March 24 is the 38th anniversary of the coup d’etat in Argentina that brought military dictatorship to that the South American nation. The same week marks the beginning of the Movement for Peace with justice Dignity in Mexico, catalyzed by the March 28 assassination of seven young people, including the son of poet Javier Sicilia.
Two terrible events, separated by 35 years, represent the endless struggle for truth and justice in the Latin America. It is a struggle for justice for innumerable cases kept alive by the pain of thousands of families. But it’s also, and even more so, a struggle to break down the wall of lies that protect governments–governments that continue to hide the violence and corruption at the core of the system.
There have been major advances in truth and justice movements in recent years. The historic trial of General Efrain Ríos Montt in Guatemala brought to the public eye the horrors of the genocide campaign against the Mayan population. For the first time, the voices of indigenous men and women–victims of atrocities–were heard in a court of law.
In Peru, the rulings against former president Alberto Fujimori in the massacres in Barrios Altos and La Cantuta struck a blow to impunity. In Colombia cases of past crimes have been brought to court, although not nearly as many as should be.
On occasion, judges rule in favor of justice and against the powerful interests that exercise control over the courts. In those cases, international law prevails. Even when shadow powers are stronger than the justice system and historical criminals go free, as frequently happens, the mere fact of making the truth public through the voice of the victims is a major achievement for society.
In nearly all the cases, the investigations and truth commissions unearth incontrovertible evidence of what the survivors already knew firsthand and had to silence for years.
Although the process has not concluded, Guatemala will never be the same since it heard the stories, in weak but determined voices, of Ixchil women who suffered sexual slavery at the hands of the Guatemalan Army during the dirty war. Mexico is not the same since the victims of the drug war spoke out and organized in the Movement for Peace. The survivors may not have broken the system of impunity, but at least they broke the silence.
Today new sources and new discoveries add to the historical memory. Modern forensic investigations are digging up the clandestine graves meant to bury the past and giving voice to the dead. Recovered archives, like the 1,500 folders found below the Condor Building in Buenos Aires, or the rotting papers of the National Police Archive in Guatemala, add crucial pieces to the historical puzzle. The cold examinations of the morgues, the efforts to reconstruct the collective memory–all have helped reveal crimes against humanity that are not subject to statutes of limitations or oblivion.
In Argentina more than 2,000 individuals are accused for crimes of the dictatorship, and 386 had been condemned by the end of last year. In other countries too, men who held power have fallen from the throne to ignominy.
With the efforts of organized civil society, some patterns are emerging. A recent report on justice for crimes of the past in Latin America states that one is “the close link between political repression and economic policy.”
In reference to the Argentine dictatorship, the authors note,”this is reflected in the benefits that various economic groups received and in the specific actions carried out by different companies, among them kidnappings and torture.” With few exceptions, the alliance between the authoritarian governments and the national and international business sectors made possible the bloody decades that marked our countries forever.
Another lesson that has emerged is the systematic role of sexual violence in the repression. The trials for crimes of the past have made important advances in revealing this strategy and giving voice to the victims, who rarely appeared in previous investigations and legal processes. Sexual violence against women has a differentiated character and impact, from the intention to the execution of the act. To attack a woman’s body is to attack an entire community and its capacity for reproduction and resistance.
In Argentina the report notes, “sexual violence in the clandestine centers formed part of the general plan of annihilation and degradation of the subjectivity of the persons and, therefore, these are not isolated cases.” These crimes are more than attacks against women, they are strategies of extermination.
Demanding punishment for sexual violence is a huge step forward, because although genocide is registered as a crime against humanity in international law, rape, sexual slavery, and sexual attacks have been up to now seldom codified in international law and rarely brought to justice. They constitute a wound that does not heal, that festers in the dark, stigmatized as though the shame were of the woman and not of a profoundly sick political system.
Despite significant advances toward justice in Latin America, there have also been reverses. In Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, the historical perpetrators are in power, self-protected from the truths of the past and the denouncements of the future. Crimes continue even with new legal frameworks ostensibly designed to avoid and prosecute them. For example, there has been a notable increase in extrajudicial executions by the state lately. Any person considered, without trial, to be linked to drug trafficking can be the target of execution, as if he or she were automatically stripped of all humanity.and its attendant rights.
Rape and sexual violence by the armed forces and police continues to take place with impunity. There have been more coup d’etats–in Honduras and Paraguay–and now attempts to overthrow the elected government of Venezuela.
There is also a lesson that seems not to have been learned regarding the role of international organizations and in particular of the U.S. government. Up to now, efforts at historical accountability have left these relatively unscathed, in spite of the fact that they actively supported the dictatorships and the dirty wars, and finance the current re-militarization in the name of the drug war. At some time, legal processes have to recognize that foreign policies that support murderers are accomplices of death.
Of all the goals of the movements for truth and justice, the most important is the least achieved: to guarantee the crimes will not be repeated. That’s what historical memory is for. Not to grieve forever, but to build a future free of the violence of the past.
The slogan of Mexico’s Movement for Peace states, “Because we remember, we sow justice.” Justice is not just the resolution of individual cases of the past. The greatest truth revealed in the search for justice is that the crimes are not just of the past. They are re-committed, day after day, by those in power and the same institutions charged with protecting society.
The big challenge, then, goes beyond investigating and bringing to justice what happened in the past. The challenge is to stop the death machine run by powerful economic and political interests.
If we owe it to the past to seek justice, we also owe it to the future to assure that the past is not repeated.
Laura Carlsen es directora del Programa de las Américas www.americas.org. This text is based on my weekly radio column. The Spanish original can be found here: