I Love This Country
The Lori Berenson Story
Glow Magazine --
by Laura Brose
A bright young woman with long dark hair falling down her back and shoulders in waves disappears from her upper-middle class social circle and is later discovered among a small group of paramilitaries who seek to overthrow the Establishment. They "expropriate" needed funds by committing armed robberies, and the woman is said to be in love with the leader of the group, and later with various of the followers. She is said to have joined the paramilitaries, converted to their cause, and assisted in their operations. Police close in on a house used by the paramilitary group, a firefight ensues, and the woman is later arrested in another location. She is held in police custody, later to be paraded before television cameras, where she makes a statement defending the paramilitaries and denying that they have engaged in terrorism. She is then put on trial, the court disregards extenuating circumstances in her case, and she is sentenced to a federal prison.
Twenty-six year old Lori Berenson is not the young Patty Hearst of '70's news media fame. As far as anyone knows, she wasn't kidnapped, dragged kicking and screaming from her world into a world of deprivation and paranoia that she had never known before. However, as when Patricia Hearst was a captive of the Symbionese Liberation Army, some details of her experiences away from normal society, which perhaps included mitigating circumstances, have remained unknown to all but her. Most unlike Hearst, Berenson has not been allowed to offer a defense, or even to speak in her own behalf.
Lori Berenson grew up with a strong feeling of obligation to help others, and developed an interest in improving the lot of poor people in Latin America. In high school, Berenson worked at a blood bank and at a soup kitchen. While Patty Hearst was apolitical during her student days, Berenson gradually became committed to political action as the means for achieving social justice.
Berenson first visited Latin America when she was a freshman at MIT. She was a member of a Quaker delegation during that first visit to El Salvador in 1988. She returned to El Salvador in 1989, under the auspices of the General Association of Salvadoran University Students, as a member of a small delegation of American students who had embarked on a study-abroad trip. Berenson and the other delegates made friends with students at the University of El Salvador.
The infamous Salvadoran death squads were still active then, and according to an article by L.A. Kauffman, in the Village Voice of Feb. 27, 1996, Berenson resided in a boarding house with other students from the delegation. What amounted to a small military offensive had been launched by the Salvadoran right against the university during the 1980's. During Berenson's second visit, the government and the university again locked horns, this time over the matter of the university budget. The students and administration held protests in the capital city. In retaliation, the house of the dean was bombed. "After a few weeks in the boarding house, Berenson and other delegation members began to worry that the proprietors might be government informers, so they decided to move," Kauffman wrote.
The delegation scattered to find new and presumably safer lodgings. Berenson moved in with Doris and Mario Flores, two economics students she had become friendly with at the university.
The day after Berenson's arrival at the Flores' home, the neighbors saw uniformed soldiers of El Salvador's national guard take Mario away from his home in the middle of the night.
The dawn of the next day shone upon the discovery of his corpse just outside the city limits of San Salvador. Kauffman quoted Max Friedman, one of the members of the student delegation, who said that Flores' injuries were so extensive that "all of his vertebrae were crushed, and he had been strangled and shot in the head."
Berenson, an anthropology major, had been engaged in a research project observing the effects of the unequal distribution of wealth in El Salvador under the tutelage of MIT professor Martin Diskin. She had inadvertently taken a course in the school of hard knocks, and a laboratory assignment in brutality.
According to Kauffman, when Berenson returned to the United States after that experience, she quit college and "spent a few months volunteering full-time for the Student Central America Network in Boston, and then began working both in New York and Washington, DC, with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)."
CISPES, founded by Salvadoran expatriates in the United States, was the political wing of El Salvador's Leftist Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), which would later merge with other leftist factions, forming the paramilitary Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). CISPES was to the FMLN what Sinn Fein has been to the IRA.
