Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

Democracy in Argentina continued to be consolidated in 1991 as congressional and provincial elections were held in September and October, producing majorities for the ruling Justicialista (Peronist) Party of President Carlos Menem. Yet, violent human rights abuses remained entrenched in such institutions as the police and the prison service. To date, the government has not addressed these problems in a serious manner.

On April 19, Walter Bulacio, a high school student, died while in custody of the police. His family charged that his death resulted from torture by the police. The police claim that he died of a pre-existing condition, but fail to explain how such a condition would lead to his death without other serious physical mistreatment. His death refocused public attention on the issue of police brutality and the arbitrary arrest of teenagers at night. Bulacio and approximately thirty other youths were detained outside a rock concert, under an Argentine law that permits the police to hold anyone for up to twenty-four hours for identification purposes. Police kicked and beat several of the prisoners, including Bulacio, who was hospitalized the next day and died a short time later.

Groups of students protested his death in public demonstrations and called for a complete investigation. In response, the government sought repeal of police regulations known as "edicts," which permit the chief of police to impose periods of detention of up to thirty days without seeking judicial approval; an appeal may be made to the judiciary, but only in the twenty-four hours following notice of the police decision. The police edicts provide a legal cloak for detentions made without warrant or probable cause. In addition to the "edicts," the police dictate their own internal regulations in the form of "memoranda." In the case of minors arrested for identification purposes, the law stipulates that the police must immediately notify a judge and the minor's parents of the arrest. In practice, however, the police have been guided by Memorandum No. 40, which stipulates that they may hold minors for up to forty-eight hours without proper notification.

In Congress a proposal was presented to reduce from twenty-four to ten the number of hours that the police could detain citizens without the intervention of a judge. The law was vetoed by President Menem, but Congress eventually overrode the veto. Because of the public outcry over the Bulacio case in particular and the detention of minors in general, the police were forced to scrap Memorandum No. 40. In addition to these legislative efforts, there has been a judicial challenge to the powers given to the police by the edicts. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in October upheld their constitutionality.

The September 1990 arrest and subsequent disappearance of Andrés Alberto Núñez has challenged the judiciary's will to investigate and punish abuses by the police. Witnesses affirm that Núñez was detained by the Investigative Brigade of La Plata, Buenos Aires, and that fellow prisoners heard his cries of pain inside the police precinct. While police originally denied that Núñez had been brought to the brigade, his name was discovered in the precinct's register. Nonetheless, the judge conducting the investigation has been less than energetic, and prosecuting lawyers doubt that the perpetrators will be held accountable for the crime.

The government's response to such episodes has been at best inconsistent, and has lacked the forcefulness that the problems of torture and arbitrary arrest deserve. Vice President Eduardo Duhalde, elected governor of the province of Buenos Aires on September 8, reaffirmed after the election a so-called hard line toward criminals – a stance also adopted previously by other high-ranking officials, including President Menem himself. The hard line has included praise by Duhalde for Luis Alberto Patti, a police officer who has been credibly charged with torturing prisoners with an electric prod. It has even been rumored in the press that Duhalde may name Patti chief of police in the province of Buenos Aires. Patti was released from jail when he successfully petitioned for the removal of a judge who had managed to obtain a medical examiner's report that confirmed the use of electric shock on prisoners. Despite an appellate court's order to reopen the investigation, the new judge, Raúl Casal, has blocked further action. Meanwhile, with the help of Menem and Duhalde, Patti is enjoying his new image as a political celebrity.

Patti's high standing with the government is all the more disappointing in light of his help in covering up the 1990 rape and murder of seventeen-year-old María Soledad Morales, in the northern province of Catamarca. All of the principal suspects were related to members of the province's political elite. Initial attempts at cover-up were thwarted by an impressive succession of popular demonstrations, organized by Soledad's teachers and schoolmates, which brought down the autocratic provincial government of Ramón Saadi. The sixth judge to investigate the case, José Luis Ventimiglia, who was assigned by the federal government, has virtually solved the crime, implicating the chief of police and perhaps the governor himself in the cover-up. Patti, assigned by President Menem as the special investigator, was eventually forced to resign after clashing with Ventimiglia and making statements to the press insisting that the prime suspect was the girl's boyfriend.

