Uruguay’s Expiry Law Silences Democracy
Uruguay’s Expiry Law Silences Democracy

Is Uruguay finally ushering in the rule of law? Uruguay has faced continued criticism since 1986 when it passed the Ley de Cudacidad, Expiry Law, granting amnesty to military and police officers involved in human rights abuses during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Recently though, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica decided to allow the Supreme Court to investigate about 80 cases of human rights abuses.1 While on the surface it appears to be progressive, this decision exemplifies the problematic nature of the Expiry Law.

Uruguay’s Expiry Law gives the Executive the power to decide which cases should be put under investigation.2 The government argues that the Expiry Law ushered in democracy because it allowed democracy to return after the dictatorship.3 Most democracies though allow different viewpoints to be expressed, except for hate speech. Since the Expiry Law gives amnesty to military and police officers and exceptions have only led to some cases being filed (and not all cases being put under investigation), the full expression of free speech has been undermined. Thus, one may conclude that the Expiry law is in fact undemocratic.

Expiry Law

Uruguayan President Julio Maria Sanguinetti

According to the Organization of American States, Uruguayan President Julio Maria Sanguinetti intentionally created the Expiry Law in 1986 to prevent the State from prosecuting and punishing members of the military and police responsible for human rights violations during the period of the military dictatorship.4 Sanguinetti was determined to cover up the abuses of his party, the Colorado Party, which has been silencing the opposition since the 1950s.5

Uruguay’s Expiry Law has 16 articles. Article 1 grants blanket amnesty to all officers involved in dictatorship crimes. This prevented investigations from being carried out.6 Articles 3 and 4 were added later as a compromise with left-wing political parties, who wanted investigations of certain officers.7

Article 3 requires the Judiciary to obtain the president’s approval to try cases associated with the military dictatorship. Article 4 grants the president the authority to investigate cases. Mujica’s recent decision to allow 80 cases to be investigated reinforces the Expiry Law since his decision is based on Articles 3 and 4.

Despite articles 3 and 4, very few cases have been actually tried because the military and the Colorado party have collaborated to cover up the crimes they committed during the dictatorship.8

The 1973-1985 Military Dictatorship

In the 1950s, the government had poor fiscal policies, which led to protests over inadequate living conditions. The Colorado party feared that these protests would lead to a revolution, similar to the Cuba Revolution. Poor Uruguayans used the Cuban Revolution as their model and started a nonviolent guerrilla group called the Tupamaros. The Colorados viewed this movement as a threat and worried about the loss of their own power and wealth if the Tupamaros succeeded in overthrowing them.

To prevent this from happening, the Uruguayan police, who were aligned with the Colorados, used torture to instill fear in civilian opponents. The Colorados joined an underground police alliance, led by the U.S, with the participation of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. This underground task-force was designed to counter all movements deemed subversive. Police and military officers involved used human rights violations to crush all opposition.

The military dictatorship was launched in 1972 when Uruguayan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry instituted an auto-coup as punishment for the Tupamaros killing of the undersecretary of the Interior Ministry and three other officers involved with the underground police movement. Bordaberry gave the military power to make all decisions pertaining to the prevention of subversive movements.9

The raison d’être behind the military-dictatorship though was a desire by the Colorado party landowners to prevent the masses from redistributing their wealth and taking their power.

During the dictatorship, the military and police persecuted “thought crimes” and crime that attempted to “damage the honor of the armed forces.” Prisons “were geared toward psychological torture and systematic destruction of the personality.” The police tortured prisons, forced civilians to disappear, raped women, and forced parents to put their children up for adoption.10

This civilian-military dictatorship lasted until 1985 when Uruguay could no longer resist American pressure to end the dictatorship. Despite the crimes carried out, the government never punished officers involved.

1980 Referendum, Naval Club Pact, and the Expiry Law

The precursor to the 1986 expiry law was the 1980 Referendum and Naval Club Pact. In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter was able to convince Uruguay to reinstate its democracy.11 The military retained its power through ties with the Colorados. Both refused

In order to get democracy back, Uruguayans had to leave negotiations in the hands of the military and Colorados. The Colorados refused to negotiate with the center-left Blancos and Tupamaros.12 The Tupamaros remained in prison and later formed the political party Frente Amplio.

