"As for politics in this place . . . the surgeon general has determined that actively participating in Peruvian politics can be hazardous to your health," Constantine (Gus) Gregory, a Torrance native who went to Peru to help the impoverished campesinos raise better sheep and alpaca, wrote to a friend in February.
Just four months later, Gregory, 25, was dead. He had been shot in the back of the head.
His body and that of a fellow worker, a young Peruvian veterinarian, were found June 13 on an isolated road near the Andean village of San Antonio de Quicha, about 125 miles east of Lima. Their jeep had been ambushed, its engine blown up.
In Gregory's notebook, found at the scene by police, was a scrawled note, saying the killings were a warning to all who would serve the government, presumably the Peruvian government.
U.S. officials theorized that Gregory, thus, had become the first American working in rural Peru to be assassinated by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist group, one more casualty in the guerrillas' bloody, eight-year push to bring about a coup.
That Gregory died a political death, however, has only heaped more bewilderment on his friends and family.
A Senseless Death
They do not ask, and, for the most part, do not want to know who killed him.
But they do say his death in a distant land could not have been more senseless, because, they say, Gus Gregory was a most implausible target for leftists professing to care about the poor.
"Gus wasn't out there representing the United States of America," said Hector Tobar, a former college roommate and now a journalist. "Gus was out there representing justice for people who are less well-off than we are."
Paul Silva, another college friend and journalist, wrote in a tribute to Gregory in the (Manhattan) Beach Reporter, that "Gus was about as imperialistic as a pair of old sandals (which I remember him wearing in high school.)"
Though his own views leaned toward socialism, Gregory, family and friends say, had chosen to adopt the largely apolitical role of Good Samaritan while working on research in Peru. The project was not a direct effort of the American or Peruvian governments. It did seek to help the peasants--the poor whose very interests the revolutionary guerrillas claim to represent--become more self-sufficient.
Gregory, who joined the project nine months ago, was married just five weeks before his death to Dolores (Dolo) Fernandez, 22, a gentle woman he had met in 1987 in a salsa club in San Francisco and had lived with since. She is expecting their child in November.
Their contract called for them to stay in Peru until October but Gregory and his wife had planned to return to California on Aug. 4, just weeks after he was killed, because, his widow said, "we didn't want to take the risk of something like this happening."
Even in their grief, his friends and family laugh readily when recalling tales of Gus Gregory, the youngest of four sons of Alyce Gregory, who came from Maine, and Orson Gregory, who immigrated from Greece and settled here in 1956, opening a service station.
Gus grew up as a typical Southern California surfer type, though "kind of an intellectual surfer," said his brother Phillip, 27.
His brother Paul, 28, recalled the quintessential Gus as being a house guest, up at 8 a.m., doing dishes to the accompaniment of Latin music on the radio and announcing, "It's salsa time!" Gus loved to dance.
Talking About Gus the Clown
"We don't want to give you the impression he was an angel," his father said. His mother said Gus definitely was a "clown," known to have eaten a house plant to get a laugh.
His humor also had a thoughtful side. Gus liked to poke fun at pretense and pomposity. Phillip recalled that when Gus worked for Esprit, he had his little protest against the button-down crew at the chic clothes company: He wore shirts with stapled-down collars.
Though he grew up in Manhattan Beach, a place where "it's so easy to ignore all the bad things in the world," Gus chose not to, said Lisa McPherson, a classmate from seventh-grade through college. Even while at Mira Costa High School, Gus "seemed to have wider horizons than a lot of 16- or 17-year-olds," she said. "He wanted to share his experiences . . . and we all drank it in."
Those who knew him said Gus Gregory's life changed dramatically after he turned 16 and spent a year living with a well-to-do host family while an American Field Service exchange student in Honduras. There, "he really saw what poverty is," his mother said, adding that he was deeply moved by the deep schism between Latin America's haves and have-nots. Elka Worner, another high school friend, said Gregory grew deeply committed to ideals that "certainly weren't mainstream, (though) he wasn't a person who tried to proselytize or preach or anything."
