-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.
-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.
-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote) and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.
-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.
-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.
-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.
-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.
-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.
-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.
-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
-Brazil and Russia reached an agreement on arms and technology exchanges between the two countries while also discussing nuclear power. Talks between Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and President Dilma Rousseff led to the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Brazil as well as the possibility of Russia aiding Brazil in building more nuclear power plants. Currently, Brazil, whose rapid growth has put a strain on energy supplies, has only one nuclear power plant (with two functioning reactors) at Angra dos Reis in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
-Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court has upheld a ruling that prohibits gay couples from adopting children. The judges ruled 5-4 that only mother-father relationships were appropriate for children, marking a significant setback in equal rights on the island.
-Nearly 30 years after battles between the Shining Path and government forces, Peru’s government returned the bodies of 26 people killed during the fights to their families, who were finally able to bury their loved ones.
-While it’s difficult to imagine extreme poverty being eradicated, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says that Brazil is very close to doing just that after raising the monthly stipend for 2.5 million Brazilians living below the poverty line.
-With Colombia near the top of the list in terms of deaths and injuries caused by mines, volunteer groups made up of civilians have begun training and working on removing mines.
-In an effort to reduce both deforestation and crime that is often connected to illegal logging, an international operation has led to Interpol arresting over 200 people for illegal timber trafficking and logging in South America.
-A new intelligence law in Honduras designed to create new security apparatuses has some concerned, as its combination of military defense and police forces is reminiscent of Cold War policies that fostered the disappearance of Hondurans in the 1980s.
-While Chile’s support for England over Argentina during the Malvinas War has long been known, recently-declassified documents have further shed light on the diplomatic ties and subjects discussed between the Chilean and English governments diplomatic ties operated prior to the beginning of the War.
-Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez took advantage of new passport regulations to leave her home country. Her first stop? Brazil, where she addressed Congress yesterday, though her journey has also witnessed some opposition from supporters of Cuba.
-Finally, FIFA appears ready to finally use technology to improve futebol/soccer, as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will employ goal line technology to confirm goals. The issue came to the forefront when Englishman Frank Lampard clearly scored a goal that did not count in a match against Germany (though Germany went on to win the game 4-1, Lampard’s goal would have made it 2-2).
-Student protests continue and are escalating in Chile, where dozens were injured in clashes with police. Additionally, 139 students who had occupied buildings were violently arrested Thursday. The arrests have not brought an end to the protests, however, as students occupied another building in protest in response to the original arrests, even while Santiago’s mayor has threatened to cancel the scholarships of protesters. Students have been protesting for over a year, demanding educational reforms and opposing efforts to privatize education.
-After ten days of strikes, Buenos Aires’s subway workers returned to work after getting a 23% increase in their salaries, although the workers’ union says the solution is “temporary” and their struggles for better pay and working conditions will continue.
-Work on Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte dam has again come to a halt, as a court ordered work to be stopped until indigenous communities whose lands and livelihoods will be affected by the dam have time to make their voices heard.
-Guatemala’s military forcefully removed nearly 100 landless Guatemalans and bulldozed their homes after 32 families had settled on land near a military base.
-In a major victory for human rights, Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled that cases of military human rights violations must be tried in civil courts, and not military courts where such cases could be covered up or not fully prosecuted.
-Members of Peru’s Shining Path ambushed and killed five soldiers, Peru’s military is reporting.
-In today’s bad environmental news, a report says jaguars in Brazil’s Atlantic forest have gone “virtually extinct.”
-Hundreds of Peruvians fell ill after a toxic spill polluted the air near the community of Santa Rosa de Cajacay. Although the toxic spill originally took place more than three weeks ago, the Antimina company, which owns the mine, has said or done little to address the issue.
Twenty years ago today, the La Cantuta massacre in Peru occurred, when a military death squad operating under the administration of Alberto Fujimori kidnapped, murdered, and “disappeared” the bodies of one university professor and nine university students. The context of the state-sponsored terrorism and murders of the ten people had its roots in two processes: on the one hand, the rise of the Sendero Luminoso, or “Shining Path,” guerrilla movement, and on the other hand, the administration of President Alberto Fujimori, which began in 1990.
The Shining Path, a Maoist group that declared war on “imperialism” and “bourgeois” democracy in Peru, emerged in the early 1980s, as the country transitioned from a military government that had ruled since 1968. Throughout the 1980s, members of the Shining Path, who at most numbered several thousand in a country of 17 million people, increasingly targeted mayors, teachers, police officers, and other public servants, proclaiming revolutionary violence that would lead to cultural revolution and a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, according to Shining Path leaders. By 1985, over 5,000 people had died, and the government responded by using military force to kill anybody suspected not only of being a member of the Shining Path, but even of aiding the Shining Path, leading to the murder of thousands of people, especially poor peasants whom the Shining Path claimed to fight for but who often had no direct ties to either the guerrillas nor to the government. Consequently, by the end of the 1980s, over 10,000 people were already dead, and Peru was effectively in a state of civil war, with peasant populations often caught in the middle.
In this context, Peru elected neoliberal Alberto Fujimori to the presidency in 1990. Fujimori had campaigned on a platform of change, pledging a new style of government and appealing to the poor. Upon taking office, however, Fujimori intensified the fight against the Shining Path. He increased the number of troops engaged in combat in several regions, and even legalized and armed peasant self-defense groups known as Rondas. Fujimori also secretly created the Grupo Colina, an anti-communist paramilitary death squad made up of members of the military, to go after anybody the government believed was tied to the Shining Path. Fujimori’s moves did not go unopposed, though. Fujimori felt Congress, which the opposition parties controlled, was hampering his ability to implement neoliberal reforms and combat the guerrillas; as a result, in April of 1992, he carried out an autogolpe (“self-coup”) with the support of the military, shutting down Congress, removing judges who opposed him, and even suspending the constitution. Although the move led to international opposition to the Fujimori government, an overwhelming number of Peruvians supported the autogolpe, and Fujimori claimed this support provided a mandate for his programs.
