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Justice and Impunity in Latin America


Guatemala’s Efrain Rios Montt earned the nickname “the General” after taking power in a 1982 coup d’etat. His sixteen-month rule is considered one of Guatemala’s bloodiest periods since the Spanish conquest. Under the General’s command, entire villages were massacred in a bloody counterinsurgency campaign, and some 150,000 mostly indigenous Guatemalans were killed. Despite his gruesome history, Rios Montt remained a powerful political figure and in 2003 ran as a presidential candidate despite a constitutional ban prohibiting former dictators from entering the race. In 1999, Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú submitted an indictment against the former dictator, but over six years later, the trial is still pending.

Rios Montt is not an anomaly in Latin America. F! rom El Salvador to Chile, ex-military leaders guilty of violent crimes perpetrated during the region’s “dirty wars” of the 70’s and 80s roam free. Many, like Rios Montt, wield enough political power to ensure that their macabre pasts remain buried from public scrutiny. Throughout Latin America, human rights groups are seeking to convict these criminals, but most have confronted the greatest obstacle to a functioning justice system–impunity. In Guatemala, the state has made little attempt to investigate or prosecute those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of war victims–most likely because a large percentage of these criminals still hold high government positions. In the few cases that have ended in conviction, only the material authors, those at the lowest level of the military, have been punished, while the intellectual author! s remain immune to prosecution.

Failing justice systems represent just one example of the weak institutions pervasive to Latin American societies, where corrupt bureaucracies create de facto inequality through clientelistic practices. This, coupled with rampant poverty and lack of education, perpetuates the region’s inequities, thwarting any hope for widespread political participation and democracy. These barriers to democracy could be eliminated, at least in part, by a strong state–that is, one with a ubiquitous and fair legal system and efficient bureaucratic institutions with the power to effectively regulate social relationships. Absent a state that fosters some sort of redistributi! on, however, equality, and therefore democracy, is unachievable.

To that end, the state must play a role in bolstering institutions that level the playing field for all citizens. That is, the state must provide equal access to education–so that citizens cast an informed vote–as well as access to markets through credit institutions and property rights to ensure equal economic opportunities. Most importantly, a key component to promoting equality lies in a strong judicial system that guarantees equality before the law. But how can such institutions be strengthened in states rife with corruption and favoritism?

Perhaps the best hope for the future of Latin American judicial systems lies in the past. By bringing perpetrators of the region’s “dirty wars” to trial, the state can prove that judicial institutions actually function. Justice systems in most Latin American nations have been ineffective for so long that citizens have lost any hope in their functionality. However, only by addressing past crimes can the system transform to become fair and effective in the future.

Convicting figures like Rios Montt is not only important to building state institutions; it is also central to overcoming Latin America’s culture of violence, the terrible relic of decades of conflict. In many Guatemalan indigenous communities, men and women are tormented by the memory of civil war. Tensions are palpable in villages where victims’ family members live alongside ex-paramilitaries that were forced to carry out atrocities against their own and neighboring villages. The effects of this brutal conflict will not easily dissipate. Despite a comprehensive UN report citing atrocities committed during the 36-year war, individual perpetrators have not been denounced, thus undermining the notion of universal justice enshrined in the Guatemalan constitution. This type of selective justice reinforces the ethnically exclusive nature of the country’s political system, leaving scant hope for universal participatory democracy.

The task of reforming Latin America’s judicial systems is daunting, especially given the immense political power of those who will suffer if justice is implemented. However, in order for equality and democracy to take root, all citizens must be afforded the same rights and opportunities and be held to the same standards. Only then will their votes be meaningful.

LISA VISCIDI is a graduate student at NYU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She can be reached at



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