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Latin Justice Systems Come of Age


LIMA, Peru — While fair elections, a free press and open markets have taken root throughout Latin America during the last two decades, one crucial branch of democracy has long withered: an equitable justice system.

In the last six months, however, a burst of legal actions against once untouchable Latin American despots has provided the first, tentative signs of growth of a politically independent judiciary.

From Mexico to Chile, no fewer than seven countries have begun trials against former strongmen. Ex-presidents and dictators, torturers and military henchmen, corrupt lawmakers and judges have been called into court to account for their actions.

"The whole message is that . . . justice is possible, that it's a real option," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "The region is waking up."

The arrest little more than a week ago of former Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos is only the latest sign of a stunning change in a part of the world where the rich and powerful have long killed, tortured or robbed with little worry about the consequences.

Last month, Argentine judicial officials ordered the surprise arrest of former President Carlos Menem, 70, a freewheeling politician who governed from 1989 to 1999 and was arrested just two weeks after he married a former Miss Universe 35 years his junior.

Menem was placed under house arrest while a panel of judges investigates his alleged involvement with the illegal smuggling of $100 million worth of arms to Ecuador and Croatia between 1991 and 1995.

Menem's arrest came the same week as two momentous events in Guatemala: A tribunal convicted a former intelligence chief of the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, and a group of indigenous Maya Indians filed a genocide lawsuit against former dictator and current congressional President Efrain Rios Montt.

Human rights groups and legal experts have greeted the sudden advances with a mixture of joy and caution, warning that there is still a long way to go before anyone can trust the justice systems of Latin America.

For one thing, in many countries, elected officials enjoy immunity from prosecution, often even after they leave office, a mind-boggling concept for those accustomed to the rule of law.

For another, most Latin American countries use an antiquated judicial system in which nearly everything--from the filing of charges to conversations between prosecutors and the accused--is done in writing. Trials can drag on for more than a decade.

Recent Successes Seen as a Tiny Step Forward

Although some countries, such as Honduras and Colombia, are in the process of converting to more confrontational and less opaque judicial systems that resemble the U.S. model, most analysts believe that the current environment of judicial successes represents a tiny step forward, not a permanent reality.

"It's an opportunity, nothing else," said Carlos Basombrio, the director of the Legal Defense Institute, Peru's preeminent civil rights group. "There is no indication that this is permanent. There's always a risk that we'll go back and repeat the same mistakes of the past."

By most accounts, Latin America's long journey toward justice began after the breakup of the Soviet Bloc, as Cold War tensions began to subside.

As democracies became the order of the day, those interested in justice began to rally against a single problem: impunity. Unlike in the past, the new regimes tolerated such protests, although they seemed in no hurry to comply.

Nonetheless, the more relaxed atmosphere enabled human rights groups to begin freely organizing legal and civic campaigns.

During proxy wars in Central and South America in the 1980s, right-wing governments saw human rights activists as annoyances, or, worse, tools of the left. Thousands were beaten, tortured and killed. Today, human rights workers still face hazards--they are routinely kidnapped and killed in Colombia, for instance--but the intimidation is less than it was.

"There have been spaces opened up, spaces won through struggle," said Paul Seils, the legal director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Guatemala, which is overseeing the genocide lawsuit. "What you're seeing is civil society pushing state institutions into going this way."

If any single event sparked the flare-up of judicial actions against former rulers, however, it came in the fall of 1998, after an Amnesty International worker in Britain saw a brief item in the social pages that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet would be visiting the country.

The news traveled to Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who asked Britain to extradite Pinochet to Spain for trial on charges related to the disappearances and killings of Spanish citizens during his rule in Chile. To the surprise of many observers, Britain took the request seriously and held hearings to determine whether Pinochet was extraditable.

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