Strong Hearts #2: Tupac Amaru


On December 17th, 1996 the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) stormed the Lima, Peru residence of the Japanese Ambassador during a diplomatic cocktail party celebrating the birth of Japan's Emperor taking almost 500 of Peru's most political elite hostage. The 23 guerrillas crashed the party by blowing through a wall in the Japanese compound and gained entry without invitation. MRTA forces engaged security and police in a gun battle that included grenade attacks that killed no one and injured only one rebel. MRTA guerrillas were quick to shepherd the frightened party-goers into the ambassador's residence while their companeros planted booby-traps and mined the grounds of the compound. Armed with grenades, automatic weapons, anti-tank guns, plastic explosives and a rocket launcher, MRTA then issued a statement to the international media and Peru's government demanding economic reform for the nation's majority poor living in poverty, the recognition of MRTA as a non-violent opposition political party, and the release of over 400 MRTA prisoners of war.

The leader of the lightning strike raid is Nestor Cerpa who has taken the name of Hemijilio Huerta in honor of a close friend who was a textile union member murdered by police during a 1974 labor strike against the textile mill where he and Cerpa organized. Cerpa is a former union leader who was jailed in 1979 for leading a worker occupation of another textile plant which was being shut down. Cerpa's wife is one of the MRTA members who is in prison and whose freedom is demanded before the last hostages can be released.

Inside the Japanese compound, Cerpa engaged in political conversation and debate with hostages and was careful to explain to all why MRTA's action was necessary. "We are fighting for social justice, we have been forced into this by a government that does not respond..." Within days of the takeover, MRTA released hundreds of hostages, many of whom shook hands with their captors and wished them good luck in their struggle to gain greater democracy, social justice and freedom.

Of the 72 hostages that remain, 5 are supreme court judges, 8 military generals, 5 congressmen, ministers, legislators, leaders of the armed forces and police, representatives of Japanese multinational corporations and President Fujimori's brother. Among these hostages are the very people responsible for Peru's extreme poverty and flagrant record of human rights abuses such as General Maximo Riveria Dia, the head of Peru's anti-terrorism police and General Guillermo Bobbio Zevallos, the head of State Security Police. A Guatemalan ambassador held hostage was released by MRTA in recognition of a recent peace accord with guerrillas in Guatemala. A Uraguayan ambassador was also released following Uruguay's release of 2 MRTA prisoners awaiting extradition to Peru.

A Peruvian economist who was released described his captors as anything but terrorists, "They're guys that are nice, actually. They don't shout, they ask you `please'. There's a connection there between some of the hostages and kidnappers." Promising to adhere to international conventions regarding hostages, MRTA guerrillas refused to fire on two hostages who escaped in the early hours following the occupation. Beneath Nestor Cerpa are two deputies named Arabo and Palestino who are in their mid-30's with a gift of joke-telling. "These guys went on and on as if we were old friends from school," said a congressman held hostage. "They were dying to tell their war stories to anybody." The rest of MRTA's 21 warriors in the compound seem to be no older than 20 and who joined after witnessing the death and imprisonment of family members accused of being terrorist or watching their villages being destroyed for allegedly sympathizing with MRTA. Two of the rebels are young indigenous women from the jungle regions who were known to wave away hostages watching TV with their Kalashnikov assault rifles so they could watch the Mexican soap opera, "Maria from the Barrio" when not on guard duty. For the first time in their lives giving orders to the ruling elite who have caused centuries of suffering upon their people.

But behind the almost casual relationship between the hostages and their captors there lies a history of intense human rights abuses and a deadly counter-insurgency program that has forced Peruvians such as MRTA to take up arms in their quest for liberty and justice. Within a month of the occupation, MRTA invited foreign journalists into the compound to hear their grievances against Fujimori's government. The military refused to allow entry, so about 20 Peruvian and foreign journalists defied the police and swarmed into the compound. The MRTA guerrillas welcomed the unexpected guests and showed them the hostages who had not been harmed and appeared in good spirits and physical condition.

MRTA then began its account of the sad state of affairs for anyone opposing Fujimori's authoritarian regime, repeating that, "We are not terrorists." In the last ten years Fujimori has embraced economic policies designed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank such as privatization of national industries, opening the economy to multinational corporate investment and increasing exports and exploitation of Peru's national resources. Much of this has caused Peru's 80% unemployment rate and forced over 50% of the population to live (and die) in poverty. After years of appealing to international organizations and human rights groups to no avail, MRTA has catapulted the issue of Peru's human rights abuses to the forefront of the international media where it has gained the attention of governments worldwide. Not bad for a group of young impoverished indigenous men and women who rose above their oppression to demand basic human rights and freedom from the occupational forces that control their country.

In 1992 President Fujimori staged a "self-coup" complete with military troops who dissolved congress and the judicial system and radically altered the constitution. Imposing a "state of emergency" Fujimori imposed harsh "anti-terrorism" laws to fight the guerrilla movements thwarting foreign investment and government control of the peasantry. 54% of Peru's population are indigenous, 34% of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry yet Peru's minority white and Japanese upper class comprise the ruling elite. Fujimori's increased military powers have led to a record of human rights abuses that surpass any blamed on Peru's guerrillas.

