Who Are The Peruvian Terrorists?

Chris Gaal

Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)
rebels in Peru made headlines around the world when they entered
the Japanese ambassador’s residence during a party disguised as
servants carrying caviar and champagne, and proceeded to take
hundreds of high level officials hostage. The U.S. press has
taken the hostage crisis at face value, painting a monolithic
picture of the MRTA as one of several extremist terrorist groups
who seek to undermine the embattled fledging democracy taking
shape in Peru. The Peruvian reality, however, does not so easily
reduce to such a black and white caricature of good guys and bad
guys. According to non-governmental human rights groups like
Amnesty International, the Peruvian government itself is
implicated in a record of vicious repression and human rights
abuses that dwarfs even the terrorist actions of the MRTA. The
bleak reality of the situation in Peru may explain the
surprisingly sympathetic coverage being given the
"terrorists" in much of the foreign press, which has
reported a more balanced picture of conditions in Peru than the
U.S. mainstream media.

Rather than addressing the needs of the
poor majority of Peruvians, President Fujimori has guided the
country down an authoritarian neo-liberal road, enforcing
policies designed by the International Monetary Fund and the
World Bank. Neo-liberal policies aimed at privatization of
national industries, opening up the economy to transnational
corporate investment, and increasing exports and corporate
exploitation of natural resources have provided impressive
economic statistics for Japanese and U.S.-based investors. At the
same time these policies have pressed the majority of the
population down into destitution. An estimated 50 percent of
Peru’s population now live in poverty. While a large percentage
of Peru’s indigenous population still support themselves through
a traditional lifestyle outside the modern economy, unemployment
has hit other Peruvians hard as local businesses have been
undermined and social services cut. According to Reuters news
service, 80 percent of Peru’s workforce remains either jobless or
underemployed, and millions have little or no access to medical
care. While 54 percent of the population are Indian and 34
percent are of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, Peru’s
governing elite are mostly white. This privileged segment of
Peruvian society demands fierce repression of any who challenge
their controlling status. As a result, widespread political
dissent has been kept in check through institutionalized state

In response to growing instability within
Peruvian society, President Fujimori instituted a "self
coup" in 1992. With the support of the military, Fujimori
dissolved the congress and court system, and radically revised
the Constitution. The near dictatorial powers assumed by Fujimori
in 1992 were limited only by the military’s own increased
authority. Fujimori declared a national emergency to fight the
terrorism of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru
Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) guerrilla movements. New
anti-terrorism laws were passed which gave the military and the
courts greater powers to carry out a domestic counterinsurgency
campaign. Fighting terrorism, however, became easy cover for
targeting any civilians critical of the regime, including many
union leaders, peasant leaders, and independent journalists.

A human rights report that summarized
Amnesty International’s (AI) concerns from 1980 to 1995
documented the use of torture by the Peruvian National Police,
thousands of cases of "disappearances," extrajudicial
execution and torture by members of the armed forces and the
police, thousands of cases of unfair trials, and hundreds of
cases of prisoners of conscience. Similarly, AI documented at
least 500 victims killed in separate massacres by the Peruvian
military. The Peruvian Army extra-judicially executed at least 30
peasants in April 1994 during a single counter-insurgency

Torture is routinely practiced on detainees
accused by the security forces of having links to the Sendero
Luminoso or the MRTA. After 1992, Peruvian human rights
organizations began to receive hundreds of testimonies that
detainees had been tortured and ill treated during interrogation
by the Armed Forces and National Police. Indeed in 1994, the
government of Peru openly informed the United Nations Committee
Against Torture (UNCAT) "that agents of the State still
resort to [torture]." According to Amnesty International,
UNCAT concluded in its report that "there exists a
widespread practice of torture during the interrogation phase in
terrorism related cases, and that impunity is enjoyed by the

