New York, NY – According to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established ten years ago, some 70,000 people – mainly indigenous peasants – were killed or forcibly “disappeared” in Peru’s war against the Maoist guerillas of the Sendero Luminoso between 1980 and 2000. Forensic teams are still exhuming mass graves in mountain villages. Now, following April’s hostage crisis in the Peruvian rainforest, there is an uneasy sense of deja vu in the Andean nation.
On April 9, some 40 contract workers building a trans-Andean natural gas pipeline were seized by a surviving faction of Sendero Luminoso – the most audacious action by the guerillas in a decade. They were freed after five days, under circumstances that are still contested. The defence minister, interior minister, army chief and armed forces commander stepped down in May, all harshly criticised in the deaths of ten soldiers and police officers over the past month in the Sendero stronghold, a pocket of jungle known as the Apurímac-Ene River Valley (VRAE). That toll is already higher than the total for all of 2011, when nine soldiers and police were killed in the valley.
Many Peruvians were outraged when the father of a slain National Police officer had to trek through the jungle to find and retrieve his slain son’s body, nearly three weeks after the officer went missing. He was one of three left behind after the chopper that had just dropped them in the jungle came under fire. Another officer struggled out of the jungle on his own, 17 days after being stranded in hostile territory. There were widespread accusations in the press and in Peru’s congress that the men had been abandoned by the armed forces.
Dionisio Vilca, father of the missing officer César Vilca Vega, found his son’s remains after hunting through the jungle for days [Sp] with a local indigenous Machiguenga guide, and carried the decomposed body out, wrapped in a blanket. But – perhaps under pressure – he went to pains to make it clear to reporters that he did not accuse the armed forces of abandoning his son. The National Police Special Operations Directorate insisted it had made a vigorous search for César Vilca.
Behind the official story
President Ollanta Humala boasted [Sp] that April’s hostage release was an “impeccable victory” for his security forces. But press reports said the kidnapped workers walked seven hours through the jungle before reaching a village that was being used as a staging area by security forces. There, some freed hostages disputed the official story, with one telling Peru’s Canal N TV [Sp]: “We were freed voluntarily. Be careful with the press and armed forces saying that we have been rescued.”
Journalists days later interviewed [Sp] Sendero Luminoso commander Martín Quispe Palomino, AKA “Comrade Gabriel” at a jungle camp, where he said: “We asked for a ransom but we knew they [the government] wouldn’t pay. We did it so that these hopeless reactionaries would send in the armed forces and we could annihilate them. This was our objective.”
Lima’s most prestigious daily, La Republica cited [Sp] the analysis of Peru’s foremost expert on Sendero Luminoso, veteran journalist Gustavo Gorriti, to the effect that the rescue mission was an “impeccable disaster”. Gorriti asserted that the hostages were “kidnapped twice” – first by the guerillas, then by the security forces after they had been freed. They were apparently kept waiting in the custody of government troops for hours before Humala finally arrived at the jungle village for a photo opportunity, portraying “the farce of liberation”. Gorriti said that the bus taking the freed hostages from the first settlement they reached to Kiteni – the village where the security forces established their staging area – was intercepted by the military. They were reportedly transferred to two helicopters which took them to Kiteni, where they were held for Humala’s arrival – not even allowed to leave the helicopters for an hour and a half.
Adding to the confusion are discrepancies concerning the geography of the affair. Accounts widely placed the abductions in the VRAE, one of the last areas of the country that still has an active Sendero Luminoso presence. However, a closer reading reveals that they actually took place in La Convención province – in the valley of the next river to the east of the Apurímac-Ene, the Urubamba, separated from the VRAE by a mountain range. This sloppy terminology points to an elastic expansion of the definition of the VRAE, to include adjacent areas where Sendero is now active – possibly to avoid acknowledging that the insurgency is spreading.
Receiving considerably less coverage than the controversies over abandoned troops are reports of ongoing abuses by government troops in counterinsurgency operations in the VRAE. Erasmo Gonzales Saldívar, a comunero (peasant who works communal lands) from the VRAE’s Alto Lagunas sector told the Lima daily Ojo by telephone in April that troops were firing indiscriminately at local residents, and that some 70 had been “disappeared”. He said that villages and fields had been bombarded from the air, forcing several families to flee to Kiteni, the nearest town and municipal seat, where Ojo reached him. “They don’t respect our children or elders; our houses and our chacras [agricultural plots] have been bombed,” he said.
Jerónimo Alvarez Quipo, the Alto Lagunas “lieutenant governor” in the traditional village self-governance system, said several villagers had fled in panic from the bombardment into the jungle, and had not been seen since. He said he especially feared for their safety because they spoke little Spanish (only Quechua), and, due to their unfamiliarity with military customs, “they are not capable of waving a white flag to let the soldiers know they are not terrorists; now we do not know what will become of them”.
The villagers may also face harsh privation when they are able to eventually return to their homes; they had to abandon their fresh harvest of cacao and coffee, and much of the crop may have been lost.
The entire Machiguenga community of Inkare, also in Lagunas sector, have meanwhile taken refuge in the compound of the Machiguenga Council of the Río Urubamba (COMARU) in Quillabamba, capital of La Convención province. They have received some aid from the national and municipal governments, but are facing harsh conditions. The displaced community is made up of 16 families, numbering some 120 people. The majority don’t speak Spanish, and are not accustomed to wearing western-type clothes as donated by Quillabamba residents. They fled after fighting near their communities in April, and authorities are concerned about parasites and malnutrition in the COMARU compound.
A drug connection?
The VRAE column is one of two remnant Shining Path factions now active in separate zones of Peru’s selva alta (high jungle – the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon basin). The other is in the Upper Huallaga Valley, some 500km to the northwest of the VRAE. Questions persist on whether these “neo-senderistas” really have a lineage back to the original Sendero Luminoso, and to what extent they are motivated by ideology or ambition to control the selva alta‘s lucrative trade in illicit coca leaf.
It is clear that they have won a support base by offering to protect coca-growing peasants from government eradication campaigns. The government has called off eradication in the VRAE in recognition of this, while (under US pressure) continuing to send in police eradication teams in areas of the Upper Huallaga. The VRAE column has recently been seeking to expand its base by issuing statements in support of the numerous peasant struggles against mining projects, now raging across Peru’s sierras.
In the perennially paranoid atmosphere of Peru, there has inevitably been speculation that the government is secretly conniving with the renewed insurgency – or at least exploiting it. Lawmaker Jorge Rimarachín stirred controversy when he said that President Humala was using the February capture of “Comrade Artemio”, Sendero commander in the Upper Huallaga, as a “smokescreen” to distract the public from Peru’s social conflicts. He was subsequently expelled from Humala’s ruling Gana Perú coalition.
One commentator, writing under the Quechua name Tankar Rau-Rau Amaru on the leftist website La Mula, asked, after Artemio’s capture: “And what would happen if Sendero disappeared? The oligarchy and its press would no longer have a wolf with which to scare the ingenuous Little Red Riding Hoods of our country … If Sendero disappears, the oligarchy remains without a weapon.”
Bill Weinberg produces the website WorldWar4Report.com, and writes widely on Latin America. He is at work on a book on indigenous struggles in the Andean nations.