On May 17, 1980, the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path (Partido Communista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso or PCP-SL) launched an armed revolt against the Peruvian government with the symbolic act of burning ballot boxes in the town of Chuschi in the rural, mountainous region of Ayacucho. For the next twenty years, the internal armed conflict between the government and PCP-SL and other armed insurgent groups would define Peru’s national security agenda and lead to massive violations of internationally recognized human rights. The twenty-year conflict would result in more deaths than in the combined total of those killed in all Peru’s foreign and civil wars since its independence nearly 200 years ago.
The symbolic act of burning ballot boxes did not have much effect on the election of 1980, the first democratic election after a twenty-two year period of military rule; Fernando Belaúnde Terry, who had served as president from 1963-1968, was returned to the presidency. President Belaúnde attempted to reduce Peru’s huge foreign debt, but a drop in international commodity prices and the El Niño effect combined to cause an economic crisis. The economic crisis greatly aided the PCP-SL, swelling its ranks with unemployed workers disaffected with the apparent failure of Peruvian capitalism and democracy.
The historical lack of government authority in the mountainous Sierra region, as well as persistent widespread poverty and social exclusion of indigenous populations made the Ayacucho region a hotbed of anti-government activity. The internal armed conflict soon spread throughout the Sierra region and even to the capital city of Lima. President Belaúnde declared a state of emergency in some of the provinces in the department of Ayacucho in December of 1982; the state of emergency was later extended to nine departments. By executive decree, the armed forces’ political-military commands (CPM) became the highest state authority in the designated emergency zones.
Because their objective was to end the conflict quickly, the armed forces initially applied a strategy of indiscriminate repression against the largely Quechua-speaking rural peasant (campesino) population suspected of supporting the PCP-SL. This strategy reflected the serious ethnic and racial inequalities that exist in Peru. Members of the armed forces were mostly from urban areas; only 10 percent of them spoke Quechua. Particularly between 1983 and 1985, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, torture, and sexual violence against women were widely reported and characteristic of the armed forces counter-insurgency efforts. The highest number of deaths (28 percent of the total estimated for the entire conflict) occurred between 1983 and 1984; due to the serious ethnic divisions in Peru, these deaths went almost unnoticed by the rest of the country.
In 1989, the armed forces instituted a new counter-subversive strategy. With territorial control no longer the main objective, the armed forces began to distinguish between friendly, neutral and enemy populations, thus producing decisive results against the PCP-SL and improving the relationship between the armed forces and the campesinos. While the more targeted counter-subversive strategy resulted in a general reduction in the number of human rights violations in the emergency zones, it also resulted in more deliberate and planned human rights violations, making Peru the world leader in the forced disappearance of persons.
The police were subordinate to the armed forces in the emergency zones and took part in grave human rights violations, including torture during interrogations and prolonged detentions. In particular, ongoing human rights violations by the counter-insurgency police (sinchis) led to the population’s increasing resentment and distrust of the police. Further, the Anti-Terrorism Directorate DINCOTE (formerly DIRCOTE) frequently utilized torture and incommunicado detention in its counter-insurgency efforts.
Some rural communities responded to PCP-SL aggression by forming civilian self-defense committees (CADs), also known as rondas campesinos. While these self-defense committees became an important line of defense against the PCP-SL in rural areas, many of them were formed under significant pressure and intimidation from the armed forces and/or other CADs. The CADs were also documented in some cases to have carried out extra-judicial killings and other serious human rights abuses, as well as criminal activity such as narcotics trafficking.
The PCP-SL was also responsible for committing serious human rights abuses during the twenty years of internal armed conflict. Founded in 1968 by Abimáel Guzmán Reynoso, a philosophy professor from the provincial university of San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, PCP-SL had a Maoist ideology and an initial base of support from leftist intellectuals and impoverished Quechua-speaking indigenous persons. As part of the armed struggle against the Peruvian government launched in 1980, the PCP-SL employed extreme violence and intimidation in order to control the population in its areas of operation. Mayors and other public officials of rural communities were common PCP-SL targets. The PCP-SL also engaged in extrajudicial executions of social and community leaders, including leaders of union, campesino, neighborhood, teacher and women’s organizations. The PCP-SL also pressured campesinos to join the movement and to provide the PCP-SL with money, food, and medical supplies.