Counter-insurgency campaigns have systematically targeted anyone critical of the government, be they union organizers, peasants, journalists, political opponents or human rights workers. As of 1995, Amnesty International had documented thousands of cases of "disappearances", unfair trials, hundreds of cases of imprisoned political activists, massacres by the Peruvian military, torture and extra-judicial executions by both the military and police. In one counter-insurgency operation in 1994, at least 30 peasants were executed by the Peruvian Army. Citizens suspected of terrorism are routinely blindfolded, beaten, hung from ceilings, electrocuted, nearly drowned and raped. One pregnant woman it is reported was so terrified by the threat of police interrogations that she spontaneously aborted from fear.

Between 1980-1992, of all extra-judicial executions in Peru, 53% are blamed on the Peruvian government, with 45% blamed on the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas who share no relationship to MRTA, who are blamed for less than 1% of abuses including the assassination of a U.S. businessman. In 1995 amnesty laws were passed effectively closing all investigations or prosecutions of human rights violations by the military and police.

There is no such thing as a fair trial in Peru (not that there is anywhere). The new military courts boast a 97% conviction rate. The draconian "anti-terrorism" legislation allows political opponents, the press and human rights activists to be imprisoned for 6 years for simply "defending terrorism". In the secret trials defense attorneys are denied access to defendants until the day of their trial, and are put in hoods and driven around in circles before being taken to the hidden courtrooms. Inside the courtrooms they are still hooded as are the judges who sit behind mirrored glass. Defense witnesses and cross-examinations are not allowed. Military prosecutors make cases to military judges.

Miguel Ruiz Conejo, a journalist, is the only person ever to be pardoned from Peru's notorious maximum security Yanamayo prison high in the Andes where many MRTA prisoners are held. At his trial, the judge hid behind a wooden partition drilled with holes, his voice distorted through an electronic speaker to make it sound robotic. At his side was a "court-appointed" lawyer trembling under his hood; "Nothing he said showed any knowledge of the law, it was probably the cook," Ruiz Conejo said. The judge let Ruiz Conejo defend himself, but before he had finished speaking, they handed him a piece of paper with his sentence written on it. Trials often last no more than 10 minutes. During Ruiz Conejo's transfer to Yanamayo, soldiers pretended to throw him out of the helicopter while blindfolded, opening up the aircraft's door and then laughing. Prison conditions at Yanamayo located at 12,000 feet include below-freezing temperatures, unheated cells and water and no glass in windowframes. Another prison is being built at 16,500 feet in a part of the Andes called affectionately, "Peruvian Siberia" where the military intends to transfer MRTA prisoners and other "terrorist and treasonist citizens". At the naval prison in Callao, dungeon-like cells are reserved for a half-dozen top rebel leaders where they are only allowed out of their 6-foot square cells called "tombs" only 1/2 hour a day. Tuberculosis is rampant, and insanity and suicide attempts are common in Peru's prisons.

One journalist and her husband were jailed after working for magazines and newspapers critical of Fujimori's government. Of her 5 minute trial she says, "One you are arrested, they say, `Defend yourself', but there is no way because you do not know who accused you, you don't know what the evidence is, you have no access to anything. You have no recourse at all." Rosa Alvarez spent a year in prison before being "pardoned". She says of her imprisonment, "For the first 4 months, we were not allowed out of our cells at all. In the morning we would get tea or coffee. Then about 4 p.m. we would get either soup or stew. We could not even get sanitary napkins. We had to bathe naked outdoors at 6 a.m. We had no books, no paper, no lights and nothing to do. It was worse than a nightmare." Her husband, Jose spent 4 years in prison. Children are only allowed to visit 30 minutes every 3 months, with no physical contact. "That means I saw my children for two hours a year. Do you know what that does to a family? Do you know what that does to your mind?"

Of the estimated 5,000 people jailed on terrorism or treason charges since Fujimori began his secret trials in 1992, human rights officials have identified 1,504 as probably being innocent, 765 of whom were eventually found not guilty though most had already spent more than 3 years in prison. A Peruvian journalist who was imprisoned for 6 months at Lima's maximum security Castro prison recalls beatings by club-swinging guards who walked on the backs of naked prisoners forced to lie face down on cold concrete. He also remembers being fed rats in putrid beans, "whiskers and all" while wrongly imprisoned on terrorism charges. "The conditions were completely inhuman, and they still are now."

The release of its prisoners is a high priority of MRTA's as all guerrillas and political prisoners are routinely singled out for torture and abuse. About 1,000 MRTA members are now imprisoned, many of whom are now on hunger strike. Though absent from most U.S. news coverage, MRTA are not newcomers to Peru's revolutionary scene. The original Tupac Amaru was an Incan warrior who led a rebellion in the 1500's that almost removed Spanish colonization from much of South America. When captured, he was drawn and quartered in public. 200 years later another indigenous rebellion took his name in a failed revolt against the Spanish in 1780.

