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Date: Mon, 13 Jan 97 08:39:53 CST
From: David Holmstrom <davidh@cmetnet.cmet.net>
Subject: Letter from Lima re MRTA

Letter from Lima re MRTA

13 January 1997

This letter from a friend in Lima gives a left perspective on the MRTA that is rather different from the romanticized northern-hemisphere view that is common in ACTIV-L postings. It jumps off from a PNS article about a connection between the MRTA and the Japanese Red Army Faction.

As for the MRTA-RFA analysis, it strikes me as extremely exaggerated. The MRTA may have international connections, and groups like the RFA may want to use it for their own purposes, but the whole operation and group itself seems a lot smaller and weaker than that here on the ground.

The main national leadership of the MRTA are all in jail, except the leader of this operation, Cerpa, who was a labor cadre and always second-ranked on the left, more of an operative than a thinker. There is at least one other "professional guerilla" type there, also Peruvian, but the rest of the group are apparently young kids, teenagers even, and most appear to be recruits from the selva (where MRTA continued to operate after being wiped out in Lima) with little initiative or leadership skills. Ex-hostages say the kids seem nervous and not at all professional, the young women watch telenovellas in between guarding hostages, and a couple of them even participated on the sidelines in the Mass that Father Wicht gave inside for Xmas. Since they are dealing with a bunch of hostages who are all political or business leaders with assorted negotiation and communication skills, it is probably intimidating for THEM as well as vice versa.

Anyhow, they strike those who were inside as a bunch of amateurs led by a couple of seasoned but definitely homegrown types, who got VERY lucky with this operation. Perhaps they did have good international intelligence help, but they also benefitted by a real slippage in local security standards. The basic operation was extremely simple--they just jumped out of a van, tossed a bomb that blew open a hole in the wall, and ran inside, taking the whole lot by surprise.

The idea of them having "billions and billions" of dollars to spread around the globe also seems out of line. They did make money off of kidnappings some years ago, and did (or do) charge cupos to drug traffickers, but it strikes me as relatively small potatoes by international standards. Its not like they have a tremendous rank and file, or huge arsenals and barracks in that selva, and its not like they are singlehandedly financing world revolution. Indeed, if this whole thing wasn't so serious in terms of the lives of the hostages, it would be kind of silly--a handful of amateurs who got lucky, but who may in fact not know what to do next. And I think they lose, whatever they do, at least in Peru.

There are rumors that the Japanese businessmen who were freed are paying huge ransoms, which is plausible and may be linked to the RFA input as your news item suggests. But even with millions of dollars in ransom, I dont think the impact of the MRTA here, in Peru, is going to be greatly increased as a result of this. It looks like an isolated incident, and of course is widely rejected by the public.

All in all, the MRTA don't have much credibility in terms of demanding participation in the democratic political process or negotiating a "peace agreement" or whatever. It is not like this is a longstanding and popular guerilla force that has won its positions with hard work and a string of military victories (a la central america). Nor are they recognized by anybody, include the local political left, as legitimate spokesmen for peoples rights or basic needs in Peru, not even for the rights of prisoners.

And there are no real barriers to participation in the political process here anyhow--the fact that existing leftist parties got less than 2 percent of the vote in the last elections reflects their own weaknesses, not repression or exclusion. International lefties may want to paint things otherwise and romanticize the MRTA, but that is wrong. The MRTA never did have a mass following here, nothing like Sendero even, it was always a handful of guys who deserted the legal left and tried to be traditional guerillas--they had followers, but I suspect they were more attractive to gringos than to masses of Peruvian youths.

As for prison conditions in Peru, of course they are terrible, for everybody. And the justice system sucks, for everybody. But again, the MRTA is not the first to point this out, there are outstanding human rights groups working on this issue with more legitimacy. Though as you can imagine, prisoners rights in Peru is about the lowest priority on the public agenda. Since most Peruvians live in shitty conditions, few are sympathetic to improving life for prisoners, at least not at public expense. Of course, it would be nice if as a result of this all prisoners were allowed more family visits, better food, more exercise, etc. And those may be the kinds of things the government CAN concede, publicly or privately, without looking weak--ojala. But Fujimori is NOT going to change the national economic or social policies, or free MRTA prisoners, as a result of this pressure. Nor would public opinion approve of that.

What is the position of the Left here? Well, first of all we have to ask who the Left is. There really isn't much of one, since the two left parties represented in Congress (3 guys) are basically allied with the center and right opposition, against Fujimori, and have pretty much lost their own profile or agenda. Anti-Fujimorismo rules. So of course, while they made all the appropriate public statements of support for the government in this moment of crisis (they did have hostages inside as well), in practice they can barely hide their anticipation that Fujimori's handling of this crisis might contribute to a further decline in his popularity. It is pretty sad, that their main focus is on waiting for Fujimori to decline, not on proposing alternatives.

One outcome of this event, however, has been the partial revival of a longtime left leader, Javier Diez Canseco, who was a radical youth hero in the 1970s and leader of the most radical legal left party in the 1980s, a fiery and charismatic Senator with longtime ties to Cuba. In recent years, Diez Canseco has kind of lost protagonism and seemed out of touch with the times, didnt even get reelected in 1990, and was barely reelected in 1995. He has focused on more low profile human rights work, including the rights of the disabled (he is disabled as a result of polio), and he has done a good job on that. But now he emerged as a star hostage in the Embassy, one of the first to be released and to serve as a mediator between the MRTA and the government, and he got a LOT of good press. Other hostages, of all political stripes, commented on his level-headedness and leadership ability inside the embassy (he knows Cerpa from the 1970s), and he has taken a principled stand on the prison conditions issues without appearing overly pro-MRTA. So some are hoping he will revive a more popular and moderate Left current here. I don't buy it, don't think he is the man for the times, and don't think he has a clue about alternatives--he never did get beyond criticizing whatever policies are in place, and he never did seem to understand much about how national economies work. But who knows?

The one thing we did read [about events in Chile -- the jail-break by several "terrorist" leaders from the maximum security prison] was that two cabinet ministers resigned as a result. We got that because the Peruvian opposition made a big deal of proclaiming how in CHILE, top-level officials accept political RESPONSIBILITY for things that happen under their watch, while here in Peru they generally blame it on underlings, and nobody ever resigns voluntarily here. Another round of applause for Chilean democracy, groan. Though it is true that nobody here has yet to accept responsiblity for the lapse in security that allowed the MRTA to pull this off. Or for the obvious fact that Peruvian intelligence has been too busy harassing legal opposition figures lately to focus on these groups. There were apparently plenty of police intelligence reports around to suggest that the MRTA was back in Lima, and that they were planning something big for the holidays, and that there was some Japanese connection. So what happened? If Fujimori doesnt respond to this effectively, he may in fact lose support, because his main virtues in the public eye were reducing inflation and whipping terrorism.

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