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Argentina: beyond impunity

Argentina's democracy has travelled far since the early 1980s. Now, the sudden death of a senior prosecutor highlights the need for a new phase of reform.

Most foreigners are genuinely shocked by the enigmatic death of Argentina’s special prosecutor Alberto Nisman. They are also puzzled by the pervasive lack of justice around the bombing of the Jewish community centre (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in May 1994, a lethal event that killed eighty-five people and hundreds of injuries. Until 9/11, this act of violence had the sad honour of being the largest terrorist attack in the Americas.

Nisman was found dead only days after he announced his intention to reveal a cover-up by Argentina's executive of Iran’s role in the AMIA attack. The vast majority of Argentines were already fed up with the injustice surrounding the original event and the investigation. This latest twist reinforces their frustration; many are concerned that Nisman’s death too will remain forever unsolved.

Put aside the ensuing noise and the hysteria. Separate out the inventions, accusations and machinations voiced by different individuals - including two unusual Facebook postings by President Cristina Fernández - within and outside the government. What remains at centre-stage is impunity. And if impunity is the core of the matter then the inquiry should concentrate on the key protagonists and their strategies. Impunity today in Argentina is not a random problem. It is not the result of chance but the intended product of choice. But whose choice?

Since the transition to democracy in 1983 several key institutions, practices, and policies have changed very positively: for example, Argentina can demonstrate excellent and unparalleled credentials in terms of human rights (look at the trials of military officers involved in the 1976-83 dictatorship), the reform of the armed forces, nuclear non-proliferation, peacekeeping operations, and regional cooperation.

Notwithstanding these steps forward, several key actors have for decades been able to preserve their position intact. The common feature around which this complex set converges is - impunity.

First, the country’s intelligence system is extremely politicised, increasingly autonomous, mostly concerned with internal espionage, overly penetrated by foreign counterparts, and full of mafia-style modus operandi.

Second, a significant portion of the judicial system is plagued with vices, both substantive and procedural. These in turn lead to an aberrant complicity with powerful political, social and economic interests.

Third, the police forces were never seriously transformed with the advent of democracy. Among them there persists a “trigger-happy" habit, a clandestine linkage with the drug business, and worrisome corruption. These problems also pervade the security apparatus in ways that are recognised by citizens, experts and public officials.

Fourth, many politicians - too many, and for too long - have habitually remained silent in face of this opaque and anti-democratic scenario (and even colluded with it, promoted it or profited from it). All these players, at the municipal, provincial, and national level - the winners until now - will attempt to maintain the status quo. However, that option is becoming untenable.

What needs to happen

The problem with impunity is the problem of Argentina today. The AMIA test-case now has a triple dimension: the original terrorist bombing of 1994, the special-prosecutor's allegations of a cover-up by the executive, and the death of Alberto Nisman.  But if it leads Argentina to find ways to reduce impunity, there may yet be a silver lining in the dark cloud. The attainment of two simultaneous, challenging priorities may contribute to this outcome.

On the one hand, civil society, leading personalities, and numerous party members should insist that this threefold case be investigated with transparency, impartiality, and expediency by prosecutors and judges, and that this entire procedure should be fully guaranteed by the government. An active citizenry is one of the preconditions for avoiding more injustices.

On the other hand, it is urgent that thorough and substantive reforms of the intelligence system are made, both in themselves and as a precursor to even deeper judicial and police reforms in the future. This will require a political commitment on the part of the government and the opposition alike. This will be a tough test, especially in a year which ends with an election. But a reasonable policy consensus is essential in order to prevent Argentina's democratic deterioration.

About the author

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Full Professor and director of the department of political science and international studies at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés, also in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-9

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian es Profesor Plenario y director del departamento de ciencias políticas y estudios internacionales de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella en Buenos Aires. Previamente fue profesor en la Universidad de San Andrés, también en Argentina. Se doctoró en relaciones internacional en la John Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. Residió en Colombia entre 1981-98.

Read On

Javier Auyero, Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina: The Gray Zone of State Power (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Luis Alberto Romero, A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century (Penn State University Press, 2002)

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