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Peru crisis underscores poverty, uncertain future


A nearly vanquished guerrilla group, the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, took Peru and the world by surprise last December when in a single military attack it captured a significant portion of Lima's elite and the international diplomatic corps.

Peruvians have suffered through one of the worst civil conflicts in the hemisphere and long ago tired of the violence wrought by the Túpac Amaru and the more notorious Shining Path.

The Túpac Amaru's military success surprised even the most astute analysts. Most consider the group largely defeated, its top leadership in jail, its numbers reduced to a few hundred militants in isolated jungle regions of the country. In contrast, its rival, the Shining Path, appears to have reconstituted its military apparatus and has reasserted its presence in Peru through coordinated bombing attacks.

The Túpac Amaru's assault on the Japanese ambassador's residence has reminded Peruvians of its military prowess; but the group's ability to maintain the political space it has gained once the immediate crisis is resolved is highly dubious, given its lack of a popular base of support.

Poverty worsens

However, the conditions that spawned the Túpac Amaru's existence have worsened in recent years. Although the Fujimori government has tamed inflation and brought economic stability, the plight of Peru's poor steadily deteriorates. To avoid continuing guerrilla violence, the government must begin to address the roots of that violence: pervasive poverty, persistent human rights abuses and the lack of democratic institutions.

Religious in the shantytowns surrounding Lima provide direct testimony of Peru's poverty: increasing disease and infant mortality rates, families eking out a subsistence level income, dependence on soup kitchens for at least one hot meal a day, and kids who can no longer go to school because they must work to support the family. No economic miracle has come to these communities.

A range of grassroots and popular organizations continue to speak out for the rights of poor Peruvians, but it is increasingly difficult to be heard or represented. The obstacles to creating and strengthening democratic institutions are more firmly entrenched than ever.

Authoritarian structures enhanced or put in place by the Fujimori government hinder the development of transparent processes and democratic accountability.

In fact, President Alberto K. Fujimori is handling the present crisis as he has managed his presidency, concentrating decision-making power in himself and an inner circle of advisers, many of whom hold no public position and hence are not accountable for their actions.

The frustration felt by the international community and foreign diplomats at the lack of information provided by the Peruvian government about the hostage crisis reflects the frustration felt by most Peruvians on a daily basis.

Since the April 1992 autogolpe, or presidential coup, Fujimori has extended his control over the legislative and judicial branches. The Peruvian Congress is subservient to the president and prone to passing "midnight laws," at odd hours and bypassing existing procedures and debate. Perhaps the most egregious example is a recent law "interpreting" the constitution to allow for Fujimori to run for yet a third term in the year 2000.

Military control

Another such law was the sweeping amnesty passed in June 1995 for all civilian or military personnel under investigation or imprisoned for human rights violations committed since the Shining Path launched its armed revolution. The Peruvian military has steadily expanded its power over the course of the Fujimori government, maintaining control over significant areas of the country through "states of emergency," despite the overall sharp decline in the level of guerrilla activity.

The amnesty further emboldened the military. The handful of military personnel who were released from jail through the amnesty are part of a death squad known as La Colina. Death threats targeting human rights activists and recent bombings attributed to it indicate that the group is again reactivated.

The overall levels of egregious human rights violations -- by both guerrilla groups and the Peruvian military and police forces -- has declined significantly in recent years. With the demise of the Shining Path in particular, conflict has subsided. However, when it resurfaces, the Peruvian military is quick to return to the tactics of the 1980s and early '90s: disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and unjust detentions. Those detained on terrorism charges enter a Kafkaesque nightmare where one is presumed guilty. "Faceless" civilian and military courts -- where everything is secret from the identity of the judge to the evidence presented against the defendant -- provide a mockery of justice, violating the most minimal international norms and standards of due process, as was widely publicized in the United States as a result of the trial and conviction of U.S. citizen Lori Berenson to 30 years in jail.

Harsh conditions

The prison conditions and restrictions facing many of the accused are among the harshest in the world. The Túpac Amaru is seeking to bring attention to the horrors of Peru's prisons. While it has been successful in focusing the international spotlight on them in the short term, in the long term the guerrillas may be precipitating yet another human rights nightmare. Prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross already have been suspended.

Reportedly, Peruvian authorities detained numerous individuals suspected of involvement in the attack, including many of those serving as waiters that night. Hostages who have been released report being followed and wiretapped by the Peruvian intelligence services; some have even received death threats.

What will happen when the immediate crisis is resolved and CNN and the rest of the international press corps depart? If past trends are any indicator, there is likely to be a crackdown leading to an increase in human rights violations. Already the military and intelligence services are on the defensive for not having detected and prevented the attack. (Indeed it is ironic that they did not, given the dramatic expansion of the intelligence services under the Fujimori government.) Now they must recoup their political losses.

The scene is tragically predictable in Peru. Numerous individuals will be arrested and presented to Peru -- and the world -- as terrorists even before trials take place. President Fujimori will declare victory over the Túpac Amaru, as he has in the past. Peruvian human rights groups will be flooded with cases, far too many to handle effectively. Some of those arrested will eventually be released for lack of evidence -- two, three or four years later and by then long forgotten by the press. But most will languish in Peruvian jails, also forgotten.

The international community and the press, having focused on Peru for so many weeks, must not turn its back once the immediate crisis is over. The U.S. government in particular must avoid the temptation to give Fujimori and his military allies more leeway in the wake of the present crisis.

U.S. voice has faded

After speaking out forcefully against the April 1992 autogolpe and leading the international support for new elections, the U.S. government played a key role in Peru for several years in support of democracy and human rights. Its voice has faded, however, over the course of the last year as attention has turned elsewhere in the hemisphere and other policy priorities in Peru have emerged. With international attention back on Peru, now is the time for the U.S. government to re-engage and speak out forcefully in support of human rights in Peru.

Colletta Youngers is senior associate in the Washington Office on Latin America.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997