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.