Experiencing the Effects and Resolving the Past in Peru: Reflections on a visit to Lori Berenson

Rights Action -- March 2003

by Marie J. Manrique

The small town of Huacariz is located in the majestic Gavil´n mountain range in Peru's northern department of Cajamarca. The Andean pastors who herd their sheep around thatched roof houses in verdent green pastures give this area a bucolic air. However, first images are often deceptive. Cajamarca, like the most of Peru's Andean region was affected by the internal armed conflict (1980- 2000) that pitted two distinct insurgent groups against State forces, and State forces against everyone and everything.

Since the local organizations, particularly the peasant rounds (rondas campesinas), a traditional structure used to watch for cattle rustlers and petty thieves, were active in the area, "Cajamarquinos" (local inhabitants of Cajamarca) experienced a relative reprieve from the political violence that devastated the Southern Andes. However, the effects of the conflict remain: extreme poverty, marginalization from State services, and political divisions.

The Huacariz Prison holds another remnant of the conflict; approximately seventy- five women and men sentenced for collaboration, membership, and/or leadership in the two insurgent groups are incarcerated in this prison for common and political prisoners. US citizen Lori Berenson, accused and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for collaboration with one of the rebel organizations, has been in Huacariz since late December 2001, after State police forces in a midnight raid violently removed her from Lima's women's prison.

Although visiting days for political and common prisoners alike in Huacariz is on two consecutive days, few family members from outside the region are able to make the long journey. The bus ride from Lima is 13 hours, while persons from Peru's isolated northern jungle zones travel over 36 hours to reach this town outside the department capital of Cajamarca. On my recent visit, I met a woman from a jungle region in the San Martin department who decided that the two- month school vacation would be best spent in Huacariz where she and her two children could visit her husband who has been imprisoned since 1992. Were it not for her personal initiative and the labor of food preparation to sell meals to prisoners, her children would probably see their father once a year.

A visitor's entrance into all Peruvian prisons should be more or less similar. However, like detention centers around the globe, guards' whims and arbitrary decisions often complicate the process. On day raisins cannot enter. The next day a cotton scarf becomes a lethal weapon. Although one might become used to this process, the butcher knife carelessly left at the entrance to the women's pavilion makes evident the guards' inconsistencies. Personal comments and questions are the norm. One guard tells me that I do not look like happy like my passport photo. He only grins when I respond that no one is happy visiting their friends in prison.

The two large bushes expertly trimmed in the form of saluting soliders on the path to the pavilions contrast with the political prisoners' art work sold at the pavilions' entrance. Some women have made "maquetas" (small- scale models) of their experiences since detention. The miniature figures in these displays narrate the grusome, inhumane, and painful reality of political prisoners in Peru. One is of a torture chamber complete with armed soldiers executing electric shock to a naked woman's genitals and a man hung from a rack by his arms. Another depicts the military courts where the accused, her court-appointed and hooded lawyer, and Army officials are located on one side of a one-way mirror while three hooded judges on the other side held her sentence of "cadena perpetua" (life sentence). The impressive detail allows one to see the court-appointed lawyer's paper, "Acepto la sentencia" (I accept the sentence). Other models show the monthly half- hour visits by "locutorio" where family members had to scream across mesh wires to their imprisoned loved ones from 1992 to 2000, and the illegal underground prison at the Callao Naval Base where six leaders of the two insurgent forces have been detained since 1994.

Perhaps because Lori Berenson's situation is no different from any of the other woman with whom she currently shares her life, she prefers not to talk much about herself. Amidst the chores entailed in cooking with a kerosene burner, dealing with 15 minutes of water a day, and having electricity for about 8 hours daily, she works on her thread cards, recently has started to teach music, and reads and writes. One day, she gave me several NACLA magazines to pass on to prisoners elsewhere that read English and two New Yorker magazines that US Embassy officials on previous official visits had left her. Ironically, both issues of the latter had pieces that referred to the global anti-terrorist rhetoric emanating from the US government since 9/11. A satiric cartoon on the Justice Department refered to its expanded powers to police the US population and an article mentioned to the new (albeit these magazines are from 2001 and 2002) anti-terrorist legislation in Pakistan.

The anti-terrorist campaign got an early start in Peru. Although former president Fujimori (1990- 2000), currently protected by the Japanese government which refuses to extradite him despite an Interpol arrest warrant, is often mentioned for his 1992 draconian anti-terrorist legislation, the Peruvian laws on this matter date from the mid- 1980s. In 1992, Fujimori radically changed and expanded the legislation to allow for military courts, increased penalization, and vague definitions that permitted the detention of over 22,000 people accused of the crime of "terrorism."

While the Peruvian Constitutional Court in January 2003 outlined minimal changes to this legislation, some of which have been implemented, the specter of terrorism continues to be used to frighten, politically sway, and dominate the Peruvian people. Although the "terrorists" of the past, supporters in one capacity or another of the two armed insurgent groups, are nearly all imprisoned, dead or disappeared, they remain a useful smoke screen for the country's current socio- economic problems.

Recently, this incorrect nomenclature again has been employed against oppositional sectors unconvinced by the neoliberal economic model and/or forgotten by an anti-coca production policy which offers few money-making alternatives. In February 2003, an Ayacucho peasant farmer leader of coca producers was detained and accused of the crime of apology for terrorism. He is still in detention.

Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) will present its final report that details the contours of Peru's internal armed conflict in mid- July of this year, the remnants, the continual psycho-social anti-terrorist campaign and the impoverished, marginalized, and/ or imprisoned human beings are potent reminders that the issues from the past are far from resolved.