“To all Peruvians, victims of the longest and most painful period of violence that our country has suffered. We hope that this process that we have started brings us closer to justice and lasting peace.”
– Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, August 29, 2003
A few weeks ago, I unknowingly walked over these solemn words written upon a stone plaque embedded into Ayacucho’s main plaza. The parting thoughts of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the final accent upon its two-year assignment to document a civil conflict that orphaned thousands of children, extinguished multiple generations of families, and witnessed the massacre of Peruvians at the hands of Peruvians – remain an elusive dream five years later.
Over the last three months, my experience with the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) has opened my eyes to the subtle nuances of national histories steeped in criminal disregard, flagrant racism, and enduring contradiction.
So what have I learned?
Peruvians are caught between competing headwinds – a confluence of forces that pits the restoration of identity and memory against pressures to cast Peru’s past aside and ride favorable economic forecasts into the unblemished distance.
Potential reconciliation of these disparate interests hinges upon the harmonization of two histories in Peru, which figuratively exhibit the properties of oil and water – one of large-scale genocide of poor, Quechua-speaking rural indigenous peoples in the 1980s and a second urban history, which witnessed the civil conflict’s ugly excess most visibly taint the city walls of Lima in the 1990s.
Peru, recently confronted with images of both histories, must now decide whether it truly wants to remember or forget. The exhumation of the largest mass grave found in Peruvian history in Putis in May and the final Christian burial of those who lost their lives at La Cantuta in July place one tragedy from each historical narrative side-by-side. Instead of being separated by 18 years, 14 hours in bus, and the soaring Andes, the relatives of those killed in Putis and La Cantuta appear only pages apart in local newspapers, connected by mutual suffering. The former speak Quechua as their first language, the latter Spanish. Do Peruvians see both as Peruvians, or do they still see indigenous peoples as “the other?”
As the symbolic end of one crusade for justice now gives way to the beginning of another, 24 years in waiting, EPAF’s fight for the disappeared situates a group of dedicated forensic anthropologists, biologists, and archeologists at the center of the enduring debate. Equating impunity with forgetfulness, EPAF is helping to rewrite the country’s history to reflect the experiences of all Peruvians still suffering the absence of their loved ones. In the words of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how much closer have the Peruvian people come to justice and lasting peace?
The answer – closer, but not nearly close enough.
The ongoing trial of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori undoubtedly represents a historic moment in Peruvian history, the apex of a pivotal effort made by the Peruvian state shortly after 2000 to deliver justice after the Fujimori administration crumbled under evidence of rampant corruption and alleged indifference toward human rights violations. Many Peruvians who fled the Shining Path’s terror abroad call Fujimori a hero for having presided over the capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán, questioning the legitimacy of trying a man credited by many with bringing peace to a war-ravaged country. Others describe the trial as the defeat of impunity, as polemic figures such as Fujimori advisor Vladimiro Montesinos and ex-members of the Colina death squad are finally tried and sentenced for their abuses.
Yet under the radiant glow of Fujimori’s trial, its celebrated implications for the fight against impunity across the world, and the significant progress made within Peru’s specially created Anti-Corruption system to specifically try cases related to abuses committed during the Fujimori administration, a host of parallel storylines threaten to once again divide Peruvians by the very justice system purported to serve all equally.
In August 2003, the Truth Commission sent 47 representative cases of human rights violations to the Public Ministry for investigation. Five years later, almost half of these cases are still under preliminary investigation. Where are the majority of these cases? Most are within the criminal prosecutor’s office in Ayacucho – massacres that took place deep in the removed Andes, where 40 percent of all victims, mostly Quechua-speaking indigenous peoples, were killed. How many of the 47 have sentences? Five, or approximately 11 percent.
In contrast, the Anti-Corruption system based in Lima, created shortly after Fujimori fled Peru in late 2000 to try the excesses of the 1990s, has opened 245 legal cases as of August 2008, approximately 29 percent of which have sentences. According to Pedro Gamarra, the second highest state prosecutor within the Anti-Corruption system, the higher sentence rate can be attributed to a more centralized legal apparatus, most if not all information requests to government entities are quickly returned within 15-30 days, almost all of the accused reside in Lima and are easily located, and a significant budget exists to handle new and pending cases. Few historical cases, if any, remain in preliminary investigation, Gamarra says.
So what’s the holdup on the truth commission cases? Annual reports from the state’s public defender office on their progress have identified a lack of resources, the inability to easily access areas of investigation, high prosecutor turnover rates, and the Ministry of Defense’s delay in providing information as four contributing reasons. In practice, when the state’s team of forensic anthropologists, the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), was solicited by the prosecutor in Ayacucho in October 2007 to conduct the exhumations of five mass graves in Putis, they refused, citing security issues given reports of narco-traffickers in the area. When the prosecutor requested from the Ministry of Defense the names of those who worked at the military base set up in September 1984 near Putis, the ministry said the corresponding records no longer exist.
So if the IML won´t exhume, and the Ministry of Defense refuses to release information, and local prosecutors in Ayacucho don´t have the resources nor the time to visit remote sites like Putis, how long will Quechua-speaking indigenous peoples have to wait for justice? Will the Peruvian state fund efforts in the highlands the same way they currently fund efforts against Fujimori? Is there a judicial solution?
Working with EPAF has shown me the value of human rights work from a humanitarian perspective, not just a single-dimensional judicial one where prosecutors search for the minimum evidence necessary to file a legal case without understanding the critical importance of thorough identification to the families of the disappeared. Amid the most recent estimates of 13,000-15,000 disappeared persons in Peru and climbing, the state has only exhumed approximately 500, less than half of which have been identified. Civil society organizations like EPAF must be given a greater role in helping Peru rebuild its collective memory by re-establishing the individual memories of those disappeared of whom many, given the Truth Commission´s incomplete final tally of 8,558 disappeared persons, don´t exist.
While bold efforts made to punish the perpetrators of abuses committed under Fujimori represent a laudable victory in the fight for human rights, Peru´s elusive dream truly hinges upon the ability of Peruvians to reject the caustic notion of seeing Peru´s indigenous peoples as the disposable “other” and embrace the entire history of the Peruvian conflict as their own. This type of lasting peace, reconciliation, and justice — no truth commission or trial can deliver.
Posted By Ash Kosiewicz
Posted Aug 18th, 2008