Uncovering Peru's 'dirty war': Truth commission probing 2 decades of rights abuses

San Francisco Chronicle -- 23 August 2001

by Lucien O. Chauvin

Lima, Peru -- When Alejandro Toledo was sworn in as president last month, he vowed to bring reconciliation to Peru by allowing a truth commission to fully investigate human rights abuses committed in the past two decades.

The panel, which has been formed and will have as many as 12 members, has a 23-month mandate to clarify the causes of and responsibilities for 25,000 deaths and 10,000 "disappearances" committed by government forces, right-wing death squads and leftist guerrillas. The violence displaced 1 million people and produced 43,000 orphans and 17,800 widows.

Peru is just the latest country in Latin America to create a truth commission to probe human rights abuses committed during a "dirty war." The panel must decide whether to simply report the facts, as in neighboring Chile, or to seek criminal charges, as in Argentina.

In those nations, the military was responsible for most abuses, whereas in Peru, the Maoist rebel group known as the Shining Path committed a significant share of the violations.

Toledo has vowed to introduce legislation that makes the panel's recommendations binding.

"We want to build the future and close wounds," Toledo told reporters this month. "My government will give full support to the commission so it can do its job efficiently."

Last year, a three-year study by the human rights ombudsman's office showed that from 1980 to 1996, soldiers "disappeared" 4,022 Peruvians -- mostly young men from impoverished highland states -- on suspicion of being leftist guerrillas. The report, signed by then-ombudsman Jorge Santistevan, called for a repeal of blanket amnesty granted in 1995 to all military and civilian personnel who fought leftist guerrillas.

But some analysts fear the probe could cause serious tension between the government and the armed forces, whose suppression of the Shining Path and the much smaller Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) was popular with much of the public.

"If the commission starts pointing the finger at the military, we can expect a great deal of problems," said Congresswoman Martha Chavez.

Nonetheless, family members of those killed by the military are determined that a reckoning take place.


"I want to know who did this to me," said Tomas Livia, who has used a wheelchair for the past 10 years after being shot by a military death squad. "I want them in prison."

Unlike in most Latin American nations, Peru's truth panel will not examine atrocities committed under military dictatorships, but during democratically elected governments -- those of Fernando Belaunde (1980-85), Alan Garcia (1985- 90) and Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). Most victims were poor peasants from the central highlands.

During most of those 20 years, the Shining Path and the MRTA carried out their insurgencies against the state. Rebel violence dropped off dramatically after 1992, when top leaders of both groups were captured.

"It is a historical fact that the Shining Path was the detonator of the violence," said Carlos Basombrio, director of the Legal Defense Institute in Lima, the nation's capital.

The Shining Path began its war in 1980 in the central highlands state of Ayacucho by terrorizing the countryside in fighting for control of rural communities. A decade later, the group began actions in Lima, planting car bombs and assassinating politicians.

Alberto Llanos, a retired journalist who has lived in Ayacucho for the past 20 years, said the military and Shining Path turned the state into an Andean version of "The Killing Fields."

"No matter where you look, you will find a common grave," he said. "Ayacucho is a cemetery."

The MRTA, which is blamed for about 200 deaths since its inception in 1983 by a former college roommate of Garcia, regularly kidnapped wealthy business executives for ransom. In several cases, they allowed hostages to starve to death while negotiating with their families.

The last MRTA action occurred in late 1996, when rebels stormed the Japanese ambassador's residence and held 72 hostages for more than four months.

A military raid eventually ended the standoff, freeing all but one hostage and killing 14 guerrillas. While some of the worst human rights abuses occurred under Belaunde, the 89-year-old ex-president is not believed to have played an active role in ordering them. Human rights groups, however, say both Garcia and Fujimori were aware of abuses committed by security forces.

Under Garcia, who lost to Toledo in June elections, more than 2,000 people disappeared, and at least 150 imprisoned members of the Shining Path were summarily executed after rioting at three Lima jails in 1986. Although Garcia was absolved by Peruvian courts, he is expected to be questioned on the matter by the commission.

Former Congressman Ricardo Letts said Garcia ordered the military to squelch the riots, then covered up the executions.

"Garcia is one of the intellectual authors of the murder of defenseless prisoners," said Letts. "He was absolved for political reasons, and now we have a chance to discover the truth."

In his defense, Garcia said he ordered an investigation immediately after the riots and fired the military commanders who ordered the slaughter. "My conscience and my hands are clean," Garcia said.

Fujimori may have the most to lose, although his government effectively defeated the two rebel groups. He is accused of having a direct link to a military-led death squad called the Colina Group, which is blamed for killing 15 people at a Lima party in 1991 -- Tomas Livia is one of two survivors -- and nine students and a professor a year later.

Deadly mistakes

Both incidents are widely believed to have been a mistake. The death squad members reportedly believed the party was a Shining Path meeting. The slayings at Lima's La Cantuta College came the day after a huge rebel bombing in the upscale Lima neighborhood of Miraflores and were seen as payback. It is believed that none of the 10 victims were linked to rebel groups.

A congressional commission headed by Congressman Daniel Estrada has recommended that Fujimori be charged with complicity in murder. "There is credible evidence that Fujimori was informed about the clandestine operations carried out by the Colina Group," Estrada said.

Fujimori ruled Peru for 10 years until he resigned in November. He has since been granted Japanese citizenship.

The accusation of human rights violations is the strongest card in the Toledo government's attempt to persuade Japan to extradite Fujimori. Earlier this month, a Peruvian judge issued an arrest warrant for the former president.

Meanwhile, several groups are asking for a seat on the truth commission, including the National Committee for the Detained, Disappeared and Refugee Families, as well as the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru rebels.

Lori Berenson, a New Yorker who was imprisoned in 1995 for alleged ties to the MRTA and ultimately was convicted in June, agrees that the panel should have broader representation.

"I think the truth commission will be limited to looking at only one side of the story," Berenson told The Chronicle.

Human rights groups concede that it will be difficult to please all sides.

"People have been left unsatisfied in every country that has had a truth commission," said the Legal Defense Institute's Basombrio.

Quest for truth behind the slain and 'disappeared'

The Peruvian truth commission will investigate 25,000 deaths and 10,000 "disappearances" that occurred under three democratically elected presidents from 1980 to 2000.

Key events to be probed include: