Nick Corbishley reports in Naked Capitalism that the US will soon be sending military personnel to Peru for “co-ooperation activities” with that country’s army and police. US armed forces suddenly flying in to “co-operate” in Latin American countries is widely considered unacceptable – especially when the Peruvian police and army just have killed sixty or more citizens opposed to the most recent coup, which put its first working-class president in jail. TeleSur reports that “training” will last from 1 June (today) to 31 Dec:
“The U.S. military will carry out operations with the Peruvian Joint Intelligence and Special Operations Command (CIOEC), the Joint Special Forces (FEC), the Navy’s Special Operations Forces (FOE), the Air Force’s Special Forces Group (GRUFE), the Anti-drug Directorate (DIRANDRO), and the Police’s Special Forces Directorate (DIROES).
“The training will take place in Lima, Callao, Loreto, San Martin, Santa Lucia, Huanuco, Ucayali, Pasco, Junin, Huancavelica, Cusco, Ayacucho, Iquitos, Pucusana and Apurimac.
“The largest group will be made up of 970 members of the U.S. Air Force, Space Force, and Special Forces. Besides carrying their personal regulation weapons, they will arrive in Peru with planes, trucks, and rapid response boats to take part in the Resolute Sentinel 2023 maneuver.”
The MRTA occupation of the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, a piece of history from 1996, is a great, sad story. I thought it would make a dramatic feature film, like Sacco & Vanzetti or The Mattei Affair. But these were the 1990s, not the 1970s. Much had changed in 20 years, and there were no funds for such a film. So I approached the story as a written piece – and it still took me a long time to get it right (assuming I have got it right – if you’re familiar with these events, and have corrections or improvements, please advise me). I tried to approach it as a book, a literal day-by-day account of the 127 days of the seige. But what stopped me, when I tried to write it that way, was how repetitive the occupation became, after only a few days. It was meant to be a revolutionary action to free political prisoners and bring about political change. It was supposed to last two weeks. Instead it became a strange, cyclical saga which spread out for months, and ended – for its protagonists – in disaster.
17 DECEMBER 1996
Lima is a city where many poor people and a few rich people reside. San Isidro is one of its wealthier neighbourhoods, not far from the city centre. Its streets are lined with old trees, and high-walled homes, and tall iron gates where drivers and bodyguards hang out on cracked pavements, in the shade.
One of the grandest of the high-walled homes was built to resemble Tara, the white-columned mansion where Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler trysted, in Gone With the Wind. The property had been acquired from its original owner by the government of Japan, and it was here that the Japanese Ambassador, Morihisa Aoki, resided.
Not all the buildings in the vicinity were mansions. Behind the Ambassador’s residence, and facing it, were apartment buildings. Here is was possible to rent a flat with plumbing, electricity, and a telephone line – amenities most Peruvians still lacked access to. There was no wireless internet. People used dial-up, or sent faxes. If you were in business, a bureaucrat, or a journalist, that phone line was important.
It was the Christmas season – summer in Peru – and the Ambassador was throwing his annual reception in honor of the emperor, Akihito. Diplomats, politicians, business executives, journalists, high-ranking military and police – the dullest of crews – were his invited guests. Tents were set up in the gardens, alongside bars and buffets. It appears the Ambassador was doing his best to keep his guests outside, and stop them wandering about his house. This, like Tara, featured a ballroom and a grand staircase, sweeping in a graceful curve up to the second floor. The rooms off the second floor corridor were less grand: still impressively large, but utilitarian. The Ambassador’s office was up there.
The official hours of the reception were from 7 to 9pm. The guest list had grown to more than 700 persons. Peruvians, particularly in such large numbers, could not be relied upon to all arrive punctually, so it was anticipated that the event would start late and run later. For that reason, no opening toast was planned. Food was to be served at 8.30.
