Peru’s Painful Mirror

Horrendous atrocities were committed in Peru between 1980 and 2000 during the armed conflict between the government and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), a Maoist armed group. Nearly 70,000 people were killed, and thousands of others were tortured and raped. Indigenous people and those who lived in rural areas were hit in particular.

In 2001 Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) was set up to establish the truth about those two violent decades. Its other goals were to provide a degree of accountability and reparations for the victims, as well as to contribute to the foundation of national reconciliation. The CVR released its final report in 2003, and 10 years later, ICTJ takes an in-depth look at the impact the commission’s work has had on Peruvian society. Has it actually established the truth about the violent past? Has it somehow contributed to reconciliation in a country struggling with deep inequalities and undeniable racism? Peruvians are best placed to answer these questions, and ICTJ set out to listen to their reflections.

Carolina Oyague stood next to the Eye that Cries, an imposing stone sculpture in Lima to commemorate the victims of violence. She and hundreds of others have gathered here for years to remember those who were killed and disappeared during those two tumultuous decades. Carolina’s sister, Dora, was one of those killed.

This year’s gathering was special, because it marked the 10th anniversary of the CVR’s final report. Yet, a decade after the unprecedented report detailing the abuses and experiences suffered by hundreds of thousands of Peruvians, not much has changed for the victims and their relatives. “We keep searching for justice that dignifies our loved ones, and all of us as a society,” Carolina said during her speech. “There’s still much to achieve in terms of justice and reparations.”

The 32-year-old geneticist is clad in black and wears opaque sunglasses. “I started looking at pictures of Dora last night, and I couldn’t sleep,” she said. She arrived at 6 in the morning with other relatives of victims at Campo de Marte, the park where the Eye that Cries stands, to set up the “altar”–rows of dozens of black and white photographs of those killed and disappeared taped to sticks and stuck into the lawn near the sculpture.

Detail of the monument the Eye that Cries, honoring the victims of violence in Peru.

Dora’s photo stands in the second row. It shows a woman with frizzy black hair and a somber expression that made her look older than 21. She was a student at Enrique Guzmán y Valle University, better known as La Cantuta, on the outskirts of Lima. On July 18, 1992, Dora and Carolina were to attend a friend’s birthday party, but Dora never showed up. That night, Carolina recalled, she woke up suddenly. “I could hear Dora’s voice, I could feel her anxiety, she was asking me to go into her room.” But the room was empty. “I started praying by her bed, and suddenly I felt like a hit on my neck. And nothing else.”

That was the same night that Grupo Colina, a death squad acting on behalf of then-President Alberto Fujimori, abducted nine students and one professor from La Cantuta on allegations that they were affiliated with armed groups. Dora was one of the two female students abducted. After torturing and executing the victims, the death squad buried their bodies. As public pressure to know what happened grew in the following days, the perpetrators secretly exhumed some of the bodies, burned their remains in an attempt to avoid their identification, and reburied them in a different location.

“We immediately started searching for Dora everywhere, in every police and military station,” Carolina said. They searched for weeks, but the only response they got from the government came five months later in a letter stating that her sister “didn’t exist.” “It was very painful to read that in a document written by the government,” she explained. “But it also marked a milestone in my life and my search for justice.” She was 12 years old at the time.

Carolina Oyague laying flowers by a picture of her sister, Dora Oyague. Dora was disappeared by the Grupo Colina death squad in 1992.

The abductions from La Cantuta were one of the cases the CVR identified to be investigated. Peru’s truth commission was the first in Latin America to include a special legal unit dedicated to identify key cases to be prosecuted. The CVR identified 43 incidents of crimes, committed by the government and Shining Path, and recommended that cases concerning these crimes go to court. Most of Shining Path’s leaders were in prison by then, but no government officials or agents had been convicted due to an amnesty law passed by president Alberto Fujimori in 1995, protecting them for the crimes committed since 1980. The amnesty law was overturned in 2000, when Fujimori’s government collapsed and he fled to Japan.

