Uruguay: Keeping the Military in CheckBy: Research Fellow Alex Sánchez
COHA report on the Latin American Military (part of an ongoing series)
On Friday November 17, former Uruguayan president Juan María Bordaberry and his foreign minister, Juan Carlos Blanco, were placed under arrest. They have been implicated in murders of two politicians, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruíz, as well as suspected members of the Tupamaros, Rosario Barredo and William Whitelaw, in Buenos Aires on May 1976.
On October 19, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez replaced Lieutenant General Carlos Diaz as commander of the army. The reason for Diaz’s dismissal was his involvement in a series of unauthorized meetings with prominent opposition figures without the prior consent of either the president or the defense minister, Azucena Berrutti. It is widely believed that Diaz’s unauthorized sessions concerned President Vásquez’s heroic decision to investigate into the dark period of the country’s past, namely the military dictatorship that harshly ruled the nation from 1973 to 1985. During this period, the Uruguayan armed forces carried out grave human right abuses, including political assassinations and the summary executions of those that the military government believed to be leftist dissidents.
By sacking Diaz, Vásquez has taken a bold move in order to assert his leadership – a step that is both to be warmly praised, but which could lead to further strains with the armed forces. To indicate the personal bravery of Vásquez’s move, no Latin American leader, except Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner, has taken such a principled stance against his or her country’s armed forces. Vásquez’s actions might be a source of inspiration for the previous timorous governments of Chile.
Legacy of the Cóndor
The period of military rule in Uruguay is a sensitive subject and a source of great pain. The military took power in June 1973, after it carried out a coup against then-president Juan María Bordaberry. He was both a cynic and opportunist, who was allowed to stay in power as a servile military puppet until the armed forces booted him out and took full control of the country in 1976, ruling until 1985. The coup was partly orchestrated so that security services could have a “free hand” in dealing with the leftist insurgent organization known as the National Liberation Movement (NLM), commonly referred to as the Tupamaros. As part of the relentless conflict between the two sides and the military’s wider goal of cracking down on all leftist-dissidents, the Uruguayan military junta participated in Plan Cóndor, a de facto coordination initiative binding the different military dictatorships across the Southern Cone that had sprung up at this time. Plan Cóndor was backed by Washington – which supplied the local militaries with major computer hardware and software – and by the military juntas and authoritarian rulers that controlled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The goal of the Plan was simple: for the governments and their respective militaries and intelligence services to cooperate with each other to track down, capture, and if necessary, to eliminate their left-wing opponents.
Among the political assassinations soon attributed to the Uruguayan military, as part of Plan Cóndor, were those of the Uruguayans Zelmar Michelini, former secretary of education, and Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, former president of the House of Representatives. They were highly regarded figures almost certainly murdered by a joint Argentinean-Uruguayan death squad in Buenos Aires in 1976. Another high profile case was the 1976 abduction of Maria Claudia García Irureta – who was married to the son of poet Juan Gelman – during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” (a brutal seven-year military dictatorship which ruled between 1976-1983). García was seven months pregnant at the time of her abduction. She was held for a short time in an Argentine torture camp, which was run by the military, and was later taken to Uruguay where she was disappeared along with her husband, Marcelo Gelman, also a kidnapping victim. Authorities speculated that she was killed shortly after giving birth. Marcelo’s body was later found in a 200-liter container filled with cement and sand (he died from a close-range gunshot to his head).
According to local human rights groups, these people were some of the more prominent victims of the scores who were tortured and executed. In contrast to what happened in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” political prisoners in Uruguay did not systematically disappear in large numbers, but instead were held in prison, in many cases for years, where they were repeatedly tortured. Around 200 Uruguayans are officially listed as having been “disappeared” during the period of military rule.
In 1986, one year after the country’s return to democracy, conservative Uruguayan President Julio Sanguinetti granted amnesty, under the “Ley de Caducidad” decree, to all those who participated in repressive acts during the former dictatorship. According to Latin News, the decree is not strictly an amnesty law, it declared the expiration of the state’s power to punish crimes committed by members of the military regime. The decree said that only the executive would have the right to reopen investigations, which the pandering Sanguinetti government was hardly interested to do. Vásquez’s predecessors, Jorge Batlle (2000-2005) and Sanguinetti (1985-1990 and 1995-2000) of the conservative Colorado Party and Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) of the equally conservative Partido Nacional (commonly referred to as the Blancos), all agreed that all human rights cases fell under the amnesty decree. These leaders were not interested (some would say they were unwilling) to reopen any cases. It was only with the election of the left-leaning Vásquez, in 2004, that a new kind of leader emerged, one who had the moral courage and sense of outrage to be more willing to hold military officers who served under the military junta to be held accountable for crimes committed during that period.
