The Prisoner

General Media Communications -- November 2002

by Peter Laufer

Just two months before I met Lori Berenson inside Huacariz maximum-security prison, on the edge of the northern-Peru city of Cajamarca, Peru's Supreme Court upheld her 20 year sentence for aiding terrorists. It was Berenson's second conviction. After her arrest in 1995, she was jailed for life, convicted by a secret military tribunal of being one of the leaders of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish acronym MRTA. That conviction was thrown out two years ago, and she was retried by a three judge civilian court that convicted her of helping the MRTA plan a seizure of Peru's Congress. Subtracting the time she has already served in Peru's forbidding prisons, the 32-year-old New Yorker and former MIT student is due to be released two weeks after she turns 46.

"I am innocent of the charges," Berenson said from her confinement immediately after the Supreme Court decision, calling the process against her "absurd because of the defamatory propaganda the government has used for years, through a direct manipulation of the media, against persons like me, detained in the context of political violence."

Journalists are not permitted to talk to Lori Berenson as she serves her 20-year sentence for terrorism. So when I arrive at the prison I do not identify myself as a reporter. Berenson and her parents knew I was a journalist, but they did not know I was on assignment for Penthouse.

The prison is surrounded by high white concrete walls topped with rolls of concertina wire. The visiting procedure begins at the road entrance where the taxis let off passengers. "Quisiera visitar," I say to the guard. "Quién?" he asks. I tell him whom I want to visit, and he knows the name at once. He nods and says, "Pase!"

The American prisoner is well known all across Peru; she's a poster child for the country's war against terrorism. For the next two days, Lori Berenson and I will talk about her life in prison, her insistence that she's innocent, and how September 11 reinforced public opinion against her.

"I'm sorry I'm in jail," she told me, "but I think I'm lucky to be alive. The cause of humanity is more important than my personal trials and suffering." More than 2,000 Peruvians are in prison in their own country, charged with terrorism. Most of those convictions date to the discredited regime of ex-President Alberto Fujimori, who fled to Japan as his corrupt government crumbled. Inmates tell stories of torture, forced confessions, trials by hooded judges.

For Berenson, the nightmare began when police raided a Lima house she had rented, and found weapons and a map of the Congress building. She claimed ignorance of the arms and illegal schemes of her housemates when police arrested her soon after the raid. A few months later, convicted, she began her harsh tour of Peru prisons, periodically transferred from one to another, before ending up at Huacariz.

She was transferred there just before Christmas last year. She says the transfer was violent and unexpected, that guards lobbed tear gas into her cell block in Lima at three in the morning. She says she was beaten, molested, and then dragged from her cell in a T-shirt and shorts, forced to leave behind shoes, medicine, and eyeglasses. These charges have been denied by prison authorities.

Outside the walls of Huacariz Prison, sheep graze, tended by women in colorful clothing and the ubiquitous high-brimmed straw hats. I sign in at the gatehouse after pushing open the lone steel door in the wall. I am relieved of my passport, fingerprinted, asked my age and address. Bizarre: I note that the guard questioning me wears a patch that identifies him as guevara, c.

My arm is stamped with the seal of the prison and visitor in stark red caps, and the number nine is drawn on me in ballpoint. I am directed through a series of gates and doors, past a neatly tended rose garden, past men playing basketball, and into the women's section, where I am again registered.

Berenson is relaxed and soft-spoken. At times her thoughts come in fractured spurts. She is wearing jeans, socks and sandals, a red-and-black sweater, a necklace with a bone carving hanging from it, and eyeglasses. As we talk, I find that she usually answers personal questions in an inclusive manner, drawing other prisoners' experiences into her reply, often speaking in the first-person plural. I'd asked her if the guards would mind if I took notes, and she said it was okay, "as long as we're not devising an escape plan." So I took notes, but discreetly, often stopping her to make sure I was caught up and had the quotes correct. Each day after leaving the prison I went to an Internet café, typed up my notes, and e-mailed them to the United States.

How are you holding up here?

I'm fine. Nothing extraordinary.

You seem to be relaxed and somewhat content?

Yeah. I don't mope around.

What is your regular routine? What do you do all day?

