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Wavering Courts: From Impunity to Accountability in Uruguay


Many Latin American countries are moving towards increased accountability for past human rights violations, and there is a growing global consensus that international law does not allow some crimes simply to be exempted from prosecution. Uruguay has had a deeply split response to these developments. While the Supreme Court and the political elite increasingly pushed to end impunity, the public actually ratified the 1985 amnesty law protecting the military from prosecution in a 2009 plebiscite. The amnesty law was finally abolished by Parliament in 2011. This article traces the winding road from impunity to accountability in Uruguay in the context of substantial public support for impunity. It argues that, while the lack of judicial independence obstructed the quest for justice for many years, the combination of continued civil society demands for justice met by increasingly human-rights-friendly executives and liberal-minded judges (and lately also prosecutors) explains the recent advance in retributive justice.

Muchas naciones latinoamericanas se están dirigiendo hacia una mayor rendición de cuentas por violaciones a los derechos humanos del pasado y existe un creciente consenso global de que el derecho internacional no permite que algunos crímenes sean simplemente exentos de ser procesados judicialmente. Uruguay ha tenido una respuesta profundamente dividida a tales desarrollos. Mientras que la Corte Suprema y las élites políticas lucharon crecientemente para terminar con la impunidad, la población de hecho ratificó en un plebiscito de 2009 la ley de amnistía de 1985 que protegía a los militares de ser enjuiciados. La ley de amnistía fue abolida finalmente por el parlamento en 2011. Este artículo rastrea el tortuoso camino desde la impunidad hasta la rendición de cuentas en Uruguay en el contexto de un apoyo sustancial de la población a la primera. El material sostiene que mientras la falta de independencia judicial obstruyó la búsqueda de justicia por muchos años, la combinación de una continuada demanda de parte de la sociedad civil por justicia, presidentes más receptivos a la cuestión de derechos humanos, y jueces (y, recientemente, fiscales) más liberales es lo que explica los recientes avances en una justicia retributiva.

Muitos países latino-americanos estão indo em direção de maior responsabilidade e transparência pelas violações de direitos humanos passadas e há crescente consenso global de que a lei internacional não isenta certos crimes de serem levados ao julgamento. O Uruguai tem reagido de maneira profundamente dividida sobre estes desenvolvimentos. Enquanto o Supremo Tribunal e a elite política fizeram crescentes esforços para terminar com a impunidade, em um plebiscito em 2009, o público chegou a ratificar a Lei de Anistia de 1985, protegendo os militares de serem levados a julgamento. A Lei de Anistia foi finalmente abolida pelo parlamento em 2011. O artigo traça o trajeto tortuoso desde a impunidade à responsabilidade e transparência no Uruguai em um contexto de substancial apoio do público à impunidade. Argumenta que, enquanto a falta de independência jurídica obstruiu a busca pela justiça por muitos anos, o recente avanço na justiça retribuitiva é explicado pela combinação de demandas contínuas da sociedade civil por justiça em conjunto com um executivo cada vez mais solidário aos direitos humanos e a presença de juízes (e, ultimamente, promotores) de pensamento liberal.

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1 Scagliola, Ricardo, ‘El Acto Oficial por el caso Gelman: elogio de la razón sensible’, Brecha, 23 March 2012, p. 2.

2 The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in the Sabalsagaray (2009), Bordaberry (2010) and García Hernández, Amaral y otros (2011) cases.

3 This was a political compromise. Rather than annul the Expiry Law altogether, the Ley Interpretativa declared only Articles 1, 3 and 4 of the former in conflict with the Uruguayan Constitution and hence legally void. For the political twists and turns, see Fried, Gabriela and Lessa, Francesca (eds.), Luchas contra la impunidad: Uruguay 1985–2011 (Montevideo: Trilce, 2011). The law ultimately failed to secure parliamentary approval in May 2011.

4 Parliamentary discussions over having the Expiry Law revalidated started in September 2010 and were anticipated to end before the IACtHR's verdict, which was originally expected on 4 October 2010. The actual court ruling was only issued in March the following year. See ‘Proyecto interpretativo de la Ley de Caducidad ingresa hoy al Parlamento’, La Red 21, 21 Sep. 2010, available at

5 ‘Estado de las cosas’, La Diaria, available at

6 In Argentina and Chile, the onset of late, or post-transitional, justice can be dated to the mid-1990s, whereas in Uruguay the first judge to take on a criminal justice case for past human rights violations did so only in 2002. For a comparative analysis of the propensity of judges in the Southern Cone to prosecute the military, see Skaar, Elin, Judicial Independence and Human Rights in Latin America: Violations, Politics and Prosecution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

