“People ask ‘why don’t you forgive?’,” says Tita Radilla Martilla Martinez. “Because they don’t tell me what they did to my father. Is he dead or alive? They say ‘don’t re-open the wound’. Re-open? The wound is open - it never healed.”
It has been more than 30 years since Tita Radilla Martínez last saw her father, Rosendo Radilla. He was 60 years old when he was forcibly disappeared in 1974. The social activist and former mayor was last seen in a military barracks in Guerrero State, Mexico.
His family’s hopes for truth and justice were rekindled by a decision from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in November condemned Mexico for failing to adequately investigate his enforced disappearance.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, forcibly disappeared, tortured and many more forced into exile, during the period of military rule in Latin America from the 1960s to the mid 1980s. Return to civilian, democratically elected governments has not, however, overcome the legacy of impunity for most of these crimes. Indeed, a lack of accountability for abuses during this dark period of history has helped perpetuate policies and practices that feed continuing violations. The failure to bring those responsible, at all levels of authority, to justice sends a clear signal that those in power are above the law.
But in April, a democratically elected head of state was convicted of human rights violations for the first time. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for grave human rights violations committed in 1991, including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. The conviction finally shows the region that nobody is exempt from justice. The judges concluded that former President Alberto Fujimori bore individual criminal responsibility because he had effective military command over those who committed the crimes.
Alberto Fujimori was not the only former leader on trial in the year. The trial of former Surinamese President Lieutenant Colonel Désiré Bouterse (1981–1987) and 24 others – accused of killing 13 civilians and two army officers at a military base in Paramaribo in December 1982 – resumed in 2009. Gregorio Álvarez, former general and de facto President of Uruguay (1980–1985) was sentenced to 25 years in prison, for the kidnapping and killing of 37 activists in Argentina in 1978.
In Colombia, the Council of State confirmed the dismissal of an army general for human rights violations. Álvaro Velandia Hurtado and three other army officers were dismissed for the torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of Nydia Erika Bautista in 1987. The country also saw retired army general Jaime Uscátegui sentenced to 40 years in prison in November for his involvement in a massacre of 49 civilians by right-wing paramilitaries in Mapiripán in 1997.
"Many ... investigations in 2009 were obstructed or collapsed; and the hopes and expectations of families for truth, justice and reparation remained frustrated."
During Argentina’s 1976–1983 military regimes, the ESMA Naval Mechanics School served as a clandestine detention centre, where thousands of people were forcibly disappeared, or tortured, or both. Seventeen former ESMA officers, among them Alfredo Astiz, finally went on trial for human rights abuses, including torture and murder, including that of two French nuns, a journalist and three founder members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo human rights group.
Alfredo Astiz was first prosecuted in relation to these crimes in 1985 but amnesty laws, since-repealed, halted the proceedings.
In May, Sabino Augusto Montanaro, Interior Minister during the regime of General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, was arrested after voluntarily returning to the country from exile. He faces trial for human rights violations including crimes allegedly committed under Operación Condor – a regional security co-operation against perceived political opponents. In September, more than 165 retired ex-agents of the Chilean National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) were charged in Chile for their roles in the operation, as well as in other cases of torture and enforced disappearance in the early years of Chile’s military regime.
Despite this important progress in a growing number of emblematic cases of past human rights violations, justice for most of the hundreds of thousands of victims of past human rights violations remained elusive. Amnesty laws continued to hamper efforts in El Salvador, Brazil and Uruguay to hold violators accountable, and a national referendum in Uruguay on the annulment of the 1986 Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State (Expiry Law) failed to reach the required majority needed to overturn the law. In the run-up to the referendum, however, the Uruguayan Supreme Court reached an historic ruling on the unconstitutionality of the law in the case of Nibia Sabalsagaray, a young activist opponent who was tortured and killed in 1974. The ruling, along with interpretations made by the Executive to limit the application of the law, allowed for some progress on justice.
In a somewhat swifter process, people who suffered human rights violations in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during violent political protests, may find their justice a step closer – with the finalization of the Supreme Court investigation into the political crisis four years ago. It concluded that the state governor and other senior officials should be held accountable, but no steps were taken to indict them.
However, many other investigations in 2009 were obstructed or collapsed; and the hopes and expectations of families for truth, justice and reparation remained frustrated. A Mexican federal court, for example, closed the case of genocide against former President Luis Echeverría, and the armed forces in Brazil continued to block progress into past abuses. In December, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the creation of a truth commission to investigate torture, killings and enforced disappearances during the military rule of 1964 to 1985, as a part of the Third National Human Rights Plan. Following concerted pressure from the military, there were concerns that the proposal could be watered down.
And little progress was made in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights violations in the context of US conduct in the “war on terror”.