Human rights groups in Peru estimate that
between 700 and 1,000 innocent people have been charged and
convicted since 1992. Lawyer Ronald Gamarra of the Institute of
Legal Defense, which specializes in human rights cases, estimates
that a third of those arrested for terrorism are innocent,
including hundreds detained on false or coerced testimony. For
example, Jose Antonio Alvarez Pachas was arrested and jailed for
terrorist activities in his work as a journalist for the
independent leftist newspaper <I>Cambi<D>o. The
newspaper was then banned by the government. Alvarez Pachas was
adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in

A former prisoner known only as Carmen
(name changed), was arrested, blindfolded, beaten, hung from the
ceiling, shocked with electricity, tortured by near drowning,
raped, and accused of being a guerrilla. She was sentenced to 30
years in prison, spent 2 years in jail, and was then found
innocent on appeal and freed. Like many others accused of
terrorism and later found innocent and released from prison, she
still faces possible rearrest and retrial.

According to Amnesty International (AI),
thousands of prisoners charged with terrorist-related offenses
have been "denied the fundamental right to a fair
trial." Civilians have been "tried in military courts
which are neither competent, impartial nor independent…"
The military tribunals have a conviction rate of 97 percent.
Since 1992, AI has adopted 86 prisoners of conscience who
"have all been falsely accused of terrorism-related
offenses." AI has also been able to document an additional
1,000 possible prisoners of conscience.

As for the torturers, AI continues, the
vast majority of human rights abuses "have never been
effectively investigated, the perpetrators have not been brought
to justice, and the victims and their relatives have received no
compensation." In 1995 the government of Peru passed two
amnesty laws which according to AI, "effectively closed all
unresolved cases of human rights violations committed by the
military, the police and other authorities, between May 1990 and
mid-June 1995 . . . . (and) rendered void the few prison
sentences handed down by the military and civil courts to members
of the Armed Forces and National Police convicted of human
rights-related crimes."

Amnesty International (AI) also documented
human rights abuses by the two leading guerrilla movements in
Peru, the Shining Path and the MRTA. The Maoist inspired Sendero
Luminoso, also known as the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), is
well known for its vicious terror and ideological extremism
directed not only against the government, but also against
peasants who fail to support them. AI estimates that the Shining
Path committed fully 45 percent of all extra-judicial
assassinations between 1980 to 1992. The Peruvian government
committed 53 percent of these assassinations during the same
period. The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) is thought
to have committed 1 percent. Specific instances of MRTA human
rights abuses include the killing of civilians during an attack
on a town and the murder of a U.S. businessperson kidnapped and
held for ransom. Despite human rights abuses by the guerrillas,
"Amnesty International believes that the types of abuses
committed by the PCP and the MRTA can never justify the violation
by the authorities of fundamental human rights."

Shortly after taking control of the
ambassador’s compound, the MRTA freed hostages not directly
involved in Peruvian repression as a "humanitarian Christmas
gesture." In a statement issued with the release of the
first hostages the MRTA declared, "The people linked to this
regime–ministers, vice ministers, members of the judiciary and
legislators, leaders of the armed and police forces and
representatives of the Japanese businesses–will remain."

The leader of the MRTA embassy takeover,
Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, was a union official jailed in 1979 for
leading a worker occupation of a textile plant which was being
closed. According to a December 25 Reuters story headlined
"The Gentlemen Guerrillas?," "Cerpa organized a
roundtable discussion to explain the rebel’s cause and took great
pains to ensure that, as he put it, captives are leaving with a
different idea of what the MRTA is." Reuters also reported
that, "more than half of the 225 men set free. . . . shook
hands with the gunmen as they left, some even wishing them good
luck." One released hostage told Reuters, "this has
been an excellent propaganda coup for them." The story went
on to describe the MRTA as a "Robin Hood-style movement that
hijacked trucks and distributed the goods to peasants."
Similarly, a December 26 story in Agence France- Presse,
recounted how after the rebels discussed their objectives with
their captives, nearly 50 of the hostages asked for Cerpa’s
autograph. One hostage, Manuel Higa, described Cerpa saying,
"He is an idealist. I could understand his point of view. I
did not think it possible that he could kill me." Japan’s Asahi
Evening News
headlined a December 20 story as "A
Challenge from Peru’s Robin Hood," saying that the
"storming of the Japanese ambassador’s residence. . . . is
more than simply a violent act of terrorists." The MRTA was
described as a group with ."..a huge popular following among
the impoverished segments of Peruvian society because the money
it steals from companies or received as ransom in kidnapping of
rich people is always passed on to the poor."

