New Internationalist

‘I was at the dentist, your honour’

peruvian president [Related Image]
Current president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, was an army officer during the years of violence and has faced accusations of human rights abuses - these allegations were later retracted. Congreso de la República under a Creative Commons Licence

Most of the maoist Shining Path leaders responsible for sowing terror during Peru’s internal war are now either dead or behind bars.

But members of the armed forces, who also share much of the responsibility for the 69,000 deaths and disappearances between 1980 and 2000, are getting away with murder.

For them ‘it is as if there were a de facto amnesty’, said Jo-Marie Burt, human rights researcher and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University.

This year sees the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report, which not only apportioned blame but also recommended changes to a justice system that had signally failed to protect citizens.

But it is still failing them today. Peru has by far the highest number of cases brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, beating Colombia.

Cases often fail in the Peruvian courts because the military are not producing key documents. ‘We know they are stonewalling,’ Burt told the annual conference of the Peru Support Group in London. ‘They say that documents don’t exist or have been incinerated. But they have no difficulty in producing documents for their defence, showing, for example “I  was in Lima, having teeth pulled; I didn’t take part in that massacre”.’

When they do go ahead, military cases proceed at a snail’s pace. There have been only around 165 indictments out of over 3,000 cases in the past ten years. A combination of fear and friends in high places is partly to blame. Since publishing its report in 2003, the Truth Commission has been repeatedly discredited by the armed forces and its allies in the media and in politics.

The processing of cases against them slowed right down during the second government of Alan García (2006-11). It was under his first presidency (1985-1990) that most of the massacres took place.

Another ex-President, Alberto Fujimori, is currently behind bars for crimes including grave human rights violations. Many legal campaigners think that is where Alan García should be too.

Current President Ollanta Humala has his own skeletons. A former army officer during the years of violence, he too faced accusations of human rights abuses until the complainants withdrew their evidence.

Another fundamental reason for the current lack of interest in punishing the guilty is that the victims were mostly peasants, Quechua speakers, people who did not have a voice in Peruvian society at the time and still don’t have much of a one today. That includes all the women who suffered sexual violence, mainly from the armed forces. Rape was commonplace but there have been no convictions.

But campaigners have not given up on Peruvian justice. The imprisonment of ex-President Fujimori shows it can work. ‘There may be a few more dark years in Peru,’ says Burt. ‘But it’s not the end of the story.’

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About the author

Vanessa Baird a New Internationalist contributor

Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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