The Peruvian courts were able to prosecute some of the most responsible perpetrators: Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán is serving a life sentence for terrorism against the state, and Fujimori is serving 25 years for crimes against humanity. Yet the government’s efforts to prosecute other human rights cases stemming from the conflict have stalled in the past three years.

The Public Ministry is responsible for prosecuting these cases. Víctor Cubas is the prosecutor who coordinates all human rights cases, and he admits that his work has been slowed. According to a study conducted by Jo-Marie Burt, a political science professor at George Mason University in the United States, the Peruvian judiciary has since 2006 issued 50 verdicts on human rights violations committed by government agents during the conflict. There have been convictions on at least one charge in 20 cases and outright acquittals in 30 cases.

Prosecutor Víctor Cubas.

“The judges are asking us to provide direct proof of the crimes committed, as we would do for other regular crimes,” Cubas explained. “The Public Ministry is unable to provide that for these cases.” Other state institutions, like the Defense Ministry, have hindered his office’s work, he added. “We constantly ask for information so that we can continue with the investigation and finally determine the identity of the perpetrators. But this information has been denied for years.”

This situation has led to some irrational consequences in recent cases, the prosecutor said, in which judges recognized that the crimes were committed, accepted all evidence, but denied the criminal responsibility of the accused. “You could as well have said that those people killed and dismembered themselves,” Cubas recalled telling the judges.

During the 16 months that Fujimori was on trial, Carolina didn’t miss a single hearing: “I needed to know why this had happened.”

Cubas said the CVR’s work was essential for the country to know the truth about its violent past, yet the government did not react to most of the commission’s recommendations, and much of the work still needs to be done. “Institutional reforms, the reparations program doesn’t work as fluidly as it should, and the forensics program could have a broader reach,” he explained. “The imbalances of this country’s institutional organization have hindered the appropriate penalization of human rights violations and Fujimori’s corrupt acts. And the structure that kept Fujimori in power is still alive, enjoying all the privileges of a democratic country. That is outrageous.”

During the seven years that Fujimori was out of Peru–he fled to Japan in 2000 after corruption scandals came to light–Carolina and her family didn’t stop seeking justice. “We organized weekly demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy,” she said, “and we never failed to show up. Not a single week.”

Carolina was living parallel lives, dividing her teenage years between her studies and her activism. She attended all the trials of the Grupo Colina members. During the 16 months that Fujimori was on trial, she didn’t miss a single hearing. “I’d attend trials three days a week, and the other days I’d go to the countryside to take plant samples for work,” she said. “Sometimes I’d get home so late that I’d just take a shower and run to the courtroom. I needed to know why this had happened.”

Fujimori was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison for four human rights cases: the massacres of La Cantuta and Barrios Altos, and two kidnappings. When Carolina heard the verdict, sitting in the courtroom, she felt great relief. “I felt I was just waking up from a long nightmare,” she recalled. “At least now I could give myself time to cry, to process my own grief, to assimilate what happened. It’s worse to be left in limbo, without justice, without truth, without knowing what happened, without being able to find them.”

Lima versus the Regions

The CVR’s final report boldly exposed the root causes of Peru’s conflict: inequality and racism. Many Peruvians still might not want to admit that, but no one denies it either. The divide between rich, cosmopolitan Lima and the poor, rural regions discussed in the report still seems impossible to erase.

The CVR concluded that 79 percent of the people affected by the conflict lived in rural areas and that 75 percent spoke Quechua or another indigenous language. “The tragedy suffered by rural communities, from the Andes and from the jungle, Quechua and Ashaninka, farmers, poor, and uneducated was not felt by the rest of the country,” the report says.

Many bones remain in the steep soils of Ayacucho, a mining and agricultural region in the Andes mountains of south-central Peru. More than 40 percent of all the victims who were killed and disappeared during the conflict lived here. As the heart of Shining Path’s movement, Ayacucho turned into a battleground in the 1980s where armed factions and the Peruvian military committed horrendous crimes against civilians–massacres, forced disappearances, torture, and rape. According to the CVR’s final report, if victims from neighboring rural regions such as Junín, Huánuco, Huancavelica, Apurímac, and San Martín were added, the total would soar to 85 percent.