Such sympathetic coverage represents a
significant blow to the Fujimori regime which had assured foreign
investors that the guerrilla movements had been eradicated by the
tough new measures instituted in 1992. Fujimori’s authoritarian
style will be harder to justify if it can’t deliver the promised
results. European representative of the MRTA, Isaac Velazco,
capitalized on the international media’s attention saying,
"We have appealed for years to international organizations,
human rights groups, and parties. But there was no interest. At
least now the world is talking about Peruvian state terrorism,
torture, and the disappearance of opposition activists. That is
the first success of this action."

The MRTA captured the limelight, as
journalists from around the world tried to shed light on this
little known band of guerrillas. While numbering small in actual
combatants, the MRTA apparently influences a large segment of
Peruvian society. As U.S. media cameras focused attention on a
government-sponsored rally against guerrilla terrorism to
demonstrate the MRTA’s lack of support, other Peruvians came
forward with public support for the rebels, risking possible
20-year prison sentences for the crime of apologizing for
terrorism. For instance, a December 29 Reuters report included
one opinion which stated, ."..the government are worse
terrorists than the MRTA. The government only concerns itself
with investors abroad, with foreign governments. It ignores its
own people here." A Peruvian housewife added, ."..I
think this is something the people want. While the majority keep
quiet, the terrorists are making the protest for us."

According to Velazco, the MRTA was founded
in 1984 "as a political and military organization, not to
follow a specific ideology, but because the Peruvian people’s
historic conditions have always been characterized by the ruling
class’ use of violence." The group’s name symbolizes the
Peruvian indigenous people’s historical resistance to oppression.
Tupac Amaru was an Inca leader who led an anti-colonialist
rebellion which almost shook off Spanish domination of a large
part of South America before he was caught and drawn and
quartered in the square of Cuzco. Velazco continued, "we’ve
always said that it isn’t the MRTA that’s going to make a
revolution in Peru, but the Peruvian people, through their
numerous social and political organizations."

Velazco took great pains to distinguish the
MRTA from the Shining Path, saying; "There’s more that
separates us from than unites us with Sendero Luminoso. Sendero
is a profoundly dogmatic, sectarian movement. . . . They don’t
seek to win hearts and minds, but impose their direction on the
people, which is why they don’t hesitate to kill to achieve their
domination. Sendero is also characterized by its cruelty. . . .
(the Peruvian people) don’t support that kind of a struggle, that
kind of inhumanity. I would hesitate to describe Sendero as a
revolutionary group because of their Pol Pot concept of life and
revolution is a long way from what we think of as
revolution." Velazco attributed Sendero’s large size to
their early willingness to use armed resistance against
government repression. At first Sendero won sympathy and members,
but through their cruelty eventually showed their true character
and limited their growth.

Velazco described the activities of the
MRTA saying, "We do things like expropriate food from the
big supermarket chains and hand it out to the people. . . . we
strike at the army and the police who are becoming more and more
like occupation forces within their own country. They’re forces
who are always blood-stained, highly corrupt, extortionists of
the people."