The American Ambassador – thrillingly named Dennis Jett – left early at 7.45. President Fujimori’s family were there, though the President himself had not yet arrived. As they were of Japanese origin, they were honored guests. (It would later emerge that Fujimori had been born in Japan, and concealed the fact.) The party was going well. The hoped-for diplomats, captains of industry, and military brass were in attendance.
The first explosion occurred at 8.20. The Ambassador, struck by the force of the blast, thought it was a car bomb in the street. But it was not. Later, it would be claim that rebels entered in three groups: disguised as waiters, carrying floral arrangements, and aboard a phony ambulance. Others would assert that the rebels smuggled their weapons inside a cake. Aoki’s recollection was more prosaic. Two walls surrounded his residence. The inner wall separated the mansion from the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. This was the wall which had been breached. As he watched, black-clad figures started pouring into the Embassy garden through the hole. They were heavily armed, and the Ambassador’s first thought was that they were Peruvian special forces. He marvelled, for a moment, at how fast the military responded to any emergency. Then one of them cried, “We are the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement!” and the screaming started.
Nestor Cerpa, leader of the MRTA commando, had meant to calm the partygoers’ fears by explaining to them that they were the MRTA, the less violent, “good guerrillas” and not the brutal Shining Path – Sendero Luminoso. “We’re not Sendero Luminoso! Don’t worry!” he shouted. No one listened. Cerpa was dressed all in black, with a red and black bandana and the initials of his group sewn onto it. He wore a black baseball cap, backwards, and carried a walkie-talkie in a chest mount. He carried a pistol, grenades, and an AK 47. He terrified them.
To the guests, it seemed that there were twenty-five or thirty rebels, all dressed like Cerpa, waving guns at them and shouting at them to calm down. In fact, there were fourteen. But they seemed many more as they ran to take up positions in the windows, and began dividing their hostages into groups. They had trained for this.
“We are the Oscar Sanchez Special Forces!” another rebel, bearded behind his mask, shouted. “This is Operation Oscar Torre Condesu!” What did he mean? What was he talking about? Two guests emerged from the bathrooms, having flushed their IDs so the rebels wouldn’t know who they were. “Stay where you are!” yelled a masked woman. “Obey and nothing will happen to you!” She fired a round into the air, to prove she meant it. The other rebels followed suit. Outside, the police began a fusilade.
From the very beginning of the attack, the police were locked out of the building. The MRTA barred the doors and took up positions above the street. No one yet knew how they had entered the residence. So the police and bodyguards rained gunfire on the outer walls and windows, ran about, and argued among themselves. During breaks in firing, the cops yelled for the rebels to come out, and the rebels swore, homeland or death, that they would win.
In the garden, the guests were seated on the ground. The rebels walked among them, asking who they were. “Don’t look at us!”. Above and around them, the gun battle continued. The MRTA returned fire from their vantage points. There were no casualties. Roly Rojas was the bearded rebel. They called him El Arabe. Checking IDs, he encountered a tall, lean, middle-aged Japanese. “You are the Ambassador? Get up and come with me.” There were gasps as Aoki rose to his feet. Some thought he was about to be killed.
Rojas walked Aoki across the garden and the parking area, to the gatehouse in the outer wall. Two other masked rebels were there. One of them handed Aoki a bullhorn. “Here’s what you’re going to do, okay? I’m going to tell you what to say, and you say it!” Rojas spoke to him in Spanish. The Ambassador’s Spanish was not good, and he was frightened. “Ready? Tell them you’re the Ambassador! Tell them to hold their fire!”
“Je suis… je suis l’Ambassadeur! Je vous prie… laissez vos armes…” In his alarm, Aoki was speaking to the police in French. A further hail of gunfire was their response.
In the garden, the MRTA continued to issue conflicting messages. “Don’t waste your bullets,” one said loudly. “We may need them for this group here.” He directed his AK at a group of police and military, the latter in dress uniforms, seated on the ground. Then Cerpa gave an order, and the rebels passed it on. “Get up! Hands behind your heads! Proceed inside!” Here he addressed his several hundred prisoners, crowding into the ballroom. “As soon as the shooting stops, we’re going to let the waiters, the women, and the elderly leave. Separate into new groups, accordingly.” He raised his weapon, but did not fire it.
