The New York Times ran an excellent piece recently on the indigenous community of Cherán in the Mexican state of Michoacán. There, the cartels’ use of illegal logging has devastated not only the environment but the livelihood of the community, and in the absence of state protection, the community members have taken matters into their own hands.
On the morning of April 15, 2011, using rocks and fireworks, a group of women attacked a busload of AK-47-armed illegal loggers as they drove through Cherán, residents said. The loggers, who local residents say are protected by one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations and given a virtual free pass by the country’s authorities, had terrorized the community at will for years.
Cherán’s residents said they had been subjected to multiple episodes of rape, kidnapping, extortion and murder by the paramilitary loggers, who have devastated an estimated 70 percent of the surrounding oak forests that sustained the town’s economy and indigenous culture for centuries.
[H]ere in Cherán, a group of townspeople took loggers hostage, expelled the town’s entire police force and representatives of established political parties, and forcibly closed the roads.
It’s a remarkable story that gets into a lot of the complexities of community-state-cartel relations and the local impact of the historical absence of the state in rural Mexico. Erik over at Lawyers, Guns & Money has some excellent observations as well, including the decreasing adequacy of understanding the violence in Mexico only in terms of the drug trade:
While legalizing marijuana in the United States would rob the Mexican criminal gangs of a major source of income, the idea that it would somehow resolve the violence in Mexico is absurd. Maybe at one time such a thing might have made a major difference but not now. The gangs have moved into any number of other activities, including kidnapping, extortion, the illegal wildlife trade, and logging, as well as of course smuggling hard drugs. Of course, the U.S. could shut the flow of guns to Mexico but that would violate my rights to have a personal arsenal the size of the Honduran army or something.
Indeed. He also has excellent observations on the complexities of the struggle and on the impact of deforestation, and both his comments and the original article are well worth taking a look at.
As Greg Weeks points out, the 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya “blew open the door to more drug trafficking. How deeply has Honduras been brought into the drug-transportation network since the coup? According to the New York Times, plenty deep; just look at how many drug flights have flown into Honduras:
That’s a remarkable shift, and it would be interesting to see an in-depth study that analyzes the post-coup governments and the conditions that led to Honduras becoming an increasingly important stopover point for flights carrying drugs northward.
-In an issue that could shape the presidential election in the US, a new poll suggests that Florida voters overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama’s announced immigration reform policy.
-Workers at Brazil’s GM plant went on a 24-hour strike over reduced output and growing fears their jobs are at stake.
-A bill that would repeal bans on sodomy and cross-dressing and would abolish the death penalty is set for debate on the floor of Guyana’s Congress.
-In Uruguay, the private University of Montevideo accepted the resignation of dean Dr. Mercedes Rovira after she made homophobic comments, including describing homosexuals as an “anomaly” and who said the school takes an individual’s sexuality into account when hiring staff.
-Although there are real limits to Brazil’s Truth Commission, it appears it will at least investigate Brazil’s role in the infamous Operation Condor, hopefully shedding light on an oft-overlooked part of the Brazilian military dictatorship.
-Guatemala has released Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, a military officer who assassinated Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998. Gerardi, who had been an important figure in fighting for human rights in Guatemala, was beaten to death just two days after he issued a report that cited the military’s constant violation of human rights and use of violence against civilians during the country’s 36-year civil war.
-Will Brazil become the next country to decriminalize drug use?
-In mixed news from Mexico, outgoing President Felipe Calderón has said that, compared to the first half of 2011, drug murders have dropped 15-20% during January to June of 2012, including a drop by 42% in Ciudad Juárez. However, another report shows that violence against women increased by 20% in the state of Mexico, which incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto governed until last fall and which surrounds the Federal District on its north, west, and east.
-Speaking of Peña Nieto, he has vowed to imprison any and all individuals who bought the votes of the Mexican electorate in the recent election. It remains to be seen if he will be sincere in this pledge, though it seems dubious at best, given that it was Peña Nieto himself that benefited from his party’s practice of vote-buying.
-In one last story on the outcomes from Mexico’s election, one-third of the incoming members of Mexico’s Congress will be women.
-Human Rights Watch has issued a new report that suggests that the political contexts have led to increased intimidation and censorship in Venezuela.
-Brazil’s police have begun to arrest and remove illegal gold miners who had illegally begun squatting and mining on the lands of the Yanomani, one of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.
