Peru Tragedy: Rebels, Garcia Miscalculated
Latin America’s most fanatical guerrillas languished Saturday, battered and furious, in the debris of miscalculations that mushroomed into national tragedy.
Sendero Luminoso guerrillas misjudged Alan Garcia, Peru’s young populist president. He, in turn, underestimated the wrath of the Peruvian armed forces in retaking three prisons that the rebels seized in simultaneous uprisings Wednesday.
Such was the somber conclusion of analysts on the Peruvian left and those close to Garcia as the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) struck anew.
A powerful car bomb exploded without injury in a residential neighborhood early Saturday. The government, meanwhile, disclosed the terrorist murder of a police sergeant Friday and the harmless explosion of four bombs in restaurants near where the Socialist International is holding a convention under extreme security.
The restaurant bombs were apparently timed to cover the attack of a well-dressed woman guerrilla firing a homemade mortar from a rooftop at the convention center as Garcia was scheduled to arrive. The woman was killed when the mortar misfired.
At least 250 Sendero prisoners were killed in the military assault at the prisons, including one of the Maoist movement’s elder statesmen and principal ideologues.
The government believes that Antonio Diaz Martinez, a 53-year-old agronomist, functioned as one of the Sendero’s top operational leaders from inside a terrorist cellblock where the guards never ventured. Diaz Martinez, a follower of Sendero Luminoso founder and fellow university professor, Abimael Guzman, for more than 20 years, was one of about 125 guerrillas who were killed in the five-hour assault at Lurigancho prison. There were no rebel survivors.
Sen. Javier Diez Canseco, leader of an extreme leftist party within a Marxist coalition called the United Left, Garcia’s principal opposition, charged at a press conference Saturday that army troops in Lurigancho executed about 60 guerrillas who surrendered with “their hands behind their heads.”
Diez Canseco demanded an impartial investigation and release of the bodies for independent autopsy. The retaken prisons have been declared restricted military zones, off limits to civilian officials.
In a declaration Saturday, the United Left, which openly and angrily opposes Sendero Luminoso, condemned the military “massacre” at the prisons, declaring: “The result of this barbarous action will not be pacification. It can only feed to the spiral of violence.”
Stung by the deaths at Lurigancho but convinced that the prison assaults represented a necessary reaffirmation of authority, the Garcia government Saturday night ordered parallel investigations by the armed forces, the Congress and the attorney general to determine if excesses occurred there.
In stark analysis, the prison tragedy represents the single most crippling blow to the guerrillas in a six-year rebellion that began in the high Andes and has claimed about 10,000 lives.
Although only primitively armed and counting only a few thousand militants, the Maoist guerrillas have survived four years of military counterattack, spreading in the process from their Andean bases to Lima and other major cities.
In the last two years, the disciplined, highly regimented and utterly committed guerrillas have staged repeated revolts in prison buildings that they were allowed to administer themselves. Police put down an uprising at Lurigancho last October with the death of 29 prisoners, but the more typical government response has been to negotiate.
Garcia, a nationalist-populist whose own party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, has revolutionary roots, came to power last year hoping to establish a dialogue with the guerrillas. They totally rebuffed his overtures, but he tread warily with them in the prisons, anxious not to alienate the peaceful Marxist left.
Wednesday’s revolt, leftist sources insist, was triggered by the decision of prison authorities at Lurigancho and the island El Fronton Prison, where about 130 prisoners died, to suspend family visits during a strike by prison personnel scheduled to begin Wednesday.
The loss of privileges infuriated guerrillas already incensed at government plans to move them to a new maximum-security jail, the sources said. A Catholic priest who often visited Sendero prisoners at Lurigancho and El Fronton described them as paranoid in their conviction that the Peruvian armed forces planned “genocide” against them.
Peruvian leftists said Saturday that the prisoners expected Wednesday’s simultaneous revolts to end in a negotiated settlement or, at worst, with violence at about the same level as that of last October.
Sources close to Garcia, however, said that the 37-year-old Peruvian president read the revolt as a direct challenge to his authority, intolerably timed to embarrass Peru during the conference here of Socialist and Social Democratic parties.
The sources said that Garcia was told the guerrillas had stockpiled food and water enough to withstand a long siege. After a cursory government peacemaking effort failed, Garcia called out the armed forces.
A Bearable Toll
The government estimate was that retaking the prisons might leave 50 dead but that such a toll was bearable in the interest of demonstrating that Garcia would not allow what one well-placed source called “an alien state in Peruvian territory.”
The military assault at El Fronton and the combined military and police taking of Lurigancho killed more than five times that number.
Two imprisoned women guerrillas were killed when troops stormed into the Santa Barbara facility in Callao, also seized in Wednesday’s coordinated revolts.
If the result satisfies the armed forces, it also makes the 11-month-old Garcia government vulnerable to domestic and international attack for abuse of power, while the ruthless but resilient guerrillas plot their revenge.