In 1984, the military signed an agreement, known as the Naval Club Pact, with the Colorados. The military and Colorados agreed, “that the Executive branch of the future elected government would not itself prosecute members of the security forces for human rights violations, although it could not interfere with the adjudication of such cases by civilian courts.” In addition, they agreed to hold election in 1985, with a new presidential term to begin in 1986.13

Julio Maria Sanguinetti of the Colorado party won the presidency in 1985, with the backing of the military.14 When the president tried to allow trials against the military, the military threatened to expose the involvement of the Colorados and withdraw support for the Coloradan president.15 He implemented reforms allowing citizens to file charges against the military for human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship, which led to the filing of hundreds of cases.

Sanguinetti underestimated the military’s threat. When the Supreme Court upheld Sanguinetti’s policy, the military threatened to withdraw support for Sanguinetti by publically boycotting court orders to try officers.16 Anxious to cover up Colorado party involvement and receive continued military support for his presidency, Sanguinetti passed the Expiry law.17

1989 and 2009 Referendum

Despite opposition attempts to repeal the Expiry Law, the Colorados and the military prevented the opposition from making successful repeals. In 1989, opponents of the Expiry Law finally gathered enough signatures to hold a referendum on whether to repeal the law. The military and the Colorados were able to prevent the repeal by scaring the public into believing there would be another coup. Since the opponents consisted of people who were abused or who were related to people that were abused, the general public did not want to get involved in anything that might bring harm to them.18

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica

There were high hopes that Mujica would repeal the law. He won the Presidency in 2009 because he was from the Frente Amplio party and said he supported a repeal to the Expiry Law.19

In April 2011, the military successfully won a vote by congress to not repeal the law.20 Mujica withdrew his support for repealing the Expiry Law.21 This change of heart persuaded congress to reject a bill from Frente Amplio to repeal amnesty.22


So, unfortunately, the Expiry law is still on the books and is still being followed. Uruguay clearly retains its culture of silencing the opposition and oppressing non-elitists. In order for the rule of law to succeed in Uruguay, Uruguay needs to usher in a culture of tolerance.

1 “Uruguay: President Mujica backs military rule inquiries.” BBC. June 27, 2011.
2 Mejia, Luz Patricia and Canton, Santiago A. . “Application to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Juan Gelman, María Claudia García Iruretagoyena de Gelman y María Macarena Gelman García Iruretagoyena (Case 12.607) against the Oriental Republic of Uruguay.” Organization of American States. June 21, 2010.
3 “Uruguay re-opens human rights violations from the 1973/1985 military regime.” MercoPress. July 5, 2011.
4 Mejia, Luz Patricia and Canton, Santiago A.
5 Higley, John and Günther, Richard. Elites and Democratic consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, p. 194, 1995.
6 Lessa, Francesca. “The Many Faces of Impunity: a Brief History of Uruguay’s Expiry Law,” International Affairs at LSE, September 2010.
7 Mejia, Luz Patricia and Canton, Santiago A.
8 “Uruguay re-opens human rights violations from the 1973/1985 military regime.”
9 McSherry, J. Patrice. “Death Squads as Parallel Forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States.” Journal of Third World Studies. Sping 2007.
10 Sannerstedt, Anders. “Producing Human Rights Accountability: The Impact of Transnational Advocacy Networks in Uruguay.” Statsvetenskapliga Institutionen. 2009.
11 Frens-String, Joshua. “Truth and Justice in Uruguay, Two Decades Delayed.” Upside Down World. June 11, 2008.
12 Jermyn, Leslie and Wong, Winnie. Cultures of the World: Uruguay. Times Publishing Limited, p. 27, 2010.
13 Mejia, Luz Patricia and Canton, Santiago A.
14 Jermyn, Leslie and Wong, Winnie. Cultures of the World: Uruguay.
15 Ibid.
16 Mejia, Luz Patricia and Canton, Santiago A.
17 Higley, John and Günther, Richard. Elites and Democratic consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe.
18 Ibid.
19 Frens-String, Joshua. “Between Law and Politics: The Continuing Struggle Against Impunity in Uruguay.” Upside Down World. January 7, 2009.
20 “Uruguay amnesty law survives vote.” CNN World. May 20, 2011.
21 “Uruguay Congress upholds amnesty law.” PressTV. May 21, 2011.
22 “Uruguay amnesty law survives vote.”

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