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In Peru, a Neighborhood Is Held Hostage by Crisis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city has slept uneasily since leftist guerrillas invaded the Japanese ambassador’s residence seven weeks ago and set off the siege of San Isidro. Hardly anyone--other than the 72 hostages and their families--sleeps more uneasily than Ivan Vecco.

Vecco’s third-floor apartment in the San Isidro neighborhood is located within a grenade toss of the besieged mansion and above a five-street intersection that is the media stage of the hostage crisis. Every day at 3 a.m., Vecco is blasted awake by bright lights and the grating voice of a Japanese television reporter broadcasting live from his network’s sidewalk command post to afternoon viewers back in Tokyo.

Then the barricaded rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement greet the dawn with militant anthems and defiant chants. The police commandos surrounding the compound retaliate with barrages of military marches delivered by portable speakers.

Most disturbing, the Tupac Amaru rebels fire volleys into the air or, as they did on one occasion last week, at police. The shots are echoes of the gunfight that heralded the takeover, as well as possible portents of the apocalyptic finale that is feared by all.

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“We have been invaded by the terrorists, the press, the police,” said Vecco, a meat importer with combed-back gray hair and an appropriately beefy build.

Vecco’s family has lived since 1969 in the spacious apartment that has become the ultimate room with a view. Every day, Vecco watches a new installment of the crisis that has taken hostage a neighborhood and a nation and veers between tragedy, comedy and Latin American soap opera.

“We have tourists coming to take pictures, mariachis playing songs, supposedly to cheer up the hostages,” Vecco said. “It is a bit of a circus, and sometimes a circus in bad taste.”

Vecco’s window overlooks a menacing landscape dominated by helicopters, South African-made tanks and countless men with machine guns. They represent the elite of the Peruvian security forces, the acronym brigades: the black-bereted jungle commandos of the national police (DINOES), the urban warriors of the SWAT team (SUAT), the bomb squad (UDEX), the investigative division (DININCRI). The plainclothes agents in reflector sunglasses belong to the powerful intelligence service known as the SIN.

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Almost as intimidating are the jostling, lawn-trampling, microphone-waving, double-parking marauders of the international press corps. They have littered sidewalks with a spaghetti of electronic cables and camped out with zoom lenses and parasols on rooftops rented for $4,000 a week, hauling up food and supplies on pulleys.

“I had never had such close contact with the press,” Vecco said. “And I think a friend of mine was right when he told me: ‘You have to remember this: Journalists are lemon squeezers. They squeeze you like a lemon, and then they go on to something else.’ ”

Philosophical pronouncements are the order of the day; the crisis has turned Lima into a city of pundits. Inside the mansion, the hostages have displayed gallantry, solidarity and stoicism. On the streets outside, a more motley supporting cast provides the less-dignified sideshows that seem inevitable in an age of global news events.

Recently, an evangelical Roman Catholic who conducts one-woman public prayers in honor of the hostages came to blows with a delegation of indigenous shamans in full feathered regalia who had offered their mystical assistance. The sentinels of the media swarmed the fracas.

They also flocked around a Canadian in a suit and tie who showed up last week, unfurled a color poster of the legendary revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and bellowed in English, startling the guards in front of a green police bus that serves as a mobile command center.

“Like the Red Cross, I offer my help to President [Alberto] Fujimori,” the man shouted with the fervor of an itinerant preacher, his glasses askew. He said he was a lawyer with extensive experience in conflict resolution in Cuba and New Zealand. He identified himself as “Mr. Whoever.”

The residents of San Isidro are not amused. This genteel neighborhood of tree-lined streets and solid apartment houses bears a slight resemblance to the older sections of West Los Angeles. It used to be the most fashionable address in Lima. But wealthy families migrated away from urban congestion and terrorist violence.

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The Maoist rebels of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) assassinated an election official in San Isidro in 1985 and bombed the Bolivian Embassy in 1991. The rich moved to new enclaves of privilege in Lima’s outlying foothills, where walls topped with spikes and watchtowers offer maximum discretion and fortification.

San Isidro slipped from upper class to upper middle class. It remains a haven for embassies and diplomatic residences. The columned facade of the Japanese ambassador’s home, inspired by the mansion in “Gone With the Wind,” embodies the area’s aging splendor.

“This used to be the best of the best of Lima,” said Felipe Ossio, owner of La Bonbonniere, a venerable sidewalk cafe and pastry shop on the ground floor of Vecco’s building. “It is still a very traditional residential neighborhood.”

Members of Ossio’s family are among the premier restaurateurs in Peru. Ossio lives in San Isidro; he remembers his bed being lifted off the ground by the force of the bomb blast at the Bolivian Embassy. Six months ago, he purchased La Bonbonniere from its elderly French owner, planning to refurbish the place during the slow summer month of January.

Instead, the attack by the Tupac Amaru rebels shut him down for 10 days. When the police allowed Ossio to reopen, he discovered that a crew from a Japanese television network had set up shop in a corner of the cafe’s front patio. They somehow got the phone company to install three phone lines to their outdoor base in two days. Cash may well have changed hands; Peruvians are lucky to get such service into their homes in a month.

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Ossio cannot complain about the impact on business. The cafe occupies a corner that has one of the best vantage points for viewing the besieged residence. La Bonbonniere became the hot spot for correspondents drawn from all over the globe by that most exotic of creatures: a foreign news event with a local angle, in this case the international assortment of hostages.

Ossio stayed open late and enterprisingly advertised lunch specials in English and Japanese. The profits poured in. Television technicians are the best customers, because the story has become a waiting game and many of them have nothing to do for hours on end. They eat, smoke, drink coffee, nap in lawn chairs and keep the rumor machine cranking.

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“In the absence of information, anything becomes a rumor,” Ossio said. “The things you hear are incredible.”

Two weeks ago, a Peruvian television reporter breathlessly confided to colleagues that a breakthrough was imminent. Helicopters were being prepared for the next day to take Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, the Tupac Amaru leader, to the Mexican state of Chiapas to join forces with Mexican guerrillas there, she said. She also mentioned that commandos of the U.S. Delta Force were on the scene training Peruvian police for a potential firefight.

In fact, the scenario was deliriously farfetched: Cerpa never went to Chiapas. And the Delta Force commandos were on standby during the first days of the crisis, but they never got closer than Panama.

The lack of progress in talks between government officials and rebels and the resulting scarcity of news have made the press corps especially speculative and desperate. Members of the Peruvian Congress have perfected the art of dropping by the corner of Tomas Alva Edison Street next to the cafe. They do nothing more than look serious and purposeful; reporters quickly spot them and hurry over to get a quote.

That symbiotic dance mixes with the foot and vehicle traffic, the all-night chatter, ubiquitous police roadblocks and the ever-present danger of a shootout or an explosion in the mansion, which the guerrillas have supposedly wired with mines and booby traps. Some neighborhood residents have packed their bags and temporarily moved out.

Others, like Vecco, decided to put up with inconveniences and exploit the economic opportunities. Vecco rented out a room with a view to Austrian journalists for $200 a day.

But he gave up his patio chairs at no charge to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross who plod across no man’s land to feed and care for the hostages. The Red Cross workers are among the few heroes of the standoff thus far, he said. He has had enough of the rebels, police, politicians, journalists, musicians and crackpots.

“A lawyer told me I should sue the Japanese and Peruvian governments for letting this whole thing happen,” he muttered. “If this were the United States, the neighbors would all have sued by now. The worst thing is that you start accepting this as normal--as if it were never going to end. “


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