Gregory, a cheerful young man who was extraordinarily "secure intellectually as well as linguistically," had, by college, become "a very serious student of the international left," said Roberto Crespi, associate professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz. "He was a socialist."
Though he earned a degree, with honors, in economics in 1984 from UC Santa Cruz, Gregory also had a proficiency with computers--his college minor.
"He was always ashamed, in a way, of being so good in computers because he didn't see the relevancy of it for any kind of political work," Crespi noted. But in Peru, he added, Gregory "brought those two things together."
After traveling the world for two years, Gregory--who had deeply opposed many official American positions in Latin America--surprised some of his friends by taking a job with a decidedly Establishment, university-affiliated program in Peru.
It was supported by the Washington-based Agency for International Development, an arm of the U.S. State Department.
"The project was looking for an economist and he was a good man," said Maria Fernandez, who was Gregory's mother-in-law and is the project's director.
In Peru, Gregory designed computer programs to evaluate technologies to increase animal production, which would let the peasants become more self-sufficient. Recently, the project had set up a computer link with the University of Missouri.
But officials with the project made this clear: Gregory, while in Peru, was not a U.S. government employee.
"He was what we call a local hire," said Hank Knipscheer of Winrock International, the Morrilton, Ark., nonprofit group that provides technical assistance for agricultural research in Third World countries.
Winrock, with several universities, including UC Davis, is a subcontractor on the Peru project, which Gregory "joined only because he was interested. . . . The monetary reward was minimal," Knipscheer said, noting Gregory was paid about $400 monthly.
The project was based at Aramachay, about two hours by winding dirt road from the city of Huancayo, where Gregory and his wife had an apartment.
Spent a Day Moving
Dolores recalled that she and her husband spent a day moving into their little apartment in Huancayo, high in the Andes, "and then spent three days in bed with oxygen."
From the time he arrived in Peru in June, 1987, Gregory announced that he wanted to be called Tino. Dolores laughed and explained that Latins had a hard time pronouncing Gus, which Gregory, to his dismay, had heard Hondurans alter to Goose.
During their stay, she taught the Peruvian women--who have primary responsibility for raising the farm animals--to work cooperatively; he worked on his computer programs. They made little money.
But Gregory and his wife found small pleasures, such as drinking beer with their new friends in a cafe where he told jokes in Spanish to an appreciative audience. Mondays through Fridays they stayed at Aramachay, a village that had neither electricity nor running water; there, he spent evenings writing letters on a battery-powered typewriter by the light of candles and kerosene lamps.
Gregory, in his last letter to his friend Tobar, discussed his deep satisfaction and happiness in his life with his wife, writing: "If in academic and political matters, I don't have a 'future,' at least with Dolores I have one." He suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that "Now all we need are 1.72 children, a couple of cars and a VCR and we'll be successful."
Though Gregory and Dolores lived in an area the U.S. State Department had declared an emergency zone because of area terrorist activity, "Gus and I had decided that at any sign of danger we would just leave," his wife said, adding, "Gus was very responsible with his co-workers, and his life."
The violence that has wracked Peru, most of it related to the Shining Path's campaign, had been in big cities and not "out in the field" where they were, Dolores said.
Still, the weekend before his death, there had been "a lot of commotion" in Huancayo, where a barrage of bombs had been exploded. All weekend, she and Gregory "talked about how the political situation was getting kind of weird. But the possibility of anything weird happening in (our) community never came up."
Then who killed Gregory? The first dispatches from Lima blamed the Shining Path.
The group, which is based in the central Andes and has a membership of only a few thousand, has in eight years become Peru's No. 1 problem. The Maoists, using to their advantage Peru's staggering unemployment and poverty, have sought to foment a coup; in that process, they say they have killed 10,000 people. They have burned and looted, attacked the U.S. embassy, killed an American tourist at Machu Picchu and massacred children.
But Dolores, in an interview at her in-laws' home in Ojai, where she will stay until her child is born, said she does not believe the Shining Path killed her husband.
