The bones tell the story: The search for Peru’s missing

Recent confirmation of some bodies that were “disappeared” in Peru bring new hope to those yearning for closure.

The Cabitos military trial in Ayacucho
The Cabitos military trial in Ayacucho is investigating war crimes from the country's troubled past and looking into the disappearance of what is estimated to be approximately 15,000 people [Jo-Marie Burt/Al Jazeera]

In Peru last week, forensic anthropologists revealed that for the first time, they had confirmed the identities of three individuals who had been disappeared by government forces during that country’s internal armed conflict. During the 1980s, hundreds of people were detained, brought to the Los Cabitos military base, brutally tortured, and were never seen or heard from again.

In 2009, forensic anthropologists searching for the disappeared in Los Cabitos had unearthed the remains of more than 100 people. Virtually all the remains show signs of torture and execution-style deaths. Until now, none of those bodies had been identified.

Using DNA matching between the recovered remains and samples from living relatives of the victims, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) was able to determine that two of the bodies belonged to individuals who were reported by relatives to have gone missing in the Los Cabitos military base in 1984, and the third in 1985.

The Los Cabitos military base was the centre of counterinsurgency operations in Ayacucho, the birthplace of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency and the epicentre of the war between insurgents and government forces that took the lives of nearly 70,000 Peruvians. Of these, 15,000 were forcibly disappeared, mostly by government forces, with no trace of their bodies to date.

The identifications offer incontrovertible proof that the military systematically detained, tortured and executed hundreds of presumed “subversives” during Peru’s “time of fear”. To date, no one has been convicted of these crimes, despite the fact that they occurred 30 years ago.

Peru’s Auschwitz

It was long rumoured that the Los Cabitos military base was used by government forces as a clandestine detention centre and that heinous acts of torture were visited upon the bodies of presumed subversives. In the early 1980s, at the start of the conflict, government forces had little understanding of the insurgency. Indigenous communities became seen as safe havens of terrorists, and indiscriminate massacres ensued in the military’s effort to “kill the fish” by “draining the sea”.

Forced disappearances also became a common government tactic. In the latter half of the 1980s, the United Nations said that government forces had disappeared more people in Peru than anywhere else on the planet. Women congregated outside the Los Cabitos military base day after day, seeking information about their missing husbands, fathers, children. Some say they saw their husbands inside the base, while others received missives from their detained sons, ferreted out by compassionate soldiers, under the noses of their superiors. In most cases, they never saw their loved ones again.

The surrounding areas of the Los Cabitos military base, where the ovens used to incinerate bodies were found [Al Jazeera/María Rodríguez]

A book published in 2004 by Peruvian journalist Ricardo Uceda confirmed the rumours. A former intelligence officer, Jesús Sosa Saavedra, who went by the nickname “Kerosene”, confessed to having been ordered by the then head of Los Cabitos, General Wilfredo Mori Orzo, to dig up the cadavers of detainees who had been murdered, and incinerate them. Four ovens were built, and Kerosene admits to having personally disposed of at least 300 bodies this way. He also admitted to having executed prisoners in 1983 in Los Cabitos.

Forensic anthropologists discovered four ovens with the charred remains of bodies inside, as well as pipes that were used to power the ovens. Based on the exhumations to date, they estimate that more than 1,000 bodies could be interred at Los Cabitos. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), set up in 2001 to investigate the abuses of the past, documented the kidnapping, torture and/or execution [SP] of 138 people at Los Cabitos between 1983 and 1984. According to the CVR’s Final Report, “It is evident that the high command of the [Los Cabitos] military installation had dominion over and control of the actions that occurred there that constitute human rights violations.”

The military on trial

A legal case is currently underway in Peru focusing on crimes at Los Cabitos during 1983. Seven high ranking military officers, including the head of the armed forces that year, are charged with the murder, forced disappearance, and torture of 53 victims. An investigation is still underway involving the crimes that took place at Los Cabitos during 1984 and 1985. Gloria Cano, a seasoned human rights lawyer and director of the Pro Human Rights Association (Aprodeh), represents the victims in both cases.

I was in Peru last August and observed several court sessions. For a week, the court relocated to Ayacucho so as to facilitate the testimony of survivors and relatives of victims who could not make the long trip to Lima to testify. Several survivors told harrowing stories of being detained and submitted to various forms of torture.

One man stood up to show the court how his captors tied his arms behind his back, hung him from his wrists, and proceeded to kick and beat him. Another told the court that when he was in the torture chamber, he witnessed soldiers rape a young girl. After giving her testimony in Quechua, an elderly woman walked up to the judges, raised her hands to the sky, and implored them to help her find her missing son and to provide the economic reparations the government has promised victims but has only begun to deliver in recent years, in piecemeal fashion, decades after the conflict. Several witnesses described in heartbreaking detail their fruitless search for their relatives among the ravines and cliffs where dead bodies were being dumped, and were often consumed by wild pigs and other animals.

The entrance to the Los Cabitos military base circa 1983 [Al Jazeera/María Rodríguez]

The trial for Los Cabitos 1983 started in May 2011 and is expected to end later this year. The slow pace is in part due to the fact that the mandate of the Special Criminal Court, which originally included cases of terrorism, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations, has expanded to include drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, and most recently, social conflict. Judges have difficulty managing their case load and few courtrooms are available to hold trial, so hearings in cases like Los Cabitos take place only once every week or so, for only a few hours at a time. The glacial pace of the court system imposes new hardships on the victims, who have waited decades to know the truth about their loved ones and see justice done.

In addition, key information is missing about what happened at Los Cabitos military base. The prosecutor’s office and human rights lawyers have sought access to military documents, but they are met with refusals to collaborate and claims that all documents pertaining to the period in question were destroyed in accordance with military regulations. Yet, in 2010, the Army published a book – its own version of the past, since it refuses to accept the truth commission’s final report – that makes references to documents that might shed light on what happened at Los Cabitos and other military bases in Peru’s war zones. To date, these documents have not been made accessible to investigators, so it has been impossible to reconstruct the chain of command or identify military personnel who worked inside the military base during those years.

The eternal anguish of the relatives of the disappeared

Less than one percent of Peru’s 15,000 disappeared have been identified, according to José Pablo Baraybar, a forensic anthropologist who worked in the Balkans and is currently the director of EPAF. The CVR identified over 6,000 clandestine graves across the country, but overall few exhumations have been conducted. Baraybar says the problem is that the Peruvian state has failed to take seriously the CVR’s recommendations to develop a national plan to search for the missing. This has a lot to do with the fact, he says, that the disappeared hail from Peru’s rural, indigenous population, who have been historically excluded from political and economic life.

The identifications announced last week will surely inspire hope among the relatives of Peru’s 15,000 disappeared that more of the missing can be identified, their bodies returned to their loved ones, and buried. This is a crucial step for relatives of the disappeared, who continue to live in a state of anguished uncertainty about the fate of their missing loved ones. When I visited Ayacucho again last November, I spoke with one woman who told me that she continues to search for her husband, who was kidnapped by government forces in the middle of the night in 1984. She thinks he is probably dead. But there are days when she is walking down the street and thinks she sees him. This is the anguish that forced disappearance imposes upon those who survive: an endless unknowing that perpetuates the suffering of the dead and the living alike.

Jo-Marie Burt is a political scientist, writer and human rights activist. She is currently director of Latin American Studies and co-director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). She worked as a researcher for the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation and has written extensively about human rights in Peru and Latin America.

Follow her on Twitter: @jomaburt