7 Following the transition to democratic rule in 1983, Argentine courts sentenced five of the country's nine former junta leaders to prison. They were later pardoned by the next president, Menem. Bolivia too put its former dictator, García Meza, on trial in 1983. The Peruvian Supreme Court sentenced former president Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in jail in 2010. The trend of holding former civilian and military leaders to account for past gross human rights violations in Latin America is explored in Lutz, Ellen and Reiger, Caitlin (eds.), Prosecuting Heads of State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

8 I conducted about 50 interviews with judges, human rights lawyers, academics, politicians and representatives from human rights organisations and civil society.

9 Operation Condor first encompassed Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Peru and Ecuador later joined the network as peripheral members.

10 Estimates for imprisoned and tortured people vary from 60,000 people (Amnesty International in 1976) to 200,000. See Garro, Alejandro M., ‘Nine Years of Transition to Democracy in Argentina: Partial Failure or Qualified Success?’, Colombia Journal of Transnational Law, 31: 1 (1993), pp. 1102.

11 For a discussion on various types of transition to democratic rule, see Hunter, Wendy, ‘Negotiating Civil-Military Relations in Post-Authoritarian Argentina and Chile’, International Studies Quarterly, 42: 2 (1998), pp. 295317; and Karl, Terry Lynn and Schmitter, Philippe C., ‘Modes of Transition in Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe’, International Social Science Journal, 128 (1991), pp. 269–89.

12 For a comprehensive discussion on political use of amnesties, see Mallinder, Louise, Amnesty, Human Rights and Political Transitions: Bridging the Peace and Justice Divide (Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart Publishing, 2008).

13 In such situations, underperformance in human rights matters was the norm rather than the exception during the early transition period. See Jorge Correa Sutil, ‘“No Victorious Army has Ever Been Prosecuted…”: The Unsettled Story of Transitional Justice in Chile’, in McAdams, A. James (ed.), Transitional Justice and the Rule of Law in New Democracies (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), pp. 123–54; Kritz, Neil (ed.), Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, vols. 1–3 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995); and Skaar, Elin, ‘Truth Commissions, Trials – or Nothing? Policy Options in Democratic Transitions’, Third World Quarterly, 20: 6 (1999), pp. 1109–28.

14 For a discussion of the two parliamentary commissions, see Lessa, Francesca, ‘Parliamentary Investigative Commission on the Situation of Disappeared Persons and Its Causes’ and ‘Investigative Commission on the Kidnapping and Assassination of Former National Representatives Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez-Ruiz’, in Stan, Lavinia and Nedelsky, Nadya (eds.), Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); De Brito, Alexandra Barahona, Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Michelini, Felipe, ‘Las Comisiones de la Verdad en el Cono Sur: una perspectiva desde el año 2000’, in CELS (ed.), Homenaje a Emilio Mignone (Buenos Aires: Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos and CELS, 2000).

15 Suprema Corte de Justicia, ‘Sentencia No. 184: sobre denuncia de inconstitucionalidad Ley No. 15.848, Arts 1, 2, 3 y 4’, 2 May 1988. One of the judges had apparently been prepared to vote the law unconstitutional, but was pressured by the executive into declaring it constitutional. Another who voted to declare it unconstitutional did so in spite of direct pressure from former General Medina. Information confirmed in interviews with historian Gerardo Caetano, Montevideo, 21 March 2012, and human rights lawyer Juan Erradonea, Montevideo, 23 March 2012.

16 For a detailed account of the referendum and all its surrounding debates, see Roniger, Luis and Sznajder, Mario, The Legacy of Human Rights Violations in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

17 Hugo Leonardo de los Santos Mendoza et al. vs. Uruguay, Cases 10.029, 10.036, 10.145, 10.305, 10.372, 10.373, 10.374 and 10.375, Report No. 29/92, OEA/Ser./L/V/II.83 (1992). Cited in Louise Mallinder, Uruguay's Evolving Experience of Amnesty and Civil Society's Response, Working Paper no. 4 from Beyond Legalism: Amnesties, Transition and Conflict Transformation (Belfast: Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Queen's University Belfast, 2009).

18 Lilia E. Ferro Clérico and Diego Escuder, ‘Conjugando el pasado: el debate actual en Uruguay sobre los detenidos desaparecidos durante la dictadura’, paper presented at Latin American Studies Association, Chicago, IL, 1998, pp. 1–31. The ruling by a Montevideo appellate court (Tribunal de Apelaciones en lo Penal de 2o Turno) was published in full in La República on 14 June 1997.

