Lori Berenson Heading Home to the U.S. From Peru

New York Times -- 2 December 2015

by Andrea Zarate and William Neuman

LIMA, Peru — Putting an end to a two-decade-long journey through radical politics, rebellion and punishment, Lori Berenson prepared to fly home to the United States on Wednesday night, after years of prison and parole for aiding leftist rebels during a period of intense upheaval and violence in Peru and the region.

Ms. Berenson, 46, whose 20-year sentence ended Sunday, was escorted by the police through the Lima airport before her flight. In her arms she carried her 6-year-old son, Salvador, as some bystanders called her a terrorist.

She was reviled by many Peruvians who saw her as a meddling, arrogant outsider and a terrorist. In America, her story was often seen as a cautionary tale of a talented young idealist who paid a heavy price for getting involved with militants in a faraway country.

The daughter of middle-class professors from New York and a product of the city’s LaGuardia High School as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Berenson, then 26, was accused of being a leader of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and participating in a plot to seize Peru’s Congress and take legislators hostage.

She was convicted of treason by a panel of hooded military judges. Sentenced to life, she was shipped off to Yanamayo, a prison high in the Andes notorious for having cells that lacked running water and had no window panes to keep out the blasts of cold mountain winds. After the United States put pressure on the Lima government and evidence emerged that she had not been a leader of the radical group, she was given a new trial in a civilian court, where she was convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to 20 years.

She was paroled in 2010 and has been living in Lima since then, mostly keeping a low profile.

Though she was allowed a brief visit to see her family in the United States in December 2011 and returned the next month, she was barred from leaving the country permanently until her sentence was completed.

Even in the days leading up to her departure, she was worried that the Peruvian authorities would seek a way to keep her from leaving. It took officials three additional days to finalize her deportation.

Ms. Berenson made a public apology in 2010 as a condition of her parole and expressed contrition again in an interview last week. Yet she has continued to deny involvement in the plot for which she was arrested.

"I knew the M.R.T.A. was not a legal movement," Ms. Berenson said, using an acronym for the Túpac Amaru group, during the interview in her Lima apartment.

"I could have asked more questions. I didn’t ask and I didn’t condemn them, that’s the thing. I defended them when I was presented" to the press.

She added: "I never saw any weapons. That was not an issue I knew about."

Yet the authorities said that Ms. Berenson rented and lived in a house in a suburban neighborhood of Lima, where the rebels planned the attack on Congress. And she was arrested after visiting Congress, under the pretext of working as a journalist. At the time of her arrest she was riding a bus with the wife of a rebel leader. When the police raided the house, they found 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 3,000 sticks of dynamite.

The Túpac Amaru was a much smaller leftist group than the Shining Path guerrilla army that fought a long and bloody war with the government from the 1980s until about 2000. Though less violent, the Tupac Amaru staged a spectacular operation in late 1996 when it took foreign diplomats and others hostage during a party at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. That led to a more than four-month standoff that ended in a military raid that left the rebels, two soldiers and one of the hostages dead.

"I want to, more than apologize, I want to take responsibility," Ms. Berenson said in the interview in her apartment, where a crate full of children’s books was waiting to be sorted through while Salvador helped to go through their belongings. "I think I may not be responsible for bloodshed, but I feel very badly for those who died in the conflict on all sides. If there’s anyone that’s been affected or offended by my actions or words, I also do apologize to those people, and that’s something that comes from me, not something that was asked of me."

Ms. Berenson plans to stay at first with her parents, in New York. But she said that eventually she would move to another state and seek a new beginning. Her parents defended her from the outset and worked for years to seek her freedom.

In the late 1980s, Ms. Berenson worked with refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, where the United States backed a series of right-wing governments. A trip to a refugee community in Honduras inspired her.

"To see this community struggle despite a lot of adversities, I found it to be very empowering to see the strength and willingness to defend their rights," she said. "I wanted to support them since my government supported bombing them."

It was a time when many left-leaning young Americans were drawn to supporting liberation struggles in Latin America. She moved to Nicaragua where she became a secretary for one of the Salvadoran rebel groups, working with them during peace negotiations to end the war in El Salvador and then the implementation of the peace accord.

The Salvadoran rebels became a legal political party and ultimately won elections there.

Eventually, Ms. Berenson moved to Peru.

She is still regarded with suspicion, if not deep hostility, by many here, who remember a conflict between the government and insurgents that cost tens of thousands of lives.

"There is a majority view of her as someone who meddled in the country’s affairs, as part of a group that did not have popular support and that committed brutal acts," said Eduardo Dargent, a political science professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

"I don’t find it credible that she didn’t know what was going on," Dr. Dargent added. "I think that people are still capable of getting angry at her, but it’s no longer something that is current. I think that a 20-year sentence for someone who participated on the fringes is sufficiently strong, and now she’s served her time and it’s over."

Ms. Berenson’s arrest came during a relentless anti-insurgency campaign led by President Alberto K. Fujimori, who later resisted pleas to grant her a second trial. Mr. Fujimori himself is now in prision, serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuses.

In Ms. Berenson’s fiery declaration after her arrest in 1995, she defended the Túpac Amaru as "a revolutionary movement" and said: "If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman condition in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment."

Today, she reflects on that moment, saying: "I became a symbol of the period of political violence which is called terrorism here. The public wasn’t willing to see it in any other way."

Yet she added: "I still believe that following your dreams is not a bad thing. I think you have to be aware of the consequences, and I was aware of the consequences.