Ayacucho is a seven-hour drive from Lima, but it feels decades away. The illiteracy rate is 17 percent–eight times more than it is in the capital (2.1 percent). Half the population lives below the poverty line, and their homes do not have plumbing or drinking water.

Sally Ccotarma, human rights lawyer.
(Astrid Elena Villegas/ICTJ)

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“There might be more roadways, more asphalt now, but the social and economic structures are still the same,” said Sally Ccotarma, a lawyer who works in human rights cases from the Andes regions. “Rural and indigenous communities don’t feel protected by the state. Then it was the armed conflict; now it’s the mining companies.”

The 22-year-old is working on a case that is as old as she is; it involves two union leaders who were killed by the police and buried inside the police station. The case stalled several times, and a verdict is still pending. She said this is partly because in the rural regions where she works, many magistrates lack basic knowledge of how to address human rights cases, so they approach them as regular homicides. “They want to think that Lima is all Peru, but it’s not,” she said.

“There might be more roadways, more asphalt now, but the social and economic structures are still the same.”

The CVR did a good job of leaving the self-centered discourse of Lima, Ccotarma said, and reaching out to the rural communities. “For the first time, their voices were being heard. The state was there, they were admitting their mistakes and asking what they could do to help,” she said. Victims became the focus of the truth-telling process, sharing their experiences with the commissioners and citizens who attended the public hearings. The CVR took this message of equality very seriously: it was the commissioners, not victims, who stood up to show their respect before any victim began testifying, and they all sat at the same table–no lecterns, no stages.

“Victims felt that the work of the CVR and its final report was theirs,” Ccotarma explained. “With the recommendations, that’s another story. Inequality is still breaking the country apart,” Ccotarma said. “Victims hoped that the recommendations would address this rupture, but they were not implemented, and so they felt swindled.”

Most of the people in Ayacucho are indigenous and speak Quechua. During the conflict, speakers of indigenous languages were overwhelmingly hit, the CVR concluded: 75 percent spoke Quechua or another indigenous language. This conclusion shed light on another, more uncomfortable root cause of the armed conflict: racism.

“We thought that the biggest problem of Peru was poverty. But we were wrong,” explained Father Miguel Cruzado, head of the Peruvian Jesuit Church. “Probably the most painful social wound is this racism, this despising other people.”

In a country where sculptures and paintings of Catholic saints are revered in governmental buildings and nearly all taxi drivers hang a rosary on the rearview mirror of their cars, religion has a big influence on various different levels–also in how to address the violent past.

Father Miguel Cruzado.

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The Jesuit community, a branch of the Catholic Church which focuses on education and social justice, works extensively in the regions most hit by violence. Unlike in many schools, CVR’s final report is an essential part of the curriculum that Jesuits teach. “The CVR not only helped us understand the political violence of the 1980s,” Cruzado said. “It was like a Copernican revolution on the way we looked at Peru and its fundamental problems.”

The CVR’s final report diagnosed the country as it had never been before, putting on paper some truths that few wanted to admit. “It officialized that there is an ethnic problem in this country,” Cruzado said, “and that this racism, which we’ve been trying to play down, can actually lead us to kill each other.”

Cruzado lost many friends in the conflict. “Absurd deaths,” he lamented. Yet he said he trusts that the new generations can look at the past with more serenity, more clarity, and will be able to reach the social change that Peru is still waiting for “The Peruvian state had the tool—CVR’s report—to relaunch this country, but this is still to happen,” he concluded.

Providing Reparations without Listening to Victims

Among all of the CVR’s recommendations, reparations have been the most successful to implement. The CVR said that a reparations plan should include “individual and collective reparations, symbolic and material.” It underscored the importance of symbolic reparations, the “rescue of memory, and dignification of victims.” Psychological support and education were also on the list of priorities.

In 2005 the Peruvian Congress passed a law to create an ambitious integral reparations plan, following CVR’s model, to provide not only economic, but also symbolic and collective reparations to the victims of violence and their families. Unfortunately, the government so far has implemented its reparations plan unevenly—some programs receive significant funding and attention, and others are virtually ignored.