Rojas peered through the gatehouse window. The cops and bodyguards still seemed in disarray. Cars and vans continued to arrive, headlights washing across the walls, disgorging dozens of police agents from different units, private guards, and embassy security teams. “This is the MRTA! Listen up!” he yelled into the bullhorn. There was another gunshot, then a brief lull. “We’re letting the waiters out! Also the old people and the women! Hold your fire! Okay?”
Aoki took the megaphone and repeated what Rojas had said – in Spanish, this time. There was no reply from the police ranks. But no gunfire either. “You should let all these people go,” Aoki told Rojas. “They have nothing to do with this. I alone am enough of a hostage for you to bargain with.” “We’re not here to bargain,” Rojas replied.
The crowd shifted uncomfortably on the ballroom floor. Evacuees were being separated from the rest. There was a constant trickle of guests to the bathrooms, unsupervised by the rebels. IDs continued to be flushed. But there was no escaping via unlocked back doors or bathroom windows. The high security measures, in place to prevent people breaking into the residence, also meant that people couldn’t break out of it.
Tito and Salvador, two high-ranking rebels, assembled more than a hundred people – waiters, women, elderly – under the mansion’s columned portico. Tito’s real name was Eduardo Cruz. Salvador’s was never known. On a signal from Cerpa, Salvador walked the large group down the driveway towards the gatehouse. Rojas addressed the police again, via megaphone, telling them the hostages were coming out. Then he and the young rebel raised the bolts which anchored the big doors to the driveway, swung the doors wide.
At once, the police began lobbing tear gas canisters. Later the cops would claim that elite military forces had launched the tear gas attack, forcing a police rescue unit to retreat. Either way, the gas bombs flew through the open doors and exploded in front of the hostage procession, driving them in panic back to the mansion. The MRTA had come equipped with gas masks, which they quickly and professionally donned. But the choking prisoners were forced to cover their faces with handkerchiefs and paper napkins, as the gas blew through the house.
As President Fujimori’s mother and sister Rosa went among the guests with a bowl of water, to moisten their handkerchiefs, a Swiss named Michael Minnig approached the rebels. He identified himself as chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and offered his services as an intermediary. They let Minnig go outside with his hands raised. He called to the police to stop shooting and throwing tear gas, then returned to the residence. Here, the rebels had found a guest list and begun calling out names: it appeared all the ID destruction had been for naught. As the prisoners were identified, Cerpa stepped up onto the curved staircase and addressed them.
“We are not murderers. Nor are we terrorists. We are politicians.” The crowd was unconvinced. “It’s true! I intend one day to be president of Peru. Elected president! We do not menace, or rob, or otherwise mistreat our prisoners – unlike the repressive forces of the oligarchy. We’re here for a short time. With your cooperation, we will quickly achieve our political goals, and you will all go free.” At the conclusion of his speech, a small group of journalists – for there were reporters among the guests – surged forward, including Sally Bowen of the Financial Times. Minutes earlier, she had been gassed, and assisted by one of the guerrillas. “He spoke very fluently”, she later said of Cerpa. “He seemed very sure of what he was about. He had his arguments well-prepared. He was not frightening, because he was very calm.” Cerpa told the journalists that his group had targeted the Japanese ambassador because Japan was meddling in Peruvian affairs and supporting economic policies that caused poverty. He pulled a book from his knapsack: Compañeros, Toman Nuestro Sangre. “This is where it all began.” He handed her the book. She turned the pages. It was about a strike, some two decades previously, which ended in a military assault and the deaths of workers.
