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Human Rights World Report 2001 in Spanish



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Human Rights Developments

Contrasts marked the year in the Americas. The already dire situation in Colombia deteriorated further, and the deep political and institutional crisis in Peru continued to make broad respect for human rights but a distant goal. On the other hand, in Mexico, where presidential elections in July heralded the first change of party in the presidential mansion in more than seventy years, hopes grew that the new president would undertake much-needed human rights reforms. A coup in Ecuador and a failed coup attempt in Paraguay reminded the region of the fragility of democracy. Meanwhile, Chile moved forward in its attempt to prosecute former dictator Augusto Pinochet, and an Argentine judge requested his extradition to face criminal charges for the 1974 Buenos Aires car-bombing of former Chilean army commander-in-chief general Carlos Prats and his wife. Distress signals from Haiti included electoral fraud and unchecked street violence, while in Argentina, nine people, including two members of the former military junta, remained under house arrest, under investigation for their role in the kidnapping of babies during the former military regime.

Through the year's ups and downs, though, one thing remained constant: the everyday violation of human rights-including police abuse, torture, and lack of access to effective justice systems-required far greater attention from policy makers than they were willing to recognize or give.

Colombia constituted the region's most urgent human rights crisis. As fighting intensified in the thirty-year conflict, human rights abuses proliferated. The victims were largely civilians caught between the parties to the conflict, all of which-the military and the paramilitaries with whom they maintained close ties, and the opposition guerrillas-committed atrocities with impunity. Despite claims to the contrary by the Colombian government, there was irrefutable evidence that the country's armed forces continued to be implicated in human rights violations as well as in support for the paramilitary groups responsible for the majority of serious abuses. Troops attacked indiscriminately and killed civilians, among them six elementary school children on a field trip near Pueblo Rico, Antioquia, on August 15. According to witnesses, soldiers fired on the group for forty minutes.

The character of the conflict changed with the entry of the United States as a major investor, providing an infusion of U.S. $1.3 billion of mostly military aid for the government. The package included seven rigorous human rights conditions, including the need for the Colombian armed forces to demonstrate a break with the paramilitaries. The U.S. secretary of state certified that Colombia had met only one of the conditions, related to ensuring civilian, not military, jurisdiction over crimes against humanity committed by soldiers; President Bill Clinton waived the other conditions on national security grounds, effectively sending the message that U.S. policy subordinated human rights to other interests.

A burgeoning crisis in Peru did nothing to alleviate the shadow that Colombia cast over the region. In April, after manipulating the constitution to allow him to run, President Alberto Fujimori won a third presidential victory in an electoral process roundly denounced as fraudulent by Peruvian and international observers. Then, in September, scandals involving his government's bribery of opposition politicians and his security chief's alleged undercover sale of arms to Colombia's leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) led to an abrupt change of plans. Fujimori disolved the feared National Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional, SIN), and announced that he would call new elections but not stand again for the presidency. Nonetheless, ten years of Fujimori's abusive leadership left the country's judicial and political systems in shambles, virtually assuring that efforts to rebuild democracy would be hobbled. At this writing, Fujimori remained in the presidency, and his former security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, had returned to the country after unsuccessfully seeking asylum in Panama.

Mexico, too, experienced the promise of political change, but with a decidedly more upbeat forecast than in Peru. After more than seventy years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) lost presidential elections in July. The victor, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN), demonstrated an openness to human rights unprecedented among Mexico's leaders. Scheduled to take office on December 1, Fox quickly met with human rights groups in Mexico, Canada, the United States, and Germany. He announced a thorough and much-needed overhaul of the country's justice system and called for the establishment of a "transparency commission," to seek answers to long-standing questions about some human rights abuses and corruption under successive PRI governments.

With a few setbacks, efforts to obtain justice for past human rights violations in the region prospered. Cause for optimism in the fight against impunity surfaced in Chile, where Pinochet was stripped of his parliamentary immunity after returning home in March, following seventeen months of house arrest in the United Kingdom. Released for health reasons, Pinochet had been held for possible extradition to Spain to face human rights charges there. The former dictator faced more than sixty criminal complaints within Chile, lodged since January 1998 by relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions, "disappearances," and torture, and by political parties, trade unions, and professional groups. In August, the country's Supreme Court concurred with a lower court that there was enough evidence against Pinochet to warrant removing his immunity. Advances also took place in other cases against former military officers and members of the intelligence services under Pinochet's former military government. In July, two former army majors and a cadet received life sentences for the 1982 murder of Juan Alegría Mandioca, the scapegoat for the murder of a union leader.

The same Spanish judge who had ordered Pinochet's arrest in London, Baltasár Garzón, also sought the detention of former Argentine military officer Ricardo Miguel Cavallo in August. Living in Mexico, Cavallo was accused of genocide, terrorism, and torture stemming from his alleged role as a torturer at Argentina's infamous Navy Mechanics School under military rule. At this writing, Cavallo fought extradition while waiting in a Mexican prison.

Argentine authorities also contributed to the fight against impunity in cases related to the kidnapping of children during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Nine people, including former presidents brigade general Reynaldo Bignone and general Jorge Videla, and former junta member admiral Emilio Massera, were under house arrest in relation to the alleged kidnapping of over 200 children.

The fight against impunity received a setback in Italy, though, in a case involving another accused Argentine human rights violator. Former army Maj. Jorge Olivera was detained in Rome in August, following an extradition request from a French judge, Roger Le Loire. Olivera stood accused of torture, kidnapping, and "disappearance" in the case of French citizen Marieann (or Marie Anne) Erize in 1976, but was released after an Italian court ruled that Erize was dead, not "disappeared," and that the statute of limitations had run out for the other crimes. The court made its finding on the basis of what later turned out to be a falsified death certificate.