Describing the group’s ideology, Velazco
continued, "We try to put Peruvian reality ahead of any
pre-defined ideology. We hope to build socialism. . . . That’s
not to say we’re going to build a socialism styled and modeled
after the eastern European countries, a model which failed in
practice. . . . We don’t want state centralism or the
bureaucratization of Peruvian society. Life has taught us that is
not the way. We should have a democratic, very participatory
society, not an electoral democracy every five years, but a
democracy where men and women get involved in their workplace,
their community, their neighborhood and decide their own destiny.
We want it to be a participatory democracy with the people as
actors. It has to be that way."

Past military successes of the MRTA have
not been reported by the Peruvian press or acknowledged by the
government. In the past three years, the MRTA destroyed two
military barracks, four army helicopters, and staged perhaps the
most elaborate prison escape in Peruvian history. Freeing jailed
comrades is a high priority for the MRTA, since guerrilla
prisoners are often tortured, sexually abused, kept in isolated
dark and unsanitary conditions, receive no medical care, and
suffer from serious illnesses. The MRTA constructed a 330 meter
long tunnel to free captured members in the Canto Grande maximum
security prison. With the participation of mine workers, they
solved problems of ventilation, bracing, and used a theodolite
compass to ingeniously come out at the right point in the prison,
rescuing all 47 comrades, each of whom returned to their posts,
with no one killed. Current demands in the embassy takeover
include the release of Tupac Amaru prisoners, over 1,000 of which
are now engaged in a hunger strike–somehow coordinating their
activities with the outside world.

The U.S. government repeatedly emphasized
during the crisis that it would not negotiate with terrorists. At
the same time the U.S. reaffirmed its support for the Peruvian
government. While deploring the hostage crisis as terrorism, U.S.
officials continue to ignore the well-documented record of
Peruvian state-sponsored terror.

In response to the crisis, the U.S. rushed
a team of "security advisors" to the Peruvian capital.
There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Pentagon
dispatched a special commando called Delta Force from Fort Bragg,
NC to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. Such U.S.
assistance has played a key role in creating the domestic
counterinsurgency campaigns used in Peru for decades. In a 1975
book entitled The CIA and Cult of Intelligence, former
high-ranking CIA official Victor Marchetti described that
agency’s role in Peru during the mid-1960s as "the CIA’s
single large-scale Latin American intervention in the post-Bay of
Pigs era," saying, "The agency financed the
construction of . . . . ‘a miniature Fort Bragg’ in the troubled
Peruvian jungle region. . . . Helicopters were furnished under
cover of official military aid programs, and the CIA flew in arms
and other combat equipment. Training was provided by the agency’s
Special Operations Division personnel and by Green Beret
instructors on loan from the Army." In 1966, while the U.S.
was fighting in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara told
the Senate that, "U.S. trained and supported Peruvian army
and air force units have played prominent roles in this
counter-guerrilla campaign." Peru’s war of the 1960s, which
included burning villages to punish support for the guerrillas,
defoliating the countryside with napalm, saturation bombing with
high explosives, and even throwing prisoners out of helicopters,
silenced the armed opposition in Peru for more than a decade.

Today the U.S. openly provides military
helicopters and advisors to Peru, ostensibly for use in fighting
the drug war. There is little official concern when the Peruvian
military uses these weapons to fight counterinsurgency campaigns
against the PCP, the MRTA, or against the civilian population.
This disturbing side of the international drug war, which assists
both Peruvian and Colombian military repression against
civilians, has become known as "the dirty war" in South
America. Unfortunately, its effects on human rights are too often
overlooked by critics focused solely on the domestic drug war in
the United States. The U.S. government has been willing to turn a
blind eye to Fujimori’s repressive regime as long as progress is
made in fighting the guerrillas, and in moving the economy down
the road of neo-liberalism. Unlike Japan, which has urged a
peaceful solution to the crisis, the United States has responded
with bellicose rhetoric, implying a readiness to intervene both
covertly and overtly if necessary. While it is not clear whether
the current crisis will defuse peacefully or explode in violence,
it is clear that conflict will continue in Peru.

Chris Gaal is a law student and a regular
columnist with the Bloomington Voice.