In 1990, Berenson moved to Managua, Nicaragua. Her friends and family believed that she traveled there to work with refugees from El Salvador, and that she went back to El Salvador in 1992 to work as a translator and secretary, continuing to do volunteer work with human-rights organizations. What she hadn't told her parents and friends was the name and affiliation of her employer: Leonel Gonzales, chief of the Salvadoran Popular Forces of Liberation, and one of the top leaders of the paramilitary FMLN. Kauffman wrote that she got her job through her CISPES contacts. For nearly five years, Berenson was allegedly Gonzales' confidential aide, known by the assumed name of "Angelita".
Besides her secretarial skills, Kauffman asserts that Lori Berenson had the ability to keep secrets in the strictest confidence and to fade into the wallpaper. It was because of these last two characteristics that she was said to have assisted Gonzales during U.S.-brokered peace negotiations between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government. She accompanied Gonzales on repeated trips from Nicaragua to Mexico and El Salvador between 1991 and 1994, for the purpose of providing assistance during the peace negotiations. She also made a visit home to the U.S. during that time, for the duration of December 1991 and January 1992, ostensibly for the celebration of her father Mark Berenson's 50th birthday. During that time, she continued to work for the FMLN, "providing logistical support [for the peace process] from a temporary FMLN office" that had been set up at the UN headquarters in New York.
She returned to El Salvador, and was present at the signing of the peace treaty between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government. She went back to the U.S. later in 1992 to make a short visit to friends and relatives and to formally withdraw from MIT. It was on this visit home, Kauffman wrote, that Berenson "conveniently lost her passport," and acquired new travel documents that showed no record of her involvement in the Salvadoran peace negotiations.
By October of 1992, Berenson had returned to El Salvador, and married a man whose name has been variously printed as Victor or Walter Meija in newspaper accounts of the story. Berenson and Meija had first met at the University of El Salvador in 1989, where Meija was a student of economics.
According to Kauffman, "she told an FPL associate that they were formalizing the relationship so that she could get residency in El Salvador." Though the two remained friendly, Berenson and Meija were married for only two months.
If the Village Voice is to be believed, 1992 seems to have been an especially eventful year for Berenson, as she continued to be in the employ of Leonel Gonzales, and reportedly made one or more trips to Panama, where she was said to have made the acquaintance of Pacifico Castrellon, an accused gunrunner. Berenson and Castrellon were then said to have traveled to Ecuador, where she allegedly met Nestor Cerpa, head of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Forces (MRTA). The MRTA is a paramilitary organization of in Peru separate from that of the Communist Shining Path, and reportedly less violent.
In an article for New York Magazine entitled "What's A Nice Girl Like This Doing In Peruvian Prison For Life?", John H. Richardson wrote that "Lori introduced Pacifico Castrellon to Cerpa, and Cerpa ordered them to set up the house in Lima." Berenson was later reported to have signed the lease of this house in which more than 20 members of the MRTA were arrested on January 30, 1996.
According to Richardson's article, much of this information is suspect. He telephoned the Ecuadorian embassy in an effort to confirm that Interpol had reported that Lori Berenson met with Nestor Cerpa while in Ecuador, information given to him by the Dincote, Peru's anti-terrorism police. Richardson talked with Gonzalo Salvador, Ecuador's Deputy Chief of Mission in Peru. Salvador told him that "when we saw this reported in the New York Times, we informed our authorities. They did not know about this meeting --- otherwise our authorities would have apprehended them. I think that information came from Peru."
As Peru's anti-terrorist police tell the story, Lori Berenson then met Miguel Rincon, the second-in-command of the MRTA. Some wire-service reports allege that Berenson was involved in an intimate relationship with Castrellon, or perhaps with Cerpa, and later claimed that she had a "romantic relationship" with Rincon. Some news stories even hinted at a terrorist menage a trois. People who know Lori Berenson found such speculation on the part of the media difficult to believe.
Darrin Bonecutter, a friend from Berenson's MIT days, when they lived in a house shared by 20 students, does not believe that she could have possibly been in love with a man who had ties to a terrorist organization.