People wake up, do manual labor, read, write. I tend to wake up early. The water comes on at seven. At seven you've got to get up and get your water. I exercise. I run around in the yard or exercise in my cell. Political prisoners who haven't broken down yet reject waiting for guards to tell you what to do. The prison system's slogan is "Re-education, re-socialization, to reinsert prisoners into society." In practice, jail authorities do not do anything but repress. As a human being, I'm not going to let them "re-educate, re-socialize, to reinsert" me into society. I do not need to be re-educated, re-socialized, and reinserted into society. That's not my situation. If they would order me around, I would reject it. Being a prisoner and a woman, the treatment is as treatment to a child.

You don't allow them to set your routine?

I don't let them rule my life, and in terms of morally, it's a way for people to get back at them.

Do you spend a lot of time writing?

I stopped writing because I can't stand writing by hand. When you have to write and rewrite, it gets to be a drag.

After washing and exercising, what's next in your day?

Here at this prison, prisoners may cook. In my routine, with a couple of other women, we have collective food and we cook.

What do you eat for breakfast?

They give us rolls, and with water we make oatmeal or tea. Cooking is a new opportunity for political prisoners. The Red Cross is promoting a better diet for prisoners because the Red Cross says that with an adequate diet less money is needed for medical treatment. Speaking of food, would you like some coffee or something?

No, thank you. Why do you think you were given cooking privileges?

I believe it is a logical response by the jail. If you go to the clinic, I think the only thing they can give you is Valium. It's funny to me. It's like the only thing they can do is put you to sleep. They don't even have aspirin. The economic crisis in Peru hit the prisoners. The Red Cross used to help those prisoners charged with political crimes or treason. But they started pulling out of Peru a couple of years ago, saying the jail authorities should help prisoners. The problem is, no one resolves those issues.

How are your hands? I heard they were damaged by the cold and the altitude.

They're okay. I've got Reynaud's syndrome, a circulation problem. Every now and then the blood doesn't flow properly. They get numb or swell up. But nothing that debilitates me. I'd say I have the least health problems of anyone in here.

Because you're relatively young?

Probably because I ate well as a child.

After breakfast, what do you do?

I work or I read or I write.

Is it obligatory to work?

No, because we political prisoners have no benefits. Common-criminal prisoners must work if they wish benefits like early release for good behavior. Everyone has access to benefits-murderers, rapists-with the exception of political prisoners and drug traffickers.

What type of benefits?

Parole, lessening of a sentence, for work. In general the regime for political prisoners is different. Until a year or so ago, it was worse. A completely closed regime. No access to visitors, just one hour a week through a screen.

Did the improvement coincide with the election of Alejandro Toledo as president?

No, it precedes Toledo. With Toledo, there has been more repression.

For example?

I think it was a repressive measure to move me here.


Because of the way I was moved, and because they made it out to be that I was moved because I was inciting mutiny, and because it was right before my sentence was ratified. I would say it was revenge.

Why would the system take revenge against you? They've already got 20 years-such a long sentence-hanging over you.

My long sentence is much shorter than most long sentences. This kind of thing used to happen with the Fujimori government, and now we're supposed to be in a democracy and it's happening. To me it's a sign: Whenever they want, they can do anything and no one cares.

What is your work?

I'll show you what I was doing until you came. I make cards. I knit. I make stuffed animals and dolls. [She brings a handmade card from her cell; it is a pictograph of a Peruvian woman and a burro, made by gluing thread onto the paper like embroidery.] At this point I am not making dolls and stuffed animals. It depends on the market. We used to send them through families to sell in Lima. In the last seven years I've been in jail, the economy became so bad, people cannot afford to buy anything.

What are you reading?

At this moment I'm actually not reading anything. I read whatever is around.

And what are you writing?

I write now and again. I write letters to my family. But other writing is difficult without a typewriter. I'm not producing much because it's so slow.

So you're not doing much?

I have more than enough to occupy the day. But it is very frustrating to be so limited. It's difficult to see how the economic situation is affecting the Peruvian prisoners. It's upsetting because you can't do much to change that, to see how this so-called democratic government is passing laws more repressive than the Fujimori government.

For example?

They were passing laws restricting demonstrations. They were gassing demonstrators all over Lima. The government is dealing with a loss of popularity. Dealing with demonstrators makes them seem like the strong guy. At this rate I don't think this government is going to last. When you can, you convince. When you can't, you repress. So [Toledo is] obviously not convincing.

Next in your day comes lunch. What is for lunch?