19 Interview with Felipe Michelini, Frente Amplio member of Parliament and professor of human rights at the Universidad de la República, 12 July 2001.

20 The court system facilitates this as Uruguay's Supreme Court is responsible for appointing, removing, promoting, relocating and disciplining lower court judges and thus has total control over their careers.

21 Batlle also addressed the case of Simón Riquelo, but here the DNA tests were negative. This case was later resolved in Argentina, in connection with the reopening of a formerly closed case related to Operation Condor. Amnesty International, ‘The Case of Simón Riquelo: A 25-Year Struggle for Truth and Justice’ (London: Amnesty International, 25 July 2001), AMR 52/001/2001.

22 Government of Uruguay, Office of the President, Informe Final de la Comisión Para la Paz (Montevideo: Uruguay Centro de Medios Independientes, 2003).

23 Even before Jubette took on the court case, Quinteros had appealed in 1987 directly to then-president Sanguinetti to help her find her missing daughter. He responded that the Expiry Law precluded an investigation. At the end of the millennium, the Supreme Court apparently sent new evidence in the case to Sanguinetti, who, under Article 4 of the Expiry Law, was obliged to order an investigation. The executive again refused, with the same argument.

24 Official legal document from the Montevideo Court of Appeals, Case No. 98, 31 May 2000.

25 Amnesty International Report 2003 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2003).

26 Amnesty International Report 2004 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2004).

27 Amnesty International Report 2006 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2006). The full list of proposed exclusions put forward in executive-initiated legislative bills was: economic crimes (the only exclusion in the original text of the amnesty); disappearances; crimes committed by civilians; crimes committed by high-ranking military or police personnel (with the assumption that lower ranks would still be covered as they had been following orders); crimes committed outside Uruguay; and crimes committed before the start of the dictatorship – that is, the early 1970s. Many of these exclusions were based on judicial developments.

29 Amnesty International Report 2007 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2007).

30 Amnesty International Report 2008 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2008).

31 Bordaberry died under house arrest the following year, aged 83.

32 ‘Former Uruguay Leader Detained’,, 18 Oct. 2007; ‘Uruguayan Dictator Guilty of Murder’,, 23 Oct. 2009.

33 Amnesty International Report 2007 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2007).

34 Amnesty International Report 2008 – Uruguay (London: Amnesty International, 2008).

36 I thank Gabriela Fried for this information (personal communication, 28 Jan. 2010).

37 Interviews with representatives for CRYSOL (Asociación de ex Pres@s Polític@s de Uruguay) and Familiares, Montevideo, 20 and 23 March 2012 respectively. For figures on the amounts paid, see

38 ‘Sabalsagaray Curutchet, Blanca Stela: Denuncia, Excepción de Inconstitucionalidad Arts. 1, 3 y 4 de la Ley No 15.848’, Ficha 97-397/2004, Sentencia No. 355, Montevideo, 19 Oct. 2009. Preceding the decision, in February 2008, the Uruguayan Parliament (where the Vásquez government had a clear majority in both chambers) had already signalled that it favoured declaring the Expiry Law unconstitutional. ‘Uruguayan Court Throws Out Special Amnesty for Crimes under Dictatorship’, MercoPress, 20 Oct. 2009.

39 Garces, Raul O., ‘Uruguay Supreme Court Rules Out Dirty War Amnesty’, Associated Press, 19 Oct. 2009.

40 ‘Supreme Court Strikes Blow Against Uruguayan Amnesty Law’, dpa International, Earth Times online, 20 Oct. 2009.

41 Roniger, Luis, ‘Transitional Justice and Protracted Accountability in Re-Democratised Uruguay, 1985–2011’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 43: 4 (2011), pp. 693724.

42 For the arguments of those campaigning for the referendum, see Alvaro Rico, ‘Represion y exterminio de uruguayos en la dictadura: razones para la anulación de la Expiry Law’, 14 Oct 2009, available at

43 Raul O. Garces, ‘Uruguay Supreme Court Rules Out Dirty War Amnesty’, Associated Press, 19 Oct. 2009.

44 Voting is compulsory in Uruguay, and turnout was estimated at 90 percent. Referendum results by department can be found on the website of Electoral Geography 2.0 (, under ‘Uruguay: Amnesty Law Referendum 2009’. The plebiscite was held in conjunction with the first round of presidential elections on 25 Nov. 2009. Nobody really voted for the Expiry Law, as there was only one option in the plebiscite: the so-called voto rosado (pink slip), which meant giving support to a constitutional reform project that would annul Articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the Expiry Law. This procedure, determined by the Electoral College, was heavily criticised by several sectors of the Uruguayan population, especially the human rights community, as a deliberate ploy to confuse the electorate. This was confirmed in interviews with a number of informants in Montevideo, March 2012. See also Oscar Destouet, ‘La lucha contra la impunidad en Uruguay: del Voto Verde al Sí Rosado’, in Fried and Lessa, Luchas contra la impunidad, pp. 69–73.

