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In Latin America, reconciliation can mean different things to different people. When, in 1990, Chile’s newly-inaugurated president established an official body to investigate the atrocities committed during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s seventeen-year rule, he called it a “truth and reconciliation commission.”
By including the concept of societal reconciliation in the commission’s name, Chile’s civilian authorities sent an unmistakable public message. Seeking to neutralize right-wing opposition to the government’s effort to document the military’s record of torture, killings, and “disappearances,” they were implicitly promising that when the commission’s work was done, the country would move on.
Reconciliation, from this perspective, meant sidelining justice. It meant that the country’s amnesty decree–issued by Pinochet in 1978, at the close of the military junta’s worst period of political repression–would be respected. It meant that instead of allowing prosecutors to prove the military’s responsibility for horrendous crimes, the country would settle for a public report on the violence. There would be truth, at last, but no consequences.
Thirty years have now passed since the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, and more than a decade has gone by since the release of the Chilean truth commission’s findings. Yet in Chile, as in several other countries that have experimented with large-scale amnesties, the formula of truth not justice has failed.
True reconciliation, these countries are now recognizing, cannot be based on impunity. It requires justice, not amnesties. And it means seeing truth commission reports as a starting point, not a point of closure.
“Only the Bones Were Left”
Ask Angélica Mendoza de Ascarza how to achieve reconciliation, and she will tell you to find her son’s body and put his killer behind bars. Mendoza, an indigenous woman from Ayacucho, Peru, heads up a group of relatives of the thousands who “disappeared” during the country’s violent civil conflict.
Last week, Peru’s truth and reconciliation commission released a nine-volume report documenting two decades of guerrilla insurgency and military repression. The report concludes that more than 69,000 people were killed or “disappeared” between 1980 to 2000, mostly residents of impoverished rural areas. Over half of the deaths were caused by Shining Path, a barbaric guerrilla group, while nearly 30 percent were caused by the military, and most of the rest by government-backed militias.
Mendoza’s son, a student, was arrested by the military on July 3, 1983. When Mendoza testified before the truth commission in April 2001, a hearing which I attended, she brought with her a yellowing scrap of paper that is her last remembrance of him.
Dressed in a traditional shawl and speaking in Quechua, Mendoza described how thirty hooded men came to her house and took her son away. “I asked them why they were taking my son,” she related, “and they said that he had to go testify, and that they would return him to me at the gate of the jail. At that point, I grabbed my son I got to the door and clung onto my son, and they dragged us both. They pushed me, they hit me, they stamped on me. They were going to shoot me, and they took my son, put him in the army car and carried him off. I screamed like a madwoman.”
The men brought Mendoza’s son to the local army base, from which he managed to smuggle out a scribbled note. Holding the note in her hands, Mendoza read it to the commission: “‘Mom, I’m inside the base. Find a lawyer, some money, and please get me out of here, I’m desperate.'”
But like thousands of others taken away in such circumstances, Mendoza’s son was never seen again. Litigation, public denunciations, and even bribery proved fruitless. Nor did Mendoza find her son’s body at any of the sites where corpses were dumped. “We found corpses with their eyes hanging out, with no ears, women whose breasts had been cut off,” she told the truth commission. “The soldiers guarded the bodies until the animals devoured them and only the bones were left.”
Justice in Argentina and Chile and, Perhaps, Peru
The tenacity that Mendoza showed in trying to fight off her son’s abductors is still apparent. But now Mendoza’s efforts have a different goal: justice. She sees the truth commission’s meticulously-researched report not simply as an historical accounting, but as ammunition for government prosecutors.
The obstacles to justice are daunting. In Peru, as in other Latin American countries in which official violence was widespread, a sweeping amnesty law is still on the books. That law, passed in 1995 during the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori, was intended to shield military and police officials from prosecution.
On the political side, too, the prospect of criminal trials has already raised hackles. Former president Alan Garcia, who governed the country from 1985 to 1990, is now Peru’s most powerful political figure. Given that he presided over some of the worst abuses and did little to prevent or punish them, he has no reason to want the justice system to revisit these crimes. His political party was overtly hostile to the work of the truth commission, and will likely try to hinder future court investigations.
The struggle for justice in Peru will undoubtedly be difficult, and it may take many years. Still, reviewing recent events in neighboring countries, Peruvians may be heartened to find that that the desire for justice does not lose force over time.
In Chile, where prospects for criminal accountability once seemed nil, hundreds of former members of the armed forces have been charged and now face trial. In the past year, the Chilean courts have convicted several former military officers of heinous crimes committed during the period covered by the country’s amnesty decree. Ruling that enforced disappearance is an ongoing crime, the courts have ruled the amnesty to be inapplicable. While Pinochet himself escaped trial, he did so only on the humiliating grounds of mental incompetence.
Events in Argentina have been even more dramatic. Prosecutions of top-level military officials, including members of the junta, have been ongoing for the past several years. Now, with the election of President Nestor Kirchner, the country has taken unprecedented steps to ensure that “dirty war” crimes are brought to justice. Within days of taking office on May 23, President Kirchner fired senior military officers who had opposed human rights prosecutions, and repealed a government decree preventing the extradition of such defendants to third countries. Soon after, he successfully pushed Congress to annul the country’s amnesty laws.
Reconciliation not Impunity
In Chile and elsewhere, those opposed to the prosecution of past abuses warn of disunity and political polarization. Reconciliation, by their definition, means amnesty, if not amnesia. But this view seems far less persuasive now, with trials ongoing, then it did a decade ago.
Societal reconciliation is a commendable ideal. It should not be misused as a cynical slogan, or a euphemism for impunity.
JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney who has worked in Latin America for nearly a decade. A different version of this article originally ran on Findlaw’s Writ. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org