New Declarations Against Impunity in Uruguay

In just one week in late February, Uruguay’s president and parliament both publicly proclaimed that three key articles of the controversial “Ley de Caducidad” [Expiration Law] are inconsistent with the Uruguayan constitution.  The two-decade old impunity law has sheltered military officials from investigation for crimes committed during the Uruguayan dictatorship, but the national debate is not over yet.

Historic Pronouncements


A poster calls on viewers to “Annul the Expiration Law”

In just one week in late February, Uruguay’s president and parliament both publicly proclaimed opinions that many human rights activists and legal scholars have held for some time. 

On February 18th, President Tabaré Vázquez officially declared for the first time his government’s position that three key articles of the controversial “Ley de Caducidad” [Expiration Law] are inconsistent with the Uruguayan constitution.  [The two-decade old impunity law, approved in 1986, has sheltered military officials from investigation for crimes committed during the Uruguayan dictatorship (1973-1985).  It has been a central obstacle in prosecuting human rights violators.]  And one week later, a majority of Uruguayan deputies and senators followed the president’s lead by voting in a joint session that they too believed the impunity law was unconstitutional.    

While the declarations of the last two weeks are historic, the national debate over prosecuting one-time security officials for crimes committed during Uruguay’s twelve year dictatorship is not yet over.  The pronouncements of the executive and legislative branches are not legally binding and came at the request of the Uruguayan Supreme Court who is currently deliberating a petition by prosecutor Mirtha Guianze to reconsider the constitutional nature of the 1986 Ley de Caducidad in the particular case of Nibia Sabalsagaray.  Sabalsagaray was a Communist youth activist assassinated in 1974. 

Taking up Guianze’s petition, the Supreme Court, in turn, sought out the opinion of the executive branch and the legislature on the matter, a somewhat controversial measure that precedes its final ruling on the case, expected in a few months.

While the declarations of President Vázquez and the Frente Amplio-led parliament indicate a notable change in Uruguay, it is not yet clear how the Supreme Court will rule.  In other occasions, most recently in 2002, the Supreme Court found the impunity law to be constitutional.  Now, even if the high Court finally comes down against the law, the ruling will only affect the Sabalsagaray case while leaving the legal norm in effect. 

This fact keeps a citizen’s campaign to officially annul the 1986 Ley de Caducidad through a popular vote in October very relevant.  Reporting on the popular campaign’s progress this week, human rights organizers from Uruguay’s central trade union, PIT-CNT, announced they were now only 26.000 signatures short of the 250,000 names needed before the initiative is placed on the 2009 general election ballot. 

A similar popular initiative in 1989 failed to gain enough votes to repeal the impunity law. 

Rationale and Repercussions

The three articles of the impunity law in question deal not only with protecting military and state police officials from being tried for crimes during the dictatorship—a claim many legal scholars say defies the constitutional principle that “all are equal before the law”—but questionable provisions also relate to the unique powers granted to the Executive branch.  One such article sets a standard by which the President must decide which human rights claims are sheltered and which can be investigated.  These powers–rejected by President Vázquez and parliament in their recent pronouncements–had given more conservative past presidents the legal right to hold-up investigations of human rights abuses while at the same time allowing Uruguay’s first left wing president, Vázquez, to begin excluding particular cases from legal protection. 

Since Frente Amplio assumed the presidency in 2005 nearly 50 cases have been exempt from their prior position of impunity, but President Vázquez has not taken an active role in promoting the actual annulment of the law.


Photo of an assassinated victim of the dictatorship at the Museo de la Memoria [Memory Museum] in Montevideo

Among the cases which have not been excluded are the assassinations of Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutiérrez Ruiz.  The two former legislators were assassinated in Argentina in 1976 and are the clearest examples of a Plan Condor-coordinated operation against Uruguayan opposition leaders.  While two civilian leaders, former president Juan María Bordaberry and ex-foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco, were found guilty in 2006 of organizing the murders, former top officers in the military and state police who likely carried out the plot remain protected from prosecution. 

Now, however, with the possibility that the impunity law may soon be annulled, prosecutor Mirtha Guianze has re-opened the doors to the Michelini/Gutiérrez Ruiz case.  First-time testimony by one of Michelini’s daughters who was detained and tortured as a means of “neutralizing” her father, has provided new evidence documenting the surveillance of the two men while in exile in Argentina.  And if the case is removed from its sheltered position, either in a unilateral decision by Vázquez or through the repeal of the Ley de Caducidad, the “material” executors of the assassination might finally be investigated.       

The Political Divide

While the renewed effort to undo the law has given new life to the human rights movement in Uruguay, it has not been welcomed by everyone.  Indeed, for some, the 23-year old law provided both a form of political stability and national healing after 12 difficult years of repression during which time all political parties suffered in some way.

Jorge Larrañaga, a presidential contender from the same centrist Blanco party that has both supported the Ley de Caducidad and attempted to annul it in 1987, spoke out against the parliament issuing its opinion on the law’s constitutionality last week.

Others, like Senator Julio Maria Sanguinetti of the Colorado party, the two-time president and the first to be elected after the dictatorship, have argued that the pronouncements of President Vázquez and Frente Amplio legislators are irrelevant since the president has in effect neutralized the law’s objective by exempting nearly every human rights case that has been presented to him since 2005.

Such views seem to represent the feelings of nearly all politicians from Uruguay’s two traditional parties.  This was clearly seen when only two non-Frente Amplio lawmakers remained in the parliamentary chambers to cast their vote on the law’s constitutionality on February 25. 

One opposition senator who remained in order to vote in favor of the impunity law, Daniel García Pintos, a conservative Colorado party member, pejoratively says human rights has become the “universal task of the left” and in Uruguay the left has “applied it masterfully since 1985 [the return of elected democracy].”  Others in the opposition have called the decision to challenge the 1986 law a “political pirouette” and adding that any decision by parliament to repeal impunity unilaterally would cause the governing party to “lose credibility.”     

As a tight presidential election in October approaches and as the Supreme Court prepares its final decision in the Sabalsagaray case, the issues of human rights and “caducidad,” could be defining ones in determining what divides the governing party from its opposition.       

Joshua Frens-String is a freelance writer and recently returned U.S. Fulbright scholar to Uruguay.