45 Only Judge Jubette dared invoke international law, in the court case regarding the disappearance of Elena Quinteros, but she did so solely to achieve truth for the victim's family, not to bring the perpetrators to justice. She declined to invoke the legal interpretation of ‘disappearance’ as a continuing crime.

46 After the transition, attempts to reform the Uruguayan judicial system and make judges more independent and more efficient included a proposal to establish a separate consejo de la magistratura to take over some of the administrative responsibilities of judges, and reform of the criminal procedural code. However, reform efforts quickly stalled. On judicial reform in Latin America, see Biebesheimer, Christina and Mejía, Francisco (eds.), Justice Beyond Our Borders: Judicial Reforms for Latin America and the Caribbean (Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, through Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); Buscalgia, Edgardo, Dakolias, Maria and Ratcliff, William, Judicial Reform in Latin America: A Framework for National Development (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); Domingo, Pilar and Sieder, Rachel (eds.), Rule of Law in Latin America: The International Promotion of Judicial Reform (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 2001); and Hammergren, Linn A., The Politics of Justice and Justice Reform in Latin America (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).

47 The single most important factor in Argentina was (as part of a larger judicial reform package) the granting of constitutional status to international human rights law in 1994, which expanded the legal basis for judicial review in human rights cases. In Chile, Supreme Court reform in 1998 brought new, more liberal-minded judges into the system by expanding the number of judges on the court, changing appointment procedures and creating specialised chambers within the court. The large number of special appellate court judges assigned in 2001 specifically to deal with disappearance cases further spurred these processes. See Skaar, Elin, ‘Un análisis de las reformas judiciales de Argentina, Chile y Uruguay’, América Latina Hoy, 34 (2003), pp. 147–86; and Judicial Independence and Human Rights in Latin America.

48 The so-called strategic defection argument was developed by Helmke based on a historical analysis of the Argentine case, where the Supreme Court enjoys de jure but not de facto independence, as judges have in practice been removed from office at irregular intervals. Helmke, Gretchen, Courts Under Constraints: Judges, Generals and Presidents in Argentina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

49 Hilbink, Lisa, Judges beyond Politics and Dictatorship: Lessons from Chile (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Importantly, Hilbink's analysis is based on the era before judicial reform in Chile, and therefore does not explain the engagement of judges in human rights matters after the reforms.

50 Huneeus, Alexandra, ‘Judging from a Guilty Conscience: The Chilean Judiciary's Human Rights Turn’, Law & Social Inquiry, 35: 1 (2010), pp. 99135. More generally, the links between institutions, legal cultures and increased activism of judges (not necessarily in the human rights field) are explored by a number of scholars. See Sieder, Rachel, Schjolden, Line and Angell, Alan (eds.), The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

51 Staats, Joseph L., Bowler, Shaun B. and Hiskey, Jonathan T., ‘Measuring Judicial Performance in Latin America’, Latin American Politics & Society, 47: 4 (2005), pp. 77106. The criteria for measuring judicial independence are obviously of importance; see Julio Ríos-Figueroa, ‘Judicial Independence: Definition, Measurement, and Its Effects on Corruption – An Analysis of Latin America’, PhD thesis, New York University, 2006. Figueroa gives Uruguay low to medium scores on different indicators of autonomy and independence.

52 Interviews with late Supreme Court justice Jacinta Balbela, first instance civil court judge Estela Jubette and Supreme Court justice Jorge Marabotto, Montevideo, March–April 2001.

53 The appointment system did not change after the transition. During civilian-military rule, Supreme Court justices were appointed by the military.

54 Brinks, Daniel M., The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America: Inequality and the Rule of Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 199.

55 Interview with Javier Miranda, human rights lawyer, Montevideo, 5 April 2001.

56 Interview with Eduardo Pirotto, Madres y Familiares del Uruguay, Montevideo, 2 April 2001.

57 Interviews with Estela Jubette and Jacinta Balbela, Montevideo, April 2001.

58 1980 Code of Criminal Procedure, Decree Law 15.032. For more information on the division of labour in criminal cases, see Brinks, The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America.