He describes Berenson as a friendly and outgoing girl who was active in the choral society and socialized at fraternities. They had many of the same friends and frequently associated with one another at the house and at school events. In a telephone interview with Glow, Bonecutter said "I don't think there's anything to the idea that she's romantically involved with Rincon. I mean, did you look at the guy's picture? He's old, he has glasses, he has gray hair. He's got a potbelly and he's ugly. There's no way that she could be attracted to someone like him." Bonecutter also said that whenever the media has reported that Berenson has been in love with someone, "it's always a different character." He said that it is "incomprehensible" to people that the possibility exists that Berenson could have been abducted or otherwise coerced at one point in her travels, and then "dragged around" and ended up doing things that she would never do under ordinary circumstances.
The full truth of how Berenson became involved with the MRTA and what her relationship was to various MRTA members may never be known, as these alleged activities took place well away from the prying eyes of reporters and government officials.
Bonecutter reminisced that the Lori Berenson he knew at MIT went to great lengths to be helpful to others. "She took a very close interest in the homeless people in Boston," he said. "In one incident that I recall, she used her whole weekend helping a homeless woman named Shirley move [her belongings] from one side of town to the other," after helping her to obtain job training. Carrying boxes, shuttling back and forth on Boston's public buses was one of the random acts of kindness committed by an individual who frequently volunteered her time and money to help the homeless.
Berenson never sent her college chum souvenirs, but she did telephone him during her short visits to the U.S. Bonecutter also stayed with Berenson's parents for about a week on a visit to New York City he made while Berenson was out of the country. Bonecutter describes Mark and Rhoda Berenson as "friendly and down-to-earth".
He knew that Berenson sent them audiotapes of songs from Central America, and photographs of the Salvadoran and Peruvian countryside. He hadn't seen Berenson for a couple of years, and the news of her arrest came as a shock to him. He lost little time in enlisting a band of buddies and some computer memory to set up a site on the Internet dedicated to information about Lori Berenson's situation and containing hard-to-find information about Peru's legal system. The site mentions that during the proceedings of Berenson's arrest, trial, and imprisonment, Peru's government committed a violation of its own constitution and four treaties on human rights that had been signed by Peru. The site on the World Wide Web can be found at http://www.tiac.com/users/salem/lori_berenson
Lori Berenson's home base was still in El Salvador for most of 1993 when, according to Kauffman, "Berenson's duties led her to take up residency in Gonzales' second home, where he would stay when he was working." She had a front row seat in the world theater that saw the FMLN become transformed from an organization of condemned and violent terrorists into a "relatively powerless" leftist political party. She heard former guerrillas wonder aloud if they had received a disadvantageous deal when they had laid down their weapons. She was unsure of her future plans, but she mentioned to her friend Kristin Gardner that she was considering a return to MIT. Berenson enrolled in an introductory course in economics at Central American University in San Salvador in the spring of 1994. "A bureaucratic problem with her high school transcript kept her from re-enrolling for another semester, and it appears that roughly then she decided to go to Peru," according to Kauffman.
Her friends and family say that Berenson did not spend the time between 1992 and 1994 merely drifting around Central America with no plans or aspirations,
Daniel Radosh and Lori Berenson were friends at La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, where they passed notes to each other in class. He believes that Berenson's strong commitment to social justice led her to work among those who were seen as social outcasts in South America. He stated that "It seems obvious that she was hoping that they (Peru's MRTA) would accomplish the same thing the FMLN did, and become a legitimate political party."
While in high school, Berenson once sent Radosh a copy of an alternative paper that featured an article that she had written. On one of her visits home from El Salvador in 1992, she consulted Radosh for his advice on getting started in a career in journalism. Radosh, a columnist for the weekly New York Press, and an erstwhile contributor to a variety of magazines, gladly obliged.
