ANTIGUA, Guatemala -- Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest eras in Guatemalan history, has been under house arrest in the capital since early last year. He is accused of inciting a riot, and he is being investigated for genocide in the killings of thousands during a 1980s military campaign against Marxist rebels.
But several weeks ago, the retired general threw a grand bash for his daughter's wedding at his mansion in this colonial city at the foot of postcard-perfect volcanoes. Fine scotch flowed, and the guest list included both the U.S. ambassador and a member of the U.S. Congress, who happened to be the groom.
The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, John Hamilton, and his wife, Donna, were among 300 guests at the wedding of Zury Rios Sosa to U.S. Rep. Gerald C. Weller (R-Ill.), at her father's mansion in Antigua.
Rios Montt is one of more than a dozen former Latin American leaders who are under investigation on criminal charges ranging from murder to embezzlement, yet who continue to enjoy the comforts of home and even high-profile social lives, arousing the ire of ordinary citizens and human rights groups across the country.
"Other people pay for their crimes in jail, so why does Rios Montt get to stay at home and throw parties?" said Jose Luis Quintanilla, 37, a vendor who sells used clothing on the streets of Guatemala City. "People are angry."
From Mexico to Chile, former presidents are facing criminal probes -- but none are behind bars. Most have been banned from leaving their countries, and four, including Rios Montt, are under house arrest. But in most cases, critics charge, they are getting kid-glove treatment that no ordinary citizen charged with the same crimes would receive.
Former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted in December 2003 and sentenced to 20 years on corruption charges involving $100 million in public funds, is serving his term at his own ranch outside the capital. Aleman, who ran Nicaragua from 1997 to 2002, did spend a few months in prison before returning home, but it was in a special section with extra comforts that included air conditioning, cable television and massages.
"It's scandalous," said Alberto Novoa, Nicaragua's attorney general. "Of course it's not fair."
Many prosecutors and human rights advocates say the cushy confinement afforded former presidents demonstrates how political influence often overwhelms weak judicial systems in much of Latin America. Individual judges, rather than juries, typically preside over criminal cases, and critics say many are swayed by powerful figures in a region that is still struggling with a legacy of authoritarianism.
Nonetheless, human rights advocates and others say the record number of criminal proceedings against former leaders in itself is an advance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
"I personally think these leaders should be in a regular jail," said Frank LaRue, an attorney who heads of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala. "But we are moving in the right direction. A few years ago, ex-presidents wouldn't be prosecuted at all."
LaRue has helped to press the genocide case against Rios Montt, whose 1982-83 tenure coincided with some of the worst massacres of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. More than 200,000 people were killed in that conflict, the vast majority at the hands of the military.
The majority of cases involve allegations of stealing government funds or taking kickbacks.
In Costa Rica, former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who left office in 2002, was placed under house arrest in October over allegations that he pocketed a portion of $2.4 million in kickbacks from French telecommunications company Alcatel. Rodriguez was forced to step down as secretary general of the Organization of American States shortly after he was sworn in to the post because of the scandal. He has not been formally charged.
In Panama, former president Mireya Moscoso, whose term ended last year, faces inquiries about as much as $70 million in government funds that were not accounted for under her administration. No formal charges have been brought.