Jailed Unjustly, Peruvians Try to Rebuild Shattered Lives

New York Times -- 17 July 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- Outside his powder-blue shack, Antonio Alejo waits quietly for customers in need of an oil change or a brake job. He smiles faintly as his youngest child plays with his two stepchildren, running around some burning trash on the sand dune that is his front yard. With business slow, he tends a few geraniums and sunflowers and occasionally fixes a bowl of rice.

Mr. Alejo is slowly picking up the shards of his life.

For five years, he sat in jail serving a 30-year sentence on charges that he was a Maoist terrorist -- a phony case cobbled together with a forged confession and the false testimony of a neighbor.

Pardoned two years ago by President Alberto K. Fujimori, Mr. Alejo walked out of prison, his life in ruins. His wife had presumed him dead and was living with another man. His wrists were dislocated, his teeth were broken, and his intestines so badly damaged by kicks from torture sessions that he needed two operations.

Today, he looks much older than his 43 years. His sleep is interrupted by strange dreams, he says, no doubt linked to the all-night arguments between the two terrorist groups that shared his cell block.

Peruvians call Mr. Alejo and more than 1,000 people like him "the innocents," mostly poor people who were unfairly imprisoned on charges of terrorism or treason from 1992 to 1995 by special antiterrorism courts. Most have been pardoned or absolved of any wrongdoing in the last three years, but their lives and the lives of their families have been irreparably tattered.

Such injustice was the product of the chaos that gripped Peru in the early 1990's, when the Shining Path, a brutal terrorist group bent on creating a radical Maoist state, was in the final throes of a rampage of bombings and massacres. The Shining Path threatened and paid off prosecutors and judges to avert imprisonment of their own, and their efforts to dominate Peru by coercion appeared close to fruition.

In a draconian crackdown in 1992, Mr. Fujimori disbanded Congress and the Supreme Court and established the special antiterrorism courts, which convicted thousands of people of aiding rebel groups.

The fates of those accused of cooperating with the guerrillas were decided by masked judges and prosecutors working anonymously behind one-way mirrors. Sometimes the trials in those "faceless courts" did not last more than 20 minutes. There were no juries and no cross-examination, lawyers and suspects said.

Sentences were often based on phony evidence, say the office of the ombudsman and a government-sponsored commission. Suspects were arrested, tortured -- hung by their wrists as in Mr. Alejo's case -- and forced to sign pieces of paper that were turned into confessions of aiding terrorists. Some convictions were based on testimony provided by rebels, who implicated others rather than give up a fellow guerrilla.

"It was war justice applied to civilians," said Jorge Santistevan, the congressionally appointed ombudsman who has investigated the plight of the innocents. "These people have done nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And their suffering has been boundless."

As the struggle against terrorism has wound down, 1,089 of the innocents have been freed, the authorities say, either by pardon or reversals of their sentences. Under international pressure, Mr. Fujimori set up a review commission to examine individual cases. But 54 more prisoners deemed innocent by the panel remain in jail as petitions for their release have sat on Mr. Fujimori's desk for more than six months. At least 227 others who also have credible claims of innocence are still sitting in Peru's dank prisons. But those cases had not been reviewed before Mr. Fujimori allowed the commission's term to expire last year.

Mr. Fujimori, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has turned the commission's work over to the Justice Ministry, saying Peru has to be careful not to let potentially guilty people go free. His personal representative on the commission, the Rev. Hubert Lanssiers, said: "I have no idea how many more innocent people remain in jail. It is a tragedy."

As he sits at home, Mr. Alejo nearly always folds his arms tightly across his chest as if to ward off a blow or a kick. His few words come in an expressionless monotone. "Justice is not justice in this country," he said. "Only God can explain what happened to us."

Mr. Alejo's imprisonment left his family destitute, forcing them to wander Peru for work and shelter. Taking him for dead, Mr. Alejo's common-law wife took up with another man, a violent alcoholic, with whom she had two children. She finally ran from the violence and back to Mr. Alejo in April, but the relationship is not the same, they both say.