It's pretty bad. I've been in several jails. The food depends on how much the administration is robbing, how well the prisoners cook, what benefits the prisoners get for cooking. The staples here are rice and potatoes. Whenever you eat, you're going to get something based on rice and potatoes, and maybe some meat. We get maybe a half ounce of meat, chicken, or fish four times a week. So even with the robbing and the poor preparation we probably eat better than most of the Peruvian population. That's really scary.

Politics seems to enter all your answers. Has your time here further politicized you? Are you more aware?

Perhaps not. More convinced. I would say what is lived here in prison is a reflection of Peruvian society.

How so?

You wind up seeing, for example, the theft by authorities that is typical of a bureaucracy, but here it is a reflection of poverty. The fact that guards here have to work two other jobs just to get by is a bad sign. Here they have what they call terrorism. Here there have been armed guerrilla movements. How do you define what is terrorism and what is subversive activities? I understand terrorism is indiscriminate violence against civilians.

And subversion?

My understanding is that subversion is a kind of guerrilla struggle that comes up all over the world when people have decided, or are obliged, to use armed struggle to fight for their rights in response to what would be called structural violence-which is poverty and everything that goes along with poverty.

I hear birds singing. Does that bring some relief from the confinement?

Oh, yeah. And there are a lot of sheep in Cajamarca. Sometimes you can hear sheep.

And you said you may now listen to the radio?

According to the Constitution, it should not have been taken away. Since about a year and a half ago, radio has been allowed in. But there's not much to hear. The news stations get through. Unfortunately, one gets tired of hearing propaganda. The government starts a scandal and entertains public opinion with that. That's what Fujimori used to perpetuate with "terrorism." It was used as a smokescreen behind which he stole public funds, quieted public protest, and disappeared people. That use of the press continues.

You must have been disappointed when your sentence was ratified?

Oh, no. It was very obvious it was going to happen. It proved once again the judicial system doesn't work. It proves my case was completely political. This government doesn't want to face why people want social change. They address that with high sentences. I joined a hunger strike for prison benefits the very next day. It was fine. I wasn't expecting anything different.

So how do you deal with a likely future of so many years behind bars?

It's very hard to say what the future will hold. My future is the same as the future of thousands of people in Peru, and millions around the world. Here, for example, the youth who want a future don't see it and can't find it. I think we're going into hard times.

But you're stuck here. That must be a drag-extremely difficult to accept?

Sure, it's a drag. But people in the U.S. tend to think [only] of themselves. I've had a lot of luck. I have family, so I tend to put myself in this broader context. I don't think my stay in prison will last 20 years. I think the government will have such a crisis if it doesn't deal with its past in a different way and look into why there was political violence. However much I could disagree with some of the methods of the [revolutionary group] Shining Path, I have to recognize there is a reason the Shining Path came about, why they would exist. The level of social violence caused by hunger and exclusion of the population is what leads to violent response to that kind of historical suffering. Toledo is from a very humble background. Unfortunately, he uses that for propaganda. This is a country where someone of his background and color is considered a second-class citizen. He uses it to get votes, not to make things better.

The events of September 11 must have had an effect on your status here?

Oh, yeah. After September 11, I saw myself as I see millions; those of us who see that there needs to be social change are under the risk of being called terrorists. I'm not a supporter of what happened September 11, but bombs don't help. You have to figure out why it happened in the first place. You don't get peace by making more war.

I would suppose my vision of this is different from that of people in the United States who were under attack. I feel terrible about the people who were killed and for the people in New York who feel under attack. I feel under attack by the aftermath of this because people call me a terrorist.

Are you a terrorist?

I'm certainly not a terrorist. I'm totally against what terrorism is. I don't see any reason for that. I will say, when it occurs you should probably figure out why it occurs, because it probably occurs for a reason, and if you don't want it to occur you should look at those reasons.

I asked her about her parents' visits, the emotional impact?

"It's complicated seeing family," she started to explain, "it's always difficult. It's nice...."

Then she was called away for cooking duty, and we agreed to meet the next day. "I appreciate your coming," she said, adding that sometimes she has received several visitors in a day, and sometimes has gone for months with none. After telling me she did not need anything, when I was insistent she said that fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, milk, and newspapers and magazines would be appreciated. Strange: She is allowed only four pieces of any one kind of fruit; I cannot bring her eight apples, but I can bring her four apples and four oranges.