The collective reparations program has been the most successful, while individual compensation, set at 10,000 soles ($3,500) per direct victim, has not always satisfied victims or the government. The amount has not always satisfied victims or the government. According to official statistics, only one in five victims has received monetary reparations, and programs for education and health care have lagged behind, as this recent ICTJ report states.

On the sixth floor of Lima’s Museum of the Nation, a gigantic concrete cube darkened by the city’s smog, is the photography exhibition “Yuyanapaq (To Remember).” Conscious of the power of photography to reach out to broader sectors of society, the CVR launched, together with its final report, this stunning show that summarizes 20 years of conflict and repression in some 200 pictures. There are heartbreaking portraits of indigenous people crying by corpses, faded hands holding pictures of their disappeared ones, terrified faces right after a terrorist attack, and entire villages carrying dozens of white coffins.

Yuyanapaq (To Remember) exhibition at the Museum of the Nation.

As Gladys Canales walks through the exhibition, she feels that her story–and that of around 700 others–is still missing. In 1993 she was arrested by the Fujimori regime falsely accused of pertaining to Shining Path. Military judges whose faces were covered with dark cloth convicted her to long-term imprisonment. For eight years she was confined in a 3-meter-by-3-meter cell, together with five other women. They were not allowed to knit or read, and their families could only visit every three months. And they suffered all kinds of mental and physical abuse.

“Punishment was terrible. Women were used as weapons of war,” Canales recalled. When Fujimori fled Peru in 2000, she was set free by a “reasoned pardon,” which meant she could leave prison, but the charges against her were not dismissed.

Despite all the violations she suffered, Canales cannot receive economic reparations from the Peruvian state. The 2005 reparations law approved by Congress excluded those who had been “subversives” –supporters of Shining Path or the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement– of being recognized as victims, as stated in article 4 of the law.

“We knew that this article of the law was absolutely unconstitutional,” former CVR commissioner Sofia Macher explained. “But we took a pragmatic approach; it was the only way that Congress would pass it. It was better than not providing any kind of reparation.”

A woman walks next to a sign explaining a collective reparations project in the town of Acomayo, Huánuco.
(Cristián Correa/ICTJ)

After working for the CVR, Macher became president of the Reparations Council, which has been in charge of creating a unified register of victims. The most recent data gathered by the Reparations Council, from March 2013, states that 182,350 victims in total were registered: 106.919 as direct victims, and 75.431 as relatives of victims. The violations registered include enforced disappearance, torture, forced recruitment, sexual violence , and forced displacement.

Macher said a third of the work on reparations the CVR recommended has been done. Most of that involved collective reparations, the most successful program and one supervised by the High Level Multisectorial Commission (CMAN), a government entity in charge of coordinating work on peace, reparations, and reconciliation. Macher said, “There is a political will by the Peruvian state to redress victims, and they have invested the money for it. But it doesn’t have the capacity to implement those programs, to monitor them.”

“They don’t know the victims, the relationship they have with them is bureaucratic.”

Community reparations started becoming very popular in 2006, mainly because they were the most beneficial for politicians who were looking to lure potential voters by supporting rebuilding efforts. In most cases, reparations were confused with development efforts, which the state was obliged to provide anyway. Communities would create proposals for reparations projects, and those approved received 100,000 soles ($35,000) from the government.

The lack of coordination and attention to the specific needs and skills of the communities led to some failed programs, like building a fish farm in a community, but not being able to support its logistics infrastructure and ensure their participation in markets. Economic activities also were not diverse; most communities ended up asking for the same projects, such as establishing a guinea pig farm.

“But how can you expect a weak government of a post-conflict country to implement such a complex reparations program like the one CVR was recommending?” Macher said. Her dilemma has been a big source of frustration for the country, whose government cannot properly provide such services for regular matters.

CMAN’s staff works incredibly hard, Macher said, yet the problem is in their approach. “CMAN works behind the backs of the victims,” she explained “They don’t know them, the relationship they have with them is bureaucratic.”