The Tupac Amaru of the twentieth century is a genuine Robin Hood-like movement resorting to physical violence only as a last resort. MRTA's military successes include the destruction of two military barracks and four military helicopters used in counter-insurgency operations. MRTA has also bombed a Coca-Cola bottling plant and the Bank of America, launched a mortar attack on the U.S. embassy, firebombed Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and in a daring prison breakout, dug a 900 foot tunnel under a maximum security prison with the help of unemployed miners and rescued 47 MRTA prisoners of war. The liberated guerrillas returned to active duty in MRTA's ranks.

But what MRTA is best known by the citizenry is the hijacking of trucks and the distribution of goods to peasants. Following the ambassador's occupation, Japanese media stated that MRTA has, "a huge popular following among the impoverished because the money it steals from companies or received as ransom in kidnapping rich people is always passed on to the poor." A spokesperson for MRTA says, "We do things like expropriate food from the big supermarket chains and hand it out to the people...we strike at the army and police who are becoming more and more like occupational forces within their own country."

A former Peruvian senator describes MRTA, "They would go into villages wearing green, singing hymns, giving away food, holding up Coca-Cola trucks, and giving Cokes to kids." MRTA is so popular in some parts of Peru that when they marched into villages, spontaneous fiestas would break out, and the guerrillas would dance with the village women according to the senator. In a recent arrest and gunfight with police, MRTA members captured were heard shouting, "While there is hunger and misery, no one surrenders here!" A captured MRTA member said, "We don't engage in terrorist acts. We fight to change the situation in this country so there will no longer be hunger and exploitation." Speaking out in defense of MRTA can land you in prison, yet one Peruvian housewife says of the ambassador's palace occupation, "I think this is something the people want, while the majority keeps quiet, the Emerritistas (MRTA) are making the protest for us."

And where is the United States in all this? Following MRTA's raid, a team of "security advisors" was dispatched to Lima, possibly it is suspected including Delta Force commandos from the armed forces who might offer technical as well as physical support should there be a hostage rescue attempt. Already Peruvian intelligence has reported that a U.S. spy plane outfitted with infra-red cameras has flown several reconnaissance missions over the Japanese compound. And a recent visit to Lima by Vice-President Al Gore commended Fujimori for his economic programs and eradication of the Shining Path guerrilla movement. The U.S. takes great pains to ensure that all of the Americas are rid of political dissent through foreign aid programs and military assistance. The recent presence of U.S. advisors and military hardware in Peru is nothing new. A former high-ranking CIA official has stated that since the 1960's the CIA has maintained operations in Peru providing military equipment such as helicopters, arms and other combat hardware to the Peruvian military and police with training provided by the CIA's Special Operations Division and the Green Berets on loan from the U.S. Army. These U.S. backed, trained and equipped forces have employed burning villages that supported guerrillas, napalming the jungle regions, saturation bombing and throwing prisoners out of helicopters. All this to silence Peru's largely indigenous population who have a long history of resistance to authoritarian regimes built by the ruling class. Under the guise of the "War on Drugs" Peru like Mexico is given the tools necessary for the Fujimori government to maintain its counter-insurgency war against poverty-stricken citizens who only want a people's democracy as MRTA proposes where everyone is involved with their workplace and community and is free to decide their own destiny.

Meanwhile back at the Japanese ambassador's palace, Fujimori has offered the MRTA rebels free passage out of Peru possibly to Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Nestor Cerpa has adamantly refused stating that had he wanted out of the country MRTA would have simply left. MRTA has vowed resistance until the end unless their brothers and sisters are freed from the hell-holes Peru's prisons are. Negotiations towards a peaceful settlement have been cut off after Nestor Cerpa accused the military of attempting to dig a tunnel under the ambassador's residence to execute an attack from above and below ground.

Once again we stand witness to a U.S. allied country that commits such horrendous human rights violations that a certain death or life of misery in prison is a risk worth taking for the warriors of MRTA. If Peru happened to be Iraq the U.S. media would be tripping over themselves to expose the atrocities that a fascist dictator committed against its people. U.S. military intervention would be sanctioned, and U.N. forces would also be dispatched to instill democracy. But instead we have a country that does not receive condemnation by the United States but commendation for its building of a bridge to the 21st century. Hiding behind the shield of fighting "terrorism" any government is free to violate every human and civil right of its citizens.

What should also be recognized is how close we are here in the U.S. to declaring a "war on terrorism" which invariably means the suspension of constitutional rights and freedoms the authors of the Declaration of Independence gave us to ensure that we never fall under a brutal regime like the one in Peru. Not only does Fujimori's actions remain sanctioned by the U.S. government, but they might very well be the test for control of domestic rebellion once the American populous wake up to the erosion of true freedom. Like the brave warriors of MRTA we must remember that the true force for change does not lie within the structure of any government, it survives in the hearts of a people dying to be free.

S.I.S.I.S. note: the MRTA occupation of the ambassador's palace ended with the Peruvian military storming the palace. All MRTA guerrillas, and several hostages, were killed. For updates, check out the excellent MRTA solidarity page at

Back to SIS