The next morning I went to the Mercado Centro and bought four pears, four apples, four oranges, four avocados, two liters of strawberry yogurt, a kilo of cheese, a bag of cookies, several newspapers, and the magazine Carretas. When I went back for my second visit I brought these things along with my book about Americans imprisoned overseas, Nightmare Abroad. I was searched again, and not allowed to bring the apples inside. The best I could understand was that the administration considers pears and apples as part of the same group. Some guard was undoubtedly enjoying some very nice apples that evening; I'd bought the best.

I went through the same procedure as before: give up your passport, get stamped. My name and age were recorded in the ledger book by hand. This time my address was not requested. I passed through the gate, walked past the public phone in the yard where soda and snacks were being sold, and into the women's section.

Again I was registered and brought round a corner where Lori Berenson greeted me with what looked like a relieved smile. (I was running late because of the shopping.) She was effusive, thanking me for the visit, the groceries and reading material, and for coming back a second day.

Her garb was unchanged except for a gray turtleneck sweater under the red-and-black cardigan. I asked her about the necklace. I now noticed it consisted of two carvings that hung from the loop around her neck. One was of a closed hand. "The only thing prisoners have is ourselves," she said. "In terms of images, my hands-my only strength-are tied." The piece had been carved from bone by another prisoner. The second carving was of flowers. "Worn-down roses," she said.

Would you describe your living conditions-your cell and its contents?

I was inside a cell 22 to 23 and a half hours a day until the end of 2000. Now the door is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. to the corridor and the yard, actually quite a big yard compared to other jails I've been in. The barred door is closed and locked at night. On one side of the cell is a cement block about 80 centimeters wide and probably a little over 30 centimeters-a little over a foot-high, which is equivalent to a bed. On top of that is a pretty thin foam mattress which is a little bit short for me. The only thing I've gotten from this jail is the mattress and the cell. There is a basin water can go through for physiological needs. There are field rats here-not like sewage rats, not like a city problem, more like squirrels. Everyone barricades their doors with plastic to keep the rats out.

What do you have in the cell to personalize it?

At this point we have access to clothes. Books are permitted. Unfortunately, my books have stayed in different jails. I've got a book-I've forgotten the name of it-about the [Spanish] Inquisition. I've got a variety of stuff, novels, poetry. I've got a picture of my family.

Yesterday we were interrupted while talking about visits from your parents. You said the visits are difficult for you?

To a certain extent, yes. It is difficult to see how this is wearing on them. Although I'm extremely grateful, I feel quite guilty about how it has worn on them, about so much effort on my situation. It's altered their lives so. It's great to see them, especially since the visits are now direct, not through a grated screen. In the past I had to ask permission to hug my mother on Mother's Day.

Now that your sentence has been ratified, why not take advantage of the prisoner transfer treaty between the United States and Peru and serve out your time in the relative comfort of a U.S. prison?

People usually do not understand the transfer treaty. In order for me to transfer, I have to accept the guilty verdict and the sentence I was given. On those terms I would be transferred, and I do not accept the guilty verdict and the sentence I was given. I am innocent of the charges. My trial was very political. In any country where there was political violence, it would be political, especially with an American and the changing political situation when Fujimori was running for reelection. I'm guilty by supposition and interests, not by proof. [She says this last sentence very carefully, choosing her words one by one.]

But why not just say that you accept the verdict and the sentence, and as soon as you're back in the States and in a U.S. prison, announce that you made the statement just to take advantage of the transfer treaty?

It's the same thing. I could be in jail anywhere. The point is, I shouldn't be in jail. Legally it wouldn't change anything. Accepting my guilty verdict would mean to basically consider 3,000 other prisoners' verdicts to be fair, when I'm absolutely sure they're not in at least 90 percent of the cases.

Wouldn't it be easier for you personally to serve the time in the U.S.?

Not if I have to be in for 20 years. If I have committed no crime here, I have no reason to be locked up there. And there is some question if a convicted terrorist can use the treaty. I'm not going to accept those conditions of saying, "I'm guilty." I'm not out of my mind.

Have the Clinton and Bush administrations been of help to you?

It would be hard to say. I do understand they brought up the subject of my case, which is a good sign. I don't think my case, honestly, is a priority for U.S.-Peruvian relations. I might be a headache, but not a priority. I'm most grateful [Bush] brought up my case [when he met with President Toledo in Lima in March].

What did you think about the Washington Post article that former U.S. Ambassador to Peru Dennis Jett recently wrote comparing you to "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh?

