Terrorism and development in Peru

If Humala wants to be re-elected, he has to look into anti-poverty, healthcare, education and other initiatives.

Vladimiro Montesinos Is Arrested and Returned to Peru
Newly-elected Peru President Ollanta Humala has militarised his cabinet in response to Cajamarca protests against Newmont Mining Corp’s Conga gold and copper project [GALLO/GETTY]

Ayacucho, Peru – 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.

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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.

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.

Grupo Colina

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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Given the above information – plus other details such as that, more than a decade after the inauguration of the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, 97 per cent of cocaine currently arriving to the US reportedly hails from none other than Colombia – it is perhaps understandable that Peru’s former drug czar Ricardo Soberon deemed US methods of waging war on drugs ineffective.

Judging from my own conversations in 2009 with residents of the southern Colombian department of Putumayo who reported regular aerial fumigation of their banana and corn crops, it does seem that fumigating food harvests is a less than logical way to encourage farmers to diversify away from coca.

Hannah Stone has outlined Soberon’s approach to the coca issue prior to his resignation last month as head of Peru’s national anti-drug agency Devida:

Soberon had declared that the VRAE, an impoverished region home to the biggest [remaining] faction of the rebel group [Sendero] and site of the majority of Peru’s coca crops, would be a top priority for the government, and that he planned to invest in promoting alternative crops there, to make it into an agricultural hub for the country.

In addition to “announc[ing] a suspension of a US-funded coca eradication policy in order to evaluate it”, Soberon showed himself to be dangerously competent by “focusing on attacking the structures of drug trafficking organisations, including money laundering, and the import and supply chains of precursor chemicals used to manufacture cocaine and other drugs”.

Stone explains that the replacement of Soberon with the US-compliant Carmen Masias, whose expertise lies in drug use prevention, rather than trafficking, will likely refocus Devida’s efforts onto combating negligible cocaine use among the Peruvian population. “[P]utting drug policy back into the hands of the military and police” will meanwhile further “the agenda of the military men promoted by [President Ollanta] Humala’s cabinet change” of December 2011, when he replaced 11 of 17 ministers.

Humala’s grand transformation

Elected last year with the support of leftist movements, Humala militarised his cabinet as a response to protests in the northern city of Cajamarca against Newmont Mining Corp’s Conga gold and copper project. For this, he earned the tentative endorsement of the Wall Street Journal‘s Mary O’Grady, whose political convictions include that Hillary Clinton is a communist sympathiser.

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Humala’s recent assurance that “the grand transformation” is already underway in Peru courtesy of his administration is incidentally an apt description of his about-face, though he did not intend it as such. He did, however, presumably mean what he said when he commented to the Spanish newspaper El Pais: “I am not of the left”.

O’Grady has meanwhile sounded the alarm about “the risks to development coming from a hard left operating under the guise of ‘environmentalism'” in the Conga case, and has detected a potential terrorist presence among those faking a concern for the environment or for the impending contamination of mountain lakes – i.e., the local population’s water supply – by a US-based mining corporation. Humala has seconded the notion that mining is crucial to Peru’s development.

One can safely assume that, if Sendero were to poison Peruvian water supplies while engaging in resource extraction for its own exclusive enrichment, it would be construed as something other than development.

Equality doesn’t work

As Mark Weisbrot of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC recently remarked to me, Peru’s solid economic growth during the decade prior to Humala’s election did not resolve “huge disparities by region and ethnicity. For example, the poverty rate is 60 per cent in rural areas and 21 per cent in urban areas”. According to Weisbrot, the government’s failure to undertake meaningful anti-poverty, healthcare, and education initiatives “is the basis for Humala’s election, and that is what he will have to deliver on if he wants to be re-elected”.

The obstacles to such a delivery were nicely summed up earlier this month by Fernando Cilloniz, president of the Inform@ccion consultancy, who was defined as an “expert” in the same El Comercio article in which he was quoted as declaring: “We’re all equal, but in practice it doesn’t work [like that]”.

The reminder concerning the impracticality of equality occurred in response to a government proposal to impose limits on agricultural land acquisition, which according to Cilloniz would impede private investment. Unlimited land acquisition opportunities, on the other hand, would merely further hamper the survival of the less-equal in a reinforced “development”-oriented milieu of food production for export, rather than domestic consumption.

When considering prospects for development versus regression in Peru, meanwhile, it is advisable to take note of certain details from a WikiLeaked cable from the US embassy in Lima in 2009, such as: “Local observers in Ayacucho say frustrations with government at every level have strengthened the anti-system opposition and in some cases generated sympathy for SL [Sendero Luminoso]”.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in Nov. 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, CounterPunch, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.