The failure to investigate and punish police abuses was underscored by a study carried out by Alicia Pierini, the new human rights director in the Ministry of Interior. She diligently followed up on 678 reported cases of physical abuse of prisoners in police custody in the capital city of Buenos Aires between 1984 and 1986. Twenty-three of the thirty-three courts in the city responded to her request for information, and reported that 267 cases involved wounds confirmed by a medical examiner. Of these cases, ten were a result of electric shock. Despite the disturbingly high incidence of abuse, not a single police officer or other security agent had been convicted. The Pierini initiative reflects the concern over human rights violations shown by some sectors of the government – also including the Justice Ministry – but at the same time highlights the problem of official impunity.

The penitentiary system has been a breeding ground for abuse. The July death of twelve of the forty inmates in Federal Jail Number 13 in Santa Rosa, La Pampa caused alarm and requests for further investigations by the human rights division. A prison uprising to protest mistreatment resulted in the outbreak of a fire and the subsequent loss of life. The two prisoners involved in the uprising who survived the tragedy were promptly transferred to a distant jail, fueling suspicion of misconduct by prison authorities. Because the judge handling the case was the same magistrate who should have intervened in the negotiations with prisoners before the uprising and reportedly did not do so, the Office of the General Prosecutor (Fiscalía de la Nación) has sent two federal prosecutors to La Pampa in an attempt to guarantee a thorough investigation. The prosecutors have pressed charges against the entire prison staff.

Americas Watch recognizes and applauds the role of the government in this episode, and believes that similar action is warranted to combat torture in police precincts, as well as the arbitrary arrest of youths and the shooting of criminal suspects by the police. In Buenos Aires and its suburbs, the police frequently kill common-crime suspects, and routinely label such episodes "confrontations." However, further investigation of some of these cases suggests a pattern of "shoot-to-kill" behavior directed against young men in poor neighborhoods, and against men with a police record who are considered "beyond redemption" by the police.

The issue of compensation for political prisoners held without trial during the state of siege under the military regime (known as PEN detainees) was partially resolved in September. In January, the Menem government issued Decree 70/91 to settle a complaint brought by human rights lawyers from Córdoba before the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. According to the Argentine government's director for human rights, the decree allows for payment of damages to approximately 140 former political prisoners, all of whom had filed suit against the state before the statute of limitations expired. The form of payment remains to be determined under the August Consolidation of Public Debt Law (No. 27.204), but may be in government bonds.

The 140 parties to the suit represent a small percentage of the total PEN prisoners held in administrative detention at different times between 1974 and 1983, estimated by the human rights director to be approximately 5,500 and by Americas Watch to be closer to 8,000. In November 1991, Congress passed legislation granting a similar compensation package to all former PEN prisoners, whether or not they had sued before the statute of limitations lapsed. Americas Watch believes that a significant step has been made to provide redress to many victims of arbitrary arrest during the military dictatorship. We urge the government to find ways to institute compensation to the military's other victims, particularly the families of the "disappeared."

A continuing concern of Americas Watch has been the tendency of the Menem government to compromise the independence of the judiciary. In 1990, President Menem orchestrated the expansion of the Supreme Court from five to nine judges as a way of increasing his political control. With a similar lack of respect for the balance of powers guaranteed by the Argentine Constitution, President Menem in February fired, or "decreed the resignation" of, Ricardo Molinas, head of an independent office that investigates and prosecutes wrongdoing by public officials, the Fiscalia Nacional de Investigaciones Administrativas. Molinas at the time was investigating charges of corruption within the government and had called one of the government's top advisors to testify. The advisor refused and eventually was forced to resign, yet President Menem sided with his advisor. The excuse given by President Menem for Molinas's dismissal was a dispute between Molinas and his four assistant prosecutors, who wanted to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Molinas's son and private secretary. Protest from opposition members of Congress, who pointed out that these special prosecutors can be removed only through congressional impeachment, was ignored by the executive. In mid-1991, the Supreme Court rejected Molinas's charge that his dismissal had been unconstitutional. The majority in the telling five-to-three vote was composed of Menem appointees. In October, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an administrative decision to deny incorporation (personeria juridica) to the Argentine Homosexual Community, on the grounds that the promotion of homosexual behavior (which the association insists is not among its aims) is contrary to the country's traditions. The majority in the six-to-two vote was entirely composed of Menem appointees. In New York in November, Menem urged the association to apply again for incorporation, and promised a favorable response.

In a similar effort to stifle independent action within the judiciary, three federal prosecutors, all known for resisting submission to the executive branch's political will, are under administrative investigation by the new attorney general. One of those being investigated is Luis Moreno Ocampo, the assistant prosecutor in the trial of the former military commanders for ordering widespread murder, disappearance and torture and the prosecutor in the ongoing trial of rebel army officers, known as the Carapintadas, or Black-Faced Ones, after their manner of disguising their faces in the course of the December 1990 rebellion.

