“The human rights trials show that Argentina’s courts can deal with complex cases — when it wants to,” said Ezequiel Nino, co-director of the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, an independent watchdog. Whereas most countries have tried war criminals in ad hoc tribunals, Argentina is using its federal justice system, where a culture of impunity still reigns, he said.
All together, roughly 260 convictions have been handed down for crimes against humanity since cases were re-opened in 2006, and hundreds more will stand trial in coming years. In contrast, earlier this month, just the second national government official in over 30 years was found guilty of corruption by Argentina’s courts, despite hundreds of investigations.
In office since 2003, the successive governments of President Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have won broad support for the inclusion of human rights in their governing platform, appealing to Argentines that widely condemn the actions of the military junta.
“On the one hand, you have clear political support from the executive branch for human rights trials,” said Nino. “But there’s a parallel attempt to slow down cases of corruption.”
Other countries in the region that fell under military rule in the 60s, 70s, and 80s are further behind. Brazil inaugurated a truth commission this year, but amnesty laws still in place prohibit charges against former rulers. Uruguay only recently overturned its amnesty law. And Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet famously died before being convicted in 2006. The Pinochet-era amnesty law remains in place, though some convictions have been handed down due to loopholes.
In Argentina, family members of military and police officials killed by armed guerrilla groups before and during the dictatorship have called for equal efforts to prosecute those responsible for attacks, but the topic remains largely out of view.
“To me, it’s not taboo to talk about the violence of left-wing groups,” said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine and recipient of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to denounce human rights violations at the time. If the country is to deepen its search for justice, he said, “we must talk about these things.”
Today, ESMA is a museum for truth and memory. Carlos Lordkipanidse, a photographer, has been back often. On the quest for justice in Argentina, he says, “we’re still far from our dreams.”