Meanwhile, the phones upstairs were ringing constantly. The MRTA rebels answered, and, when NHK News called, they decided to let them interview the Ambassador – provided he speak in Spanish and not disclose how many rebels there were. “There is no panic,” Aoki told the reporters. “It is under control. The guerrillas are calm. There are no deaths or injuries.” Meanwhile, the rebels were issuing their first communique – by telephone and via their website, maintained by a sympathizer in Germany. “Communique No. 1” called the attack a “military occupation” carried out by the Edgar Sanchez Special Forces, commanded by Comrade Edigirio Huerta. It demanded a change in economic policies, the release of MRTA prisoners, safe passage to the jungles of central Peru, where the last hostage would be released, and payment of a “war tax”.
The rebels completed the separation of prisoners. Business captives, including Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi executives, were housed on the first floor, adjacent to the ballroom. Government officials and diplomats – ambassadors from Brazil, Cuba, Canada, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Korea – were moved to one second floor room, military and police to another. Tito instructed each roomful of captives to designate a “coordinator.” Meanwhile, on the phone to journalist after journalist, Cerpa repeated the MRTA’s demands.
It had been a bad year for revolutionaries. The leaders of Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA had been captured. Abimael Guzman – Comandante Gonzalo – the dreaded founder of Sendero, had been displayed in a cage and jailed underground at the Callao naval base. Peter Cardenas and Victor Polay, heads of the MRTA, had also been arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the same dungeon. Various other Sendero and MRTA members were in custody. The reason for the raid on the Ambassador’s residence, Cerpa insisted, was to get his people freed. Tito got on the phone with the reporters, too, and said that the MRTA wanted to negotiate directly with Fujimori. Together, the rebels elaborated on their demands: freedom for their imprisoned comrades, safe passage to a Peruvian jungle valley, a change in the economic system, and payment of that “war tax.”
While the rebels explained their position, President Fujimori was meeting with police and military agents in a windowless room in the intelligence police headquarters – the SIN building in Chorillos. (SIN was the national intelligence agency.) Most powerful among those present was Vladimiro Montesinos, who had been at the centre of Peruvian political intrigues and conspiracies for three decades. In the 1960s Montesinos had been an aide to the military golpistas; he was also a CIA agent, a key player in the drug trade, Fujimori’s most trusted advisor, and the head of the intelligence police. Fujimori, who maintained a reputation as a tough guy, had seized dictatorial powers in a US-approved “self-coup.” He had no intention of negotiating with terrorists, and proposed an immediate counterattack. Montesinos advised against it. He had ringed the residence with 200 of his own police agents – but as yet little was known about the attack. How many rebels were there? His people estimated as many as thirty. It was necessary to wait.
The MRTA’s second attempt at releasing hostages was successful. They opened the front gates and freed some 180 prisoners – waiters, children, and women – including the president’s mother and sister. Within the residence, the remaining hostages prepared to bed down on the floor. The Ambassador gave up his bed to sleep in the same fashion, and handed out clean shirts and shaving gear. He continued to apologise for the ordeal his guests were suffering. Crowded into every corner of the various rooms, the prisoners were watched by a guard in each doorway.
The Nissan chairman, Carlos Chiappori, felt relief that his wife had been allowed to leave, together with considerable trepidation. During the night, the MRTA rebels burst into each of the rooms, turned on the overhead lights and brandished guns and hand grenades. “If Fujimori attacks us, you’ll all get it!” one of them yelled. “Victory or death!”
Then the lights went out, and the prisoners produced their cell phones – which had not been confiscated – and made serruptitious calls. When not harassing their prisoners, the rebels took catnaps and stood watch. They’d made a successful start of a bold and desperate plan: to exchange these highly-placed, important oligarchs and capitalist stooges for their imprisoned friends. Was such an outcome possible? There were precedents. In 1974, five years before the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution, a small group of Sandinista rebels had carried out a spectacular action: 10 men and three women raided a party at a wealthy businessman’s home. The rebels took several highly-placed hostages including the Nicaraguan foreign minister. Two and a half days of negotiations, mediated by the office of the Archbishop, secured the relase of fourteen imprisoned Sandinistas, one million dollars in cash, and a flignt to Cuba. The story had inspired a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El Secuestro, though the film was never made. And in 1978, the Sandinistas repeated the action even more boldly, seizing the national parliament building and holding 200 legislators hostage. A two-day standoff earned them the release of sixty comrades, and a payoff of $500,000.