Vásquez and the Military
Today, the Uruguayan military is looked upon as being trim and in good shape, yet it is hardly an important institution. The armed forces are an all-volunteer force of 25,000 troops, including paramilitary units. The defense budget is around 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), about $217 million. Like most South American militaries, Uruguay’s weaponry comes from variegated sources, often Soviet-era ordnance. So far, Vásquez’s relationship with the military has been fairly low key. A number of modernization initiatives have been carried out under his government. According to the World News Connection, an arrangement has been reached with Aselsan Electronic Industry Co., a Turkish company, for it to supply wireless communication equipments and install internal communication systems for Uruguay’s military.
Early this year, a number of military officials, including Admiral Juan Heber Fernandez Maggio, commander of Uruguayan navy, traveled to Beijing to meet with Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Liang Guanglie. It has been reported that this meeting was aimed at promoting Sino-Uruguayan military exchanges and cooperation. Liang returned the favor by visiting Montevideo at the end of October.
Looking into the Past, the Trigger
Since his inauguration, Vásquez has emphasized his intention to look into the human rights transgressions that happened under military rule, particularly establishing the fate of the disappeared. Long Island University Professor Patrice McSherry, an expert on Plan Cóndor, explained to COHA that prior to the Vásquez presidency, “the Uruguayan military and police did not have to face serious attempts to hold them accountable as the executive branch and the Supreme Court for years blocked or failed to act upon extradition requests from Argentine judges.” In the latter half of 2005, Vásquez boldly ordered that several suspected sites be excavated, including areas surrounding the environs of military barracks (like the one housing the army’s 13th battalion) where the remains of some of the dictatorship’s victims were believed to be buried.
Vásquez’s decision to deal with the military’s dark past has put him at odds with much of the military brass as well as opposition political leaders, making Diaz’s sacking one of many events invoked by his bold decision. Last August 2005, the Partido Nacional, ironically claimed that Vásquez had agreed to a second “Pacto del Club Naval” with the military and thus was not looking whole-heartedly into the disappearances of dissidents. The reference to the “Pacto” is the term used to describe the deal struck in 1984 between the Uruguayan military and political parties in which the armed forces agreed to allow the restoration of democracy so long as its officers would not be prosecuted for crimes committed during the dictatorship. The agreement paved the way for the 1986 “Ley de Caducidad.” It is ironic that a party like the Blancos, which, when in power, had vigorously respected the status quo and not troubled the military, is now accusing Vásquez of not doing enough, when, what he has done so far to bring to justice those responsible for the torture and disappearances affecting hundreds of Uruguayans, is much more than what the Blancos have ever managed to do.
Vásquez’s actions quickly faced challenges from the military. On 26 November 2005, it was reported that the then-commander-in-chief of the army, General Angel Bertolotti, had commissioned the preparation of a dossier with legal opinions judging unconstitutional the Vásquez government’s draft legislation ‘interpreting’ the Ley de Caducidad. At the time, Latin News reported that Bertolotti had ordered the dossier distributed among all the senior officers in the command chain. Admiral Tabaré Daners had done likewise in his uniformed service. This was nothing less than an attempt to prevent the government from enacting a legislation that could potentially allow the reopening of cases regarding military involvement in the disappearances of those civilians whom the military viewed at the time as its enemies. That same month, Bertolotti declared that all of the facts in the report given to Vásquez the previous August were accurate. The report was supposed to deal with his knowledge of where victims of the dictatorship were buried. The former military chief found himself under intense pressure when no bodies were found, leading to his November statement in the Montevideo newspaper El País that there was a plot against him. Subsquently Bertolotti was replaced by Diaz as commander of the army on February 2006.
It was only towards the end of 2005 that corpses began to appear. On November 29, forensic scientists unearthed a male skeleton on a farm outside of Montevideo, the first potential victim that had been found. Following an anonymously submitted map, government scientists uncovered a skull at an army base near Montevideo on December 2. On December 14 2005, the Partido Comunista announced the discovery of 35 unidentified corpses buried in nylon bags in a small cemetery near the town of Vichadero, in the north of the country near the Brazilian border.
The Military Begins to Face Justice
Vásquez’s decision to bring to justice those responsible for the dictatorship’s human rights abuses provoked almost immediate negative repercussions from within the Uruguayan’s military as well as abroad. His action was reminiscent to what is going on in other parts of Latin America, particularly in Argentina and Chile, which are reopening cases dealing with their respective military regimes during the 1970s and the crimes committed under them.
On February 2005, UPI reported that a retired Uruguayan colonel, accused of taking part in two political assassinations in 1976, had asked Brazil for political asylum. The 66-year-old Manuel Juan Cordero Piacentini made the request through his lawyer, but it was rejected. Cordero Piacentini was accused of being complicit in the infamous murders of lawmakers Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierrez Ruiz.
On April 19 2006, three Uruguayan soldiers accused of being involved in the 1995 murder of a former agent working for Chile’s intelligence service during the dictatorship, were extradited to Chile. The three suspects are: retired Colonel Tomas Casella, Colonel Wellington Sarli and Captain Eduardo Radaelli. Santiago has accused the three of kidnapping and murdering the chemist Eugenio Berrios who was secretly transferred to Uruguay by Chilean military officers in 1991. This was to prevent him testifying on his role in the murder of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington in 1976. Berrios was last seen in 1992 when he pleaded for help at a local police station in Uruguay. The authorities there handed him over to the Uruguayan military. It is unknown what happened next, but Berrios’ body was found with his hands cut off and two bullets in his head in 1995 in El Pinar, a spa town 30 km from the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.
On May 2006, Buenos Aires requested the extradition of a number of Uruguayan military officers in connection with the 1976 abduction of Maria Claudia Garcia Irureta. When Buenos Aires filed the extradition papers in May, a somewhat bizarre event unfolded: In an open letter, ten former leaders of the military, going back to 1978, said they assume “full institutional responsibility and eventual consequences” for human rights violations that occurred under military rule. According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the letter by the former-senior officers sought to absolve subordinates from any responsibility in criminal actions, saying they were acting “under orders.” Political analysts in Montevideo claimed the letter was an attempt to prevent a series of criminal proceedings against subordinates involved in human rights abuses, by putting themselves instead in the line of fire.
In early September, six retired army officers and two former police chiefs were arrested in Montevideo on charges of human rights’ breaches during the military dictatorship. The arrest followed an extradition request by the Argentine government, accusing the eight men of being responsible for the death of several Uruguayan leftwing dissidents in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. A seventh military officer, Colonel (ret.) Juan Antonio Buratti, took his own life after being notified of his arrest. Luisa Cuesta, mother of one of those who has been disappeared by the security forces, declared that Colonel Buratti’s suicide was an admission of guilt and an “act of cowardice.” Buratti apparently had been an intelligence officer during the dictatorship.
Removing Diaz, the Right Decision
Even though none of the participants have acknowledged this, it is widely believed that Diaz’s numerous meetings with key numbers of the conservative opposition were to discuss the investigations taking place against the suspected military officers. So far as it is known, Diaz reportedly met with former president Julio Sanguinetti and former defense minister Yamandu Fau, both members of the conservative Colorado Party. It is known that the two generals who accompanied Diaz to meet with Sanguinetti were Pedro Aguerre and Miguel Dalmao. Another meeting took place at midnight in the barracks of the army’s 14th infantry battalion. Furthermore, ex-president Lacalle of the Blancos, recently acknowledged that he also met with Diaz and the commander of the navy, Fernández Maggio. Additionally, earlier in October, before the reports on Diaz’s meetings came to light, there was another source of tension regarding the general’s activities. The three military officers extradited to Chile in the Berrios case, as reported by the ANSA news agency, met with Diaz while he was in Santiago. According to the Uruguayan military, the three officers asked Diaz for financial aid in order that they could rent a house in that city while the trial proceeded against them. In addition, top commanders of the Uruguayan military, including Diaz and former military strongman, Lieutenant General Gregorio “Goyo” Alvarez (Uruguayan ruler from 1981-1985), attended Rodríguez Buratti’s funeral, transforming his death into a de facto protest against the court’s recent legal judgment and the new human rights policy being followed by the government.
Following a series of these revelations, Diaz was summarily dismissed from his post and Generals Aguerre and Dalmao were placed under arrest for five days. Vázquez said that Diaz had committed “a serious mistake… and these mistakes, unfortunately, cannot be made.” In this, Vásquez was unquestionably correct because on a continent that has had its full quota of conspiracies and where military officers have not hesitated to be involved in murky matters of little or no legality, Diaz’s meeting with opposition leaders was unpardonable.
Professor McSherry explains that: “most of the Uruguayan public is not sympathetic to continuing impunity, and lack of evidence is not a problem.” What happened in Uruguay, the disappearances, the human right abuses, the interrogations using torture and the extrajudicial executions were very real, and the culprits have so far escaped accountability for their crimes. Just as it is the case in Chile and Argentina, as well as elsewhere in the region, a new state of mind has evolved that tenaciously maintains that where there has been crime, there must be punishment.