The United States contributed to another serious setback to the otherwise positive worldwide trend toward the application of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. In March, based on legislation obliging the United States to prosecute torturers, justice department officials detained Peruvian army intelligence agent Maj. Tomás Ricardo Anderson Kohatsu, sparking hope that he might be prosecuted for serious human rights abuses that he allegedly committed in Peru. Anderson was implicated in numerous violations, including the torture of a former intelligence agent who was left paraplegic as a result. But in a regrettable decision, the Department of State obtained Anderson's release, claiming that he enjoyed immunity because he was brought to the U.S. to participate in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Within the United States, two former military leaders in El Salvador faced wrongful death charges in a federal court in Florida. Former defense minister Gen. José Guillermo García and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who headed that country's notoriously brutal National Guard, stood accused of the wrongful death of four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980. In 1984, lower-ranking members of the National Guard were convicted in the case in El Salvador. The civil case was brought in the United States by relatives of the victims.

The cause of truth, if not justice, also received a boost in Guatemala, after the January inauguration of President Alfonso Portillo. Just months after taking office, he declared a national day in honor of the estimated 200,000 victims of Guatemala's thirty-five-year civil conflict, ratified the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances, and admitted state responsibility for past violations in many well-known cases, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the December 1982 Dos Erres massacre of at least 162 people.

If cause for optimism was to be found in efforts to hold human rights violators to account, events in Ecuador and Paraguay underscored the fragility of democracy in the region. On January 22, the Ecuadoran military, allied with a coalition of indigenous groups, toppled elected President Jamil Mahuad, replacing him briefly with a three-man junta. Just days later, the military stepped aside for Vice-President Gustavo Noboa. In Paraguay in May, army officers failed in an attempt to oust President Luis González Macchi.

A host of other human rights violations also took place during the year. In countries including Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and Venezuela, abuses by security forces and impunity remained serious problems. A common denominator was the failure of these countries' justice systems to provide effective remedies for victims of human rights violations. The case of Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores in Mexico highlighted the problem. Environmental activists from Pizotla, Guerrero, they were accused by authorities of drug- and weapons-related offenses. Despite evidence that soldiers planted the evidence used against them, and that the defendants were forced to sign incriminating statements, they were found guilty, demonstrating the abysmal failure of Mexico's justice system. In Guatemala, where United Nations officials documented more than two dozen extrajudicial executions, the weak justice system led to a climate of insecurity and lynchings of alleged criminals by vigilantes.

The case of Sandro do Nascimento demonstrated the problem in Brazil. Nascimento's attempt at armed robbery in Rio de Janeiro ultimately led to kidnapping and murder. Deserving of a trial for his serious offenses, police strangled him to death instead, shortly after his arrest. In São Paulo state, police killings of civilians surged from 525 in 1998 to 664 in 1999, the highest total since 1992, when police killed 111 inmates in a massacre at Carandiru prison. This violent trend intensified over the first six months of 2000, as police in the nation's most populous state killed 489 civilians, an increase of 77.2 percent over the comparable 1999 figure. A study released in July by the police ombudsman shed light on these shockingly high figures. Analyzing the autopsy reports of 222 persons killed by police gunfire in 1999-one-third of the victims of fatal police actions-it reported that 51 percent had been shot in the back and 23 percent had been shot five or more times. The findings suggested that many had been summarily executed, and not killed as a result of legitimate use of lethal force in shootouts, as authorities routinely reported.

In Haiti, electoral fraud and unchecked politically motivated street violence raised serious concerns about the government's willingness and ability to apply the law. Much of the violence was carried out by supporters of Fanmi Lavalas, the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in the context of parliamentary elections held in May.

Human rights violations in Venezuela also continued. Following flooding and mud slides in December 1999, the armed forces murdered suspected looters in Vargas state. Army paratroopers, police, and members of the National Guard were blamed for the execution-style killing of what the state ombudsman said were more than sixty people. The number of extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects elsewhere in the country also increased over the prior year; the nongovernmental Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA) said it knew of seventy-six reports of violations of the right to life by police during the first six months of the year alone.

Press freedom also remained precarious in the region, most severely in Cuba, where authorities maintained almost total control over the flow of news within the island. In Haiti, Radio Haïti-Inter journalist Jean Dominique was ambushed and killed on April 3, along with station bodyguard Jean-Claude Loiussant. Dominique was an outspoken proponent of the rule of law. In Chile, too, journalists suffered restrictions. José Ale Aravena, court reporter for the daily La Tercera, was convicted in February of "insulting" former chief justice Servando Jordán in an article summarizing the judge's controversial career. The journalist's 541-day suspended sentence reminded the country of the authoritarian mentality of some Chilean judges and the weak free speech protections offered under the law. A new law to regulate the press was pending in Congress at this writing. If passed, as expected, the law would provide greater and much-needed protection in several important areas, including by removing jurisdiction from military courts over cases of journalists accused of sedition or espionage under military laws, and by repealing the crime of "contempt of authority" from the State Security Law.

Inhumane conditions of detention remained a common feature throughout the region, with particularly abusive situations found in Venezuela, Brazil, Haiti, Panama, and El Salvador. The continued growth of inmate populations exacerbated overcrowding, at the root of a host of other problems. Yet, all over the region, prisons and jails were not crammed with convicted prisoners, but instead with pretrial detainees, turning the presumption of innocence on its head.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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The Pinochet Decision

The Campaign to Establish an International Criminal Court

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Stop the Use of Child Soldiers


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