What are most important are symbolic reparations, Macher said, and nothing has been done to address those. A small office–with an even smaller budget–takes care of symbolic reparations, which basically consists of building memorials and delivering the remains of identified bodies to the families. “The government doesn’t understand that all reparations programs have a symbolic value,” she said.

Sofia Macher, president of Peru’s Reparations Council. (Arnaldo Vargas/ICTJ)

The work of exhuming and identifying the bodies of those who were killed or disappeared during the conflict is the responsibility of the Public Ministry. Even though the CVR recommended the creation of a specific body for these tasks, it was never been established. A law to create a national commission on the search of the disappeared is being discussed, but no specific date has been set.

Developments have been slow on exhumations: from an estimated 15,000 disappeared, 2,556 bodies or 17 percent have been found to date, 1,525 of those have been identified, and the remains of 1,366 of those have been given back to their families. “It’s obvious that we haven’t advanced at the rhythm that we should have advanced,” prosecutor Víctor Cubas said. “As the CVR recommended, there should have been an integral policy to take care of this, but it was never implemented.”

In 1993 Cubas was the prosecutor in charge of exhuming the remains of La Cantuta’s victims. The remains of five were identified through DNA tests. The others, however, were too damaged by fire, and no tests could be conducted.

All that could be found from Dora Oyague was a piece of the rear skull, the occipital bone, with a bullet hole in it. Carolina, who has a master’s in forensic genetics, said trying to hold her tears, “I’m a geneticist, and I couldn’t determine if it was her.”

Reconciliation is a Beautiful Word

As part of its name and mission, the CVR was supposed to “contribute to national reconciliation.” In its final report, reconciliation was understood as “a new foundational pact between the state and the Peruvian society, and among the members of society.” The report highlighted the importance of positively understanding Peru as a “multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual” country.

The CVR achieved an accurate description of the root causes of conflict in its final report, which is now hardly contested. However, reconciliation is still to happen. A highly politicized public sphere and media landscape don’t help in this process. Members of younger generations who are interested in unveiling the truth about the past have found that in many circles, especially in Lima, asking questions about the violent decades stigmatizes them as terrorists. Memory is still a battleground in Peru.

Jorge Miyagui’s atelier oversees the persistently grey skies of Lima. Large, colorful paintings are stacked against a wall. Above them hang political posters, manga illustrations, and satirical stickers, like one of a man behind bars stating “Fujimori guilty.” Like the former president, Miyagui is the descendent of Japanese immigrants.

“Leysi, Patrona de América (Leysi, Patron Saint of America),” by Jorge Miyagui, 2013.

The artist recently finished “Leysi, Patrona de América (Leysi, Patron Saint of America)” which depicts a virgin wearing the traditional Catholic attire but with the face of a Peruvian model who caused controversy when she posed naked atop the Peruvian flag. The virgin, with a kaleidoscopic aureole around her head, holds a wooden cross like the one thousands of victims’ relatives have carried to claim for the disappeared, with the carved message “Don’t kill.” At the top of the painting is the phrase, “Here, dead are still alive.”

Miyagui’s undeniably provocative paintings are a mixture of popular culture references from all over the world: Japanese manga, indigenous traditions, Catholicism, Occupy Wall Street. Peru’s violent past is a central topic of his work.

“Art is a very powerful tool to make people reflect on the problems of our society,” he said. “And one of them is what the 20 years of armed conflict meant for us.” Miyagui, who was born two years before the conflict broke out, recalled the terrible two decades he grew up in–the power outages, the car bombs, the state of fear. He said the CVR’s final report was the most important document of Peru’s republican history, because it provided reliable, well-researched analysis that shed light onto those blurry years filled with insecurity and paranoia, uncovering the real causes of conflict. “The final report is a painful mirror, as I usually say, because it reflects us, and who we are, but there are many who don’t want to look at it.”

Artist Jorge Miyagui.

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Together with other eight artists, Miyagui is a member of the Art for Memory Itinerary Museum, which showcases artwork about the conflict. They have held exhibitions around the country since 2009, and reactions vary significantly depending on the location. “In Lima, they insult us, they call us terrorists, while in Ayacucho or Huancavelica, people are very grateful. They come and share their own stories with us,” Miyagui explained. The young artist was very moved when recently a man in Huancavelica told him about his brother who was disappeared 20 years ago, and he cried as if it had happened yesterday.