Radosh said that Berenson's interest in journalism stemmed from a desire to "tell the story of what she'd seen down there." She had some competency in writing, Radosh said, "but she was not a compulsive writer." She was more interested in helping others and doing social and political work. Radosh did not have a clear idea of Berenson's interests and activities in Central America and Peru, he said, because "this is all stuff she came to in college," while she was out of contact with him and away from the New York area.
Radosh said that he believed that Berenson "had a strong moral code" and "possessed a well-defined sense of right and wrong."
When asked if it were possible that Berenson could have fallen in love with an individual with terrorist connections, Radosh replied that "all these stories about boyfriends" were "functions of the media", who couldn't believe that a young woman could have strong opinions of her own in social and political matters--- and act upon them.
"The real crime," he said, "is that Lori is in that jail in Peru."
Lori Berenson was arrested by the Dincote while riding a public bus on November 30, 1995. A police commandante interviewed in Peru by Richardson gave this account of Berenson's arrest: "In April, he said, they [police] began following a guy connected to the MRTA. Finally---on November 30---one of his contacts lead them to Miguel Rincon. The Dincote had been trying to catch Rincon for three years and recognized him even though he'd curled his hair and grown a mustache. They followed him to the La Molina house ---and then out of that house came Lori Berenson. She was accompanied by Pacifico Castrellon, the Panamanian gunrunner who later told police she was a serious MRTA higher-up. 'We got all this on film,' the commandante said. Castrellon dropped Lori off near a market, and Lori met a woman named Nancy Gilvonio, and alleged MRTA member. They took a taxi to the Congress building and went inside. Shortly afterward, Lori and her friend came back out of Congress, and the commandante and his men confronted them. They identified themselves as journalists, but the police soon learned that Gilvonio's Bolivian passport was fake. Lori told them that she lived in San Borja, and when they took her to La Molina and asked if she lived there, Lori seemed surprised and said no."
When Richardson asked the commandante if he could be allowed to view the film that was said to have been taken to record all these events as they transpired, the commandante replied that the film was top secret, and declined Richardson's request.
The police later picked up Castrellon, who "blabbed everything" the commandante said. Other MRTA members testified against Berenson while in police custody, and the owner of the house in La Molina said that he rented the house to Castrellon and Berenson together in the belief that they were a married couple.
Much of the evidence initially held against Lori Berenson by Peru's anti-terrorist police gradually turned out to be inconclusive.
When she was presented before the media, she had been imprisoned without trial. It is a policy in Peru that only top terrorist leaders be paraded before the television cameras as Berenson had been, and only after they had been tried and convicted. Whatever statements they might make at that time would therefore not influence the decision of the judges, who were supposed to have made their decisions prior to the media event. The judge who handled Berenson's case did so after she was videotaped shouting and crying as she made her statement. Friends and family of Berenson who saw the tape on television opined that Berenson appeared to have been hurt, confused, extremely scared, and not acting like her normal sweet self. She rolled her eyes and darted them furiously in an effort to watch for danger from all sides. She had been told to shout so that she could be heard throughout the room as there were no microphones or that the microphones and television cameras were all the way on the other side of the room. Whichever judge finally passed sentence upon her did not share the opinions of these American TV viewers. The impression that Berenson made upon the military court and the Peruvian-in-the-street with that statement was not a favorable one. They thought she looked angry, dangerous, and possibly violent. And the military court upped her prison sentence from 30 years to life imprisonment. Thomas Nooter, a lawyer acting on Berenson's behalf, stated that the court gave Berenson's defense only four hours to review 2000 pages of trial testimony to prepare a defense.
Peruvian police initially told the press that Lori Berenson lived in a house in La Molina, a suburb of Lima, Peru. It was the house that they raided in November shortly after Berenson's arrest. A shoot-out ensued, and police captured several MRTA members, including second-in-command Miguel Rincon and Pacifico Castrellon. The police then seized a cache of weapons, and video footage of rows of rifles said to have been found in the house was broadcast on ABC's Primetime Live. A photograph of the arms cache was printed in New York Magazine.
