Justice for Latin America's Disappeared?

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Buenos Aires, Argentina - On September 3, 2009, three aging, retired officials from Argentina's army entered a federal courthouse in Rosario, Argentina. The men - Pascual Guerrieri, Jorge Alberto Fariña and Juan Daniel Amelong - have been charged with the kidnapping, forced disappearance and torture of 29 people, and the murder of 17 of them during Argentina's last dictatorship.

The case in Rosario is the latest in a tidal wave of cases to reach a courthouse against the dictatorships of the Southern Cone from a generation ago. Until several years ago, less than a dozen officials were ever convicted for the atrocities committed by Latin America's military governments in the 1970s. Most of them were eventually pardoned. But within the last three years - particularly the last year - justice has sped up, including dozens of convictions and hundreds of indictments.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, eight of South America's ten largest countries were ruled by dictatorships. These governments committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, and created a new type of international crime: the forced disappearance. Intelligence services, such as Chile's DINA, raided people's homes; snatched them off the streets; held them in a clandestine locations; denied them all contact with lawyers, family and the outside world and, in many cases, executed them...

... For years, the perpetrators of these atrocities walked free, spared by political compromises during democratic transition. In Uruguay, a general amnesty was passed in 1984 shortly after the return of democracy and was later upheld by popular referendum in 1989. In Brazil, the military passed a self-amnesty law to shield themselves from prosecution in 1979, five years before the return of democracy. The law until now has been respected. In Chile, dictator Augusto Pinochet was even given a permanent seat in the Senate, where he remained for over a decade, after he was forced from the presidency by popular referendum in 1988. Here in Argentina, the military's top officials were prosecuted in the early 1980s, but the military forced the passage of an amnesty law and several presidential pardons after a series of rebellions in the late 1980s and 1990.

But these amnesties have been and are slowly being repealed. Argentina broke the "impunity" (as it is known to human rights activists) when a lower court judge ruled that its own amnesty laws were unconstitutional in 2001. Subsequently, the Supreme Court ratified that decision in the celebrated Simon case, and hundreds of officials have now been indicted. Dozens of cases have reached a courthouse, mostly resulting in convictions. A similar process is under way in Chile and Paraguay. On August 31, a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of 120 former officials from the DINA, Chile's intelligence service...

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