As well as national prosecutions’ attempts to combat impunity in Latin America, international justice continued to play an important role in 2009. In June, Chile became the final state in South America to ratify the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, and in November, the declaration under Article 124 of the Rome Statute, by which Colombia had declared that for seven years it did not accept the jurisdiction of the Court with respect to war crimes, came to an end, paving the way for investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In January, a Spanish National Court charged 14 Salvadoran army officers and soldiers with crimes against humanity and state terrorism for the killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter at the Central American University in El Salvador in November 1989. In August, a Paraguayan judge ordered the extradition of former army doctor Norberto Bianco to Argentina to face trial for his alleged role in the illegal detention of more than 30 women and subsequent appropriation of their children in 1977 and 1978 during the military regime.
The trial of former Chilean Military Prosecutor General Alfonso Podlech in connection with the enforced disappearance of four people in the 1970s, including former priest Omar Venturelli, began in Italy in November. That same month, a US court ruled that sufficient grounds existed to try former Bolivian President Sánchez de Lozada and former Defence Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín in the USA in a civil suit for damages in relation to charges of crimes against humanity including extrajudicial executions in 2003.
Public security concerns
The public security situation affecting many countries continued to cause great concern. Murder rates for women and men continued to rise, in particular in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica. Millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean’s poorest communities were plagued by violent criminal gangs and repressive, discriminatory and corrupt responses by law enforcement officials. At the same time, members of the security forces, especially the police, were required to work in ways that often put their own lives at risk.
As organized criminal networks extended their activities from drug trafficking, to kidnapping and trafficking of people, including women and children, the risks to irregular migrants and other vulnerable groups intensified. Governments in the region typically did very little to collect data and analyze these new problems, and even less to prevent abuses or bring to justice those responsible.
Official efforts to address escalating crime were often undermined by allegations of grave human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment. In Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia and Mexico, the security forces were accused of committing hundreds of unlawful killings – the vast majority of which were dismissed as “killings while resisting arrest” or simply dismissed as false allegations designed to dishonour the security forces.
"A general trend in 2009 towards an arms build-up in the region led to concern about the potential impact on human rights for people already living in fragile or non-existent security."
Despite reports of serious human rights violations by armed and security force personnel, Colombia and Mexico continued to receive significant security co-operation from the USA, and more is expected under the terms of the Merida Initiative – a heavily financed agreement between Mexico (and other certain Central American countries) and the USA to combat organized crime.
Some countries encouraged alternative public security projects – a crucial initiative for challenging illegal policing methods – but they frequently fell short of expectations, and they were criticized by the affected communities in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, for example, as further delaying urgently needed policing reform, and failing to address the broader needs of the communities.
Conflict and crisis
A general trend in 2009 towards an arms build-up in the region led to concern about the potential impact on human rights for people already living in fragile or non-existent security.
The civilian population in Colombia continued to bear the brunt of the 40-year-old internal armed conflict. All the warring parties – the security forces, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups – to the conflict continued to abuse human rights and violate international humanitarian law. Indigenous Peoples, social leaders and human rights defenders were among the most vulnerable. At least 3 million and possibly as many as 5 million people have been forcibly displaced as a result of the long-running, armed conflict. As many as 286,000 were forced from their homes in 2009 alone. Women continued to suffer sexual violence, communities continued to be subjected to hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, forced recruitment of children, indiscriminate attacks, and those deemed a particular risk to each party’s interests faced death threats to intimidate them.
Insecurity and instability were not limited to Colombia, however. In a disturbing echo of the past, Honduras experienced the first military-backed coup d’état in Latin America since Venezuela’s in 2002. Months of political turbulence and instability followed, which November elections failed to resolve. The security forces met protests against the coup with excessive use of force, intimidation and attacks against opponents. Freedom of expression was curtailed as several media outlets were closed and there were reports of violence against women and the killing of more than 10 transgender women. The Tegucigalpa-San José accord – brokered by the international community and which included a truth commission to clarify responsibilities – made no progress and the de facto government remained in power at the end of the year.
Hopes and expectations for a new era of hemispheric relations were initially borne out by US pledges on partnership. When President Barack Obama addressed the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, he promised an era of mutual respect and a multilateral approach. However, by the end of the year, relations were strained by the Honduras crisis, US policy on Cuba and Colombia’s agreement to allow the USA to use some of its military bases. Growing tensions between several Latin American countries – Colombia with neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela, and Peru with neighbours Chile and Bolivia – also hampered efforts to move towards greater regional integration.
Economic concerns – poverty
Deep and persistent inequalities continue to exist in the Americas, especially in access to education, income levels, health and nutritional status, exposure to violence and crime, and access to basic services.
Although some Latin American and Caribbean countries were not as severely affected by the international financial crisis as initially feared, an estimated 9 million more people were tipped into poverty in the region in 2009. This reversed the recent trend of reducing income poverty, fuelled by economic growth. With varying degrees
"Despite the simple legal fact of a woman’s own right to life and health, the issue [of abortion] continued to polarize opinion and emotion."
Giving birth safely in 2009 continued to be the privilege of only the most affluent women in the region. In every country – including high-income economies the USA and Canada – already marginalized women, such as African-Americans or Native American women, had the highest risk of death from complications in pregnancy or childbirth – disparities which in the USA had been unchanged for the past 25 years.