-A few weeks after Chile ruled that General Alberto Bachelet, whose daughter Michelle governed as President from 2006-2010, died under torture during the Pinochet regime, authorities have charged two military officials with his death. After the coup of September 11, Pinochet’s regime purged the military of officers who were loyal to constitutional president Salvador Allende, including Bachelet.
-Over 1 million Brazilian evangelicals gathered in São Paulo in the annual ”March for Jesus” last weekend. Although one million people is a lot of people, the total who showed up fell far short of the six million evangelicals that organizers predicted would attend. Still, the number of evangelicals is only growing, and at least fifteen evangelical ministers are running for public office in the state of São Paulo in another sign of evangelicals’ growing importance not just in society or culture but in politics as well.
-An editorial in the New York Times makes the compelling (and correct) case for compensating Guatemalans whom the US infected with STDs without their consent in the 1940s.
-As another reminder of the shifting context of hemispheric geopolitics, Argentina signed a defense agreement with China, even while Caribbean countries debate between alliances with Taiwan or with China. Meanwhile, Margaret Myers provides yet another excellent summary of Chinese headlines on Latin America from the past month, including a unique take on the Paraguayan removal of President Fernando Lugo.
-Is a Chilean bill proposing an increase in minimum wage at risk?
-Nobel laureate Gabriel García Marquez is suffering from dementia, according to his brother.
-The US government has confirmed that a DEA agent killed another alleged drug trafficker in Honduras last week. This is the second incident involving DEA agents in Honduras in less than a month; A DEA agent shot and killed another alleged trafficker at the end of June.
-A new report says that Benoni Alberaz, the army officer responsible for torturing Dilma Rousseff and many others, the current President of Brazil and an anti-dictatorship activist in the late-1960s, died twenty years ago (even while security apparatuses were continuing to report on Rousseff and other former activists) meaning he never had to answer for his crimes.
-Peruvian troops managed to free ten child hostages and captured the eleven members of the Shining Path movement that had taken the children. The capture and rescue provided Peruvian President Ollanta Humala with a brief bit of good news as he faces growing criticism for the ongoing and increasingly violent protests against mining projects in the northern part of Peru.
-Meanwhile, in Bolivia, protests against a Canadian mine left at least one farmer dead amidst conflicting reports. Some accounts say police clashed with protesters, while the Bolivian government countered that the farmer “died in a dynamite accident” (though those two explanations are not mutually exclusive). However, the ongoing protests have led the government to consider nationalizing the Canadian mining company’s claimed property.
-Ecuador’s dependence on oil revenues is revealing its shortcomings, as the country had to seek out a $515 million loan from the Latin American Reserve Fund in order to counter a global drop in oil prices.
-In more depressing animal news, workers in Trinidad trying to divert a river in order to protect a hotel ended up crushing tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs.
-There have been anti-mining protests in Peru for the past several months, but yesterday, one of the protests turned violent, with at least three people dead and 21 wounded in a confrontation between police and residents protesting a massive mining project in Cajamarca. The protests took place even as a new report suggests efforts towards transparency are failing to meet local populations’ expectations, perhaps adding to the protesters’ causes for mobilization. Meanwhile, President Ollanta Humala shook up the military forces yesterday by relieving 22 generals of command in an administrative shuffle designed to revitalize the armed forces.
-In yet another example of humans doing all they can to destroy oceans and marine life, overfishing of hatcheries in South America has left Chile at “critically low levels” of fish available.
-The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, officially supported equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians yesterday, becoming the second Hispanic organization to support gay marriage. LULAC joins the National Council of La Raza, which supported marriage equality last month.
-Mexico’s elections may have ended, but the news and controversy has not. In the wake of reports of the PRI buying votes even as the Elections Agency plans to recount 1/3 of the ballots, all of which adds to runner-up Andrés López Obrador’s refusal to concede defeat amidst allegations of electoral fraud. López Obrador also objected to the 2006 elections which he lost by fewer than 250,000 votes (or just over 0.5% of the total vote count).
-Colombian ex-general Mauricio Santoyo, who was the commander of the military police under president Álvaro Uribe and who has been tied to paramilitary groups and the drug trade, turned himself into Drug Enforcement Agency officials today to face trial in the United States. Santoyo is just the latest in a long line of officials who were top-level politicians and advisors with ties to both the Uribe government and to paramilitary groups during the president’s time in office from 2002 to 2010.