Lori Berenson's signed confession, however, testifies that she knew nothing of the weapons, though she apparently knew of the house, because the confession said that she was only allowed to enter the third floor of the house while wearing a hood which obstructed her vision, in order to deliver food. Peru's police claim that the third floor of the house had been converted into a shooting gallery by the MRTA.
The Primetime Live broadcast revealed to the American television viewing public that Berenson had actually lived in a high rise apartment in a different suburb of Lima. New York Magazine mentioned that the apartment was located in San Borjas, and interviewed the doorman, Nelson Rojas, and Berenson's next-door neighbor, Robert Coronel. The two had been asked to serve as witnesses when the police came to search the San Borjas apartment with Berenson in tow.
Coronel had not previously made Berenson's acquaintance, but Berenson asked him to be a witness to the search on the spot because she said she was afraid that the police would use the search as an excuse to plant drugs in her apartment.
Rojas said that when he went with police to search the apartment, "The first things we saw were these two uniforms in a closet." The police later said that they found uniforms of the same design at the house in La Molina.
When Berenson 's parents visited her in jail on Dec. 21, as they were allowed to before her sentencing, Berenson told them that she had found the uniforms on the floor of a minibus used by the MRTA, and that she had intended to give them back, according to Richardson.
What was she doing in a minibus used by the MRTA? The testimony given against her by Miguel Rincon indicates that Berenson herself drove the minibus to ferry new MRTA recruits to the jungle and back. It is to be remembered that Peruvian law grants clemency or reduced prison sentences to those who testify against others in cases involving crimes against the state. This is called the "repentance law", a similar to the American practice of granting prosecutorial immunity to members of racketeering organizations who testify against others said to be involved in organized crime. Those who perjure themselves on the witness stand in order to further denigrate the reputation of the defendant have everything to gain, including a perfect opportunity to exact revenge against a former comrade who may have refused to assist them in committing a crime.
A bank account used by Berenson during her stay in Peru contained $50,000, a rather large sum for a fledgling journalist with parents "of modest means" to have amassed. Peruvian police initially said as much, and insinuated that the money was given to Berenson by the MRTA. The bank statement from Banco Popular was shown to the American public on Primetime Live. The Berensons had already explained that they had somewhat reluctantly given their daughter the rest of the money earmarked for her tuition at MIT
Peruvian officials have accused Lori Berenson of possessing forged press credentials, which she allegedly used to gain access to the Peruvian Congress and gather information for the MRTA. She also allegedly used false documents to create an identity as a journalist named Ana Gion.
Berenson had applied to the publications Modern Times and Third World Viewpoint for press credentials after contacting these periodicals with story ideas. Third World Viewpoint sent her a letter, signed by editor Lloyd D' Aguilar allowing her to represent the magazine in Peru. Berenson submitted a copy of Third World Viewpoint to a Peruvian journalists' association. Pictures of Berenson's officially signed press accreditations were shown on the Feb. 21 Primetime Live broadcast. Queries to Third World Viewpoint and Modern Times confirmed that they had indeed accredited her as a journalist. A press card is a corporate employee identification card, not a government certification.
The information Berenson was said to have gathered, allegedly for the benefit of the MRTA's plans to kidnap members of the Peruvian Congress, was information that many journalists might possess under ordinary circumstances. The Peruvian anti-terrorist police said they found Berenson's handwriting on documents including a floor plan of Peru's Congress chambers, showing the locations of security guards and legislators' seats, as well as on a map of the La Molina neighborhood which they called "an escape plan".
Berenson's legal defense team, which consists of an American lawyer, Thomas Nooter and a Peruvian defense lawyer, Grimaldo Alcibaldi, is supervised by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark The defense team initially denied that Berenson's handwriting was on the Congressional floor plan, but said that her handwriting was on notes detailing the legislators' voting records.
