Reconciliation in Peru

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Nation on Sunday, 13 May 2012


In October 1983, I attended a ceremony at Huancavelica Cathedral in the Peruvian Andes, my heart fluttering at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Huancavelica was founded in 1572 for the purpose of mining mercury, which was essential to extract silver from the ore from the fabulous mine at Potosi. In 1648 the Viceroy of Peru declared that Potosí and Huancavelica were “the two pillars that support this kingdom and that of Spain.”



Outside the cathedral, a local Quechua man questioned me about Mrs. Thatcher and the Malvinas. He seemed to approve of Thatcher. Argentineans are generally unpopular in Peru.



The Huancavelica police station at which we had registered was blown up by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) the day after we had been there.



Sendero Luminoso was a Maoist group of quite outstanding brutality. Defenders of these “freedom fighters” would no doubt cite “state terrorism”, but the national government was somewhat slow to react to provocation. A state of emergency was declared in 1981 and the army was given the job of fighting the guerrillas. The Armed Forces created the Ayacucho Emergency Zone, in which military power was superior to civilian power, and many constitutional rights were suspended. The military committed many human rights violations in the area where it had political control. A specimen was the Accomarca massacre on August 14, 1985 in Ayacucho where 69 unarmed men, women and children were killed. Twenty-seven years later, Telmo Hurtado, who led the massacre, is finally in custody in Peru after being extradited from the US. Hundreds more former military and police officers have yet to be put on trial.



Scores of peasants were massacred by the armed forces. A specialist counter-terror police battalion known as the “Sinchis” were particularly notorious. They were US-trained. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)- formerly named School of the Americas -, is a US Department of Defense Institute located at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. WHINSEC trained many military personnel before and during the years ‘dirty wars’ in Latin America. WHINSEC graduates continue to surface in news reports regarding human rights cases.



Shining Path opted to fight their war in the style taught by Mao. A major Sendero tactic was the mass slaughter of the indigenous people it claimed to be fighting for, to goad the authorities into matching savagery. Its original goal was to overthrow the government and social structure of Peru and neighboring countries and replace them with a socialist system controlled by the indigenous peoples of the region. Shining Path also adhered to Mao’s teaching that guerrilla war should be fought primarily in the countryside and gradually choke off the cities.


The peasants resist their liberators



The peasants did not always appreciate what the brave revolutionaries were doing for them. The Shining Path filled its ranks by forced conscription and forced kidnapped children to fight as child soldiers. In some areas, peasants formed anti-Shining Path patrols, called rondas. I was in Peru in October 1983. In January 1983, near Huata, rondas killed 13 senderistas; in February in Sacsamarca, rondas stabbed and killed the Shining Path commanders of that area. In March 1983, rondas captured Olegario Curitomay, one of the commanders of the town of Lucanamarca, took him to the town square, stoned him, stabbed him, set him on fire, and finally shot him. The Shining Path retaliated by killing 69 people including a six-month-old child and several pregnant women. Most were hacked to death with machetes and some were shot at close range in the head.



Alberto Fujimori


President Alberto Fujimori adopted an ‘iron fist’ approach to the rebels. He dissolved Congress and abolished the Constitution. Military courts were set up to try captured rebels. Fujimori also announced that Peru would no longer accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Between 1990 and 1994, Grupo Colina , a paramilitary anti-communist death squad carried out several massacres. The Grupo Colina, believed to be mandated by Fujimori, victimized trade unions and activists that spoke out against the Peruvian government, by intimidation or sometimes murder.



Fujimori signed a law that granted amnesty to anyone accused of, tried for, convicted of, or sentenced for human rights violations that were committed by the armed forces or police. Since the collapse of the Fujimori government, several people have been tried for Grupo Colina’s crimes, including Fujimori. Trials have established that Grupo Colina was not an informal group of renegade officers but an organic part of the Peruvian state. Julio Salazar, former chief of the National Intelligence Service (SIN), was sentenced to thirty-five years for his role in the La Cantuta massacre. During Salazar’s tenure at the SIN, Vladimiro Montesinos was the de facto chief and national security advisor. Montesinos is currently imprisoned and faces over seventy trials for various human rights abuses, as well as charges of drug trafficking and political corruption.



On September 12, 1992, Peruvian police captured Guzmán and several Shining Path leaders. Shortly after, most of the remaining leadership fell and Shining Path suffered embarrassing military defeats to rondas, supposedly its social base — and the organization fractured into splinter groups. The then leader of the Shining Path, Artemio, was shot and captured in the jungle in February 2012.



In September 2010, President Alan Garcia succumbed to pressure to pass a thinly veiled amnesty law to benefit indicted army officers. He quickly retracted it as Peru’s Nobel laureate author Mario Vargas Llosa (and one-time presidential candidate) attacked the measure in a stinging open letter.



Truth and Reconciliation Commission



Alberto Fujimori resigned the Presidency in 2000. Congress installed Valentin Paniagua in his place. He rescinded Fujimori’s announcement that Peru would leave the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which found in its 2003 Final Report that 69,280 people died or disappeared between 1980 and 2000 as a result of the armed conflict. A statistical analysis led the Commission to estimate that the Shining Path was responsible for the death or disappearance of 31,331 people, 46% of the total deaths and disappearances. According to its final report, 75% of the people of the victims spoke Quechua as their native language, despite the fact that the 1993 census found that only 20% of Peruvians speak Quechua or another indigenous language as their native language.



The final report was criticized by almost all political parties and former Presidents Fujimori, Garcia and Paniagua, the military and the Catholic Church, which claimed that many of the Commission members were former members of extreme leftist movements and that the final report wrongfully portrayed rebel groups as “political parties” rather than as terrorist organizations.



Only last August, remains of Grupo Colina victims were unearthed only 20 minutes away from their homes. Gloria Cano of the Peruvian human rights organisation APRODEH said that until the discovery of the remains, several mothers were convinced that their sons were still being held prisoner in the jungle or even in another continent. “Until the bodies are found, the parents keep on hoping they will find their children alive”.

Fujimori escaped to Japan but returned to South America in 2006. He spent almost two years under house arrest in Chile before being extradited to stand trial in Peru. In April 2009, he was jailed for 25 years for authorising 25 death squad killings.



Reconciliation Today?



Daniel Mora, Peru’s defence minister, told a Lima radio station last September: “There has to be a cut-off point for the reconciliation of the country,” adding that judicial proceedings against members of the military and police for human rights crimes could not go on forever. The Washington Office on Latin America said Mora’s remarks suggested a state policy of impunity.


Peru has not signed the 2006 international convention for the protection of all persons from disappearances. Peruvian society is still deeply divided about the Sendero years. It is difficult to believe that national reconciliation will be served by impunity talk of an amnesty.

On August 16, 2006 prosecutors in Peru filed charges against Ollanta Humala for alleged human rights abuses including forced disappearance, torture, and murder against guerrillas during his army service in San Martin. Humala is now president of Peru. Opponents suggest Humala bribed judges and bought witnesses to have his case dismissed.