-The constitutional turmoil in El Salvador intensified yesterday, as there are now two different groups of judges both claiming to represent the Supreme Court. Tim’s analysis is excellent (and his blog is one of the only places to find more about what’s going on in El Salvador regarding the constitutional crisis specifically and El Salvador more generally).
-Honduran President Porfírio Lobo has suggested a constitutional reform to give the military the power of a police force . However, human rights group The Committee of Families of the Disappeared and Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH) has appealed the reform to the supreme court in an attempt to prevent an increase in the military’s power in what opponents see as a clear constitutional violation of the separation of military and police. (And of course, (the last time a constitutional reform was proposed in Honduras, it did not work out well for the previous democratically-elected president.)
-Argentine workers have defied a court order to end their protest and continue to blockade a major site of oil and gas production. The workers, who are temporary workers, are demanding a salary level similar to that of permanent workers at the Cerro Dragon energy compound. Meanwhile, the Argentine Supreme Court dealt a blow Canadian mining corporation Barrick Gold’s plans in Argentina after the court temporarily reversed a lower court’s decision to block a federal glacier protection law.
-Ten months after Brazilian judge Patrícia Acioli was gunned down in front of her home after sentencing police officers tied to militias a new report finds that the number of judges under threat has actually increased in the past year in what is certainly a threat to judicial independence and to efforts to curb paramilitary violence in Brazil.
-Less than two months after famed Mexican author Carlos Fuentes passed away, the Mexican government announced plans to create a literary prize named after the writer. Fuentes was renowned the world over for his style, garnering the praise of respected authors (including Philip Roth) and the general public alike.
-Finally, some Brazilian air force pilots may be in trouble after a planned flyby in Brasília flew so close to the ground it shattered the windows on government buildings, including the Brazilian Supreme Court.
-The latest polls suggest that on Sunday, barring some extreme occurrence, Enrique Peña Nieto will indeed become the next president of Mexico, marking the return of the PRI to power 12 years after Vicente Fox broke the party’s 70+ year hold on the government.
-China Premier Wen Jibao wrapped up his trip to South America with a bang, pledging $15 billion in investments and loans in order to boost development and infrastructure in the region.
-Questions on the US’s presence in Honduras again boiled to the surface after a DEA agent killed a Honduran man this week. While the US said the victim was tied to the drug trade and that the agent acted in “self-defense,” the fact that it was a US agent has again raised questions over sovereignty and the US’s role in Honduras specifically and in combating the drug trade in the region more generally.
-Bolivia’s police force ended their strike, agreeing to a pay raise of 20%. The strike had led to the government deploying the military to patrol the streets and raised the specter of a possible violent clash between police and military similar to that in 2003 that left 19 people dead. However, the end of the strike did not bring an end to social unrest, as the first action the police had to do was to contain another indigenous protest against the planned road through the Amazon that President Evo Morales supports but that has met indigenous opposition since last year.
-A series of attacks on buses and on police in São Paulo has left authorities suggesting that the criminal group Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a group originally formed in the early1990s and made up of prison inmates and associates, has made a return.
-Based on rates up through the first six months of this year, 2012 is heading towards being one of the worst years for the murder of journalists worldwide, with Latin America tragically contributing plenty to the attacks on journalists.
-Ecuador has announced that it will no longer send military officers to the former School of the Americas in Georgia. As I wrote at my old haunt, the School of the Americas is one of the more infamous examples of US policies during the Cold War, providing training to such infamous figures as Efraín Ríos Montt, Manuel Noriega, and numerous other officials involved with military coups, dictatorships, and human rights violations throughout the region in latter half of the twentieth century.
-Tens of thousands of Chilean high school and college students again took to the streets, continuing to demand broad reforms to the education system. Students have periodically demonstrated since last year, gaining broad support, challenging the neoliberal policies of President Sebastián Piñera and leading to declining popularity for Chile’s right-wing president.
-Speaking of Piñera, he walked out of an interview after a journalist brought up the controversial pro-Pinochet documentary that has recently aired in Chile.
-Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla denied that the military regime of 1976-1983 ever kidnapped any children, in spite of at least 500 documented cases that continue to galvanize and unearth traumas and pain (past and present) in Argentina.