“In Peru, there’s still this strong belief that talking about memory is subversive,” explained Mauricio Delgado, another museum member. “Whoever wants to recall the past, question the official version of what happened, is considered a terrorist.”

Memory is always a battleground, the young artists said, yet the CVR provided a truthful framework for Peruvian society. However, they feel that the work that came after the final report has been insufficient. Some reparations have been provided, some perpetrators are in prison, but what’s still missing is the most fundamental: a cultural change.

Artist Mauricio Delgado.

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“Symbolic reparations–such as memorials, museums, theater pieces–are vital gears of this cultural change,” Delgado said. “This is the debt the state still has toward all society.”

With visible chagrin, Delgado admitted that only a minority of those in his generation and younger ones value the importance of addressing the past to build a better future. Many prefer to just leave it behind.

“There’s not even interest in reading the final report,” he said. “They reproduce the discourse of the conservative sectors, which is so strong in the media. The CVR has been severely attacked by the media since the beginning, and it is still so.”

Jacqueline Fowks is a Peruvian journalist who considers herself lucky to be working as a correspondent for foreign media because that gives her the freedom to write about sensitive issues that she would not have otherwise. “The predominant tendency in the media has been to question the final report, to not disseminate a great amount of the information it gathered,” she said. “They haven’t been watchful on whether the recommendations were being implemented.”

Journalist Jacqueline Fowks.

The debate is ideological and very basic, Fowks explained. Some media revile the CVR for political reasons, like Fujimori supporters who stigmatize the report as biased, while others, mainly conservatives, prefer to ignore it because they think that highlighting human rights violations committed by the government is an affront to that institution.

Gustavo Gorriti, a well-respected journalist who covered the armed conflict from the beginning, agreed that the Peruvian media has not helped society understand and analyze the violent past. “Good journalists should investigate much more, tell stories that connect the past and the present, because they are closely bonded,” he said. “In my articles I always try to show the echoes of the past in the present, and the problems that the ignorance or rejection of the recent past entails.”

Despite the CVR’s shortcomings and unfinished work, Gorriti said, its final report was highly valuable for Peru. He also pointed to the fact that, despite all the criticism the CVR has suffered, it is still present in the social agenda and is considered, generally speaking, as “the correct point of view.” He concluded, “The CVR is becoming the historic truth socially accepted in Peru.”

Journalist Gustavo Gorriti.

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The legitimacy of the analysis provided by the CVR seems to be hardly refuted by Peruvian society. The commission was successful in fulfilling the first goal implied in its name: unveiling the truth. Yet what about contributing to reconciliation?

“Reconciliation is a beautiful word,” Miyagui said. However he, like most Peruvians, thinks it’s still very far away.

“To confirm that those differences, this way of attacking or not protecting those who have always been most vulnerable, are still so present in Peru” was the biggest disappointment for Jacqueline Fowks.

For others, like Gorriti, the word “reconciliation” inevitably carries a religious undertone. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which perpetrators were pardoned after confessing their crimes, and the strong weight of Catholicism in Peru have reinforced the conservative discourse in the country that advocates that forgiving perpetrators is “what a good Christian should do,” shifting all responsibility and pressure onto victims.

“Forgiveness as forgetting is not Christian,” Father Cruzado said. “The biblical God always remembers the past is part of the present. When one asks for forgiveness, it’s because whatever that person has done is unforgivable,” Cruzado added. “Forgiveness cannot be demanded,” he said, “so the return for the forgiver must be immense.”

Carolina Oyague said she had forgiven her sister’s killers years ago, but still yearned for a more permanent public record of what they and others had done during those dark decades. “It was very hard for me to do it, but I forgave them even a long time before the trials started,” she explained. “I don’t want any money; what I want is for the truth to be in school books, so that when I’m not here, this won’t happen again.”

“Viudas y vida (Widows and Life),” by Mauricio Delgado, 2006.