In the area of press freedom, the newspaper Página 12 has suffered unrestrained verbal attacks from the government, particularly from President Menem, which go well beyond legitimate criticism. The paper was responsible for making public the scandal that linked Menem's in-laws to the laundering of drug money, and for uncovering several corruption scandals that led to the resignation of top Menem advisors. The president has off-handedly charged the paper with being financed by drug money, and has called the paper's leading investigative reporter, Horacio Verbitsky, a "criminal journalist." Verbitsky described these attacks as "an abuse of power and intimidation," since the president enjoys legal privileges protecting him from slander suits unless he has been impeached. The verbal attacks have created an atmosphere conducive to more violent assaults. The paper's editor is often threatened, and in February a bomb exploded in Página 12's offices. In December, the government canceled all official advertisement contracts with Página 12, in a move that threatened the newspaper's economic survival. This is the first overt act of censorship in the years of democracy in Argentina, and it comes on the heels of a series of stories on the sale of milk unsuitable for human consumption by a company with ties to one of Menem's two private secretaries. A few days later, in the face of mounting public outcry, the government reversed itself.

In May, motion picture director Fernando "Pino" Solanas was shot six times in the legs by two men disguised as clowns. Solanas had spoken publicly against Menem, calling him a traitor to Peronism, and had accused the government of corruption in the sale of a large government property that had been earmarked to become an arts center. The president's decision to sue Solanas for contempt (desacato) gave rise to alarm among human rights organizations, who feared a link between the suit and the shooting. Two former intelligence agents have been arrested and charged with the shooting.

In April, vandals damaged 110 tombs in a Jewish cemetery in Berazategui, approximately twenty miles south of Buenos Aires. In this case as well, despite numerous death threats received by the investigating judge, two former intelligence agents who are members of the very small Argentine Nazi Party were detained and charged with the crime.

Judges of the Federal Court of Appeals were threatened throughout the trial of the Carapintadas. In one instance, the chief justice of the court received at his office a written death threat in a box containing a human skull. Members of the press speculated at the time that the skull might have been taken from the skeletons stolen from the Jewish cemetery.

In November, investigators discovered a kidnapping ring whose members were high-ranking Federal Police officers, intelligence agents, and at least one army major linked to the Carapintadas. As of mid-December, twelve had been arrested. Most of the defendants were former members of the "task forces" responsible for disappearances, torture and executions by the army during the "dirty war" against political opponents in the late 1970s. In fact, it was reported that the kidnapping-for-ransom began in that period as a fully authorized extension of the struggle against what was considered "economic subversion." The kidnappers had something else in common: most of them had faced charges in the mid-1980s for their role in the "dirty war," but their cases were dismissed by virtue of the Punto Final and Due Obedience laws enacted in 1986 and 1987 to limit such prosecution to high-ranking military leaders. Their resulting ability to remain in the force has again brought home the folly of those laws and of the presidential pardons issued by Menem in 1989 and 1990, which blocked all further prosecutions and released all other perpetrators of "dirty war" crimes. However, to the credit of the Menem government, the investigation into this "super-gang" has been vigorous. The Minister of Interior has promised an in-depth probe of the Federal Police, and predicted that five hundred members of the police force will be dismissed.

Of special concern to Americas Watch is the lack of any serious investigation into the apparent murder of members of an armed group that raided the military quarters of La Tablada, in suburban Buenos Aires, in January 1989. There is serious circumstantial evidence to suggest that at least four of the attackers were killed by the army after they surrendered. Survivors of the attack are serving stiff sentences imposed in 1989; their appeal on due process grounds is still pending before the Supreme Court.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights activists and judges continue to be periodically threatened in Argentina. Even the director of the government's Human Rights Office admits to regular harassment. Hebe de Bonafini, the president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an organization of relatives of those who disappeared under the military regime, reported two break-ins in the organization's offices and the theft of valuable documentation. She also has reported numerous death threats. She has been sued by President Menem for contempt for calling him "scum" or "garbage" in statements to the Spanish press.

In the ongoing research that Americas Watch conducts on Argentina, we have received serious responses and a high degree to cooperation from Minister of Justice León Arslanian, and from the human rights directors at the Ministries of Foreign Relations, Emilse Regazzoli, and Interior, Alicia Pierini. On the other hand, our efforts to obtain valuable statistical information met with a complete lack of cooperation from the Federal Police and from the Police of the Province of Buenos Aires. At the federal level, Supreme Court Justice Enrique Petracchi has made available to Americas Watch copies of important judicial decisions.

