Horrifying Death Toll In Peru

Abimael Guzman headshot, as alleged "Shining Path" terrorist leader, in jail, 9-24-92
AP (file)
No one could underestimate the pain suffered by the Peruvian people during the 20-year-long guerrilla war with Maoist rebels that ended three years ago.

But it turns out the death toll was close to 70,000 - more than twice as high as previous official estimates.

That was the grim news Thursday contained in the long-awaited report from the Truth Commission the government set up to document and make public what is known about the war with Shining Path and Tupac Amaru guerrillas.

The purpose of the commission and its report is to help Peru come to terms with its past.

Although the nine-volume report, delivered to the government on Thursday, blamed the guerrillas for the majority of the deaths, it also cited abuses by security forces.

The report exposed two sides of the tragedy, said commission president Salomon Lerner: "One of murder, disappearance and torture on a grand scale and one of idleness, ineptitude and the indifference of those who could have stopped this human catastrophe but did not."

The 12-member, government-appointed commission was formed in June 2001 to shed light on the atrocities that occurred from May 1980 to November 2000 during the fighting between government security forces, leftist rebels and militias. Most of the fighting occurred in remote Andean areas.

The commission identified by name some 32,000 people who died during the violence, but the report said some 69,280 people disappeared or were killed - double previous estimates.

The report also found that turmoil fed on deep-seated racism and a fundamental misunderstanding of the highland Indians.

"Today, Peru must confront a time of national shame," Lerner said as the report was presented to President Alejandro Toledo. "Three of every four victims of the violence were peasants whose mother tongue was Quechua, a broad sector of the population historically ignored, even ridiculed, by the state and urban society."

The report, however, sparked protest. About 100 demonstrators accusing the commission of harboring sympathy for the guerrillas met Lerner and his entourage as they delivered the report to Congress.

The report said the Shining Path was responsible for 54 percent of the killings and the smaller, Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement for 1.5 percent.

The Tupac Amaru guerrillas have been in the headlines in the United States because American citizen Lori Berenson has been in jail in Peru since 1995, accused of helping them in a plot to seize the Peruvian Congress.

Berenson, 32, was sentenced last year to twenty years in prison but her parents continue to fight for her release and have asked President Bush to ask President Toledo to grant a pardon.

Berenson says she is not guilty and is a political prisoner, jailed for her political ideas and not because of her actions.

In Lima Thursday, Nelson Manrique, a sociologist and historian who worked on the Truth Commission project, said security forces accounted for about one third of the killings, with the rest coming at the hands of government-supported peasant militias.

During its two years of work, the commission gathered nearly 17,000 testimonies from 530 villages in remote areas and held public hearings in seven regions, where survivors poured out tales of horror.

It also conducted three exhumations tied to massacres. The final report identified 4,644 clandestine gravesites in all.

Only pieces of the report were released to the public on Thursday, but officials discussed it widely during the two years they compiled it.

Commission members hope the report will force Peruvians to deal with a dark chapter in their history that many have tried to ignore.

Conservative politicians, however, criticized the commission for digging up the past.

The commission has "managed to put into the defendant's chair nothing less than those who won the war against terrorism," congressman Jose Barba Caballero said.

Retired officers warned the military was unhappy with the commission's plans to name some 100 individual officers.

Many army generals remain defiant, although military experts predicted that the findings would be accepted.

"I don't regret anything. If I had to use the same anti-subversive strategy again today, I would apply it without hesitation," said retired army Gen. Clemente Noel, who commanded forces in the Ayacucho region in 1983, when some of the worst army massacres occurred.

The violence erupted in May 1980 when the Shining Path, a Maoist-inspired rebel movement that tolerated no opposition, began terrorizing peasants to force them into supporting its drive to overthrow the government.

The army was unfamiliar with the Shining Path's strategy and suspicious that many highland villages supported the guerrillas.

Both sides attacked villages, killing unarmed men, women and children.

Thursday's report also found that the killings peaked between 1983 and 1984, with the deaths of nearly 20,000 people in the two year period.

By the late 1980s, the Shining Path had paralyzed much of the Peruvian highlands and began moving in on Lima with a campaign of car bombings and assassinations.

The violence dropped off significantly with the capture of Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman in 1992.