Still he is a determined survivor. In prison, he learned to read and write, and he has begun a business with rudimentary mechanic's skills he learned from another former prisoner.

The Victims Railroaded After Mass Arrests

If there is any small comfort in Mr. Alejo's story, it is that he was not alone. These cases, for instance, are based on human rights and government reports:

Alicia Zamalloa Cáceres, an impoverished widow, was imprisoned after the police found a raffle ticket she sold in the house of a terrorist.

Juan Mallea Tomailla, a taxi driver, was imprisoned after he dropped off a customer at a house once used to edit the newspaper for the Shining Path guerrillas.

Juana Quispe Rojas, a housekeeper, was mistakenly arrested on a warrant for a suspected terrorist who happened to have the same name. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

All were eventually released. But Genaro Cáceres Camones, a day laborer, is still serving a 10-year sentence for treason. According to a 1995 report by Human Rights Watch, Mr. Cáceres was "tricked into carrying the supplies of a Shining Path band, and escaped by giving himself up to an army patrol after an armed clash."

"Nevertheless, he was tried for treason and sentenced," the report said.

Mass arrests were made by soldiers and policemen who earned extra cash based on the number of people they rounded up. In court, the suspects were railroaded into convictions and prison sentences.

Alfredo Márquez, a 36-year-old artist pardoned in 1998 after serving three years in jail, remembers his 1994 hearing in a court in which he was not allowed to talk to his lawyer. The judge and prosecutor sat behind a one-way mirror speaking to him through microphones outfitted with equipment to distort their voices beyond recognition.

"It was like listening to Darth Vader," said Mr. Márquez, who was sentenced to 20 years, accused of being a member of Shining Path after he produced a silk-screen pop print of Mao. He confessed in exchange for the release of his girlfriend.

"The courtroom was so surreal it made Kafka look like child's play," he said.

Not a single military or police officer, prosecutor or judge has been disciplined for their routine malfeasance.

Once in jail, the prisoners say, they bunked in threes or fours in tiny, windowless cells outfitted with a hole for a toilet and concrete slabs for beds. Most were denied anything to read, and the only recreation allowed was a half hour of daily exercise. Visiting privileges were limited to two adults for 30 minutes a month, and children could visit only for 30 minutes every three months.

The prisoners were not allowed to touch their visitors. They could see only the outlines of their loved ones through chicken wire and curtains that were so tightly woven they were barely translucent.

"They were savage years for these people," said Susana González, a social worker who worked for the review commission. "It was an experience that destroyed the most intimate corners of a person's psyche." One result, psychologists say, has been severe depression and lasting rage among most of the people who have been released. To this day not one has received a penny in reparations from the government.

The Arrest: Misunderstanding Leads to Torture

All of Mr. Alejo's suffering hinged on a simple mistake made on Dec. 10, 1992, he recalled.

He had ridden his mule down from the mountains to the market town of Paucartambo to sell oranges and bananas and to have a bowl of soup at a restaurant.

A group of six soldiers came into the restaurant while on patrol, searching for Shining Path rebels who were at the time terrorizing the central highlands.

One soldier asked Mr. Alejo a simple question: "Have you seen any tucos?"

Unaware that "tucos" is a slang word for terrorists, the shy, illiterate jungle farmer said that he had. For Mr. Alejo, "tucos" were the little gray birds that fly in the jungle at night, waking up the peasants with their wild screeches. The soldiers then asked for his papers and became more suspicious when they noticed that he had failed to vote in the most recent municipal election -- a technical violation of the law.

"It seemed like a game," he recalled. "Somebody had to be kidding."

But for that simple misunderstanding, the soldiers hauled Mr. Alejo away. For three days, he said, he was tied up in an outhouse without food or water, and left to gag on the odor. Then over eight more days of torture army personnel hung him from a ceiling by his wrists, dislocating them, and applied electric currents to his penis.

One night during his capture, he said, he was forced to sleep beside the mutilated remains of a woman who had been the girlfriend of a terrorist. When he cried in horror, the soldiers accused him of sympathizing with her.