The internal armed conflict put the campesinos in an untenable situation. Campesinos who refused to cooperate with the armed forces were targeted as potential terrorists, while the PCP-SL killed and tortured campesinos in retribution for cooperating with the government.
While the brutality of the PCP-SL movement alienated many former intellectual supporters, the PCP-SL continued to grow, fueled by large influxes of money from narcotics trafficking and new members outraged by the government’s excessive counter-insurgency tactics. A second armed insurgent group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru or MRTA) began its armed struggle against the government in 1984. The MRTA differed from the PCP-SL in that its ideology was based on the Cuban Revolution and it grew out of poor, urban sectors. Similar to PCP-SL, MRTA utilized violent tactics that included extrajudicial executions and kidnappings.
Frustrated with the failure of the center-right government of President Belaúnde to stabilize the economy and control the armed insurgent groups, Peruvians overwhelmingly voted for Dr. Alan García Pérez of the leftist Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) party for President in 1985. President García initially promised to impose respect for human rights on the armed forces. As Peru’s political and economic crisis grew, however, the government lost control of its own counter-subversive policy. Beginning with the Penal San Juan de Lurigancho and El Frontón prison massacre in June of 1986, the armed forces conducted their counter-subversive activities with greater autonomy from civilian control. In the end, more persons were disappeared during President García’s term than under any other Peruvian president.
In the midst of economic crisis and expanding subversion, Peruvian voters expressed their lack of confidence in political organizations by electing independent candidate Alberto Fujimori in the 1990 presidential elections. President Fujimori succeeded in lowering inflation from 2,300 percent to 139 percent, but he continued the armed forces’ counter-subversive strategy and, with the help of military intelligence operative Vladimiro Montesinos, integrated the military leadership in his administration.
On April 5, 1992, citing security concerns in the midst of a PCP-SL urban offensive, President Fujimori carried out a “self-coup” by dissolving Congress, suspending the 1979 Constitution, and initiating authoritarian rule by decree. President Fujimori also placed the judiciary under executive control and compromised judicial independence through the wholesale and summary dismissal of judges. Tough new anti-terrorism (Decree Law 25475) and treason (Decree Law 25659) laws were enacted in1992 which conflicted with international standards for the administration of justice. These laws not only greatly expanded the definitions of terrorism and treason, but also established a system that protected the identities of prosecutors and judges by trying individuals accused of terrorism in “faceless” courts and those accused of treason in secret military tribunals.
Further, the anti-terrorism decrees severely restricted the rights to due process and defense, and significantly extended permissible periods of incommunicado police detention. The introduction of lengthy police detention periods resulted in an increase in the number of rapes in custody and in the use of torture as an interrogation tool. The use of torture, coupled with the faceless courts routine acceptance of coerced confessions as evidence, caused the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to state that the anti-terrorist decrees established a court system that “facilitated” the use of torture.
The Repentance Law (Decree Law 25499, which was repealed in 1994) gave individuals accused of terrorism and treason a reduced or suspended sentence if they repented and named PCP-SL or MRTA members. As there was no requirement of corroboration, more than a thousand individuals were unjustly accused. The arbitrariness of the courts and their systematic violations of rights in the administration of justice resulted in convictions for more than 1000 innocent persons (innocentes) between May 1992 and December 1995; the number continued to grow even after President Fujimori was reelected in 1995.
Beginning in 1992, the government’s counter-subversive strategy emphasized selective elimination of the political-administrative organizations of the armed insurgent groups. The “Colina” death squad, linked to Vladimiro Montesinos and the National Intelligence Service, carried out torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances, including the execution of nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University and fifteen civilians in Barrios Altos. In general, however, the capture of PCP-SL leader Guzmán in September 1992 led to both a reduction political violence and a reduction in state-sponsored extrajudicial executions and disappearances.
In the elections of 2000, President Fujimori made a constitutionally questionable run for a third term. Shortly thereafter, embroiled in a bribery and corruption scandal, he fled the country for Japan and Valentín Paniagua was appointed interim President. President Paniagua’s transitional government worked to restore democracy and, in June of 2001, oversaw the free and fair election of President Alejandro Toledo. While attempts to extradite former President Fujimori for trial on charges related to the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos massacres have been unsuccessful, Montesinos has been tried and sentenced.
Compiled from Library of Congress Peru Country Studies, State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's Final Report
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