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Peruvians unhealed decade after truth commission

September 3, 2013

HUANCAVELICA, Peru (AP) — For almost a quarter century, they have scoured the mountains of Peru’s poorest region in search of the son hauled away by soldiers in the middle of the night. During their futile search, the couple found 70 clandestine burial sites and unearthed three dozen bodies.

After Javier was taken along with two school chums, they wrote the local military commander, who denied knowing anything. They wrote the Roman Catholic Church, the Congress and three successive presidents. But none answered Alejandro Crispin and his wife, Alicia.

“How is it possible that no one is in jail for ‘disappearing’ one’s child?” asked Crispin, who at 69 is equal parts exhausted, bewildered and indignant. “How is it possible that the killers of innocents remain free?”

The couple’s odyssey lays bare Peru’s failure to address the unhealed wounds of thousands of families, most of them poor, Quechua-speaking peasants, who were the principal victims of the country’s 1980-2000 conflict between Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the government.

About 70,000 people died, just over half slain by rebels and over a third by security forces, according to estimates by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of respected academics.

But 10 years after the commission issued its recommendations, few have been heeded: No state agency exists dedicated to finding and cataloging the bodies of the estimated 15,000 people forcibly disappeared in the conflict. Researchers blame most of the disappearances on security forces.

Few human rights abusers have been prosecuted. And fewer than two in five of the 78,000 relatives of people killed who applied for reparations received them, getting less than $4,000 each.

“As a nation, (Peru) has failed miserably to exhibit even the most basic empathy for those fellow citizens,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, director of the Truth and Memory program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that helps war-wracked countries recover.

Argentina and Chile have advanced far further in punishing perpetrators of war crimes, and even Colombia, which is still at war, has done more to provide reparations, he said.

Then-President Alejandro Toledo apologized to all victims of political violence when the commission released its report in 2003. But no other public or social institution has acknowledged errors, said the man who led the commission, former Catholic University president Salomon Lerner.

“It is a task still to be done,” he told The Associated Press.

On the anniversary of the report’s release, Aug. 28, hundreds marched in Lima in commemoration of the conflict’s victims. Absent and silent were the country’s political and military leaders.

To date, the bodies of 2,478 of the disappeared have been recovered.

Javier Crispin’s is not among them.

He was 18 when soldiers stormed into the house in Huancavelica where he and two friends were working on a class report and hauled them away — presumably suspecting they were rebels, his father said. The city lies in Peru’s poorest state and borders Ayacucho, where the insurgency was born and where more than 40 percent of deaths and disappearances occurred.

Several dozen Huancavelica residents said soldiers would stop youths on the street, order them to empty their backpacks to look for weapons — and take some away.

“The soldiers would pass through the streets shouting, ‘Damn you, you sons of bitches, we can do whatever we want with you,’” said Giovana Cueva, whose brother Alfredo Ayuque was seized with Javier.

Unlike Guatemala, which received U.N. assistance to cope with its violent recent past, Peru has done little to catalog abuses and identify the dead.

Investigators from the prosecutor’s office, aided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, were often spurred into action by Alejandro Crispin’s findings.

“All these years I’ve had to dip into my own pocket to pay for information so I could find the graves, because no one helps,” said the retired topographer, who spent all the $10,000 he had saved for the brick home he never built.

The truth commission was able to document only 24,692 deaths — 44 percent by state security agents and 37 percent by the Shining Path, with the other killers undetermined. A relatively low percentage of overall deaths in the conflict occurred in actual combat, leading to complaints by rights activists of meager prosecutions of war criminals.

Only 68 state security agents have been convicted of war crimes, while 134 have been acquitted, mostly soldiers, said Jo-Marie Burt, a George Mason University political scientist who studies the conflict.

Judges have not accepted that “in Peru there were systematic violations of human rights,” she said. “Instead, in recent years they argue that there were only ‘excesses,’ and with those arguments they have absolved those who gave the orders.”

Huancavelica’s human rights prosecutor, Juan Borja, said Defense Ministry officials have blocked all attempts to locate and prosecute those responsible for Javier Crispin’s disappearance.

“I’ve made 80 inquiries ... for this and other cases and their answer is that they don’t have the information,” Borja said as he and a forensic archaeologist dug with pickaxes and shovels at a clandestine gravesite outside Huancavelica to which Alejandro Crispin led them.

The Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Shining Path instigated the bloodletting and its leaders and more than 600 other insurgents were convicted of terrorism and jailed, but many mid-level rebel commanders guilty of war crimes evaded justice.

People such as Nicanor Torres have tried, mostly in vain, to set that straight.

The 52-year-old Lima tailor is obsessed with avenging the 1984 killings of his parents and two brothers by rebels in a remote part of Ayacucho state.

His sister Alejandrina, who was 4 at the time, hid under a neighbor’s skirts as rebels cut her parents’ throats in their home in the hamlet of Chaca, and he traveled from Lima to rescue her.

Torres said he knows who had his relatives killed: A rebel commander who robbed them of 1,000 sheep, a hundred head of cattle and 53 horses.

Torres said he tracked the man down and twice visited his house in Ayacucho’s capital, Huamanga, intent on killing him. The first time, a woman answered the door. The second time, a girl. Both said the former Shining Path cadre wasn’t home.

Nicanor and Alejandrina Torres returned to Chaca in June for the formal burial of their parents, whose remains had been exhumed a year earlier.

Villagers wept quietly as they carried 21 coffins from the town square, through a eucalyptus grove beside a river where frogs croaked, to its cemetery.

Alejandrina Torres said she was so shocked she didn’t cry.

Only when she returned to Lima, in the solitude of her room, did the tears come: “I couldn’t sleep for two days.”


Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.


Franklin Briceno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/franklinbriceno

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