-And speaking of military regimes, in Brazil, a court has ordered former colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra to pay $25,000 to both the wife and the sister of late journalist Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Merlino, who died after being tortured in a prison run by Ustra in 1971.
-Although it has been nearly two and a half years since an earthquake devastated Haiti, there are still more than 300,000 people who remain displaced from the disaster.
-An Argentine bishop has resigned after it became clear he had “amorous ties” with a woman. I genuinely feel bad for the man, and his case serves as yet another reminder of how absurd and archaic the Catholic Church’s ongoing insistence on celibacy in the 21st century is.
The events in Paraguay this weekend were particularly exceptional and important, but there were many other things going on throughout Latin America that are worth noting.
-Bolivia is going through its own domestic strife, as police have gone on strike over pay. The strike quickly spread throughout the country and could lead to the type of confrontation that left 19 people dead in a similar strike in 2003. With police striking, the Bolivian government has mobilized the army to fulfill police functions and patrol the streets. This is the second police strike in the region this year – in February, police in Brazil went on strike right before Carnaval, also demanding higher pay.
-In Argentina, truckers went on a one-day strike demanding higher pay, a tactic that was successful for the truckers. However, they have also announced another one-day strike this week to demand a reduction in taxes.
-While Mexico has made a number of high-profile arrests (and at least one possibly mistaken identification in an arrest) of drug cartel leaders in recent weeks, a new report says that Mexico lags behind Colombia and even Guatemala in seizing criminals’ actual assets, calling such seizures “nearly null” in Mexico. Meanwhile, “intern” over at Just the Facts breaks down nicelyhow July’s presidential election may impact the drug trade in Mexico.
-On the other end of the drug trade debate, Uruguay’s government is set to submit a bill that would legalize marijuana.
-The Rio+20 environmental summit wrapped up last week, though with little concrete change or improvements in sustainable development; rather, “everybody” was “unhappy” and the conference agreed to future conferences. That said, Rio Real was in Rio de Janeiro and had some interesting on-the-ground observations, as did Lucy Jordan, who provided “A Brazil Perspective on Rio+20.”, and Lisa provides a layperson’s view on living in Rio in the midst of the summit.
-Indigenous peoples in Venezuela are demanding Germany return a 35-ton boulder that is (ironically) a part of a “global peace project” but that is also a sacred object to the Pemon peoples.
-Tropical storm Debby formed in the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. This marks the first time since 1851 that there were four tropical storms that had formed before July 1.
-An investigation into the death of General Alberto Bachelet, the father of former president Michelle Bachelet and a military official who was loyal to president Salvador Allende after his overthrow and suicide in 1973, has found that the former general most likely died from heart problems aggravated by the torture the Pinochet regime forced him to endure. Meanwhile, the Chilean courts also ordered an investigation into the 1976 assassination of US citizen Ronni Moffitt in Washington DC. Moffitt died in a car bomb that also killed exiled Chilean human rights and anti-Pinochet dictatorship activist Orlando Letelier.
-Uruguay’s Minister of Economy, Fernando Lorenzo, said that the country is worried about the economic impact of the Euro zone’s ongoing instability might have on countries like Uruguay. The admission serves as an important reminder that, despite recent regional economic successes, Latin America is still somewhat dependent on the economic strength of Europe (and susceptible to economic troubles there).
-Finally, Brazil is set to raise the price of gasoline for the first time since….2008.
-With just over a month to go before the Mexican Presidential Election, center-left candidate Manuel López Obrador has narrowed the gap, and is now trailing PRI-candidate and frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto by only four percentage points in one poll.
-Venezuelan soldiers captured Diego Perez Henao, the suspected leader of the Colombian drug cartel Rastrojos (“Leftovers”), in Venezuela this weekend.
-A controversial dam project in Chile has suffered a major blow as Colbun, one of the two major sources of funding for the dam, withdrew its support for the project. The dam would flood thousands of acres in Chilean Patagonia and had faced significant opposition from a variety of groups, including indigenous peoples and environmental groups, even while increasingly-embattled and unpopular president Sebastián Piñera continues to support the project.
-It has been just over one week since Honduran President Porfirio Lobo named Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares the new national police chief, and already Bonilla Valladares is once again facing allegations of being involved in the the murder and/or disappearance of at least three civilians ten years ago, when he served as a regional police official in the late-1990s and early-2000s.
