Washington, DC, March 30, 2010 - For the first time in Latin America, a judge has sent a former head of state to prison for the crime of an "Attack against the Constitution." In an unprecedented ruling last month in Montevideo, former Uruguayan President Juan María Bordaberry was sentenced to serve 30 years for undermining Uruguay's constitution through an auto-coup in June 1973, and for his responsibility in nine disappearances and two political assassinations committed by the security forces while he was president between 1972 and 1976.
Hebe Martínez Burlé (reproducida por gentileza de La República)
|Walter de León
Declassified U.S. documents provided as evidence in the case by the National Security Archive show that Bordaberry justified his seizure of extra-constitutional powers on June 27, 1973 by telling the U.S. Ambassador that "Uruguay's democratic traditions and institutions…were themselves the real threat to democracy." Another U.S. document used in the trial shows that within days after the coup, the police were ordered to launch, in coordination with the military, "intelligence gathering and operations of a 'special' nature"—references to death squad actions that ensued.
"These declassified U.S. documents," said Carlos Osorio, who heads the National Security Archive's Southern Cone project, "helped the Court open the curtain of secrecy on human rights crimes committed during Bordaberry's reign of power."
The ruling by Judge Mariana Motta on February 9, 2010, was based on a case presented by two lawyers, Walter de León and Hebe Martínez Burlé. "No one thought we had a chance to convict Bordaberry," Ms. Martínez Burlé said. "Even among human rights advocates, some said we were crazy."
Oscar Destouet, head of the Human Rights Directorate in the Ministry of Education which supported the prosecution, noted that "[t]his is the first time that a head of state is brought to justice for a coup d'état." Certainly, the case is unprecedented in the Uruguayan judicial system. "The sentence points to a new dawn in Uruguayan jurisprudence," says Jorge Pan, head of the Institute for Legal Studies of Uruguay [IELSUR].
Bordaberry was elected to the presidency in 1971 amidst social turmoil and the Tupamaro insurgency, which was the most active guerrilla movement in Latin America at the time. In order to crush the militants and quell unrest, he engineered a self coup d'état in June 1973, dissolving Congress and suspending the constitution, and then launched a ruthless counterinsurgency drive during which thousands were imprisoned and tortured and hundreds killed or disappeared. The Uruguayan security forces also coordinated their repressive actions with other Southern Cone countries --in what is known as "Operation Condor"-- by tracking down and killing Uruguayan citizens who had taken refuge in other nations, such as Senator Zelmar Michelini and legislator Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz who were assassinated in Buenos Aires.
The quest for justice for human rights violations committed under the military regime has been blocked by an amnesty ratified in a referendum by 54% of the voters in 1989. In October 2009, another plebiscite to rescind the amnesty fell short with only 48% of support. Nevertheless, in August 2003, the Supreme Court removed Bordaberry's immunity from prosecution as a former president and ruled that he must stand trial for "Atentado a la Constitución."
According to Osorio, "U.S. documentation is helping judges to overcome the hurdles of impunity in Uruguay." In December 2006, Osorio presented his testimony with more than 70 declassified U.S. documents before an investigative magistrate in charge of this historical case.
This briefing book presents eight declassified U.S. documents introduced in the case which identified Bordaberry's role in the military putsch, his disdain for democratic institutions, and the role of security forces in crimes under his regime. It also includes:
The sentence of Judge Mariana Motta
A summary containing highlights of the case written by lawyer Walter de León
A chronology around the putsch headed by Juan María Bordaberry
A chronology of the trial for "Attack against the Constitution"
July 1, 1973 - Possible Effects of Uruguayan Tortures Charges on the AID Public Safety Program
In a memo to the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Uruguay Frank Ortiz, a representative from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) expresses his fear that the latest charges of torture against Uruguayan police, as well as the military coup led by President Bordaberry, could endanger U.S. Congressional support for USAID's police assistance program to Uruguay. The memo discusses allegations of torture by police in the city of Paysandu in addition to numerous allegations in other places across the country that are being investigated by Uruguayan legislators. All of this has contributed to conflict between the Uruguayan Congress and the military and Bordaberry.
Ortiz reports that "[t]he very final act of the Senate in the early hours of June 27 was to vote 16 to 1, an investigation of the Paysandu torture charges. Immediately afterwards the Senate was closed and dissolved by President Bordaberry... to an outside observer... the motivations for closing Congress would be both anger at the failure to prosecute Senator Erro for his Tupamaro ties, and desire by the President and the Armed Forces to prevent Congressional investigation of the tortures in Paysandu and elsewhere."
July 2, 1973 – The United States and Events in Uruguay
Deputy Chief of Mission Frank Ortiz sends an update to the Department of State regarding the situation in Montevideo after the coup. "A decisive stage has been reached in Uruguay... The executive acting with and at the b[ehest of the armed forces] has now taken steps such as the dissolution of the congress and of the powerful communist-dominated labor confederation (CNT)…" The cable suggests that "there is a disposition to accept the assurances of the president that the illegal measures taken were necessary and temporary and that there will be a return to the traditional democratic forms."
