After hiding an ugly history of oppression, Peru’s government is now being pressured to revisit the past and clean up the present
By Rodrigo Ugarte
Peru is a forgotten country on a forgotten continent. Its rich history lacks the appreciation it deserves. Living history remains something Peruvians view with caution, perhaps disgust, a blemish on the pristine visage historians created of this nation’s history long ago. Governments often rewrite history, but in Peru, history struggles to hold onto its truth and not be stripped of its importance. History is fighting to be something more than just brief and vague paragraphs in a textbook ten years from now.
Until not that long ago, I found Peru’s ancient history fascinating and the deeds of independence courageous, as taught to me in school. What happened only twenty to ten years ago, however, sparked nothing in my mind, despite having lived my childhood through the last ten years of it.
A documentary, Lucanamarca, revived the unknown history.
Like many towns throughout the Peruvian Andes, Lucanamarca became collateral damage in a destructive power struggle between the Peruvian government and the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso, during a period simply referred to as the “internal conflict.” This began in 1980 and did not officially end until the year 2000, claiming the lives of around 69,000 Peruvians, most non-combatants. What remains of this war are the people who survived it and a document compiled 3 years after the end of it, written by Peru’s Commission of Truth and Reconciliation.
Established three years after the conflict, the Commission investigated and recorded every case of murder, torture, and “disappearances” perpetrated by both the Peruvian military, including the police, and the terrorists. Robin Kirk, professor at Duke University and executive director of the Duke Human Rights Center, explained that the Commission “to some degree was successful in a very limited way” recording personal accounts and extensive casualty demographics, invaluable to preserve history. Yet, at the same time both Kirk and Alan Garcia’s Second Chance: Human Rights Accountability in Peru, a report written by Human Rights Watch (HRW), mention the lack of resources the Commission struggled with throughout its investigations.
Kirk commented on how the interviews were solely conducted in Spanish, excluding native Quechua and Aymara speakers. The report also cites a case in Ayacucho, which endured the brunt of the conflict. This province’s head prosecutor had so little funds she couldn’t afford gas to drive out to villages and interview survivors. Such irresponsibility by the government is surpassed only by the armed forces lack of cooperation.
My aunt, like the rest of my family, lived through all of this and she recounted stories from the time of the conflict, rumors and truths believed by the people. When bodies surfaced and the government investigated, the committees blamed the campesinos and terrorists for the atrocities, overlooking any military involvement. Military impunity endures as the norm to which the government and armed forces abide, while the courts and investigators labor to extract information from the military. Perhaps they fear the people will witness their true viciousness like my aunt did years ago.
Denying Peruvians the right to reconcile in their hearts what happened stains the reputation of the armed forces more than the actual deeds themselves, as horrendous as they may be. Protecting those culpable through the military’s misguided attempt to protect its honor, the military condones and endorses the acts committed in the name of the state. Kirk explains,
“You can’t truly move on until there is a justice component, until there is some way of determining not only the truth…but also accountability.” The armed forces must swallow their pride and be the men of honor defending the dignity of their people, not their own egos. Nonetheless, fear holds on to the people’s hearts. They know the militares can commit the same atrocities as the terrorists.
In hushed tones, my aunt told me about what she had seen during her work for the Centro de Educacion y Accion por la Paz (Center of Education and Action for Peace), a now defunct human rights group linked to the Catholic Church in Peru, during the early 1990’s. While browsing media archives, she and some colleagues stumbled upon slides. These portrayed drunken army soldiers posing alongside remains of suspected terrorists they had killed. Such acts deserve nothing more than the people’s disgust and ought to be recorded into the report of the Commission. Nevertheless, the Defense Minister of Peru is quoted in the newspaper El Comercio saying, “a great injustice has been committed” by the Commission by stating, “thirty two percent of victims, around 22,000 people, are the responsibility of the forces of order.”
When I mentioned this to Kirk, she informed me of “a fear that if the government… forced this issue that you cou.ld have some reaction from the military” not a coup, she reassured me, “but certainly there’ll be a deep-seated reaction.” The military does itself a disservice by keeping these people within their ranks. The great capture of Sendero Luminoso’s leader, Abimael Guzman, was not achieved through torture and “disappearances” but through extensive police intelligence work. There’s no excuse for the armed forces to defend those culpable. The HRW report states, “of the thousands of documented abuses [by military personnel], only a handful of cases have been resolved. Only ten people have been convicted. And only one of these…had been a commanding officer.”
Cases expect evidence from the armed forces but they comply at the slowest pace possible, prolonging the victims’ suffering, something unacceptable for the “forces of order”. And while military transparency prevails as the most damaging to the nation’s reconciliation with what happened, politicians should not go unnoticed.
Legislative Decree 1097, signed into law by President Garcia, went into effect on August 31st of this year. It contained a clause that could end all investigations and trial of military personnel in regards to human rights cases. Simultaneously, members of the infamous paramilitary antiterrorist Grupo Colina stood trial. Blatantly covering up what has occurred does little to improve the situation in Peru but politicians find it an easier task than owning up to what happened.
“Politicians have a role to play in accountability…” Kirk reasserted.” They do have a responsibility for not doing something to stop it.” When the Commission published its final report, Peru’s largest political parties denounced the Commission for naming culpable for their role in their abuses. This isn’t owning up to their mistakes, this is whining for being caught lying. The Peruvian people wouldn’t stand for it. Congress repealed Decree 1097 a couple days after.
Facing what occurred in Peru for over twenty years proves no easy task for its people. My aunt gasped in Spanish, “The people forgot!” Her voice placed a strong emphasis on the o at the end of olvidó. Fear makes them forget.
“People are afraid for the stability of their government,” Kirk added. “They’re afraid to revive these forces from the past.” History, however, transcends past and present. Without one, the other wouldn’t exist. Thus, the people of Peru do not have the luxury of forgetting. Accepting what has happened and not allowing anyone, be it the military or the government, to clean up these bloody stains on Peru’s history leads to resolving all the suffering within the heart of Peru.
“To not look the past in the face and not acknowledge it,” Kirk affirms, “just means that the possibility for the bad things to happen will continue.” By turning to the past and understanding it, Peru can overcome its anguish. Peru’s leaders want to go forward and forget what happened, erasing it from the people’s minds and hearts, but the people will not allow it. They have realized that not only is it possible to go back in history, it is necessary.
Rodrigo Ugarte is a sophomore writing major who won’t be forgotten. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.