U.S. Policy

The Bush Administration has been a strong supporter of the Menem government, largely in response to economic reforms launched in Argentina. As in previous years, human rights has been notably absent from the U.S. diplomatic agenda, although U.S. Ambassador Terence Todman has expressed concern over corruption and the laundering of drug money in Argentina. Even though the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990 notes serious violations in Argentina such as disappearances and torture, which recurred in 1991, the U.S. Embassy made no public statements expressing concern over these abuses.

In fiscal year 1991, Argentina received $150,000 for military training, $3.5 million in military aid and $13 million in government-to-government military sales. An additional $621,000 in police aid for counter-narcotics purposes was also granted.

The State Department indicated that the military training would be used to "depoliticize and professionalize the armed forces." The State Department reported that the majority of the $3.5 million in military aid would be used for spare parts for helicopters and transport aircraft. A State Department official also mentioned that the Argentine army might serve a "support role" in assisting law enforcement authorities in counter-narcotics assistance.

Beginning in April 1991, the Argentine Air Force and Border Police, in conjunction with the United States, began aerial surveillance of suspected coca plantations and clandestine landing fields. This unexpected move, made after consultation with high U.S. Embassy officials, was launched in the midst of a scandal involving the laundering of drug money by close aides to President Menem.

Argentine human rights activists have expressed serious concern over what they see as the U.S. government's legitimization of the Argentine military. While the Argentine military was ostracized following the "Dirty War" conducted by the military regime, it is slowly regaining respect abroad. This renewed stature is inappropriate given the military's role in a series of rebellions that halted the process of bringing to justice those responsible for the Dirty War. Analysts in a position to know have told Americas Watch that the Argentine police force is doing an adequate job of drug interdiction and that the military's involvement in the drug war is unnecessary and undesirable. As Argentine Defense Minister Antonio Erman Gonzalez noted in April, "it is not the role of the armed forces to participate in the antidrug fight."2 It is feared that entry of the armed forces, which are untrained in constitutional protections due criminal suspects, will lead to an upsurge of human rights violations.

The Work of Americas Watch

In 1991, Americas Watch continued to monitor human rights conditions in Argentina through the work of a representative based in Buenos Aires. Periodic meetings were held with the director of human rights in the Ministry of Interior and with the human rights ambassador in the Foreign Ministry, both to express concern over the issues described above and to learn of government actions designed to remedy or prevent further abuses.

In February, an Americas Watch staff member visited Buenos Aires and gathered information which was later published in the updated version of our 1987 report, Truth and Partial Justice in Argentina. The new version recounts the final stage of the process by which the historic prosecution of past human rights violations came to an end. That final stage took the form of two pardons, bestowed by the Menem government, for military leaders convicted and sentenced to prison for human rights violations or facing prosecution for such abuses. The report criticizes the amnesty and reiterates the long-standing position of Americas Watch that victims of human rights abuse have a right to seek redress in court for the crimes committed against them. In September, a Spanish-language version of the report was published and circulated in Argentina, with the support of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

Since the release of police officer Patti in November 1990, Americas Watch has given special attention to the issue of police abuse. In July, Americas Watch sent a mission of specialists in police killings to spend two weeks in Argentina interviewing government officials and gathering information. A report on that mission was published on December 23.

Americas Watch has also been interested in the methods used by the medical examiner in the province of Buenos Aires to confirm the use of electric shock on prisoners. A series of meetings were held with forensic authorities to obtain statistics on the use and results of these tests, referred to as síndrome electro-específico. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the Province of Buenos Aires advised Americas Watch that such information could not be provided due to "a lack of staff." Americas Watch protested that decision and resubmitted the request for statistics on the use and results of this test.

Americas Watch has also pursued cases involving Argentina before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In cooperation with CELS and other local groups, we have pressed several cases challenging the Punto Final and Due Obedience laws – both restrict prosecution of those in the military who are responsible for the abuses of the "dirty war" – as well as the Menem pardons. The cases contend that these acts are inconsistent with Argentina's obligations to prosecute gross abuses under the American Convention on Human Rights. After a drawn-out process, the IACHR in October reached a decision on these laws and decrees, as well as on the Ley de Caducidad, enacted to a similar effect in Uruguay. The decision has been submitted to both governments for comment, but as yet the complainants have not been given notice of what appears to be a resolution favorable to their position. Public disclosure of the decision is expected in early 1992.

From Telam, the official news agency, April 10, 1991, as reported in Federal Broadcast Information Service, April 11, 1991.

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