensive and perhaps more politically expedient option than making the reforms necessary to professionalize police forces and courts. Yet it was most unlikely to prove effective: countries with corrupt and violent police and weak courts were unlikely to succeed in curbing delinquency by restricting defendants’ rights. Many of the countries with the most serious crime problems were also those in which law enforcement officers were known to work hand-in-hand with criminal gangs. In Brazil’s Alagoas state, for example, dozens of police officers were found in January to have been involved in contract killings, bank robberies, and car theft rings. When state and federal authorities took the unprecedented step of arresting more than thirty police involved in the so-called uniformed gang, investigations led to the discovery of the remains of thirty-two bodies, presumed victims of the gang’s homicides.

Argentine President Carlos Menem articulated the willingness to sacrifice human rights protections in the service of fighting crime during a series of interviews with the daily Clarín in September in which he vowed to adopt a “hard line” towards delinquents. Although “some human rights defense organizations can object,” Menem complained, in Argentina “criminals have more protection than the police or the people.” In a later interview he went on, “When I talk about hard line and zero tolerance, immediately some people say that would mean a return to the ‘easy trigger,’ but we can’t leave the easy trigger to the criminals.” In a country like Argentina, where policy brutality is so ingrained as to appear endemic, these statements can easily be read as a green light for ill-treatment and even extrajudicial executions.

Even more serious, Mexico and Peru 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.

In addition to Argentina and Mexico, police brutality remained notorious in Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, where police in August killed an unarmed Catholic priest, Father José Antonio Muñoz, apparently mistaking him for a criminal suspect. A police captain and sergeant were arrested and held for “imprudent conduct” in connection with the extrajudicial execution, but at this writing had not been charged with a more serious offense. Dominican police continued the practice of arresting family members of criminal suspects and holding them hostage until the suspect surrendered to authorities.
More drastic measures were taken by Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori. Following an upsurge in kidnappings, bank robberies, and armed burglaries—some ending in fatalities—in affluent Lima neighborhoods, the Congress gave Fujimori decree-makingauthority 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 —were subject to trial by military courts. Juveniles faced a minimum sentence of twenty-five years in prison if convicted by these courts, while adults faced a mandatory penalty of life in prison, even if only accused as accomplices. Other decrees drastically reduced the effectiveness of habeas corpus against arbitrary arrest.

Also with an eye to deterring common crime, Guatemala and several Caribbean nations sought to expand use of the death penalty in defiance of international human rights norms. Two appeals courts in Guatemala cleared the way for the first executions of a prisoner for the crime of kidnapping, even though this action would bring the nation in direct violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Guatemala in 1978. At this writing, the cases were pending before the Supreme Court. The American Convention prohibits nations from extending the scope of the death penalty to crimes that were not subject to capital punishment at the time of ratification; in Guatemala, only those abductions resulting in the victim’s death were at that time punishable by execution. At this writing, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court was considering a motion to declare unconstitutional Guatemala’s ratification of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which handles cases involving violations of the American Convention.

In an equally dangerous move for the regional system of human rights protection, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday of Trinidad and Tobago announced in May his government’s withdrawal from the American Convention, a step that would take effect in May 1999. Death row inmates in Trinidad and Tobago had appealed aspects of their cases to the bodies of the inter-American human rights system, a route of appeal the government wanted to eliminate in order to speed up executions. This move — unless reversed, as Human Rights Watch requested in June — would restrict the rights of all victims of human rights abuse in the country to seek the protection of the inter-American system for a wide range of violations. The government had also reportedly considered withdrawing from the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a step that would leave citizens of Trinidad and Tobago without recourse to the United Nations’ human rights system as well as that of the Organization of American States.

This action by Trinidad and Tobago followed the negative precedent set by Jamaica in 1997 of withdrawing from the ICCPR’s First Optional Protocol, also in an effort to avoid international scrutiny of its increased recourse to capital punishment and its appalling prison conditions. In October, the Bahamas hanged two convicts, its first execution in two years, even though their cases were pending at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On July 20, St. Kitts and Nevis carried out its first execution since independence in 1983. Some 250 prisoners awaited death sentences in the English-speaking Caribbean at this writing.