-Peru declared a state of emergency last week as protests against mining projects after protests took a violent turn, and officials have arrested a mayor for “inciting” the protestors. This is not the first time the government of Ollanta Humala has taken such measures; late last year, the government took similar measures during protests against a gold mine in Cajamarca.
-In a different type of protest, thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest and demand justice for Rosa Elvira Cely, a street vendor who was assaulted and raped and who died of her injuries.
-Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo returned from a two-week trip to Asia that his administration described as an attempt to find new markets for Paraguayan goods (especially soy and beef), while his detractors criticized him the time and money spent abroad. While the trip may not lead to any definite trade deals, not traveling to spur foreign investment would certainly prevent any trade deals, so time will tell whether Lugo or his detractors were right.
-A new poll shows that Chileans overwhelmingly support reforms to the dictatorship-era electoral system Augusto Pinochet’s government left behind, with less than 25% of those polled supporting the so-called “binomial system” that favors coalition politics and larger parties/coalitions over smaller parties and that undermines majoritarian governance in Congress.
-Luis Moreno Ocampo, an Argentine who prosecuted high-profile human rights violations cases (including Moammar Ghadafi) for the International Criminal Court, will now be going after a different type of criminal activity, as FIFA has nominated Ocampo to serve as the football organization’s chief of anti-corruption.
-Ricardo Patiño, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Ecuador, spoke out against this week against what he called US and British colonialism in Puerto Rico/Guantanamo Bay [Cuba] and the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, respectively.
-Finally, in mixed environmental news from Chile, people donated over 60,000 trees to reforest the Torres del Paine National Park that was ravaged by a forest fire last December, while Chile’s largest hog farm is trying to figure out what to do with half a million pigs after months of complaints and pollution led to the industrial agribusiness having to shut down operations.
Pepsi finds itself with a new, more dangerous rival than Coca-Cola:
Banners signed by a cult-like Mexican drug gang say that cartel members launched firebombing attacks on a PepsiCo. subsidiary because they believe the snack company let law-enforcement agents use its trucks for surveillance.
Five Sabritas warehouses and vehicle lots were attacked Friday and Saturday in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guanajuato. Officials say four alleged members of the Knights Templar cartel have been detained in the case, which they link to extortion. At least 10 banners hung around the city of Apatzingan on Thursday accuse Sabritas of ferrying government agents.
Fortunately, Pepsi is not without its own resources and allies. Stephen Colbert, for one, is not going to take this sitting down.
The New York Times recently ran an excellent story discussing the challenges facing Peruvian society, culture, and politics as the country continues to try to confront the past of a civil war that tore the world’s 20th-largest country apart in the 1980s and 1990s as leftist guerrilla movements and the Peruvian government entered into an increasingly escalating civil war that left civilian populations caught in the middle. As is the case with other South American countries that faced civil conflict and human rights violations in the latter half of the twentieth century, the issues confronting Peru provide a powerful reminder of the ways in which memory struggles continue to impact and affect society even decades after the violence “officially” ends.
Peru’s civil war began in 1980. That year, the country held presidential elections for the first time after twelve years during which the Peruvian military governed. The day before elections, five members of the Partido Comunista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso (the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path, later known simply as Shining Path) burned ballots in a public display of protest. The Shining Path, a Maoist group founded by Abimael Guzmán with roots in the Andean highlands region surrounding Ayacucho, called for an open war against “imperialism” and the “bourgeois” democracy of Peru (hence the destruction of ballots on the eve of the 1980s election). Leaders and intellectuals in Shining Path sought cultural revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat that they argued (or hoped) would lead to a worldwide revolution and the emergence of new, forms and understandings of democratic societies. While the movement proclaimed its goal to incorporate and fight for the Peruvian masses along class lines (even actively encouraging women to join its forces, a rare policy among guerrilla movements in the region at the time), although this broad support never materialized, and the movement counted upon only several thousand supporters in a country of more than 17 million citizens at the start of the conflict.
