The Other Americans: South America’s War Criminals Face a Growing Clamor for Justice

Thousands of people took to the streets across Uruguay on May 20 to participate in the March of Silence, a yearly event that commemorates those who were disappeared during the military dictatorship between 1973 and 1985. Under the banner of “Where Are They?” marchers demanded justice for those who were subjected to human rights abuses.

The families and loved ones of those who are missing have been marching since 1996, but the clamor for justice has grown louder throughout South America in recent years, nearly a half-century after a coup d’etat brought Uruguay’s military dictatorship to power and the U.S.-backed terror campaign of “Operation Condor” to the entire region.

“It has been growing year by year,” Martín Fernández, a lawyer with the Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales del Uruguay, which has represented victims of the dictatorship, tells The Progressive. “More and more, ​​a lot of people are coinciding in [this] moment of silence, demanding that the situation of those detainees [who were] disappeared be clarified.” 

The annual march is held on May 20 to commemorate the assassinations on that date in 1976 of several notable Uruguayan dissidents: politicians Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz; as well as militants Rosario Barredo and William Whitelaw. All were killed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they were residing in exile. 

According to the Uruguayan organization Mothers and Relatives of Disappeared and Detained Uruguayans, at least 197 people were forcibly disappeared during the dictatorship, while thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. Only six bodies have ever been recovered.  

The campaign of disappearances, imprisonment, and torture in Uruguay was part of a regional campaign known as Operation Condor, which began in 1975. The operation brought together dictatorships in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay (and later three others) which plotted and schemed the cross-border targeting of political opponents, who were subjected to imprisonment, torture, extra-judicial executions, and disappearances.  

“[Operation Condor] effectively coordinated the policies of political repression beyond borders,” Francesca Lessa, a professor of Latin American studies at Oxford University and author of the book The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America, tells The Progressive. “[Previous cooperation] culminated with Operation Condor, when these countries formalized existing cooperation and effectively pulled together their resources so that they could be more successful in silencing [members of the] political opposition in exile.” 

The transnational operation grew out of previous alliances and intelligence sharing that had existed prior to 1975. Operation Condor would later expand to include Brazil in 1976, and Peru and Ecuador in 1978.

By 1978, Lessa adds, Operation Condor was operating throughout eight countries of South America as “a sort of borderless area of terror and impunity in the region.” 

The dirty war marked one of the darkest eras of the United States-backed war on leftists that unfolded as part of the Cold War in Latin America. The tactics utilized by military and police as part of a campaign of terror against political opponents were brutal. These operations received support and training from the United States government, military, and the CIA. But as Lessa points out, the regimes did not need help selecting targets, as they already knew who their opponents were. 

By the end of the operation in the early 1980s, between 50,000 and 60,000 people had been  killed, 30,000 people disappeared, and over 400,000 people imprisoned and tortured across the region. 

Uruguayans are not alone in their efforts to redress the atrocities that took place during Operation Condor. In Chile and Argentina, families and activists have also mobilized to seek justice for crimes against humanity in that era.

“Argentina and Chile are the countries that have done the most,” Lessa says. “But there is still a lot more to be done.” 

Ahead of this September’s fiftieth anniversary of the CIA-backed coup d’etat against the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, Chilean president Gabriel Boric’s administration announced in March 2023 efforts to find those who were forcibly disappeared during the 1973 to 1990 reign of General Augusto Pinochet—part of Boric’s larger plan to address human rights violations during the seventeen-year-long dictatorship.

In Chile, there have been criminal trials held in the past two decades to prosecute perpetrators of crimes committed during Pinochet’s rule. 

“The problem with missing detainees is that even if those responsible are tried and convicted, they do not provide information about where [the disappeared] are or what they did with them.”

In Argentina, organizations have for decades sought to hold those accused of human rights violations accountable for their actions. The first trial was held in 1985. In 2003, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that its amnesty laws were unconstitutional, opening the door to the prosecution of high-ranking officials for crimes against humanity carried out during the dictatorship in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Since 2010, more than 1,000 officials have faced criminal charges and at least 300 have been convicted. In 2017, forty-eight people, both former military and civilians, were convicted for crimes committed during the dictatorship.   

But there is still a long way to go. 

“If we compare that against the past tradition of absolute impunity that defines South America, these are certainly noteworthy achievements,” Lessa says. “But then other countries of the region have fared much differently.” 

She adds, “[Uruguay is] leaning more towards impunity.”

The quest for justice in Uruguay in particular has been an uphill battle.

“In Uruguay, there has never been a state policy to investigate these crimes,” Lessa says. “Any action by the authorities has always been reactive to pressure from civil society organizations and victim groups.” 

Upon Uruguay’s return of democracy in 1985, a blanket amnesty was approved for all those associated with the dictatorship and the armed forces for any human rights violations committed during the years of the dictatorship. This amnesty law, passed in 1986, known as the Ley de Caducidad (or the Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State) was maintained in referendums in 1989 and 2009, but in 2011 the law was declared invalid by the Uruguayan Supreme Court following a key decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that began to open the door to investigations.

Still, prosecuting human rights abusers remains a challenge in Uruguay. In 2017, for example, the Supreme Court reaffirmed a statute of limitations on crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. 

There have been only twenty verdicts in cases involving human rights violations in Uruguay. Many family members of those disappeared still have no knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. 

“The problem with missing detainees is that even if those responsible are tried and convicted, they do not provide information about where [the disappeared] are or what they did with them,” Fernández says. “Here there is a pact of silence,” he explains. “This is most vicious among those who were in charge at that time.”

During the military dictatorship, government officials often perpetuated the narrative that they were saviors of the fatherland from a subversive leftist threat, Fernández adds. It’s unlikely that they would ever disclose information about the disappeared—leaving families and loved ones left behind to deal with the uncertainty.

“A mother has the right to bury her son; a father has the right to bury his son; and a son has the right to bury his father and know what they did to him,” Fernandez says. “The march of silence is becoming more and more important, not only in the number of people who are physically there, but in the number of people who demonstrate and say, ‘Where are they?’”