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Their Terrorists, Our Freedom Fighters

By William Blum

The Consortium, 1997


Imagine that what happened in Peru were to take place in Cuba -- 14 Cuban dissidents taking over a large social gathering and holding a few hundred people hostage, including Castro's brother Raul and other prominent officials, as well as foreign ambassadors and businessmen. Imagine that the Cuban rebels made demands similar to those of the MRTA [Tupac Amaru guerrillas] in Peru -- raising the standard of living of the masses, bettering prison conditions, freeing a number of political prisoners, and improving the state of civil liberties.

Imagine the reaction of the American media. The MRTA "terrorists," through an arcane ideological alchemy, would be transformed into anti-communist "freedom fighters." The Cubans' demands would be reported fully, seriously, and regularly, not disappearing down the great media black hole behind the printing press. What had been seen before as an appalling, illegitimate way to achieve social change would give way effortlessly to a sincere appreciation that under intolerable conditions, desperate people can be reduced to reckless measures.

We now know that in Lima, on April 22, Peruvian commandos, under orders to take no prisoners, executed all the rebels who survived the initial onslaught. Only President Alberto Fujimori still denies this. Peruvian security forces told Reuters News Agency two days later that two male rebels were captured alive in a room, told to stand against a wall, and shot with separate bursts of gunfire, one after the other. During the same dramatic moments, the news agency reported, an intelligence operative, who was monitoring the raid through listening devices, picked up the execution of two teen-age rebel girls, who were shot despite one of them yelling "We surrender! We surrender!"

Moreover, Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Munante, one of the hostages, disclosed to the Spanish-language news channel, CBS/Telenoticias, that "One rebel surrendered in the room where the judges were ... he told the judges he surrendered, but then (a soldier) entered and machine-gunned (the rebels) in the room."

Military sources later revealed that each rebel was given a final "coup de grace" shot in the forehead to make sure he was dead.

Munante had a further story to tell. He said he could not sleep for thinking about a young rebel who spared his life. "I've hardly slept. I went to bed late and was thinking all the time ... I've remembered and remembered the attitude of that youngster." Moments after the Peruvian troops burst into the building to rescue the hostages, one of the teen-age rebels came into the room where high-ranking captives were held and pointed his rifle straight at the Agriculture Minister.

"I don't know what happened," said Munante, "I don't know if he doubted, but I saw sadness in his eyes, maybe because of the order to kill us, or maybe because he saw his life slipping away. Then, in a matter of seconds, he turned straight around and closed the door."

The young man, who was shot dead within seconds, may have had second thoughts due to the close ties that had formed between captors and captives after 18 weeks inside the residence, said Munante. "After so many days of talking and talking an emotional bond had been established."

"I feel a lot for the youngsters, who were humble people from the Peruvian jungle," Jorge Gumucio, the Bolivian ambassador, who was also a hostage, told Reuters. "But we knew from the start that it was either us or them."

Of course, it would have been a lot more of "us", but "them" released more than 80 percent of the hostages within the first two weeks; then, as time went by, released others who had become, or claimed to be, ill. During the four-month siege, no hostage was harmed by the rebels. In return, the rebels were rewarded by a complete refusal by Fujimori to make even the slightest concession, all the while planning their summary executions.

Imagine again that Cuba had been the stage for this tragedy. The halls of the U.S. Congress would have been filled with operatic wails and forehead smiting over the cold-blooded execution of the freedom fighters, with Jesse Helms waving a sword and pleading to lead the invasion of Cuba. Ol' Bill, at his heartfelt best, would have assured the families of the slain rebels: "I feel your pain!". Flags would have flown at half-mast in Miami, and any one there who dared to question the prevailing wisdom or the prevailing emotion would risk premature death.