When questioned as to whether a seating chart of this sort was a common item for journalists to have, Berenson's friend and fellow journalist Daniel Radosh replied that because "[Peruvian} senators have phones near their seats", built into the seating arrangements, knowing the location of specific individuals aids journalists, who are then able to phone senators with their questions. When covering legislative bodies, it helps to know who's who and what their voting records are. Responding to the allegations of the Peruvian anti-terrorist police that Berenson's activities as a journalist were spurious, Radosh told Glow Magazine that Berenson had "interviewed several senators."
Richardson reported that the Peruvian anti-terrorist police also found a note in Berenson's San Borja apartment that allegedly used "military jargon for weapons" because it contained the sentence "20 long ones, and two short ones". Police were puzzled by a reference to "tubes" in the note, according to Richardson, but they would not allow him to have a look at the note. Without a clear understanding of the context in which it was written, such a note remains impossible to fully understand.
As for the original charge of "treason against the Fatherland of Peru" that was initially leveled against Berenson, it must be explained that by definition, non-citizens cannot commit the crime of treason! Peruvian congressman Rafael Rey, whom police said was an intended victim of an elaborate MRTA plot to kidnap members of Peru's congress, stated that "the charge of betraying the country is only a cover for defining aggravated terrorism, which may be committed by Peruvians or foreigners."
Peru has good reason to be on the offensive against terrorism. Since 1980, the Shining Path and the MRTA paramilitaries have caused violence that has left 30,000 dead and caused $25 billion in damage to Peru's infrastructure.
President Alberto Fujimori won the 1992 elections and has maintained his public support among the urban classes by his promises to use harsh measures against terrorism in order to improve public safety and allow Peru the potential for economic prosperity. Fujimori's Reaganesque supply-side economics policies have primarily benefited those who already possessed some degree of wealth and industrial capital before the economic measures went into effect. The peasantry and Amerindian inhabitants of Peru's countryside as well as the urban poor are left out of the economic loop altogether. Approximately half of Peru's inhabitants are said to live in poverty, and see no forthcoming change in their status. When economic conditions are poor, and the young and educated cannot find the jobs that they were educated to expect, some may support or turn to social movements that oppose the Establishment, including those making use of terrorism. In 1992, "terrorists controlled the shantytowns around Lima," according to Congressman Daniel Espichan, a former anti-terrorist special prosecutor also said that the problem of antigovernment terrorism was so severe then that "there was a moment when it looked like we were lost." Espichan is a member of Fujimori's party; nevertheless he admits that there have been "bad judges" who have mishandled cases of suspected terrorism, and conservatively estimates that there may be at least "100 cases of wrongful imprisonment." Some human-rights organizations estimate that between 700 and 1000 people have been wrongfully charged with terrorism and convicted. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say that Peru currently holds 5000 political prisoners. The military tribunals that try these cases have tried 1,565 suspects since 1992 and have a 97% conviction rate. Coordinara Nacional De Derechos Humanos, a human-rights organization based in Peru, called some anti-terrorist measures "draconian" and said that the government has "attacked human rights groups and journalists" and has encouraged others to do the same. In the giant dragnet that he has implemented since his accession to the presidency, Fujimori has scooped up innocent civilians as well as threats to the republic.
The Committee of International Jurists and other respected authorities on the law have criticized the Peruvian justice system as being irregular and somewhat lacking in that particular quality. The possibilities that lie ahead for Berenson include an upcoming second appeal, and the possibility of applying for a transfer to an American federal prison for Berenson under the provisions of a prisoner transfer treaty between thee U.S. and Peru. This option can only be implemented in the event that all appeals are exhausted. Defense lawyer Thomas Nooter told Glow that there is a possibility that Peru could refuse to apply the treaty, and if she were to be transferred to the U.S., "she can't be immediately released, as such an action would undermine the provisions of the treaty" by setting a precedent which would allow other countries to do the same under international law. Under the provisions of the transfer treaty, Berenson's life sentence and conditions for parole would remain the same as under Peru's jurisdiction, but living conditions in an American prison would be different, and prison authorities would allow her friends and family to visit more often. Currently, officials from the American Embassy in Peru are allowed to make monthly visits to the federal prison to appraise Berenson's condition and to bring supplies such as food and clothing for her. Berenson's parents were told that they could visit her throughout the appeals process, but the day they arrived in Peru, she had been transferred to Yanamayo Prison in Puno, 500 miles away from Peru. They got permission to visit her in Yanamayo prison, but were turned down in the anteroom.