59 Ibid., p. 194.

60 Some of the information provided by the military later proved to be false, as bodies of detained-disappeared persons have been found in Uruguay in recent years.

61 SERPAJ, Derechos humanos en el Uruguay (Montevideo: SERPAJ, 2000).

62 This view was held by, among other informants, human rights lawyer Javier Miranda, labour lawyer Pablo Chargoñia, and judges Estela Jubette and Jacinta Balbela. Interviews conducted in Montevideo, April 2000.

63 War crimes and crimes against humanity are, according to international law, not subject to statutory limitations.

64 This can, of course, swing both ways: lower court judges are bound by neither well- nor ill-founded Supreme Court judgements.

65 Brinks, The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America, p. 199.

66 Mallinder, Uruguay's Evolving Experience of Amnesty.

67 Interviews with Supreme Court judge Jorge Chediak, Estela Jubette and first instance criminal court judge Mariana Mota.

68 Even during the Batlle presidency, the Supreme Court had on a couple of occasions carefully signalled that it was not totally happy with the status quo, refusing to bow to Batlle's pressure to sack Judge Jubette after her 2000 ruling in the Elena Quinteros case.

69 Interview with Constanza Moreira, Frente Amplio senator, Montevideo, 20 March 2012. This view was echoed by large number of informants from within as well as outside the justice sector in Montevideo, such as Juan Errandonea, human rights lawyer (23 March 2012), Walter Pernas, journalist for Brecha (23 March 2012), Maria Ruiz, Amnesty International (19 March 2012), and Martin Pratz, IELSUR (26 March 2012).

70 There is widespread agreement in Uruguay that the military no longer poses a threat to democratic rule. Nevertheless, it remains a tightly closed, 90 per cent family-based institution with a strong sense of internal loyalty and esprit de corps. There are strong ties between the military and Colorados. Interview with Juan Erradonea, private lawyer, Montevideo, 23 March 2012.

71 The 1980 Code of Criminal Procedure, from the dictatorship period, was replaced by a new code (Law 16.893 of 1997), which has not been implemented. Interview with Mariana Mota, Montevideo, 23 March 2012.

72 Interview with Estela Jubette, Montevideo, 21 March 2012.

73 This view is held by judges as well as people outside the judicial system.

74 Brinks, The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America, pp. 196–7.

75 The largely conservative inclinations of Supreme Court judges were confirmed by several informants.

76 Interview with Jorge Chediak, Montevideo, 19 March 2012.

77 Interview with Mariana Mota.

78 Ley 18.026, ‘Cooperación Con la Corte Penal Internacional en materia de lucha contra el genocidio, los crímenes de guerra y de lesa humanidad’, available on the Uruguayan Parliament website under ‘Leyes promulgadas por legislatura: Legislatura 2005–2010 (XLVIa)’, no. 18013, at

79 Interview with Jorge Chediak.

80 Interview with Mariana Mota.

81 Interview with José Luis Gonzales, Facultad de Derecho, Montevideo, 23 March 2012.

82 This view was echoed by many informants, for example Constanza Moreira.

83 In the largest trial to date carried out in Argentina to address dictatorship crimes, 68 individuals have been charged with 789 crimes committed in the secret detention centre of the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Mechanical School, ESMA). Charges include torture, kidnappings, enslavement and murder, including so-called ‘death flights’. See Mariel Matze, ‘Monumental ESMA Trial Begins’, Argentina Independent, 29 Nov. 2012, available at

84 All of my informants confirmed this, except Carlos Ramela (Colorado politician and former member of the Comisión para la Paz). In his opinion the democratic will expressed through the popular referendum and plebiscite should have been respected, and Uruguay should have ‘defended itself’ against the IACtHR instead of implementing the court ruling. Interview with Carlos Ramela, Montevideo, 20 March 2012.

85 Interview with Constanza Moreira.

86 This view is held by many informants inside as well as outside the judicial system.

87 Sanctions may take various forms: clear signals that their career will not advance, critical public press, or ‘disappearance’ of personal belongings such as computers.

88 Interview with CRYSOL representative.

89 Interview with Felipe Michelini, Montevideo, 23 March 2012.

* This article comes out of a larger comparative research project on judicial reform and prosecution of the military for gross human rights violations in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I am indebted to Francesca Lessa for assisting with interviews in Montevideo in 2012 and to Gabriela Fried for helpful comments on earlier drafts. Thanks also to the three anonymous JLAS referees for their insightful comments and to the JLAS editor for her careful editing. All errors remain my own responsibility.

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