Behind Peru's Hostage Crisis

— an interview with Coletta Youngers

Coletta Youngers is a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in Washington, D.C. Since 1983 she has been living in or working on Peru. She was interviewed in late January by phone by David Finkel of the "ATC" editorial board, who asked her to discuss the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and the issues raised by the hostage situation in Lima.

Against the Current: What is your own perspective on the present crisis and how it might end?

Coletta Youngers: I am deeply concerned about the way this crisis is gong to be resolved.  At the present time the Fujimori [president of Peru-ed.] government is opting for a negotiated solution-because of the tremendous international pressure to do so-yet it's clear that the sides are very far apart.

The Peruvian government hasn't yielded an inch in terms of the MRTA's demands.  The longer the situation drags on, the greater the likelihood of some kind of bloodshed, either because tensions are high and something sets off a violent incident, or because the Peruvian intelligence services intervene clandestinely to provoke violence and a military escalation.  For instance, a car bomb gets planted outside the Japanese compound...

But my deepest concern is for the medium and long-term outcome.  Once the international press goes home there's a great likelihood of a draconian crackdown by the Peruvian security forces, which have been characterized by their lack of regard for human rights.

ATC: Please tell us a little bit about the MRTA and what kind of situation it finds itself in.

CY: The MRTA emerged in the early 1980s, as a Cuban-inspired populist revolutionary movement.  Its first actions were hijacking food trucks and distributing food to the poor, giving them a more populist image than the Shining Path [the extreme Maoist Sendero Luminoso (SL), which has engaged in murderous violence against the Peruvian left as well as against the regime-ed.].

Over the years the MRTA's activity has been characterized by the kind of high-publicity actions we've seen, including a spectacular breakout from the high-security prison.

Over time, however, two things happened to the MRTA. First, in competition with Shining Path for the same political space, the MRTA was pushed in the direction of more violent tactics.

Second, the MRTA proved to be much easier to infiltrate and defeat militarily, inasmuch as its forces tended to move in larger concentrations.  So by the early 1990s the top leadership was jailed, and the army command was quite successful in killing off MRTA combatants.

In essence the MRTA had been squeezed between the legal political left and the SL, and had fewer and fewer options as the situation polarized.  The MRTA also suffered an internal split, with a significant faction opting to leave the armed struggle.

By the time of the takeover of the Japanese compound in Lima, the MRTA really is reduced to a fairly small group-by some estimates only several hundred combatants, operating mostly in very remote jungle regions-and they don't have any popular base of support to use as leverage.

ATC: Where does the case of Lori Berenson fit in here?  (Berenson, a U.S. journalist reporting on human rights issues, was tried and sentenced to life in prison in 1995 as a Tupac Amaru collaborator.)

CY: Lori Berenson's case is a very good illustration of the complete lack of due process in Peru. She had no opportunity to defend herself in any meaningful way, and in fact the charges against her were changed in the course of the (secret military) trial! It demonstrates the draconian character of the "anti-terrorism" legislation in Peru today.

With a lot of pressure on the Fujimori government-eighty- four members of the U.S. Congress have demanded that she be given a fair trial or returned to the United States-there had been some indication that the Peruvians were looking for some kind of political settlement of her case. That seems very unlikely now in the wake of the hostage situation.

It's also tragic in that her family was, for the first time, able to visit her at the end of December-these visits are conducted behind a double-screen so that the family sees only the prisoner's shadow-but now the Fujimori government has suspended all family visits for prisoners convicted under the anti-terrorism laws.

ATC: In a number of countries, notably in Central America, armed revolutionary forces have negotiated political settlements.  Why can't this happen in Peru?

CY: It hasn't happened because the government has adopted a strategy of force and repression to overcome the guerilla groups.  And I think it isn't likely to happen now, for two reasons.

First, as I said, the MRTA doesn't have the sufficient political base-as was the case with guerilla movements in Central America-so that it has little negotiating strength.

Second, Peru is a different situation because the tremendous violence of Shining Path has taken such a huge toll, to the point that even those most affected by the government's neoliberal policies are tired of the violence and unlikely to sympathize with any guerilla movement.

So it's a very different and more difficult political context that you found in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala.  It's true that there's been speculation in Peru that this could lead to a political settlement.  Perhaps this could happen down the road but I don't see it happening under this government.

ATC: What should people here be trying to do-in terms of appeals or demands on our own government?

CY: In the short term we should be calling for a negotiated peaceful solution to the crisis-and the U.S. government should hear that message, because it has maintained a very strident line against "negotiating with terrorists," a position that has encouraged the hard-line military elements in Peru.

But I'm more concerned, as I said, about the medium and long term. There's a great need for pressure on both the Peruvian and United States governments for improvements in the human rights situation in Peru. The U.S. government's voice on human rights in Peru has faded considerably in the past year and a half.

Most of all there must be reform of the anti-terrorism legislation which has led to the imprisonment of hundreds, even thousands, of innocent people and to the prison conditions prevailing today.

Finally, there are the neoliberal policies of the Fujimori government.  As long as you see the extremes of poverty that exist in Peru there will be outbreaks of violence-and there needs to be a recognition by the international community that these policies benefit a very small segment of the populations of the countries in which they're implemented.

ATC 67, March-April 1997

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