At the same time, Ortiz reports that "the opposition groups, the leaders of which are in hiding, are in a state of shock over the suddenness and the sweeping nature of the Government's moves." According to Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations, between 1973 and 1976, Uruguay became the country with the highest number of jailed and of tortured dissidents in Latin America.
July 25, 1973 – Public Safety Division: Police Report
The Chief USAID Public Safety Advisor in Montevideo presents a report of "activities since the recent changes in the Uruguayan Government took place." The report states that "[a]s of July 10, orders were received at the office of the Chief of Police to reintegrate military operations… coordinated operations have been ordered as of noon on this date… As of 1300 hours July 10 the Montevideo police received new orders which called for increased coordination between the military and the police operations… indications are that this will mostly be intelligence gathering and operations of 'special' nature." The "special" operations highlighted in the document itself meant death squad activities in the counterinsurgency jargon of the security forces in the 1960's and 1970's.
November 12, 1973 – Uruguay Four Months After Closing Congress
U.S. Ambassador Ernest Siracusa sends a report to the Department of State four months after the coup stating that "[s]ince June 27 the Bordaberry government has closed the Congress, proscribed political activity, imposed censorship to stifle criticism, outlawed the dominant communist controlled labor confederation, temporarily suspended activities of the national university and has plans to outlaw the federation of university students and its affiliated groups. The government's power base has shifted to the Armed Forces..."
Regarding Bordaberry's relationship with the military, Siracusa observes that "his characteristics make him comfortable with the military, and the interminable debates as to whether Bordaberry or the military is behind any given move usually miss the key point -- that Bordaberry and the military generally are now thinking along the same lines... We believe that Bordaberry initiated the move to close the Congress. In like manner, it was Bordaberry, not the military, who drafted a decree expected to be issued soon outlawing or dissolving the Communist Party (PCU). These steps and others, conceived in terms of patriotism, morality, or more practical considerations, have allied the president frequently with the so-called hard-liners such as first division commander General Esteban Cristi."
December 26, 1973 – Conversation with President Bordaberry
U.S. Ambassador Siracusa reports on a meeting with Bordaberry where they cover political economic and bilateral affairs. In one section, after expressing his feelings that Uruguayans are happy about the stability reached by the regime following the putsch in June, Siracusa says "I had detected also a certain sadness that Uruguay's cherished democratic institutions had been to some extent sacrificed or limited as a price." Bordaberry responds to the Ambassador by explaining that "the situation had truly arrived at the border of chaos and that had drastic action not been taken the country would eventually have been faced with acceptance of chronic anarchy or a truly military takeover as alternative." Siracusa ends by stating that Bordaberry said "everything they have done has really been an effort to end the stagnation of more than two decades and to save Uruguay's democratic traditions and institutions rather than do violence to them. In a sense… these institutions, as they operated, were themselves the real threat to democracy in Uruguay."
August 14, 1975 – Deaths and Disappearances of Chilean Extremists: GOA Involvement
Amidst a flurry of suspicious deaths of Chilean guerrillas in Argentina, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires reports to the Department of State that the U.S. "Legatt [Legal Attaché] advises that police and especially the military establishments of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile are well inter-connected… Also, assassination operations are known to be carried out by these governments' security agencies for one another, though never provable." The reports by FBI liaison in Argentina, Legal Attaché Robert Scherrer, on the collaboration of the Southern Cone security agencies, will eventually disclose the existence of Operation Condor in 1976.
June 18, 1976 – Further Information on Zelmar Michelini and Luis Héctor Gutiérrez
A few weeks after exiled Uruguayan legislators Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz are killed by unknown men in Buenos Aires, the U.S. Ambassador in Montevideo, Ernest Siracusa, reports that "according to [a secret source] Michelini was considered by Argentine authorities to be working with the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta (JCR) in Argentina in orchestrating the propaganda campaign against Uruguay. The JCR is the coordinating [sic] up for the terrorist/subversive groups of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia."
August 3, 1976 - ARA Monthly Report (July) The 'Third World War' and South America
Since the beginning of the year, numerous leftist guerrillas and opposition leaders of bordering Southern Cone countries have been killed in Buenos Aires. Among those killed were two Uruguayan legislators, a former Bolivian President, numerous other Chileans, Uruguayans, Bolivians, Brazilians and Paraguayans.
In this finalized analysis for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Assistant Secretary of State Harry Shlaudeman states that "the military regimes of the southern cone... are joining forces to eradicate 'subversion', which increasingly translates into non-violent dissent from the left and the center left. The security forces of the Southern Cone: now coordinate intelligence activities closely; operate in the territory of one another in pursuit of subversives; have established Operation Condor to find and kill terrorists of the Revolutionary Coordinating Committee [JCR] in their own countries and in Europe... Security cooperation is a fact: There is extensive cooperation between the security/intelligence operations of six governments: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Their intelligence services hold formal meetings to plan ‘Operation Condor'..."
Shlaudeman concludes that "the problem begins with the definition of ‘subversion'... [it] has grown to include nearly anyone who opposes government policy... Uruguayan Foreign Minister Blanco... was the first to describe the campaign against terrorists as a ‘Third World War'. The description is interesting for two reasons: it justifies harsh and sweeping ‘wartime' measures; it emphasizes the international and institutional aspect, thereby justifying the exercise of power beyond national borders."