The following is my latest piece for Al Jazeera.
While we waited for the elevator at the Museum of the Nation in Lima last week, my companion – a middle-aged Peruvian photographer – requested confirmation from a museum employee that the terrorists were on the sixth floor. The employee nodded.
“The terrorists” turned out to be shorthand for an exhibit tracing the history of the Peruvian state’s war with Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), the Maoist guerrilla group that emerged in 1980 and that was largely subdued in the 1990s during the reign of President Alberto Fujimori. Persistent strains have however provided valuable opportunities for Israeli private security companies and other entities interested in profiting from a continued struggle.
The photographer inserted bits of his own personal history into the timeline of Peruvian terrorism, such as his compulsory military service in the impoverished region of Ayacucho, birthplace of Sendero as well as of the majority of persons killed in the ensuing armed conflict. Of the 69,000 estimated by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have perished, 75 per cent are said to have been Quechua-speaking civilian peasants.
Though the photographer ultimately cast the Peruvian armed forces’ subjection of villages in Ayacucho to collective punishment as a logical reaction to the nature and manoeuvres of the enemy, he did acknowledge that the practice produced ethical unease.The photographer’s parents hailed from Ayacucho themselves, but were residing in Lima at the time of Sendero’s descent upon their village. According to him, the guerillas’ first step was to slaughter in gratuitous fashion anyone who might qualify as an “authority of the state”, which apparently included the man whose job it was to apprehend and corral animals interfering with village crops and to then inform and collect a fine from the families to whom the animals belonged.
As Peruvian filmmaker Amanda Gonzales pointed out to me a few days after my visit to the sixth-floor terrorists, “terrorism” was also a suitable description for the “meat-grinder” tactics employed by the military against civilian populations, the raping of women by soldiers, and the massacring of university professors and students by death squads linked to the state.
She added dryly that denouncing the state’s behaviour as terroristic additionally qualified as terrorism in certain circles.
Gonzales’ film La Cantuta en la Boca del Diablo (La Cantuta in the Devil’s Mouth, 2011) deals with the 1992 abduction and killing of a teacher and nine students from Lima’s National University of Education, known as La Cantuta, in retaliation for a deadly car bombing by Sendero in the city’s upscale Miraflores district. The operation was carried out by the Grupo Colina death squad, which boasted among its ranks members of the Peruvian army.
Despite an amnesty law passed in 1995 at Fujimori’s behest, pardoning Grupo Colina affiliates and anyone else charged with or convicted of committing human rights violations on behalf of the state during its war on terror, the La Cantuta massacre eventually contributed to Fujimori’s own conviction and imprisonment in 2009.
As for the former head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service and Fujimori’s influential adviser in anti-communist matters, the inaptly named Vladimiro Ilyich Montesinos was convicted of helping to orchestrate La Cantuta and other crimes perpetrated by Grupo Colina and has been charged with a spate of additional transgressions, including drug trafficking.
A graduate of the infamous US-run School of the Americas in Panama, Montesinos received at least $10 million in cash from the CIA to fight drug trafficking – payments that continued despite US knowledge of Montesinos’ illicit activities.
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