And in 1980, a commando of 15 M-19 guerrillas in Bogota captured the Dominican Embassy and took 57 hostages. Two months later, they left with a two million dollar ransom on a flight to Havana…
Not that this was about ransom money, or an escape to Cuba. If things went well, it would all be over in a few days. The MRTA would be back in the Amazon jungle, reunited with their comrades, stronger than ever… Why look at the downside, or recall that M-19 attempt to capture the Colombian palace of justice, which had ended in a military counterattack, and hundreds of deaths?
Best to plan on emulating the terrific coup the MRTA had scored, a few years back, when forty-eight MRTA political prisoners escaped from a high security prison via a tunnel. The escapees included the group’s founder, Victor Polay, and Roly Rojas. Victor Polay had been rearrested in a Lima cafe only two years later, and a round-up of other escapees followed. But the escape from Canto Grande had inspired a popular book and been a morale booster for the remaining rebels. Revolutionaries had achieved great things before. They had achieved great things themselves. Who said they couldn’t do it again?
At forty-five minutes after midnight, President Fujimori received a call from the Prime Minister of Japan. Ryutaru Hashimoto was understandably concerned. This was his country’s ambassador, its business representatives. After the United States, Japan was Peru’s largest foreign investor. Perhaps the Japanese took a certain pride in Fujimori’s ancestry, too – although, of course, he had been born in Peru. The two heads of state spoke only briefly. No doubt Hashimoto urged Fujimori to proceed with caution. Most likely Fujimori was ambiguous in his reply.
18 DECEMBER 1996
At nine, those who had not been long awake were roused by the sound of an explosion. The MRTA had tossed a stick of dynamite into the street. It was a warning to the police and soldiers, too keep their distance. Shortly thereafter, Cerpa gave another phone interview. Were the remaining captives unharmed, the reporter wanted to know. “Right now they are. But in an hour they might not be.” Yet as the morning passed, the tension in the building lessened. The guerrillas removed the scarves which had hidden their faces. Cerpa went among the rooms, addressing his prisoners and expounding on his political philosophy. Again, he was keen to differentiate his group from Sendero, which executed peasants, hung dogs, and shot domestic animals. The MRTA, he said, rejected apocalyptic violence, defended the poor, and were ready to run the country.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the rebels gave Fujimori a noon deadline: if MRTA prisoners in government hands weren’t released by then, the guerrillas would execute their first hostage: foreign minister Francesco Tudela. Fujimori, who detested Tudela, his political rival, did not respond. Around noon, Prime Minister Hashimoto called him again. Fujimori promised immediate military intervention if any hostage was harmed. Hashimoto urged him not to be impatient. The deadline passed.
In the garden of the mansion, there was another explosion. The MRTA had rigged charges to deter potential invaders. By accident, one of them went off, blowing out some second-floor windows. But there were no injuries. According to Chiappori, the situation was quite jolly. Secret cell-phone calls continued to be made. The captives spilled out into the corridors and chatted. Chiappori recalled, “It was like a cocktail party without drinks, no? And the guerrillas would come up and say, ‘Everybody back to your rooms and don’t come out.’ But ten minutes later we would drift out again and start talking.”
Another hostage, Vice Admiral Luis Giampietri, wrote a memoir of his captivity. Unlike the Nissan exec, Giampietri was a hardcore military man who hated his captors and spent every moment thinking about escape. He reported that Tudela and other hostages were greatly disturbed when they saw a TV report – apparently filmed the previous night – in which Cerpa, masked and standing between the mansion’s doric columns, threatened to kill Tudela. Giampietri tried to reassure the foreign minister that the rebel leader wouldn’t kill anyone important. “He knows Fujimori would order an immediate assault.”
