A new life for Peru's American enemy

The Independent (London) -- 9 February 2011

by Simeon Tegel

After 15 years in jail on terrorism charges, Lori Berenson tells Simeon Tegel how she and her baby son will pick up the pieces

Lori Berenson holds her 20-month-old son Salvador, who was born in jail

Lori Berenson's 20-month-old son, Salvador, lies sprawled out for his afternoon nap in the bedroom. Despite being born in a women's jail, Salvador's start in life was anything but blighted, Ms Berenson is keen to make clear. The youngster was a hit with the inmates and "got lots of love", she says.

A long stretch in one of South America's toughest prison systems would have broken many. But Ms Berenson, who served 15 years for collaborating with an armed Marxist group during Peru's brutal guerrilla war, comes across as phlegmatic and even chatty as she sits by an open window in her rented apartment, a breeze bringing relief from Lima's clammy summer.

She is on parole for the remainder of her 20-year sentence and must stay in Peru until 2015. The furore has died down since her first release in May, when she received death threats, and was briefly re-jailed because of a mix-up about her parole conditions. But the normality Ms Berenson craves remains elusive: she accepts she has become a "symbol" of the terrorism that once rocked Peru.

Yet gradually she is picking up the pieces of a life shattered by her arrest on a bus in central Lima in 1995. She has found work as a translator for development organisations, while the abuse from strangers is also dying down. "I still get recognised but now most people who say anything are nice," she says.

The daughter of university professors, Ms Berenson dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to head to Latin America, working at one stage for the FMLN, the leftwing guerrilla group that transformed into a political party during El Salvador's peace process. Her experiences in Central America "mis-formed" her understanding of Peru's troubled democracy, she now acknowledges.

After a year in Lima, including a stint as a reporter for US activist publications, Ms Berenson's world caved in. She was convicted of treason and leading a terrorist group, and was sentenced to life in jail by a military court presided over by a hooded judge. An international campaign, backed by the Carter Center among others, resulted in a retrial by a civilian court in 2001, after which Ms Berenson was handed her current 20-year sentence.

She now admits she had sub-let part of a house to the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). The Cuban-inspired group had at different points attempted to join Peru's political process and been implicated in assassinations. It made headlines around the world after Ms Berenson's detention when its members took hundreds of hostages at a party at the Japanese ambassador's residence. However, she insists she believed the MRTA was using her property for peaceful purposes and had been unaware of the weapons police found there.

Yet there is a damning photo of her shouting, apparently with channelled rage, as she was paraded before the media before her first sentencing. After 45 days in a holding cell, she was told by a police officer moments earlier that shouting was the only way her message would be heard.

"The place was packed," Ms Berenson tells me. "They said: 'We don't have a microphone.' And I was dumb enough to do that." She now has a vague recollection of her words: she came to Peru because of its "hunger and misery", and she denied the MRTA was a terrorist organisation.

Her acknowledgment of culpability is forthright, although critics may note a hint of dissimulation. "If I did willingly get involved, even peripherally, with political violence, I am sorry," she says. "But I haven't killed anyone. I didn't plan to take congress or to put bombs anywhere. But I take responsibility." Tellingly, she adds: "I didn't really understand Peru. I didn't have a sense of the rejection of the violence that existed in Peru at the time." Ms Berenson is careful to avoid differentiating between the moralities of the participants in the bloodshed unleashed by the Shining Path in the 1980s.

As she talks about life behind bars, Ms Berenson sounds stoical. While in prison in the Andes, she suffered from Raynaud's disease, a circulation problem of the extremities. "When you are bunched up in a small cell, you feel the cold much more," she concedes, before immediately pointing out that most Peruvians who live at altitude also lack heating.

Much of her sentence she spent in cells with another prisoner, initially locked up for 23-and-a-half hours a day. She was allowed visitors once a month. News from the outside world barely seeped into the jail. The first she knew of the siege at the Japanese ambassador's residence was when her visits and yard-time were cut.

The prison regime relaxed after President Alberto Fujimori, besieged by election-rigging and corruption allegations, fled into exile in 2000 and she was able to learn baking in the prison kitchen. She married her lawyer, Anibal Apari, himself a convicted former MRTA member, and the couple were even allowed conjugal visits. They subsequently split but he continued to represent her.

Ms Berenson is restrained when talking about giving birth to Salvador while surrounded by police officers. "It made it difficult for the doctors," is the nearest she comes to criticism. The hardest thing during her time behind bars was the isolation. "The impotence, that feeling that you didn't know what was going on outside and that something was happening to people you loved and you couldn't do anything about it," she reflects.

Small steps mark Ms Berenson's progress. She has already avoided one of her greatest fears – being in jail at Salvador's third birthday when the authorities would no longer have allowed him to stay with her. She is now studying to be certified as a translator and is also interested in teaching baking to the poor.

She is also, of course, looking forward to returning to New York and the parents whose steadfast support has helped her to cope with her ordeal. She would like to try her hand interpreting between English-speaking doctors and the US's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population. "I would enjoy that," she says quietly. "Using my Spanish to help people."

A brutal civil war

Peru was gripped by a savage guerrilla war between 1980 and 2000, with nearly 70,000 people killed as leftist groups battled the government of President Alberto Fujimori.

The most brutal was the Shining Path, a Maoist, Khmer Rouge-style group. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission blamed it for about half of the deaths, while Mr Fujimori's ruthless security forces and the militia they sponsored stand accused of rest.

The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, was a Marxist rebel group named after the last leader of the Incan state, and while it is blamed for about 1,000 deaths, it was a relatively peripheral force.