El Pais, Spain
No More Safe Havens for
Those with an Evil Past
By Juan José Fernández
Translated By James Johnson
13 January 2013
Edited by Victoria Denholm
Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)
Chile has asked the United States for the extradition of Pedro Barrientos, a former lieutenant in its army and the alleged killer of the singer-songwriter Víctor Jara in 1973. Deportation proceedings against José Guillermo García, the Salvadorian general and former minister of defense responsible for widespread murder and torture between 1979 and 1983, are about to get underway in Miami. These are two of the most recent cases where oppressive figures from Latin American regimes have finally been brought to answer 30- or 40-year-old cases against them, and they can’t get away this time. There are no longer safe havens for these evil figures.
The United States is a country of immigrants. However, not all of those who come to start a new life do so with a clean past. There are filters in place to catch this, but these can be avoided. What has happened in the last 50 years with the arrival and shelter of oppressive military members and citizens from Central and South American countries constitutes one of American diplomacy’s darkest periods. Collusion with and tolerance of these dictatorships continued until their fall. Florida, with its nice climate and setting, was the main attraction. However, things have changed. For the last decade or more, the full weight of the law, as implacable with drugs busts as with arms trafficking to countries considered a terrorist threat, has been falling on these sinister characters who committed atrocities and fled the scenes of their horrific crimes to escape justice or avoid reprisals. Crimes against humanity do not expire, nor are they ever forgotten.
In 2001, in the context of the global war on terrorism, the Bush administration created the Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Unit, linked to the Department of Immigration. Almost 500 — mostly low-profile — cases have been resolved with deportation and near three times as many are currently under investigation.
Lies about their past when filling out immigration papers usually lead to their downfall. Suspicions may be aroused by a request from their home country or simply because they are recognized by their victims. That quiet man up the street might well turn out to be a tyrant or a murderer. At the end of 2012, the Cuban Crescencio Marino Rivero ended up fleeing back to the island after being outed in the press and on the television as Villa Claras’ former head of prisons. He was already being investigated by immigration authorities for failing to declare his links with the Cuban Communist Party and Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Former Guatemalan soldier Gilberto Jordán, on the other hand, wasn’t so prepared. In September 2010, he was tracked down and sentenced to 10 years in prison for hiding his military past — he was a member of the army’s Kaibiles Special Forces, who engaged in guerilla warfare and committed no end of atrocities. In order to get American citizenship, he was forced to admit his participation in the Dos Erres massacre at the start of December 1982, where 251 people were murdered. After spending time in California, where he made a living as a field worker, he had been living in Delray Beach, to the north of Miami, for over a decade, where he was an Italian chef. He will lose his American citizenship and will be deported to Guatemala upon completing his sentence.
Barrientos, the former lieutenant, can’t have been expecting that Chilean justice would catch up to him 40 years after the fact either. He had even gone back to his home country on numerous occasions. He is also a U.S. citizen and has a car dealership in Deltona, in the center of Florida, between Orlando and Daytona Beach. His cover was blown in May 2012 by the Chilevisión show “En la Mira” (“In Our Sights”). He denied responsibility for shooting justice symbol Víctor Jara in the head after interrogating and beating him alongside other soldiers in 1973, an accusation brought forward by José Paredes, who was acting as his bodyguard as part of his military service at the time. “He riled him up by not answering him,” he said. Barrientos denied even being in the then-Estadio Chile, now called Estadio Víctor Jara. He denied even knowing it. It is the same argument used by other defendants (up to eight, with six already in police custody), though other recruits have identified them only too well. It was a vicious murder. A 2009 study of Jara’s remains revealed that he had 56 injuries, 33 of which were bullet wounds, suggesting that he must have been finished off with a machine gun on the floor. Nonetheless, the crime is still unpunished.
The slow, if perseverant, Chilean justice system in this case is in stark contrast with the shelved case of Spanish civil servant Carmelo Soria, which has forced judge Pablo Ruz to follow the trial of seven soldiers and one American for his 1976 murder from Madrid.
In Miami, the former Salvadorian general García is on the same road to deportation as his colleague and Minister of Defense, Eugenio Vides, his successor in the post between 1983 and 1989, whose trial finished a year ago. Both men, both Miami residents, broke a 2004 law according to which a presumed tyrant can be deported if it is proved that he or she “ordered, incited, called for, committed, assisted, helped with or otherwise participated in […] killing other people […] or acts involving torture.”
Vides left his post just months before the killing of Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría and his group from the Universidad Centroamericana, and has still not been punished in Spain’s eyes. This is just one of the thousands of murders committed under García’s supervision; his defense — incredibly — argues that he did not have control of the army. Even then-U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Robert White has testified against him. In an irony seldom seen these days, Ronald Reagan inducted both Vides and García into the Legion of Merit during their “glory” years.
Deportations also get caught up in the legal system’s complicated workings. In July 2011, former army officer Telmo Hurtado was extradited to Peru, having been originally arrested in 2007 in Miami Beach for lying upon his entry in 2002. Hurtado lead the Lince patrol, which killed 67 people in a rural area near Ayacucho in 1985 while fighting Sendero Luminoso’s guerrillas. Following this mass shooting Hurtado threw a grenade over the dead bodies.
Though after the fact, the United States is now following the law to the very letter. It set an example in 2009 when a Miami court sentenced Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr. — son of the former Liberian president, who was also sentenced to 50 years behind bars at The Hague in 2012 — to 97 years in prison, trying him as an American citizen. Taylor Jr. was the result of a relationship that his father had while studying in Boston in the 1970s. Raised in Orlando, he went to Liberia and headed the “Demon Forces” military unit which murdered and tortured members of the opposition between 1999 and 2003. A federal law passed in 1994, allowing the United States to try its citizens for these types of crimes committed on foreign soil, was used for the first time in this case.
It is a different case for countries where extraditions do not happen because of a lack of credible guarantees that political persecution will not happen upon a suspect’s return. Their possible guilt, then, remains in the air. The example of former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada speaks volumes. Overthrown in 2003, following the horrific incidents that ended in the deaths of 60 people in what is now known as “Black October,” he has been living in silence in Washington ever since. Just a few months ago, the U.S. government rejected a request from Bolivia for the extradition of both him and his Minister of Defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín.
A lawyer who has been granted political asylum, now director of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy in Miami, Sánchez Berzaín has never hidden himself away and has launched a series of public attacks on Evo Morales, who he blames for the massacre, with the collusion of Cuban agents and military help from Venezuela in what was then Gadhafi’s Libya. Last September, on a show called “No Mentirás” (“You will not lie”) on the PAT network, he even went as far as challenging the current president to lift the amnesty he declared for himself when he took power and to face trial in a place where Morales does not control every single aspect of the judicial system personally.
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