Periodic skirmishes took place from 1980 until the end of 1982, when the “Manchay Tiempo,” or “Time of Fear” (in Quechua and Spanish) began. Bewteen 1982 and the end of the 1980s, the Shining Path and other guerrilla movements targeted any and all individuals it associated with the Peruvian state, including police officers, mayors, teachers, and civil servants, many of whom were far from economic or political elites. In response, the government, then headed by president Fernando Belaúnde, opted for military intervention, leading to an escalation in violence from both the guerrillas and the military, with the Peruvian population caught in the middle. By 1985, 27 provinces were in a state of emergency, and over 5,000 people had died or been murdered in political violence that often targeted citizens who were not associated with either the government or the Shining Path. In a militarized state of exception, Peruvian armed forces arrested, murdered, and “disappeared” more than 1,000 peasants it suspected of having ties to the Shining Path and other emergent guerrilla movements (like the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, named after the leader of a 1780 uprising in colonial Peru). The military destroyed any village that aided or even showed the slightest sympathy for the guerilla movements; in response, the Shining Path’s guerrillas murdered any who disagreed with it or whom it suspected of aiding the Peruvian government. As a result, by the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of people had died at the hands of the guerrillas or the military, and entire regions were emptied as people tried to flee the violence. Although the Peruvian government captured Guzmán in 1992, the administration of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) continued to go after guerrillas and any it suspected of supporting it, thereby perpetuating human rights violations that ultimately landed Fujimori in prison for his role in state-sanctioned violence just as Guzmán was imprisoned for his role in guerilla-violence. By the end of the 1990s, the violence had noticeably wound down, with Fujimori’s exit from office (amidst evidence of electoral fraud and corruption) marking the end of the conflict for many (though isolated instances of violence continued, albeit not nearly on the scale as during the 1980s and early-1990s). Ultimately, Peru formed a truth commission that interviewed over 15,000 victims of political violence, finding that over 69,000 people had died in the civil strife between 1980 and 2000.
Although the truth commission completed its work, the legacies of the war continue to make themselves felt in society far beyond the ongoing periodic instances of small-scale guerrilla violence (though that violence is certainly not small to the victims). There continues to be significant support for Fujimori, whose daughter Keiko was nearly elected president in 2011. Additionally, a new generation of youth that has no memory of the “Time of Fear” is supportive of and seeing the Shining Path as a legitimate political party. And while Guzmán and Fujimori both serve time for their roles in the murder of Peruvian civilians, the question of justice for human rights abuses has not faded with time; indeed, new evidence continuously emerges that shows the extent of state violence and the military’s own use of summary executions in what had previously been seen as “heroic” acts, undermining and complicating narratives and understandings of the Civil War that framed the Shining Path as the group primarily responsible for violence. Thus, more than twelve years after the Truth Commission’s final report, Peru continues to struggle with memory and narrative as it deals with the impact of violence and human rights violations on society and politics, confront the issue of if and how to assign culpability and/or prosecute past violators, and how to commemorate the recent past.
Of course, as several of us have discussed here, memory struggles are an important ongoing issue throughout Latin America. More than twenty years after the last military dictatorship in South America collapsed, the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay are still facing the challenges and struggles over if and how society and the state should remember, commemorate, ignore, or move on from the legacies of systematic human rights violations. Their own experiences in confronting the past may provide some important lessons and examples for Peru. However, Peru’s case from its Southern Cone neighbors is significantly different in three regards.
First, the political contexts were markedly different. Peru’s civil war took place during a comparatively open democratic system. By contrast, the human rights violations in the Southern Cone in the 1960s-1980s took place in the context of bureaucratic authoritarian dictatorships that did not hesitate to employ brutal forms of torture (including administering electric shocks to prisoners’ ears, mouths, and genitals; committing rape on both women and men; using simulated executions; sleep deprivation; random incidents of assault; and other mechanisms of torture) against anybody they considered to be threats to the state or society as “subversives.” Within these repressive dictatorships, military officials and soldiers tortured tens of thousands of individuals and murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands more between 1954 and 1990. The governments even collaborated together to ensure that perceived “enemies” of one country who resided in another were arrested, tortured, and even killed. ] Certainly, these actions in some regards resemble those committed in Peru, and the use of states of exception and increased militarization in Peru and the facade of elections at the local level in the Southern cone make the differences between the two cases blurrier than a simple “democracy/dictatorship” dichotomy allows for. Nonetheless, these institutional differences matter, for they shaped the ways in which leaders of the respective countries could and did act against what they perceived as threats against the state (and the defenses of those actions). While Peru’s government did employ terror, murder, and “disappearances” like its southern neighbors, the existence of a democratically-elected civilian government there made it more difficult (though not impossible) for Peruvian presidents to employ the types of repression that the Southern Cone utilized.
