Former Uruguayan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry dies

Former Uruguayan president-turned-dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry died July 17 at his home, where he was serving a 30-year sentence for killings and disappearances during his country’s war against subversives. He was 83.

Mr. Bordaberry had been suffering from breathing problems and other illnesses. His son, Sen. Pedro Bordaberry, confirmed his father’s death.

A wealthy conservative landowner, Mr. Bordaberry was elected president in 1971 during a chaotic time in Uruguay, when the democratic country was descending into political and economic upheaval. Wealthy elites and leftist Tupamaro guerrillas both saw armed revolution as a potential path to power.

Mr. Bordaberry called on the armed forces to crush the Tupamaros, and the military stalked top guerrillas efficiently and successfully, effectively dismantling the movement’s leadership in nine months.

But the military continued to grow in strength and influence. On June 27, 1973, tanks surrounded the legislative palace in Montevideo, the capital. Mr. Bordaberry signed off on a “soft” coup that allowed him to keep his title but transferred most of the government’s power to a “security council” run by the army, air force and navy.

Former Uruguayan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry, waves to people who were yelling "assassin" at him while he was leaving court in Montevideo in 2005. Bordaberry died July 17, 2011. (MIGUEL ROJO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Capitulating to pressure from the military, Mr. Bordaberry also suspended the constitution and banned political parties. He ruled by decree for three years, until the generals ousted him as well in 1976.

Democracy wasn’t restored until 1985.

After being removed from power, Mr. Bordaberry lived quietly out of public view. 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.

The amnesties, however, did not cover Mr. Bordaberry’s alleged role in the 1970s killings of four Uruguayans who had fled to Argentina.

Investigative judges linked Mr. Bordaberry to the 1976 abductions and killings of two prominent lawmakers who were seized from their homes in exile in Buenos Aires: leftist Sen. Zelmar Michelini and House leader Hector Gutierrez of the conservative National Party. 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 neighboring countries.

In 2006, a judge ordered Mr. Bordaberry arrested for those murders and for charges of especially aggravated homicide in the killings of 10 leftist detainees.

In February 2010, Mr. Bordaberry was sentenced to the maximum 30 years in prison for violating the constitution by leading the 1973 coup. He was serving the sentence at his home because of his health.

His family considered him to be a victim of political pressure from the Broad Front coalition of center-left parties, unions and social movements that has governed Uruguay since 2005.

His prosecution marked the beginning of efforts by the South American country of 3.5 million people to end impunity for those responsible for the disappearances and torture of hundreds of Uruguayans and the exile of thousands of dissidents. A peace commission found in 2003 that the dictatorship killed 175 leftist political activists, 26 of them in clandestine torture centers.

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. Mujica, for example, spent more than a decade behind bars.

Juan Maria Bordaberry Arocena was born June 17, 1928, in Montevideo to parents of French-Basque heritage.

His father was a lawyer and senator who owned one of the country’s largest ranches. When he died, the younger Bordaberry dropped out of law school at the University of Montevideo to manage the family’s landholdings.

Mr. Bordaberry entered public life in the 1950s as soaring inflation and low beef and wool prices crippled Uruguay’s economy and its strong education, health and welfare programs.

He served on several prominent national agricultural boards before he was elected senator in 1962 on the National Party, or Blanco, ticket. Later, he switched to the Colorado Party, a mainstream party somewhat to the left of the Blancos.

He was named agriculture minister in 1969 and won the presidential race two years later.

Mr. Bordaberry’s conviction notwithstanding, 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.

Mr. Bordaberry was one of only two civilians to be jailed for dictatorship-era crimes. His foreign minister, Juan C. Blanco, was convicted of the murder of a woman who had taken refuge inside the Venezuelan Embassy.

The amnesties continue to be a subject of debate. Two plebiscites narrowly failed to overturn the military amnesty. An effort in congress to do the same failed by a single vote this year.

— Associated Press

Staff writer Emma Brown contributed to this report.

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