Unfortunately, this widespread support also led the Fujimori administration to intensify its violations of human rights against anybody it suspected of even having the slightest affiliation with the Shining Path. Certainly, Peruvian governments had been involved in such violations since the 1980s, when it “disappeared” over a thousand people it claimed (often with no evidence) were guerrillas. However, under Fujimori, these attacks only intensified. Even before the autogolpe, in November 1991, a death squad from Peru’s army murdered fifteen people, including an 8-year-old child, who it claimed it thought were members of the Shining Path but were in fact just people celebrating a party in what came to be known as the Barrios Altos massacre. After the autogolpe, Fujimori, with a generally-unquestioning population supportive of his every actions, only intensified such attacks. While the Shining Path was a very real threat to Peruvian peace, having killed roughly 20,000 people by 1992, Fujimori’s approach at suppression often failed to distinguish between actual guerrillas and those who simply questioned some of the government’s policies. Indeed, the government categorized any opponents as “terrorists” without any distinction between actual guerrillas and mere critics. Thus, as Jo-Marie Burt has argued, the Fujimori government created an “ideological construct used to justify the criminalization of dissent and
opposition activity and which left the individual so categorized devoid of rights and guarantees.”
It was in this context that the Massacre at La Cantuta took place in July 1992. The military had begun to occupy the Universidad Nacional de Educación Enrique Guzmán y Valle (National University of Education Enrique Guzmán y Valle), popularly know as “La Cantuta,” in the early 1990s after reports of the Sendero Luminoso’s popularity and presence on the campus. La Cantuta was located on the outskirts of Lima, and the fact that many students at La Cantuta were poorer and often of a darker complexion only fueled stereotypes that connected the guerrilla movement to Peru’s poorer population (in spite of the fact that the Shining Path often targeted peasant communities themselves). Two days after the Shining Path exploded two car bombs in Lima in the largest bombing attack during Peru’s civil war, killing 25 and wounding upwards of 200, the military, under Fujimori’s orders, intensified its persecution of anybody it believed was a vaguely-defined “terrorist.”
Thus, on July 18, 1992, military members who were a part of the infamous Grupo Colina death squad, moved on La Cantuta. Early in the morning, paramilitaries entered the student residences on the campus of La Cantuta, ordering all students out of their rooms. It then took captive nine students and one professor whom it suspected of being involved with the Tarata bombing. The Grupo Colina then appeared to torture the ten before murdering them and “disappearing” the bodies.
Although the La Cantuta massacre was not the first instance of state-terrorism and human rights violations, Catherine M. Conaghan demonstrates that La Cantuta made clear just how repressive and powerful the military under Fujimori had become after the autogolpe earlier in 1992. Indeed, this period ushered in some of the worst human rights violations during the Fujimori government. By 1993, however, reports continued to emerge detailing Grupo Colina’s repeated human rights violations, including not just La Cantuta but also Barrios Altos and the Santa Massacre of 9 peasants in May of 1992. When questions began to emerge about the fates of the ten individuals, the Grupo Colina exhumed and burned the bodies in an attempt to destroy the evidence of the murders and disappearances. This attempt to destroy the bodies ultimately did not prevent the truth from emerging, however; by the end of 1993, several of the bodies were recovered and identified, and further analysis of the remains revealed the victims had been tortured before the military officers of the Grupo Colina murdered them. After winning re-election in 1995, Fujimori’s government pushed an amnesty bill through Congress; the bill released all military members, police officers, and public servants who had been charged with and/or convicted of human rights violations. The men who committed the La Cantuta Massacre were set free.
However, that was not the end of the story. In 2000, amidst allegations of voter fraud and widespread protests, Fujimori was inaugurated to a third term, but before the year was out, he was embroiled in a blatant corruption scandal that led to Congress removing him from office. The worst phases of the civil war had ended, but not before over 69,000 people died at the hands of both the military and the Shining Path between 1980 and 2000. Although the Shining Path remains active today, its power is greatly diminished when compared to the 1980s and early 1990s. As for Fujimori and the perpetrators of the La Cantuta Massacre, they did not escape the consequences of their actions. In 2000, Congress repealed the 1995 amnesty law, and Fujimori and members of Grupo Colina are now in prison for their role in human rights violations that took place between 1990 and 2000, including the La Cantuta Massacre. And in 2007, the Peruvian government officially apologized for the massacre, and provided financial compensation to the victims’ families. However, the apology does not undo the damage caused by the Fujimori administration’s own use of state-terrorism and violence, and Peru continues to wrestle with the legacies and narratives of human rights struggles during the civil war, including massacres like La Cantuta, more than ten years after its official “end.”
 Jo-Marie Burt, “‘Quien Habla Es Terrorista': The Political Use of Fear in Fujimori’s Peru,” Latin American Research Review 41:3 (2006), pp. 32-62.
For more on the Shining Path, the Fujimori government, and Peru during the Civil War, in addition to Catherine M. Conaghan’s Fujimori’s Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere, I also recommend Jo-Marie Burt’s monograph Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru: Silencing Civil Society, and Steve J. Stern’s edited volume Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995.
-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.
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.