2 decades later, New Yorker jailed in Peru goes home
San Francisco Chronicle -- 2 December 2015
by Frank Bajak
LIMA, Peru (AP) — In the five years since she was paroled, Lori Berenson has lived in a limbo of sorts, trying to raise a young son in a society that largely refuses to forgive her for aiding Peru's No. 2 leftist rebel group in the 1990s.
Now a 46-year-old single mother, the woman who arrived in Peru two decades ago bent on revolutionary change has finally gone home to her native New York.
Berenson was officially expelled late Wednesday. With her 6-year-old son Salvador in her arms, she passed quickly through Lima's airport terminal ringed by police officers and followed by reporters. Recognizing her, some people shouted "get out of here terrorist!" Her flight to New York was scheduled to leave at midnight.
Berenson was allowed to leave the South American country after her 20-year sentence for "collaboration with terrorism" for her role in the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement lapsed.
Before her departure, in an interview granted on condition it not be published until she was gone, Berenson had harsh words for Peru's economic and political elite. She accused it of being unwilling to confront the open wounds of the country's 1980-2000 internal conflict.
And she said she still believes, as she declared when arrested in 1995, that Tupac Amaru was not a terrorist group.
"It could have acted at times using terrorist tactics, but that it was a terrorist organization, I don't think the label fits," said Berenson, calling it similar to the Salvadoran rebels, who negotiated peace in 1992. She worked for them before moving on to Lima in late 1994.
Berenson says that while she regrets any harm she may have done — Tupac Amaru robbed banks and kidnapped and killed civilians but did not commit massacres like the fanatical and much larger Shining Path — she also remains upset by economic inequality and racism in Peru.
"It's not like feudalism went away recently," she said, recalling how rural estate holders denied peasants education well into the 20th century.
Berenson said she and Salvador initially plan to live in New York City with her university professor parents while she gets established. She hopes for employment in social work. Last year, she finished a bachelor's degree in sociology from the City University of New York.
"My objective is to continue to work in social justice issues, in a different capacity obviously," she said.
While on parole, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropout did translations at home for clients she would not name, including a human rights group.
The view from her 6th-floor apartment in Lima's middle-class Pueblo Libre district provided comfort after years behind bars.
The streets below were not very friendly.
People would shout "terruca" at her — a slang term for "terrorist." Several times people threatened Salvador's life, she said, including speaking from the street into her home's intercom.
Many Peruvians were angered when she and her son were allowed to visit her family in New York in 2011. In response, Congress passed a law barring paroled foreigners from travel abroad.
Two presidents could have commuted her sentence, allowing her to leave sooner, but declined.
Initially convicted of treason by hooded military judges, Berenson was retried in 2001 by a civilian court.
Before that, her health suffered behind bars, the skin of her hands cracking and turning blue during nearly three years in a frigid penitentiary at 12,700 feet.
Today, she says most Peruvians who despise her have been misinformed by a media establishment largely controlled by the country's conservative elite.
"Terrorist Lori Berenson Expelled from Peru," read a headline Wednesday in Lima's dominant newspaper, El Comercio.
Peruvians tend to lump the Tupac Amaru group, which a truth commission blamed for 1.5 percent of the deaths in the internal conflict, together with the Shining Path rebels, which it held responsible for 54 percent.
The conflict claimed nearly 70,000 lives, three-fourths of the victims impoverished Quechua-speaking highlanders. The truth commission found that security forces committed more than 40 percent of the slayings.
Berenson was convicted of assisting the Tupac Amaru as it prepared to seize Congress and take lawmakers hostage.
She denies knowledge of the plot, but had visited Congress with journalist's credentials accompanied by a "photographer" married to top Tupac Amaru leader Nestor Cerpa.
The scheme was foiled on Nov. 30, 1995, when police stormed the safe house that Berenson and Panamanian Pacifico Castrellon had rented. Three rebels and a police officer were killed, and police found an arsenal of which Berenson said she was unaware.
Paraded after her arrest before TV cameras, Berenson shouted angrily that the Tupac Amaru was a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist group. That outburst probably added five years to her sentence, said Castrellon, who served 11 years before his 2007 release.
Tupac Amaru projected a Robin Hood image, stealing food and distributing it to the poor. But it also committed ransom kidnappings, killed police and soldiers and assassinated an army general.
The rebel group's 1996 hostage-taking at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima sealed its fate. Berenson's name was No. 3 on the list of people whose release rebel leader Cerpa demanded in the 126-day ordeal, which ended when commandos killed him and other hostage-takers.
"There is no way anyone can look at her story and conclude anything other than she knowingly, willingly and enthusiastically worked for a terrorist organization," said Dennis Jett, then the U.S. ambassador.
Supporting that argument is Castrellon's claim that he and Berenson met with Cerpa in Ecuador in 1994 on their way to Peru. Berenson denies ever having met Cerpa.
Asked whether she had any regrets — and about criticism that she was arrogant and naive for falling in with the Tupac Amaru — Berenson was typically circumspect.
"That's my life. I chose that, and I'll live with that."
She did allow, though, that she wished she'd finished college before moving to Latin America.
Asked whether she thought taking up arms against abusive governments could be morally justified, she demurred.
The 1980s and 1990s were different times; people in the region now prefer the ballot box, she said.
In New York, Berenson said she hopes to find a job as a social worker "supporting disenfranchised populations."
As far as political activism goes, she said "I don't believe much in electoral politics," preferring "community empowerment."
"I could be out in the streets," she said. "But I don't need to be a leader. I can be a follower."