It was a horrendous article. I must admit I did not read all of it, because it was disgusting. I don't know why he hates me so. But to me, Ambassador Jett's use of the word terrorist uses images. It is wrong. You're innocent until proven guilty. Anyone with a third-grade education and a sense of ethics would see I had an unfair trial.

Although your second trial was open to the public and the judges were not hooded, as was the case in the closed first trial, you obviously consider that second trial to be equally unfair?

Public is not synonymous with fair. I understand Ambassador Jett was directly affected. He was in the [Japanese] embassy [when it was seized by the MRTA in December 1996]. But that doesn't mean I should be affected by it. It doesn't mean I am what he is calling me.

After being incarcerated all these years, can you identify mistakes you made? What you've done wrong?

It is important for personal growth to recognize what one did right and wrong. I am sure I could have done things in a different way ... in my first meeting with the press. I'm sorry I came across so angry. Because of that image, they called me a terrorist leader for years, sometimes still do. Most people in jail say they should have done this and that, especially before being detained. I should have studied more. But is there anything I really regret doing? No. [She pauses.] I shouldn't have been on that bus? No. [She was dragged off a public bus in Lima when she was initially arrested.] Like it happened to me, it could have happened to anyone. I certainly wasn't expecting this. [She laughs sardonically, and sighs.] I don't regret my vision of life. I think people should look to the rest of the world. I think that's very important. I still do.

At this point you are somewhat of an elder statesman. [Berenson smiles.] What advice can you offer to those who may be considering a life helping others in conflict zones?

In general, anyone who thinks that things need to be looked at differently should see what they want to do and where they want to do it. There are lots of ways to contribute, and that's important. ... That depends on the individual. I would just say one has to assume the consequences of what their dreams are. Globalization comes hand in hand with a lot of negative things. Unfortunately, globalization for this part of the world means the globalization of misery. If one wants to stop that scheme, a first step is the consciousness that we all have an obligation to do something to make the world a better place.

But you have no specific guidelines for others?

Don't get on that bus! [Laughs] In this day and age, life is probably more dangerous than it was before. It depends on where you are and who you are with, who is considered "wrong people" at any given moment. Unfortunately, it's more complicated now: Who is the bad-guy-of-the-day where you are? What's in question is a great deal of wealth, and that's pretty well defended. Just questioning policies that affect millions of people-for example, the definition of terrorism-it's not well looked at many times. It depends on what interests you touch.

How do you feel about the use of violence as a tool for social change?

It has to do with circumstances. Throughout history violence has been used, and it's been used by everyone. I certainly don't think it's the best tool-not at all-but I think violence isn't just armed violence. Violence is expressed in many forms, such as poverty. Hunger and exclusion kill more than armed violence.

But, specifically, how do you relate to violence as a tool of social change?

I personally may not agree with the use of violence, and I've known enough people in jail to say people don't like using violence, and if they did so, it's because they had no other way out. Historically, when liberation movements began in Latin America they were peaceful movements until government repression said the system won't allow for peaceful social change.

Will your fate discourage others who wish to change the world from straying far from home?

I'm sure it does. But it shouldn't be a deterring factor, because I think my particular case has a lot to do with this unusual time period the world is going through. Many people involved in a search for social change do have to go to jail, and that's unfortunate. But [jail is] better than dying. People who work for social change are [often] killed. But I've always felt I have a moral obligation to do something about something I think is wrong, because I have the possibilities of doing so. I was lucky enough to have been born and raised with moral and ethical values, and with enough food on the table to be able to understand my education, which is what most people don't have access to. I still feel it's my moral obligation, and this won't change if I'm jailed or freed. I'm sorry I'm in jail, but I think I'm lucky to have lived and be alive. The cause of humanity is more important than my personal trials and suffering.

What do you miss most from the outside world?

Obviously I miss my family. I miss the liberty to do what I want when I want to do it: Walk down the street would be a big one, open my door when I want to. The most frustrating thing, and what eats you alive, is the feeling of being incapable of resolving anything.

You seem to be a remarkably strong woman?

I would say most people would be. It's probably character in some sense, and dignity. You haven't met my mother yet. My mother is a very strong and caring woman.

Once you get out, what will you do?

Maybe study. I don't know. I'm interested in getting a degree in communications. I'm not sure. I would like to find a way to do something useful. I don't know where or what. I don't intend to run away from the terrible problems of humanity.

This article was first published in Penthouse, November, 2002. Copyright (c) 2002, by General Media Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of General Media Communications, Inc.