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Peruvian truth reveals decades of terror

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A Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently reconfirmed what many human rights observers and especially Native people have known for more than a decade: killings and massacres of Indians in Peru occurred with regularity for over 20 years. Once again, as was true in Guatemala and Nicaragua, Indian villagers - this time mostly Quechuas of the Peruvian highlands - were the primary victims of a war between a repressive army and equally vindictive and terroristic guerrillas.

The Commission also confirmed that the number of dead in the 20-year Peruvian conflict rises to nearly 70,000, nearly three times higher than previously officially admitted. Of those who died or disappeared, according to the Commission, 75 percent were Quechua-speaking Indian civilians, caught between two warring parties of the left and right.

The fanatical, Maoist guerrilla movement, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), killed the most people in that war, according to the Commission, a claim which will certainly be disputed by the Peruvian left and perhaps by leaders in some Indian areas that saw more rather than less army operations and massacres. No one disputes, however, that Sendero Luminoso has acted brutally against Indian communities.

The Commission also blamed three governments with major human-rights violations. In the 1980s, the so-called democratic governments of Fernando Belaunde and Alan Garcia gave free rein to their militaries, which carried out massive "scorched earth" campaigns against the campesino communities in Peru's remote highlands. But the harshest criticism was reserved for the 10-year government of Alberto Fujimori, whose anti-terrorism legislation led in itself to a climate of terror from the state. The commission interviewed 17,000 individuals from 530 villages and reviewed huge volumes of papers in determining its findings. It also interviewed both former presidents and the now imprisoned guerrilla leader who founded the Shining Path.

Fujimori's government, a quasi-dictatorship, waged a dirty war that hid horrendous corruption, including torture and murder and drug trafficking among the generally off-limits high intelligence and military personnel. Fujimori's own intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, has been accused of all these crimes and Fujimori is in exile in Japan.

The commission's comprehensive account rivets and sickens as it outlines the horrendous physical and psychological trauma on the Indian families and relatives of the many victims of the horrible violence. Nine volumes and thousands of pages provide a high level of detail on police procedures, the operation of actual massacres and hundreds of testimonies by victims and witnesses. Coupled to a horribly ill-conceived population control campaign against Peruvian Indian communities during those same years that sterilized some 70,000 Indian women, it can certainly be claimed that a substantial level of terror - a de-facto genocide - was inflicted on that Native population. In just the past two decades Peru's terror has cost untold misery and a huge number of lives.

The commission's $12 million work was funded in part by the current U.S. administration and several other governments. Unlike many other such commissions, the Peruvian inquiry was strongly endorsed and studied closely by human rights groups, which guaranteed that the military and other branches of government would be investigated. The commission found that in more than 60 cases involving state security agencies in massacres, torture and disappearances, new prosecutions are in order. In a process unlike the more timid investigations in other Latin American countries, the Peruvian commission forwarded these to judicial authorities. Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugo Sivina declared that, if the evidence holds up, the more than 100 perpetrators named in those crimes would be punished.

While some conservative politicians and retired military officers have accused the 12-member commission of undermining Peru's national security by criticizing the military, clearly when a country's armed forces massacres its own citizens, peace and reconciliation can not even begin without truthfully accounting for such horrendous crimes.

In the past two decades, more than 24 countries have created official truth commissions to investigate and understand the terrible political violence that accompanies civil strife. While the Peruvian Commission appears to be the most comprehensive to date, the dark forces that supported the horrendous violence remain active and are a stain on the country's democracy. Beyond truth, however, justice must also have its day. We urge Peruvian President Victor Toledo, a Quechua man himself with origins in the poorest sector of the population, to persist in the search for justice as a way to bring closure to thirty years of horrible abuses. It is time that state-sponsored criminal elements, particularly those willing to perpetrate wanton violence against their own people, be prosecuted, condemned and punished.