Violence against women and girls
Violence against women and girls remained endemic. The number of reported cases of domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, and the killing and mutilation of women’s bodies after having been raped, rose in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti. In several countries, in particular Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, data suggested that more than half these victims were girls.
Discrimination against women, and the lack of rigorous investigations into complaints of violence, was highlighted by several international bodies. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for example, condemned Mexico for failing to act diligently to prevent or effectively investigate or remedy the abduction and murder of three women in Chihuahua in 2001. The authorities in several countries, including Uruguay, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, acknowledged they were unable to deal with the level of complaints relating to violence against women, even though specialist gender units were established in a number of criminal justice systems. Medical care for survivors was often deficient or wholly lacking.
Implementation of laws to ensure respect for women’s rights and prevent violence remained slow, especially in Argentina, Mexico, Jamaica and Venezuela. A number of countries, mainly those in the Caribbean, introduced reforms but fell short of international human rights standards by not criminalizsing rape in all circumstances.
Abortion in cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk was accessible and available in a number of countries including Colombia, Mexico Federal District, Cuba and the USA. In many other countries where it is allowed legally, in practice there were obstacles
Despite the simple legal fact of a woman’s own right to life and health, the issue continued to polarize opinion and emotion, with campaigners and health care professionals involved in abortions receiving threats and a US doctor being killed.
On a more positive note, steps were taken to uphold the rights
of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). Mexico City passed a ground-breaking bill legalizing gay marriage. However, Honduras, Peru and Chile failed to protect their LGBT communities from harassment or intimidation, along with Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Guyana.
Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples remained both systemic and systematic across the region. Decisive action to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights did not match rhetoric. There was a general failure to consider Indigenous rights in decisions to do with licensing oil, logging and other resource concessions. The right to free, prior and informed consent about matters that may impact Indigenous Peoples’ lives is defined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In Canada, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, Amnesty International documented cases where the authorities failed to establish a robust process to ensure this right was upheld in development project proposals.
Massive oil and gas developments continued to be carried out in Canada, for example, without the consent of the Lubicon Cree in northern Alberta, undermining their use of traditional lands and contributing to high levels of poor health and poverty.
Throughout the region, evictions of Indigenous Peoples from their ancestral lands were reported. Threats, intimidation and violence against Indigenous leaders and community members were common.
A new Constitution in Bolivia which took effect in February, asserted the centrality and plurality of Indigenous identities in the country and set out a framework for reform, including by elevating Indigenous jurisdiction to be equal to current judicial processes.
Indigenous Peoples across the region campaigned throughout the year for their social, civil, economic, cultural and political rights to be upheld. They were frequently met with intimidation, harassment, excessive use of force, spurious charges and detention. In Queretaro, Mexico, one Indigenous woman was released but two others remained in prison at the end of the year, pending the outcome of their retrial on the basis of fabricated criminal charges. In Peru, Indigenous leaders were charged with rebellion, sedition and conspiracy against the state, without any evidence, following the dispersal of a road blockade by hundreds of Indigenous people in which scores of protesters were injured and 33 people killed – including 23 police officers. In Colombia, the authorities often falsely accused Indigenous communities and their leaders of links to the guerrilla forces.
Counter-terror and security
The new US administration seemed to promise substantive change in some of the policies that have damaged international human rights protections over the previous seven years. An end to the CIA secret detention programme, for example, and the release of some information on the legal opinions that had been issued in support of that programme, were welcome. But not all promises translated into reality. The deadline set by President Obama on his second day in office to close the detention facility at Guantánamo within a year drifted as domestic party politics trumped the human rights of the detainees. The positive move by the new administration to turn to the ordinary federal courts to try some Guantánamo detainees was tarnished by its decision to retain military commissions for others.
"Despite the progress made in an important number of emblematic cases of past human rights violations, the legal, jurisdictional and political obstacles that have helped entrench impunity in the region, remained formidable in 2009."
Meanwhile, detentions at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan continued as if under the old administration, and the USA failed to meet its
There were 52 executions in the USA during the year. Although this was the highest judicial death toll in the USA since 2006, it was still well down on the peaks of the late 1990s. Death sentencing continued on its downward trend – even in Texas and Virginia, which account for almost half of all executions carried out in the USA since 1977.
Around 100 people were sentenced to death nationwide compared with around 300 a decade and a half earlier. In March, New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty, but three months later, Connecticut’s Governor vetoed an attempt to do likewise by the state legislature.
Although death sentences were handed down in the Bahamas, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, no executions were carried out.
Despite the progress made in an important number of emblematic cases of past human rights violations, the legal, jurisdictional and political obstacles that have helped entrench impunity in the region, remained formidable in 2009.
However, across the region, victims of human rights violations, their families and human rights defenders supporting them continued to defy intimidation, threats and harassment and campaigned vigorously to hold governments and armed groups to their obligations to respect international and domestic human rights standards.
Tita Radilla Martínez demanded the Mexican government comply with the Inter American Court, which ordered the end of military jurisdiction for all human rights cases, so the truth of her father’s enforced disappearance, along with hundreds of others, would finally be established. They need justice. The time for rhetoric is over.