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Peru: a violent past that still casts clouds over the present

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By Javier Farje, LAB

sendero_perrosShining Path: dead dogs instead of ballot boxesIn April 1980, on the eve of Peru’s general elections, the inhabitants of Lima woke to a bizarre spectacle. Somebody had hung dead dogs from lamp-posts, all of them decorated with shabbily written placards insulting the Chinese government and praising the so-called “Gang of Four”, formed by Mao Zedong’s widow and three former high-ranking Communist officials who were languishing in prison in China.

Days later, it became clear who were the authors of such an odd form of ideological protest: the Peruvian Communist Party – Shining Path, a small fringe Maoist organisation led by Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor from the Andean city of Ayacucho, south-east of the capital. During the next elections, Shining Path showed its contempt for “bourgeois” democracy by storming the polling station of a remote town in the Ayacucho region and burning the ballot boxes.

At the time, many believed that the Shining Path were just a bunch of socially awkward middle class intellectuals who, frustrated by the lack of interest in the armed struggle among the Peruvian left, had decided to start their own weird version of a rebellion. But these assumptions were wrong. For the next 12 years or so, Shining Path imposed a regime of terror on the indigenous communities they controlled in the Andean highlands and parts of the Amazon, and took their extreme violent version of a revolution to the very heart of Lima, letting off car bombs and destroying Peru’s electricity infrastructure.

The rebels cruelly executed anyone who disobeyed their orders. In 1983, they butchered 69 men, women and children in the town of Lucanamarca, in the Ayacucho region, because they refused to follow their instructions. In 1992, a car bomb exploded in a commercial neighbourhood of the Lima suburb of Miraflores, killing 24 people and wounding another 200.

The reply from the governments of the time was equally violent. During the administrations of Fernando Belaunde (1980 – 1985), Alan García (1985 – 1990) and especially Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000), the state responded with tactics that systematically violated human rights.

In the 1980s, the army carried out massacres in the Andean region, targeting peasants whom it suspected, generally with very little evidence, of being guerrilla supporters. Among these massacres was the killing of 47 peasants in the village of Accomarca (Ayacucho) in 1985 and the execution of 30 campesinos in Cayara in 1988. During García’s first government (he was re-elected in 2006), as many as 1,600 peasants ‘disappeared’. Security forces also killed at least 2,000 prisoners, while putting down a revolt of Shining Path inmates in several Lima jails.

However, it was during the Fujimori government that the state’s response to terrorism spread to the whole of society. Democracy was trampled by his authoritarian approach to political violence. Parliament was closed, death squads were formed and violations of human rights became systematic.

It was during the Fujimori government that a spectacular action carried out by another guerrilla group – the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), founded in 1982 –brought the attention of the world’s media to Peru. The Tupac Amaru were a more “traditional” guerrilla group, in the mould of the 1960s rebel movements that emerged in the continent as a result of the Cuban revolution. Although they were less violent than Shining Path, the MRTA undertook kidnappings and waged battles with the army. In December 1996, they took over the residence of the Japanese Ambassador in Lima during a reception and kept more than 50 people hostage for almost four months. Finally the security forces stormed the compound, rescuing the hostages and reportedly executing some of the guerrillas after they had surrendered.

By then, in fact, both movements were in a decline, a process that had begun in 1992, with both the bloodless arrest of Abimael Guzmán and the entire leadership of the Shining Path, and the capture of Victor Polay Campos, the leader of the MRTA. While MRTA has disappeared, some former members of Shining Path have formed small units which on and off cause trouble in the Amazon.

More recently, the remnants of Shining Path told the government that they wanted to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Humala’s government has rejected this offer, saying it will to wipe them out militarily. However, it seems that Shining Path is still keen, one way or another, to continue as a political force in Peru.  A few weeks ago an unknown group – the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef) – requested to be registered as a political party. Movadef is the new face of the Shining Path. Its main spokesperson, Alfredo Crespo, who is Abimael Guzmán’s lawyer and spent 13 years in prison himself, insists that they are not the Shining Path by another name. The Electoral Commission has rejected Movadef’s application and the government has made it clear that they will not allow terror-linked parties to take part in elections. Crespo has been visiting TV studios trying to explain why his client “is not a terrorist” and that the violent campaign that the Shining Path conducted in the 1980s was a “political struggle” and an “internal war”.

There has been almost unanimous rejection of Movadef’s attempts to be recognised as a political party. Both left and right believe that to allow Movadef to become a legal political party would be like bombing democracy from inside. Even so, Movadef managed to obtain 300,000 signatures, the minimum requirement to register as a political party. And this worries those who still remember the violence of the past.

 

Truth

Comision-de-la-VerdadThe Truth and Reconciliation Commission blamed the Shining Path for most of the political violence in the 1980sIn order to deal with the social scars left by the violence, President Alejandro Toledo (2001 – 2006) reluctantly accepted the need to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made up of respected, independent individuals.

Although the Commission made it very clear that the main instigator of the brutality that had traumatised Peruvian society had been the Shining Path, it was also critical of the role that some elements of the armed forces had played in the abuses and violations of human rights. Almost from the outset, the Commission was under fierce attack from those elements in the security forces that believe that subversive movements can only be defeated by running death squads and infringing human rights.

Fujimori’s hard-line policies still enjoy the backing of many Peruvians, to such an extent that his daughter, Keiko, came close to being elected president in 2011. This support highlights the profound gap between the wealthy capital, Lima, and the Andes, which many Lima inhabitants still see as a remote region inhabited by unproductive Quechua-speaking peasants. Whereas Fujimori received most of his support in the capital, the Andes proved a fertile ground for Shining Path’s violent and radical message.

During Alan García’s second term as president (2006 – 2011), several attempts were made to remember the victims of the past. It was decided to create a Museo de la Memoria (Museum of Memory), a place to honour those who died during the terrible years of political violence, and to build a memorial park in a central park in Lima. But reconciliation is not easy: the memorial has been vandalised on more than one occasion and the right in Peru has started a campaign to close the museum.

Those who oppose the Museo argue that it is too early for reconciliation, claiming that the museum will be used to attack the armed forces, something that has been denied by its promoters. Peru’s Nobel Prize laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, had to come to the defence of the museum in 2009 when former army officers and followers of Alberto Fujimori (who is in jail serving several prison sentences for corruption and human rights violations) insisted that this was a vengeful attempt to smear those who were at the forefront of the fight against Shining Path. The Museo is due open its doord later in the year. More worryingly, the current government appears to have decided to adopt the same approach as Fujimori towards the search for justice. Some weeks ago, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights from the Organisation of American States began an investigation into the role played by members of the commando that rescued the MRTA hostages in April 1997, who allegedly executed some of the guerrillas after they had surrendered. The first attempts to investigate this possible crime were made in the 1990s and angered Fujimori to such an extent that he decided to withdraw Peru from the Commission.

Now, President Ollanta Humala, a former army officer himself, is adopting a similar attitude, saying said that Peru will review its membership of the commission if the investigation goes ahead. His attitude has alarmed the left in Peru, which believes that Humala is fast adopting a right-wing authoritarian system of government that recalls the Fujimori years.

In their attempt to move on, many Peruvians seem keen to sweep the past under the carpet. They seem to believe that amnesia will exorcise the past. Fujimori supporters are strong supporters of this attitude, seeing it as an opportunity to ensure that they remain unpunished for their crimes. And President Humala appears happy to oblige.