Mr. Alejo said his military torturers had grilled him for information about the Shining Path guerrillas, who had recently begun operating in the area.

But Mr. Alejo said he had no information to give. "They said, 'All your neighbors say you are a terrorist and you won't talk because you are a terrorist,' " Mr. Alejo said, mixing his flat rendition of events with an occasional tear.

A lawyer assigned by the review commission to study Mr. Alejo's case said a neighbor of his, who was picked up by the army in the Paucartambo restaurant the same day the same soldiers questioned Mr. Alejo, had signed a statement implicating him and others to avoid torture.

The torturers told Mr. Alejo he could end the torture by signing a confession, he said. When he said he could not read or write, they had him sign a blank piece of paper. Someone later filled in the blanks -- with a confession by Mr. Alejo that he took part in six terrorist activities, including two killings.

According to the pardon request filed by the review commission, which was eventually approved by Mr. Fujimori, that confession was the basis for his conviction during a military court trial.

At his trial, Mr. Alejo said, his defense lawyer told him the only way he could defend him was if he provided names of other terrorists. The lawyer then requested a $30 fee.

Mr. Alejo repeatedly tried to tell someone that he could not have possibly written or understood the confession he supposedly signed because he was illiterate. But he said his pleas were ignored.

The Release: Trying to Restore a Shattered Family

Mr. Fujimori allowed Mr. Alejo and 27 other pardoned prisoners to leave Castro Castro prison in Lima on Nov. 28, 1998. Most cheered wildly as they walked through the gates to freedom. A throng of television and radio reporters recorded the occasion and noticed that Mr. Alejo was sobbing.

Mr. Alejo explained that he was all alone. In his five years in prison, he had not seen or heard from his wife and four children, the youngest of whom was only 3 months old when he was arrested. He had heard that they had left their village, but that the Red Cross could not find them.

Mr. Alejo's wife, Teresa Pareja González, a peasant woman with long braided hair, had heard about his capture but was too frightened to investigate. As the years passed, she took him for dead. Hungry and scared of the terrorist violence swelling through the highlands near the farm she shared with her parents, she and her children first moved to the nearby town of Huanta and finally to the Apurímac valley, where she found work picking coca plants for drug traffickers.

While she struggled to make ends meet, earning $3 a day in the coca fields, her 3-year-old daughter, Sonia, suddenly fell ill. A traditional healer could not help, and Sonia died. Then, after Mr. Fujimori began shooting down the planes of cocaine traffickers in 1995, the price of coca dropped, and Ms. Pareja González was out of work.

Desperate for food, she accepted the advances of a part-time farm hand who turned out to have a ferocious temper. "He was a bad man," Ms. Pareja González said, "and when he drank with his friends, he came home and kicked me and the children." Still, she had two sons by him.

Mr. Alejo did not know any of this when he was released, but one of Ms. Pareja González's sisters heard him interviewed on the radio when he left the prison. She called her sister and finally reached Mr. Alejo through a journalist.

Mr. Alejo waited a year to visit his family, which had moved back to Huanta. He needed time to get his papers in order, he explained, and until he did, he feared that he would be seized again. At the fateful reunion, Ms. Pareja González said she was happy with her new man. But she let Mr. Alejo return to Lima with their two eldest children.

Finally she left her abusing mate last spring, and pleaded with Mr. Alejo to take her back along with the two sons she had while he was prison.

The reunited family now lives in the Villa el Salvador shantytown in Lima in a cramped shack of thatched bamboo, concrete and plastic sheets. Mr. Alejo said he and his wife were struggling to rebuild their old intimacy. There are plenty of disagreements between them.

"Before I went to jail, I accepted things I won't accept anymore," he said. "I express myself more readily now, and she doesn't always understand."

All of Mr. Alejo's three surviving children are having trouble coping after their father's long absence and the beatings of their stepfather.

The whole family are squatters who can be thrown off their land at any time. But Mr. Alejo said he could not return to his old jungle farm because "the memories are just too painful." A tear begins to roll from an eye before he regains his control.

"We do the best we can," Mr. Alejo said. "I still have a life to live."