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Violence A Viable Option Throughout Latin America

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Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 04.15
Monday, March 29, 2004

COHA Analysis:


- Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador still are not safe havens for those calling for reforms

- “Democracy” often more apparent than real

- Intimidation and murder often accompany political rallies and free elections

Skeptics noticeably aside, Latin America’s transition to democracy is now widely, if perhaps mistakenly accepted as reflecting a genuine sea change. Regional boosters, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, will insist that, with the possible exception of Cuba, there are no overtly authoritarian or military governments left in the region. And it is a fact that the Bush administration showed itself eager to embrace the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April of 2002, and that what saved the day was the immediate and widespread condemnation of the failed effort both within and outside that country. Some would argue that the failure of the coup demonstrated that there’s little tolerance these days for frontal attacks on democratically-elected governments, with Haiti a lamentable exception. While an argument could be made to uphold this thesis, evidence also exists that many democratic institutions remain under profound threat in many Latin American societies.

Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Chile

From the perspective of authentic democratization, the November 2003 electoral defeat in Guatemala of Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous strongman in the early 1980s, was immensely encouraging news. Against a background of an ominous campaign season that saw the assassination of candidates for various political offices, as well as the killing of journalists and human rights activists, the decisive rejection of the former military dictator’s bid for the presidency was indeed encouraging news even if Latin America’s version of democracy characteristically is more apparent than real, and deeply spavined by such corrosive factors as corruption, cronyism, and the sale of justice.

Recent moves in Argentina and Mexico to prosecute former officials for past politically-motivated assassinations are other encouraging signs. President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina has reversed the official policies of the corrupt Menem years that protected retired military officials implicated in tens of thousands of political murders and disappearances between 1976 and 1983. Argentine malefactors from that era are now subject to possible extradition orders to stand trial in European courts, as well as having to face an increased likelihood of being prosecuted in their own country’s courts. In Mexico, the Supreme Court has ruled that there is no statue of limitation on political disappearances, while President Vicente Fox’s government has done what none of the country’s previous presidents have dared to do—open up the archives of the secret police and state prosecutors, further clearing the way for authentic investigations (rather than pro forma inquiries) into the murders and disappearances of hundreds of leftist dissidents in the country in the 1960s and 70s.

The Long Reach of the Law

Of course, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s so-called ordeal in the United Kingdom, in which he narrowly avoided being extradited to Spain several years ago to stand trial for the murder of Spanish nationals and others in Chile under his rule, is likely to give all former dictators some pause before they make arrangements to travel abroad for recreational purposes or medical treatment. But even as democratic institutions in theory are being reintroduced throughout the region, political intimidation and even murder remain as viable options for Latin America’s political elites in any number of Latin American countries. Such figures are ready to turn to repression if need be, to protect their privileged positions. More than just an echo of earlier times, “dirty war” tactics continue to pay off in some countries. The use of assassination as a political tool is still being directed against well known reformist figures as well as ordinary citizens; threats and acts of intimidation are once again afflicting populist movements, be they targeted at politicians, labor activists, journalists, intellectuals, church people or human rights advocates. And despite the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the overt abuse of entire categories of dissidents, ranging from ethnic minorities to reform-minded political parties, has remained a staple of the day-to-day conduct of some governments—like El Salvador’s—along with their prevailing elites.

Drug Addicts and Street Children Under Threat

In Brazil, police routinely carry out social cleansings (a baroque term for murder) of drug addicts and street children, even as violent gangs operate with little fear of any crackdown by the officials. El Salvador, which endured one of the most brutal of Latin America’s repressive campaigns in the region’s entire history, against the country’s leftist dissidents between 1978 and 1991, has not even begun the process of seeking justice for the more than 80 thousand killed there during that period. Many of those responsible for such systematic killings still hold positions of power in public life, including in the military and bureaucracy.

Mexico, where the authorities had launched a dirty war in the state of Guerrero in the 1970s (though some would argue that the phenomenon was more widely applied to other parts of the country), continues to experience periodic spasms of politically-motivated murders. These crimes have ranged from high profile cases such as the political assassinations of such senior members of the then-ruling party PRI (including presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and Secretary General José Francisco Ruiz Massieu), as well as Archbishop Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, and civil rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, along with well-known journalists, to the massacres of nameless peasants. The last mentioned were the chosen targets of Guerrero’s state police when they ambushed unarmed demonstrators in 1995, or when right-wing paramilitary forces attacked a small Chiapan village in 1997, resulting in numerous casualties among the campesinos.

In Guatemala, former members of the military and paramilitary have demonstrated their continuing impunity regarding political crimes. Often referred to as the “hidden powers,” these groups operate either in conjunction with formal state institutions or in parallel but autonomous paths. Throughout 2002 and 2003, there were reports of scores of attacks against human rights activists, labor organizers, journalists, indigenous leaders, and forensic scientists engaged in excavating the sites of earlier massacres. Those fearing the prejudicial revelations coming from accountability are just now beginning to be accused of such incidents that ranged from intimidation and death threats, to kidnapping, murder and disappearances. However, trials and convictions of suspects characteristically are slow in coming.

Colombia Witnesses Profound Violence and False Starts

Nowhere in Latin America is the use of “dirty war” tactics more habitually chronic in the furtherance of a political agenda than in Colombia. Though it has witnessed a long history of political murder that stretches at least from the 1948-gunning down of popularist Liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the beginnings of La Violencia, its modern travail began with the savage repression dating back to the mid 1980s of the Unión Patriótica, an above ground political party affiliated with Colombia’s largest guerrilla army, the FARC. This tradition of political murder has been carried to new heights by the paramilitary bands allied in the right wing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), led by Carlos Castaño. Even if he is not running for office, his AUC has in recent years cleansed much of the countryside through the use of unqualified brutality against anyone considered remotely sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas. These efforts have been so successful that in many regions, the opposition has ceased to function out of fear. The negative impact of these rightist vigilantes on Colombia’s governmental structure, from the local level where their “clientes” control municipalities with an iron fist, to the national Congress and even the presidency, is fully apparent. One must look no further than Castano’s published “Confession” to see what his political objectives are all about. In this context, President Uribe’s recent program to grant amnesty to those paras willing to demobilize takes on long-term implications for a political system which the Colombian leader (who has just visited Washington) has, with great precision, reworked to accommodate hard-right specifications.

The return to democracy in Latin America is still very much a work in progress, where murders, massacres and disappearances are as common as rallies, fund-raisers, and opinion polls. U.S. policymakers might want to jettison, at least for the time being, their rose-tinted glasses in favor of an increased sense of reality, by recognizing that tactics ranging from political intimidation, even with murder, have been made into an exercisable option for anti-democratic groups. Whatever they may want to call themselves, such bodies are often prepared to resort to extra constitutional practices to the derogation of the growth of authentic democratic institutions throughout the region.

W. John Green, Ph. D., is a COHA Senior Research Fellow and a specialist in Colombian history.

Issued 29 March, 2004

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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