His fellow officers called him the Piranha, and Juan Antonio Azic's interrogation techniques lived up to that nickname. When a young Peronist activist named Carlos Lordkipanidse and his family were hauled into the Argentine navy's notorious Mechanical School in 1978, Azic grabbed the prisoner's infant son by the feet and threatened to smash the baby's head against the wall. When that ploy failed, Azic placed the child on Lordkipanidse's chest so he could share his father's agony when the electric-shock torture began. But unlike a number of generals and admirals who would subsequently stand trial for human-rights atrocities committed during seven years of military rule in Argentina, the Piranha and other middle-ranking officers walked free under two amnesty laws. That impunity suddenly ended two months ago when a Buenos Aires judge issued arrest warrants for Azic and 44 other ex-officers wanted on murder charges in Spain. That same evening Azic sat down on a park bench, stuck a 9mm pistol in his mouth and squeezed the trigger. The bullet missed his brain but left him in critical condition, the roof of his mouth shattered and the left side of his nose blown off.
The reopening of Argentina's dirty-war wounds is no accident. Over the past 20 years a succession of civilian presidents tried to close that bloody chapter in the country's history to no avail. Argentina's recently elected President Nestor Kirchner is trying a radically different tack: during his first 100 days in office, Kirchner dismantled the body of laws and presidential decrees that have shielded the armed forces from further criminal prosecution, and his bold initiatives are already producing results. A federal prosecutor issued 38 new warrants for the arrest of retired military officers in Buenos Aires last week, and the judicial offensive is fanning demands for justice in neighboring Chile, where nearly 3,200 people died or vanished during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 17-year reign of terror. As a series of solemn ceremonies marks the 30th anniversary of Pinochet's bloody coup later this week, President Ricardo Lagos is under fire for his cautious approach on human-rights issues. "The executive [branch] and Congress [in Argentina] have sent a clear message," says Argentine human-rights campaigner Victor Abramovich. "Decide on the basis of the Constitution but don't worry about the political impact--because we can handle that."
It wasn't always that way. In the late 1980s millions of Argentines fell prey to a collective amnesia about the military's brutal repression that killed or disappeared as many as 30,000 people. But two thirds of all Argentines now favor the resumption of human-rights trials, and Kirchner is spearheading the backlash. His politics are firmly rooted in the Peronist left: when a junta led by Army Gen. Jorge Videla overthrew President Isabel Peron in March 1976, Kirchner was a law student who was briefly detained because he belonged to the radical Peronist Youth movement. As a three-term governor of Santa Cruz province, Kirchner wasn't known as a human-rights crusader, but as president he has embraced the cause of the military's victims with gusto. Two months after taking office, he scrapped a decree prohibiting the extradition of military officials to foreign countries. Buoyed by sky-high approval ratings, Kirchner later prevailed on the Peronist-led Congress to repeal laws that pardoned officers below the rank of general who could show they were following orders when they committed abuses.
Brazil's own civil strife has never commanded as much attention as in Argentina, but the families of victims are also hoping for a sympathetic ear from their leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Measured in numbers, the persecution of leftist guerrillas and militants during 21 years of military rule was mild by the standards of its neighbors to the south. But the relatives of the nearly 500 Brazilians who were murdered, tortured and kidnapped between 1964 and 1985 are pressuring Lula, a former trade unionist who was imprisoned in the late 1970s, to step up the search for their remains. A panel set up in 1996 to determine the whereabouts of 102 people officially listed as missing has uncovered only three bodies to date, but officials are trying to tamp down expectations. "There are no documents and other evidence is scarce," notes Human Rights Minister Nilmario Miranda, himself a former political prisoner.
The Chilean armed forces have jealously guarded their impunity since Pinochet relinquished power in 1990, but that may become a thing of the past. Pinochet extracted a pledge from the incoming civilian government to uphold a sweeping amnesty that he personally signed for his comrades in arms, and the grievances of families who lost their loved ones were relegated to the back burner for several years. But that began to change when Pinochet's detention in Britain in 1998 punctured his regime's invulnerable veneer, and prosecutors in Chile have filed formal criminal charges against 241 former members of the military and national police over the past five years. The Lagos government unwittingly stoked the fires earlier this year when it submitted legislation that would reduce jail sentences for junior officers or absolve some of them altogether if they provide investigators with new evidence of murder, torture and other crimes. The proposal outraged human-rights groups and prompted a high-profile hunger strike last month. At a press conference with foreign journalists last week, the nominally socialist president sought to justify his controversial new legislation. "The Allende government got caught up in the cold war [and] there was a great polarization of society," said Lagos. "We know what happened, [and] today we have to move from polarization to a grand consensus."
That is the ultimate argument against revisiting horrors of the past. As the armed forces relinquished power in the 1980s and early 1990s, most of their civilian successors resisted calls to hold the top brass accountable, fearing military uprisings. "These investigations have to go on for only a certain period of time," argues Marco Antonio Pinochet, the 46-year-old son of the retired general. "If you don't have a deadline you might not ever have a solution, [and] that isn't good for any country." But history won't go away, and some politicians now seem more inclined to put the interests of the bereaved ahead of the men with blood on their hands.