Although President Fidel Castro told Human Rights Watch in 1995 that he intended to abolish the death penalty, Cuba executed prisoners as recently as 1997 and publicly renewed its commitment to retaining the death penalty in a September 1997 report to the United Nations secretary-general. Cuba’s reliance on the Council of State — an entity presided over by President Castro — as the ultimate arbiter of death penalty appeals undercut any appearance of judicial independence in capital cases. Because the Cuban government withholds information about capital punishment, we were unable to determine whether additional executions were carried out in 1998.

Colombia alone in the region remained awash in political violence as all parties to that country’s internal armed conflict continued to commit egregious violations of the laws of war. Renewed discussions of peace under the new government of President Andrés Pastrana, elected in June, did not include initiatives to control these abuses or end the prevailing impunity enjoyed by their authors. The greatest portion of atrocities in Colombia were attributed to paramilitary groups, which continued in many instances to receive support from the armed forces. When not directly participating in paramilitary massacres, government security forces did nothing to protect the population from them. In the case of Puerto Alvira, Meta, local officials and the Office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) alerted authorities over a dozen times of an imminent paramilitary attack. Nonetheless, paramilitaries seized the town unhindered on May 4 and reportedly slaughtered at least twenty-one people, including a five-year-old. Rather than being prosecuted, army officers who assisted or failed to pursue paramilitaries continued to be protected and in some cases promoted. A notable exception to the impunity enjoyed by military and paramilitary forces for atrocities was the February 25 capture of Víctor Carranza, a powerful paramilitary commander. Meanwhile Colombian guerrillas continued systematically to violate the laws of war, executing police officers and soldiers after their capture or surrender, launching indiscriminate attacks, and taking hostages.

In Peru, serious armed conflict affected a reduced portion of the country compared with previous years. We did not learn of any extrajudicial executions or “disappearances” by Peru’s government forces related to counterinsurgency in the first nine months of 1998, but Shining Path forces continued to use vicious methods against civilians. On August 8, a Shining Path unit attacked an electoral meeting in Saposoa, in the department of Huallaga, assassinating a man and woman. From there they traveled to Atarraya, where they seized an electoral candidate and, in front of a town meeting, forced him to kneel. Ignoring pleas for his life, they shot him dead. Peru’s non-governmental Institute for Legal Defense (Instituto de Defensa Legal, IDL) reported thirty-six such assassinations by the Shining Path in the combat-ridden Huallaga region in the first seven months of 1998.

In a positive development, Peru’s Congress in February passed a law specifically outlawing torture, providing appropriate penalties, and ensuring that military and police officers accused would be tried in civilian courts. Nonetheless, the practice of torture continued, as evidenced by the death following torture by police of criminal suspect Willi Llerena Macedo that same month in Ucayali. The officers responsible were charged with fatal assault and abuse of authority.

Conditions of detention remained horrendous in much of Brazil, Venezuela, and Central America. Throughout the region, thepractice of holding detainees in pretrial detention created situations in which the vast majority of the prison population was unsentenced, usually sharing overcrowded cells with convicted criminals. In Venezuela, prisons were severely overcrowded and understaffed, above all, violent. Even by local standards, the first few months of 1998 witnessed a shocking barrage of incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, facilitated by rampant guard corruption in allowing the entry of weapons into prisons and the abysmal failure of authorities to protect prisoners’ lives. In police lockups in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, torture was routinely applied, including such methods as electric shock and near-drowning. Meanwhile severe overcrowding, official violence, and appalling conditions continued to provoke rebellions in Brazil’s prisons, jails, and police holding centers, some of them ending in extrajudicial executions of escaped prisoners by police.












The Pinochet Decision

The Campaign to Establish an International Criminal Court

Sex Discrimination In Mexican Maquiladoras

Stop the Use of Child Soldiers


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch