Human rights violations committed during Uruguay’s 1970s and 1980s-era military regimes have come back to haunt the South American country, where the legislature’s recent failure to revoke a stubborn amnesty law has sparked a major political crisis.
EYES INSIDE – LATIN AMERICA
Horacio Gelós Bonilla was with his uncle in the main square in the Uruguayan city of Maldonado in the early evening of Jan. 2, 1976 when two men emerged from a truck and arrested him. That was the last time his family saw the 32-year-old labor leader. Bonilla was reportedly taken to a local jail where witnesses later reported they heard his cries as he was being beaten, until he went silent.
Since early 1985, when democracy was restored in Uruguay, Bonilla's family has been searching for him. His disappearance is one of more than 200 unresolved cases for which Uruguayans are demanding answers, throwing the country into its worst constitutional crisis since democracy returned.
President José Mujica's Broad Front coalition is bitterly divided over the issue. On May 20, the coalition failed to get a 1985 amnesty law revoked when the proposal fell short by one vote after one of the group's lawmakers decided to abstain. The amnesty law had previously survived a pair of popular referendums – in 1989 and 2009.
Now, however, international human rights groups are pressuring the government to follow the example being set in neighboring Argentina and allow the legal system to finally go after military regime-era human rights violators
Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla who was captured by security forces and spent time in prison during Uruguay's military backed governments (1973-85), had asked the Broad Front not to push for the repeal. The president said he doesn't think lawmakers should ignore the results of the two referendums. He said the most important thing is to move on.
As legislators voted on the amnesty issue, hundreds of activists gathered outside Congress demanding an end to the amnesty law and a start to legal action against former military officers suspected of kidnappings and killings. Some even telephoned lawmakers to ask that they vote in favor of the repeal.
The organization Mothers and Families of Missing and Arrested Uruguayans has written to the president on a number of occasions to try to convince him to change his position.
Mujica's approval rating among the grass roots membership of the Broad Front coalition has dropped 11% since the debacle in Congress. In an effort to please both human rights organizations and his political allies, the president has ordered his lawyers to evaluate how prosecutors could skirt the amnesty law and reopen 88 missing persons and torture cases.
Columnists such a Javier García of Montevideo's El País having been fanning the flames of popular discontent. García recently accused the Broad Front of insulting the intelligence of Uruguayans.
Uruguay's largest labor union, Pit-CNT, has chimed in on the matter as well, calling for "firm but peaceful demonstrations in defense of the construction of a society without impunity." Many of the Pit-CNT's leaders were killed during the military-backed regimes.