February 13, 2007
The investigation into a prison massacre that took place over 20 years ago is turning into a major test case for an independent judiciary in Peru, and Latin America more generally. President Alan Garcia, who was also serving as president when the massacre took place in July 1986, was obliged to answer questions. In his testimony he denied having "any knowledge of the operation at the time." Well over 100 prisoners were killed at El Fronton prison, on an island near Lima. See BBC and CNN.com. (A similar number died at about the same time at Lurigancho prison, but neither article mentioned this.) The consensus among scholars that I researched was that Garcia at least tacitly approved of the Army / police counterattack that resulted in the deaths of at least 250 prisoners. He also hinted at the time that the security forces were to blame for the shockingly high death toll. This crippled civil-military relations at the worst possible moment, when Peru was under assault by the "Shining Path" terrorist movement. That prison riot illustrated how much control the terrorists had over the prisons in Peru; because of tight government budgets, there simply weren't enough guards to impose discipline within the prison walls. It may well be that the security forces used indiscriminate force during the retaking of the prisons, but given the fanatical determination of the terrorist prisoners, it is doubtful that order could have been restored without major bloodshed. As for the current situation, it seems unlikely that prosecutors would file formal charges against a sitting president, but this case may end up weakening Garcia's political authority.
The Congress of Ecuador approved a measure to hold a national referendum on whether to convene a national assembly to enact major reforms, and possibly rewrite the constitution. That constitutes a major victory for President Rafael Correa, who continues to blame the established political parties for the country's problems. Of the 100 legislators, 57 voted in favor, but nearly all the rest walked out in protest. Details on the scheduling and funding remain unsettled, however, so the referendum may not take place for several more months, if then. See BBC. Correa is clearly heading along the same route taken by Venezuela and Bolivia, where demagogic populism has caused a deep rift in society, discouraging private investment. Giving up on established constitutional norms in such a manner shows how weak democracy has become in Latin America.