Facing Charges, Not Discomforts
Former Latin American Leaders Live the Good Life While in Confinement
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A10
ANTIGUA, Guatemala -- Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest eras in Guatemalan history, has been under house arrest in the capital since early last year. He is accused of inciting a riot, and he is being investigated for genocide in the killings of thousands during a 1980s military campaign against Marxist rebels.
But several weeks ago, the retired general threw a grand bash for his daughter's wedding at his mansion in this colonial city at the foot of postcard-perfect volcanoes. Fine scotch flowed, and the guest list included both the U.S. ambassador and a member of the U.S. Congress, who happened to be the groom.
Rios Montt is one of more than a dozen former Latin American leaders who are under investigation on criminal charges ranging from murder to embezzlement, yet who continue to enjoy the comforts of home and even high-profile social lives, arousing the ire of ordinary citizens and human rights groups across the country.
"Other people pay for their crimes in jail, so why does Rios Montt get to stay at home and throw parties?" said Jose Luis Quintanilla, 37, a vendor who sells used clothing on the streets of Guatemala City. "People are angry."
From Mexico to Chile, former presidents are facing criminal probes -- but none are behind bars. Most have been banned from leaving their countries, and four, including Rios Montt, are under house arrest. But in most cases, critics charge, they are getting kid-glove treatment that no ordinary citizen charged with the same crimes would receive.
Former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted in December 2003 and sentenced to 20 years on corruption charges involving $100 million in public funds, is serving his term at his own ranch outside the capital. Aleman, who ran Nicaragua from 1997 to 2002, did spend a few months in prison before returning home, but it was in a special section with extra comforts that included air conditioning, cable television and massages.
"It's scandalous," said Alberto Novoa, Nicaragua's attorney general. "Of course it's not fair."
Many prosecutors and human rights advocates say the cushy confinement afforded former presidents demonstrates how political influence often overwhelms weak judicial systems in much of Latin America. Individual judges, rather than juries, typically preside over criminal cases, and critics say many are swayed by powerful figures in a region that is still struggling with a legacy of authoritarianism.
Nonetheless, human rights advocates and others say the record number of criminal proceedings against former leaders in itself is an advance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
"I personally think these leaders should be in a regular jail," said Frank LaRue, an attorney who heads of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala. "But we are moving in the right direction. A few years ago, ex-presidents wouldn't be prosecuted at all."
LaRue has helped to press the genocide case against Rios Montt, whose 1982-83 tenure coincided with some of the worst massacres of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. More than 200,000 people were killed in that conflict, the vast majority at the hands of the military.
The majority of cases involve allegations of stealing government funds or taking kickbacks.
In Costa Rica, former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who left office in 2002, was placed under house arrest in October over allegations that he pocketed a portion of $2.4 million in kickbacks from French telecommunications company Alcatel. Rodriguez was forced to step down as secretary general of the Organization of American States shortly after he was sworn in to the post because of the scandal. He has not been formally charged.
In Panama, former president Mireya Moscoso, whose term ended last year, faces inquiries about as much as $70 million in government funds that were not accounted for under her administration. No formal charges have been brought.
Nicaragua's Aleman has become a particularly potent symbol of the abuse of power. His personal fortune ballooned while he headed a nation where many people earn less than $2 a day. Prosecutors produced records showing that he and his wife charged massive sums to government credit cards, including a $13,755 bill for the Ritz Carlton hotel in Bali and $68,506 for hotel expenses and handicrafts in India.
Aleman, 58, is suffering from several ailments, many of them related to his obesity, his attorneys say. It was on medical grounds that the presiding judge allowed him to return last year to his leafy hacienda, where he is free to receive visitors and chat on his cell phone.
In Chile, the most notorious of former Latin American leaders is also under house arrest at a country estate outside Santiago. Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 89, was charged last year with the murder and kidnappings of exiled opponents while he headed a military government from 1973 to 1990.
At least 1,200 people who were detained by the armed forces and secret police during that era have disappeared and are presumed dead. Among the charges against Pinochet is the Sept. 21, 1976, car bomb killing of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his aide, Ronni Moffitt, on Sheridan Circle in Northwest Washington.
In Mexico, former president Luis Echeverria is the target of a special prosecutor's probe into the killings of students and other anti-government activists during his term from 1970 to 1976. Last summer, the prosecutor asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant charging Echeverria with genocide. The judge refused.
While the prosecutor has vowed to continue pressing criminal charges, Echeverria, 82, lives in his comfortable home in Cuernavaca, a plush weekend retreat south of Mexico City.
Another former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, is also under criminal investigation and has fled to Mexico. Guatemalan authorities have asked the United States for help in tracking Portillo's financial transactions. Meanwhile, his vice president, finance minister and other top officials in his administration are in jail on corruption charges.
Here in Antigua, renowned for its cobblestone streets and stunning views of high volcanoes, news of Rios Montt hosting a wedding bash while under house arrest was particularly galling.
Rios Montt's daughter, Zury Rios Sosa, a Guatemalan senator, married Rep. Gerald C. Weller (R-Ill.), in November, and Rios Montt hosted the party at his expansive weekend home. John Hamilton, the U.S. ambassador, was among those in attendance.
"People with power can buy the law," said Miguel Angel Lopez, 49, who was standing outside the former dictator's mansion, which is guarded by a 250-foot-long stone wall capped by a double coil of razor wire. A sprawling lawn is visible when guards open the gate.
There was nothing illegal about Rios Montt hosting the party. Victor Hugo Herrera, the judge in the case, said in an interview that Rios Montt asked for permission to travel 30 miles from his house in Guatemala City to the mansion in Antigua for "political reasons." He said he later saw in a newspaper that Rios Montt had gone there for his daughter's wedding.
Herrera said he granted the request because Rios Montt had "been complying with the rules" of his confinement. He said the rules allow him to leave his house, provided he stays within Guatemala City, but that travel outside the capital requires permission.
He is under house arrest, the judge said, after being charged with organizing a riot by thousands of his supporters in Guatemala City in July 2003 in which a Guatemalan journalist died.
Human rights activists here said that charging Rios Montt in that "Black Thursday" riot was akin to charging Al Capone with tax evasion. "He is a symbol of genocide," said LaRue, the human rights official.
But the attorney general's three-member task force, which is looking into what many have called Rios Montt's "scorched-earth campaign" to root out anti-government insurgents, faces a daunting task.
One of the prosecutors, Sandra Sosa Stewart, said the task force was working with declassified U.S. government documents and examining bones unearthed in ongoing exhumations of mass graves found throughout the country. "We don't have enough people," she said. "We don't even have Internet access."
Despite the difficulties, Juan Luis Pons, another human rights activist, said criminal investigations of former Latin American leaders, including Rios Montt, constitute a "a small light giving people hope" that presidents are no longer above the law.
Still, he added, the sight of a former dictator under criminal investigation and house arrest hosting a wedding for 300 people, including an A-list of Guatemala's elite, "shows that justice is still politicized in Latin America."