Peru Panel Probes if People Incinerated at Army HQ

Reuters -- 01 March 2002

by Tania Mellado

LIMA, Peru - Peru's judiciary should investigate if people were incinerated at a secret, underground furnace in the army's headquarters during the hard-line rule of former President Alberto Fujimori, the head of a congressional panel said on Friday.

"Testimonies we have received ... are that this incinerator, as well as being used to destroy documents, also had a criminal purpose," Anel Townsend, whose commission is investigating Fujimori's top aide, the jailed former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, told a news conference.

That purpose "could have to do, for example, with what happened to the students of La Cantuta," she said. In one of Peru's most notorious human rights atrocities, nine students at the La Cantuta university and their professor were kidnapped and tortured in 1992 and their charred bodies buried.

Fujimori, whose 1990-2000 rule gave Peru one of Latin America's worst human rights records, has been charged with sanctioning those murders, and the 1991 killings of 15 party-goers, including an 8-year-old boy, by the Grupo Colina death squad. Both he and Montesinos deny any involvement.

A commission spokesman earlier told Reuters at least two agents of the army intelligence service "had information that (in the headquarters) people were burned." He did not say if the witnesses claimed victims were burned alive or their corpses were incinerated.

"We are asking magistrates today to intervene to examine this furnace," Townsend said.

The army intelligence service was a branch of the ruthless National Intelligence Service run by Montesinos.

Investigators say Montesinos, who is being held in a naval base jail awaiting trial on a host of corruption and human rights abuse charges, used the National Intelligence Service to hound and tap the phones of political opponents of Fujimori's regime.

The spokesman said the commission last month discovered the black, 4 feet by 5 feet furnace with a large chimney in a sub-basement under army headquarters, known as the "Pentagonito," or "Little Pentagon." The furnace was not visible from the outside of the building. A smaller furnace, clearly visible, was located near a soccer field outside.

Why was incinerator in sub-basement?

"The intelligence services usually have incinerators to burn secret documents," the spokesman said. "What raises questions is whether this incinerator below the basement was used for the same purpose, and if so, why it was so far down."

The army intelligence service gained particular notoriety for two grisly incidents in 1997: the murder of agent Mariella Barreto, whose decapitated body was dumped on a roadside after she tipped off the press about the buried La Cantuta victims; and the torture of agent Leonor La Rosa by her colleagues who suspected her of leaking secrets.

Fujimori, who lives in self-imposed exile in Japan, was fired in 2000 in a huge corruption scandal sparked by Montesinos, who was revealed in scores of secretly taped videos to have bribed Peru's courts, Congress, media and military for years to keep Fujimori in power.