Former Uruguayan President-turned-dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry died early Sunday at home, where health problems kept him out of prison for killings and disappearances during his country’s war against so-called subversives in the 1970s. He was 83.
Juan Maria Bordaberry had been suffering from breathing problems and other illnesses. His son, Senator Pedro Bordaberry, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.
A wealthy conservative landowner, Juan Maria Bordaberry was elected President in 1971 during a chaotic time in Uruguay, when wealthy elites and leftist Tupamaro guerrillas both saw armed revolution as a real path to power.
The Tupamaros were already crushed when Uruguayans awoke to tanks surrounding the legislative palace on the cold winter day of June 27, 1973. By then, the military had become so powerful that Juan Maria Bordaberry, with few supporters even within his own Colorado Party, decided to carry out a self-coup. Rather than lose a minor political fight in Congress, he suspended the Constitution, banned political parties, ordered tanks into the streets and ruled by decree for three years, until the generals ousted him as well in 1976.
Democracy wasn’t restored until 1985.
After his ouster, Juan Maria Bordaberry lived quietly out of public view, and as the dictatorship ended, Uruguay’s Congress approved amnesties that protected both military figures and former guerrillas — including Uruguay’s current President, former Tupamaro leader Jose Mujica.
That pact threatened to break on November 16, 2006, when a judge ordered Juan Maria Bordaberry arrested for the killings of four Uruguayans who had fled to Argentina. Weeks later, another judge added charges of especially aggravated homicide in the killings of 10 leftist detainees. Both sets of crimes were determined to be beyond the scope of the amnesties. He was eventually sentenced to the maximum 30 years in prison in February 2010 for violating the Constitution by leading the coup.
Juan Maria Bordaberry’s family considered him to be a victim of political pressure from the Broad Front coalition of centre-left parties, unions and social movements that has governed Uruguay since 2005.
But his prosecution also marked the beginning of efforts by this small South American country of 3.5 millon people to end impunity for those responsible for the disappearances and torture of hundreds of Uruguayans, and the exile of thousands of political dissidents.
A peace commission found in 2003 that the dictatorship killed 175 leftist political activists, 26 of them in clandestine torture centres.
Earlier, the Tupamaros also committed killings and other crimes after taking up arms in 1963 against democratically elected governments, and many of the guerrillas who weren’t killed served long prison terms. Mr. Mujica, for one, spent more than a decade behind bars.
Investigative judges linked Juan Maria Bordaberry to the abductions and killings in May 1976 of leftist Senator Zelmar Michelini and House leader Hector Gutierrez of the traditional National Party, prominent legislators who were seized from their homes in exile in Buenos Aires. Their bullet-riddled bodies and those of suspected Uruguayan guerrillas William Whitelaw and Rosario Barredo were found days later.
Human rights groups maintain they were killed as part of Operation Condor, a secret pact between South America’s dictatorships to eliminate political opponents who had fled to neighbouring countries.
Born in June 1928, Juan Maria Bordaberry was elected as a National Party Senator in 1962, but later switched to the Colorados and was named Agriculture Minister in 1969 before winning the Presidential race two years later.
Despite Juan Maria Bordaberry’s conviction, Uruguay has largely avoided prosecutions on the scale of Argentina or Chile, where hundreds of former military and police officials have been tried for crimes against humanity. He remains only the second civilian to be jailed for dictatorship-era crimes, after his Foreign Minister, Juan C. Blanco, who was convicted of the murder of a woman who had taken refuge inside the Venezuelan Embassy.
The amnesties have held, but the legacy of these crimes has divided the country almost down the middle. Two popular plebiscites narrowly failed to overturn the military amnesty. An effort in Congress to do the same failed by a single vote this year.