Peru has been known to give life sentences in prison to people who have been innocent of committing terrorist acts or directly aiding and abetting known terrorists, but who have a remote acquaintance with an individual convicted of terrorism. Someone working as a maid in a house used for the purposes of terrorists may be sentenced to prison for life despite the fact that she might not have been fully aware of the activities of other members of the household.
Yanamayo Prison is where prisoners who are to serve life sentences and those who are convicted of political crimes are transferred to after their initial waiting period in a local jail and conviction by military court. Prisoners sent to Yanamayo, which is located in Puno, high in the Andes, are sentenced to solitary confinement. However, relatives of the prisoners are legally allowed a short visit with them at the beginning of the sentence. The sentence is then served out with very limited times and conditions allowed for visitation of prisoners. Thomas Nooter, Berenson's lawyer, is allowed to see her until the case is finalized. Under Peruvian criminal codes, which do not allow visitors, including family members, to see a prisoner for the first year of a life sentence, next year Mark and Rhoda Berenson will be allowed to have a 15-minute visit with Lori, who will be confined behind wire mesh and placed in a darkened room, so that they will be able to talk to her but not to see her face. They say that Lori will be allowed to receive letters, as long as they are written in Spanish so that Peru's prison authorities are able to read them. A Post Office Box has been set up so that letters may be sent to Lori. The address is: Mark Lloyd, Box 200 50 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
The high altitudes of the Andes mountains are freezing. In the sunny South American summer, the prison locale enjoys not-so-balmy temperatures that never rise above 40 F while land at lower altitudes bakes in the estival heat.
Occasional accounts of torture occurring in prisons under the jurisdiction of Peruvian authorities have appeared in the American press, but at Yanamayo, there is no need for the prison authorities to inflict torture upon the inmates. The altitude does it for them.
Yanamayo Prison is located 12,000 feet above sea level. It is a scientific fact that a person who is accustomed to dwell at altitudes near sea level may be affected by the lack of oxygen and the decrease of air pressure that occurs at heights above 8,000 feet. Altitude sickness results. Lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, rapid pulse, and loss of appetite are the initial effects. People who have lived at high altitudes for an extended amount of time become accustomed to the decreased amount of oxygen in the air, and no longer suffer from altitude sickness after the initial adjustment. Commercial passenger aircraft flying at altitudes of over 5,000 feet usually have pressurized cabins, and U.S. Air Force pilots are required to wear oxygen masks when they fly above 10,000 feet, in order to prevent them from suffering repeated blackouts at the controls. None of this is likely to be a consoling thought to Berenson, who will be making the transition to high-altitude living alone.
On Saturday, March 16, 1996, the State Department reported that Lori Berenson's second and final appeal before Peru's military court was rejected. Mark and Rhoda Berenson received the news on the morning of that day, shortly before the information was released to the press. They made plans to visit members of the U.S. Congress to ask their assistance in securing the Lori's release.
The Berensons recently received a letter from their daughter. It took three weeks to make its way from the town of Puno to New York City, and one week to be translated from the Spanish. "We have no idea how she is or what she's thinking" said Mark Berenson, as letters coming from Lori or being sent to her "can't discuss news, politics, or her trial." "I ask Peru to show its true colors," Mark Berenson said; "to show the world whether it is a constitutional democracy or military dictatorship."