"There's no evidence. . . . Most of the guerrilla groups claim everything they do," she said. "This one hasn't been claimed. And guerrilla groups usually warn you first, and not just one warning. We had strict orders at any sign of a warning to drop everything and leave."
But of this she is certain: "This was a political assassination. . . . It wasn't somebody who just got a gun and shot Gus. It had to be very well planned. . . ."
Dolores, who brought Gregory's body home for burial at San Pedro, added, "I don't think it matters who did it. Gus wouldn't want anybody else's family to go through what we went through. . . .
"This whole thing, I don't understand it. He wasn't political."
Gregory was the first American working in rural Peru to be probably slain by the Shining Path, said Timothy O'Leary, a former Latin American correspondent who now is AID's spokesman.
Little New Information
"I think Sendero Luminoso is the No. 1 prospect," he said, adding "My understanding is that Shining Path definitely was active in the region."
He conceded he has little new information on the killing, which could have been done, he said, by "bandits. It could have been anything."
O'Leary said it was unlikely Gregory was killed by drug dealers because he was not in a coca-producing area; it was unlikely he was killed by the Peruvian army; and it was unlikely he was killed by members of other guerrilla groups, such as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a group that is linked to Colombia's M-19 rebels but that is more "urban-oriented and public-relations conscious."
Though newspapers have reported that Peruvian police interrogated five suspects who later were released, the U.S. Embassy has received no new information, other than that Gregory's death still is under investigation by Peruvian police, said spokesman Joao Escodi in Lima.
U.S. Ambassador Alexander Watson issued a statement condemning the killings of Gregory and his companion as a "horrendous and vile act" and praising the men for having "dedicated their lives to help the Peruvian peasants."
The killers, Watson said, have "proven beyond any doubt that they care not in the least for the progress of the people in whose name they claim to be acting."
If the assassins were the Shining Path, their crime was more than taking the life of one American who had wanted to serve the poor. O'Leary said other Americans who had planned to go to the area to help peasants now "won't go until the security situation has been assessed."
He does not want to know who killed Gregory because "it's not going to bring the boy back," Gregory's father said.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, he does want everyone to know that his son was not anti-American; Gregory was proud to be an American. The father and son had talked about revolutionaries. The elder Gregory, who had seen upheaval in his native Greece, had cautioned, "They'll as soon kill you as look at you." But he said with a shrug about his son, "He was young."
The family also questions whether an investigation would yield the truth, his mother said, noting, "I want to know how it happened (but) we don't want his death used to anyone's advantage."
Tobar, his friend, added, "Gus was the last person in the world who'd want his death to be used to trump up (the) fear of international terrorism."
Paul delivered the eulogy for his brother at a Greek Orthodox service followed by a big Greek dinner. He spoke of his brother's humor, his courage to do what he believed was right, "not what was easy."
Later, he reflected, "It's our loss, really. We wanted Gus to come back because we wanted to enjoy him. But Gus, I think, felt kind of guilty coming back and leaving the work down there. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do."
His widow said: "He wanted to grow with those people, and he did, a whole lot."
The family has established a Constantine Orson (Gus) Gregory Memorial Trust Fund, which will benefit the project in Peru and will also establish an AFS scholarship at Mira Costa High, allowing other students to go abroad as exchange students, as Gregory had. (The fund address is P.O. Box 1403, Ojai, Calif. 93023. Donors may stipulate which beneficiary).
After her child is born, Dolores hopes to earn a graduate degree in rural communications to go with her degree in Latino studies from Mills College. Although born in San Jose, Calif., she has deep roots in Latin America--her father is Ecuadorian and she lived for seven years in Peru while growing up.
She and Gregory--who had planned graduate work in agricultural economics this fall at Cornell University--had a dream, she said, "to kind of set up a team" to help people of Third World countries.
"If possible, I want to keep doing the same kind of work," she said.
Gregory's family and friends said that in quiet moments, moments alone, they still feel the sadness and outrage over his death.
But as his brother, Paul, said: "There's no good way to die. You can't focus on what happened to Gus. It was three minutes out of his entire life."