Militarized Justice in New Democracies: Explaining the Process of Military Court Reform in Latin America


  • Brett J. Kyle,

  • Andrew G. Reiter

  • We received helpful input from the anonymous reviewers and from participants in the 2011 Law & Society Association meeting. We would also like to thank Katherine Mohan for her research assistance.

Please direct all correspondence to Andrew G. Reiter, Mount Holyoke College, 50 College St., South Hadley, MA 01075; e-mail:


While a large body of literature emphasizes the importance of judicial reform in new democracies, few scholars have examined the reform of military justice systems in these settings—despite the potential for these courts to compete directly with civilian courts and subvert the rule of law. This article focuses on Latin America to empirically examine how the process of reforming military courts has played out in each democracy following authoritarian rule. We outline two distinct pathways: (1) unilateral efforts on the part of civilian reformers, and (2) strategic bargains between civilian reformers and the military. Within the unilateral category, we further distinguish efforts driven by civilian courts, those pursued by politicians, and those undertaken in the context of larger political transformations. Ultimately, we find that, absent a dramatic defeat of an authoritarian regime and its armed forces, reform efforts that do not engage and bargain with the military directly often fail to achieve long-term compliance and improvements in human rights practices. The success of such reform efforts, therefore, may come at a cost in other areas of democracy and civil-military relations. We conclude the article by summarizing our findings and reflecting on the lessons they provide for ongoing military justice reform efforts around the globe.