Garzón, Baltasar (b. 1955)

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Spanish investigative judge.

Baltasar Garzón worked to convert the cause of human rights into a matter of extraterritorial judicial action. He was born in the southern Spanish town of Villa de Torres and became a provincial judge at the age of twenty-three, three years after the death of the right-wing dictator Francisco Franco (1892–1975). Garzón was appointed a judge of the National Court in 1987 and served as one of six investigating judges.

In 1993 he stepped down from the judiciary and stood as a Socialist candidate for parliament, where he won a seat. A year later, he returned to the bench, where he felt he could make more of a difference. His work in this post was both high profile and politically explosive. He investigated the criminal activity of the Grupos Armados de Liberación (GAL), an assassination squad set up in the early 1980s by the Socialist government of Spain to eliminate Basque separatists. Indictments and convictions followed. Over the next decade, his investigative work expanded to include gathering evidence on drug trafficking, political corruption, and Islamic terrorism. All these criminal activities are transnational in character. In these inquiries, Garzón altered the field of international criminal law by insisting on his right to investigate crimes committed against Spanish nationals wherever those crimes took place. He also made it clear that prominent political figures were not immune from his investigation.

He became internationally prominent for an international arrest warrant he issued in October 1998 to detain the former Chilean head of state Augusto Pinochet (b. 1915). This warrant arose out of Garzón's investigation of Operation Condor, a coordinated operation among South American governments to assassinate opposition figures living outside their boundaries. The murder of Spanish nationals in Buenos Aires was traced to the Chilean secret police. The arrest warrant was served on Pinochet in London while he was receiving medical care. The resulting fifteen-month legal struggle produced a mixed outcome. On the one hand, the Law Lords of the House of Lords ruled that Pinochet's standing as a former head of state did not give him immunity from accusations that he ordered the torture and murder of Spanish nationals in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and 1980s. The duties of a head of state were never defined to include torture, and hence he was open to prosecution for such crimes. In addition, the International Convention against Torture had been interpolated into British law, and therefore the British courts had standing to hear the case. On the other hand, medical testimony persuaded the British Home Secretary that Pinochet was too infirm to face these charges; he returned to Chile, but Garzón had established the principle that human rights violations in one country could be subject to prosecution in a second country at the behest of a magistrate in a third. The enforcement of human rights conventions, such as those on torture, was now a matter of international law.

In this context, Garzón continued his investigation into Operation Condor, even seeking testimony about it from Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state in the 1970s. In 2003 his request for the detention of an Argentine working in Mexico was honored by a Mexican judge; the result was the arrest of one of the torturers who had operated in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. In 2001 he issued indictments of members of the Basque separatist movement suspected of involvement in criminal activities. In 2003 he investigated the international reach of Al Qaeda and other Islamic groups in Spain and North Africa. He collected evidence of corruption involving television companies owned by the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Once again, the point was made: domestic courts may be subject to political pressure. Magistrates in other countries who, like Garzón, were dealing with criminal activity of a transnational nature had the right to seize documents and obtain testimony previously restricted to nationals alone. Thus his work helped erode state sovereignty at the very moment when the expansion and strengthening of the European Union was taking place.

Garzón came to represent the principle of universal justice at a time when the globalization of trade and migration was paralleled by the globalization of crime and conspiracy. He also embodies the principles enunciated in the Nuremberg trials in 1946, but rarely enforced thereafter, that crimes of state are crimes, and that, with respect to crimes against humanity, no head of state is untouchable.

See alsoAl Qaeda; Basques; Globalization; Islamic Terrorism.


Broady, Reed, and Michael Ratner, eds. The Pinochet Papers: The Case of Augusto Pinochet in Spain and Britain. The Hague, 2000.

Burbach, Roger. The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice. London, 2003.

Cruz, Migueĺ Angel de la. Garzón: La ambición de un juez. Madrid, 2000.

Los documentos del juez Garzón y la Audiencia Nacional: El caso de España contra las dictaduras-Chilena y Argentina. Barcelona, 1998.

Rei, Pepe. Garzón: La otra cara. Tafalla, c. 1999.

Urbano, Pilar. Garzón: El hombre que veía amanecer. Barcelona, 2000.

Jay Winter