The Media's Take

But inasmuch as these idealistic young people were not seeking to overthrow a socialist government, their lives were accorded scant value in the U.S. media. An editorial in The Washington Post remarked upon the "successful rescue in which there were amazingly small losses of life: One hostage and two attackers died." Then, quite parenthetically: "The guerrillas, who had claimed a revolutionary cause but found few takers among Peru's terrorism-weary population, lost all 14 of their own." Period.

Obscured also in this statement is the idea that fear of a lifetime of torture and imprisonment in one of Peru's infamous hellholes might just be responsible for discouraging people from publicly expressing support for the MRTA, let alone joining them. Not to mention social indoctrination.

One sad sight in the TV coverage was the picture of the Peruvian soldiers celebrating their victory. These indigena-looking young men, finding in military service perhaps their only way to escape poverty, hunger and unemployment, shouting for joy, back-slapping, high-fiving, burning an MRTA flag, all because they had killed a number of other poverty- stricken young indigenas who were struggling to wrench a concession or two from the government to lighten the load of the poor and the imprisoned.

A "terrorist" -- a loaded term that has been abused since the Nazis used it to describe World War II resistance fighters -- fights for what he believes in; a soldier in countries such as Peru fights for what someone else believes in -- in this case the wealthy coercing the poor to kill the poor to keep the wealthy in power.

It will come as no surprise that the commandos received training and sophisticated technological help from the United States for their operation, including overflights of the RU-38A airplane, which can photograph a building and gauge the thickness of its walls, amongst a host of other details crucial to planning the final raid. Supporting the Peruvian government in such circumstances would be regarded by Washington as the most natural thing in the world.

But no one would raise the alternative question: If the United States felt compelled to intervene in Peru in a purely internal matter, why didn't it take the side of the rebels, rather than abetting a government that has often sunk into the practice of state terrorism? [See related story in this issue]

But what is the nature of this Peruvian government that inspires the dedicated support of the United States?

In April 1992, President Fujimori closed down his nation's Congress and dismissed much of the judiciary, giving himself dictatorial power. In protest, the United States immediately announced the suspension of all foreign aid programs to Peru. It was not long before this aid was resumed, if, in fact, it was ever actually cut off. Washington was interested in drug interdiction in Peru, and even more so in helping the Peruvian government combat leftist and populist rebellion.


This is reminiscent of 1965, when a force of U. S. Green Berets was sent to Peru and helped wipe out the guerrilla movements of that period. Indeed, the anti-drug campaign in the Peruvian jungles in recent years, just as in Colombia, appears to have been used as a cover for the anti-guerrilla campaign.

Often, however, it has been the government -- more so than the guerrillas -- which has had the cozy relationships with the drug traffickers. For instance, Fujimori's chief aide and personal lawyer, Vladimiro Montesinos, has had ties to drug cartels. Montesinos also has been accused of setting up death squads and being a long-time CIA asset. Last November, U.S. drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey met with Montesinos in Peru, which was interpreted in Peru as an endorsement of the latter, so much so that the New York Times was moved to criticize McCaffrey for the meeting. [Nov. 25, 1996, editorial]

Though the Peruvian Congress has been reinstated, that development has scarcely meant a reawakening of freedom and democracy in Peru. One recent description of the Fujimori regime is as follows:

"Security forces were responsible for extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and beatings. Although individual prison directors made some efforts to improve conditions in their own prisons, overall prison conditions remain extremely harsh, particularly in the case of prisoners jailed for terrorism offenses. Arbitrary detention, accountability, lack of due process, lengthy trial delays, and prolonged pretrial detention remain problems. The authorities at times infringed upon citizens' privacy rights. Violence against women and children and discrimination against the disabled, indigenous people, and minorities are continuing problems. Child labor is also a problem."

This is taken from the latest State Department human rights report on Peru.

If the Soviet Union still existed, the rebel action in Peru would have been branded as part of the International Communist Conspiracy. But which conspiracy do the anti-communists blame now? Could it be that the revolutionary and "terrorist" actions of the Cold War were home grown all along, springing from indigenous roots?


(William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. )

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