The second difference rests in the nature of guerrilla movements in Peru and in the Southern Cone. As mentioned above, the Shining Path ultimately was able to mobilize several thousand troops in its war against the Peruvian state. By contrast, the openly repressive nature of the Southern Cone’s military regimes, combined with internal divisions and factions within leftist groups that split over how to fight and for what to fight, ultimately stunted the ability for large-scale guerrilla movements like the Shining Path to form. As a result, the Southern Cone generally confronted a situation in which the more centralized, coherent, and larger forces of military regimes were able to use broad information networks, repression, and the sheer size of the national military to stamp out much smaller guerrilla movements. Indeed, Brazil’s largest rural guerrilla movement in Araguaia never counted on more than seventy or so members (and, in this regard, the experiences of radical leftists in Brazil did not differ much from their counterparts in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay), a far cry from the thousands of guerrillas in the Shining Path.
The third difference flows directly from the second one, and involves the impact of guerrilla violence on local populations. Because the guerrilla movements of the Southern Cone were much smaller than the Shining Path or MRTA in Peru, and because they were resisting repressive authoritarian regimes, the violence of these guerrilla movements generally did not target civilians. Certainly, many groups (including the guerrillas in Araguaia) tried to “educate” civilians and recruit local support from civilian populations, but specific acts against non-military populations were extremely rare throughout the Southern Cone. By contrast, the Shining Path, the MRTA, and other offshoots were sizeable enough and controlled enough territory not only to directly challenge the Peruvian state, but to inflict a much broader and deeper level of violence against civilian populations that it deemed “unsupportive” of the guerillas’ demands. Thus it was that thousands of civilians unaffiliated either with the guerrillas or with the government died at the hands of the Shining Path, an experience that civilian populations of the Southern Cone by and large were spared from.
If one wants to find a useful point of comparison for the types of violence Peruvian peoples confronted during the civil war, the place to look is not to Peru’s south, but to its north. In terms of violence and the context of human rights violations, Peru much more closely resembles Colombia than it does the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Southern Cone. Since 1964, Colombia (like Peru) has faced a protracted civil war between guerrilla movements (in this case, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, and other offshoots) and Colombian armed forces,as well as right-wing paramilitary groups. Like Peru, Colombia has been engaged in an open armed civil struggle for decades even while successfully maintaining continuity in relatively open democratic processes and institutions; like Peru, the guerrillas in Colombia could count on a larger memebership than guerrilla movements in the Southern Cone, and thus could more directly impact the lives of civilians not directly involved in the struggle (especially in the countryside); and like Peru, Colombian civilians allied neither with leftists nor with the government have nonetheless witnessed basic human rights violations at the hands of the opposing forces, with tens of thousands of civilians dead in the armed struggle. Certainly, there are significant differences between the two, including Colombian guerrilla movements and paramilitary groups alike having direct ties to the drug trade and the role of US corporations, most notably Chiquita, that provided financial support to right-wing death squads. Yet in terms of increased militarization in a (relatively) democratic context, in terms of the types of guerrilla institutions and mobilization, and the impact on society (including death tolls), and in terms of the impact on a variety of social sectors throughout the country, Peru’s recent past more closely resembles that of Colombia than of the military regimes of the Southern Cone.
That is not to say that the memory struggles of the Southern Cone have nothing to offer in terms of understanding the issues Peru is confronting or how the country confronts its past. Indeed, in broad strokes, the recent memory struggles and quests for justice in the Southern Cone point us towards some of the issues that Peru confronts today. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization, questions on how they should mark the past and remember it, and why.These are not meaningless, esoteric issues, either; as numerous scholars across a variety of fields have suggested, questions of memory cut to the heart of issues of nation and historical narrative in Latin America in the twenty-first century. They tell us what countries value in their national narrative; they tell us who is included or excluded from shaping that narrative; they tell us what potential counter-narratives exist or may emerge, and from whom; they establish new hierarchies and networks of power within national politics and society; they shape and define national political processes not just in the past, but in the present sand future as well.
For these reasons, it is worth paying attention to Peru as it continues to confront its past. Because while the historical contexts and the legacies of violence in Peru may be unique, the way it faces that past and constructs society going forward can tell us much more about memory struggles and the legacies of violence (state and guerrilla) on societies decades after the last shots are fired.