Strangely, this did not reassure Tudela, who kept on trying to raise Fujimori on his cell phone. “I spoke to him briefly. Told him how desperate our situation is. I said conditions were deplorable and urged him to begin negotiations – if for no other reason than to get us food, water, and portable toilets.” Tudela was right to complain: the toilets were backing up; the party food was sitting outside, untouched and starting to rot; their only water was the questionable stuff that came out of the tap. “What did the President say?” Giampietri wanted to know. “He thanked me for the call and hung up. Now he refuses to take my calls. No one answers.”
Giampietri had no time for Tudela, a liberal politician. He wanted to see these rebels crushed, their plans defeated. Ironically, a special police division dedicated to pursuing the MRTA had been shut down only three days previously. DIVICOTE 2, a branch of the DINCOTE police agency had been dissolved due to the assumed annihilation of the guerrilla group. Obviously, this was somewhat premature. Giampietri claimed that the rebels physically abused him and other police and military prisoners. But the ones the rebels threatened to kill were politicians. According to Giampieteri, Cerpa addressed those present outside the Residence via a megaphone.
“For the last time, Mr. President, release fifty prisoners as a sign of your good faith. I have already sent you a list via the Red Cross. It you do not free the prisoners on the list within thirty minutes, I will execute a hostage every five minutes until you do. Tudela and Aoki will be the first to die. Their blood will be on your hands!”
Did Cerpa really threaten this? It seems like an impractically tight deadline: thirty minutes to identify and free fifty political prisoners? A dead hostage every five minutes, starting with the most “valuable” ones? Giampietri and the English-language press claimed that the MRTA threatened to execute their captives. Other witnesses recalled nothing of the kind. Cerpa’s demand, as Giampietri reports it, wasn’t achievable and would surely provoke a military response. It doesn’t seem like the action of a man who went among his prisoners trying to convince them about his political programme.
After the toilets overflowed, the Ambassador toured the building, apologizing profusely once again. Giampietri intercepted him, and asked him to speak to Cerpa about the night-time gun-and-hand-grenade drills. According to Giampietri, Aoki did so, and the drills ceased, though the MRTA continued to brutalize their police hostages, in particular former DINCOTE director Carlos Rodriguez. Meanwhile, Tudela and others got hold of the Ambassador’s fax machine, and sent a communique emphasizing the precariousness of their situation. “The guerrillas of the MRTA are determined,” they wrote. “The situation is getting increasingly tense, because of the lack of dialogue and the overcrowding.” It was signed by Tudela, Supreme Court justice Carlos Giusti, and several ambassadors.
Shortly after dark, the MRTA released three ambassadors, Canadian, German and Greek, and the French cultural attache. Before leaving in a car for the Presidential Palace, the ambassadors read a statement. “We have been liberated to serve as a bridge to the government, and to search for a negotiated solution without bloodshed.” According to Anthony Vincent, the Canadian ambassador, the MRTA’s demands now included the release of 458 rebels imprisoned in Peru, Bolivia, and Uruguay; the repeal of an Amnesty Law which favoured paramilitaries; abolition of a new land law; reestablishment of trade union rights; and an end to the government’s neoliberal policies. They requested that Peru’s human rights ombudsman lead the negotiations.
Instead of the Presidential Palace, the free ambassadors were taken to SIN headquarters. Here, Fujimori kept them waiting for five hours. They were suitably offended: the German ambassador made plans to leave the country the next day. When Vincent reported the rebels’ request for the ombudsman, Fujimori rejected it. His education minister, Domingo Palermo, would lead negotiations. Palermo had negotiated with the MRTA twice before, gaining the releases of kidnapped businessmen. Ambassador Vincent also offered his services as an intermediary.
In Tokyo, the Japanese foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikeda, boarded a plane for Lima; and the Imperial Household Agency announced that the Emperor’s 63rd birthday party, scheduled for Monday, would be cancelled.
10 DECEMBER 1996
Fujimori was already at his command center at SIN when Bill Clinton called. The US President advised him to take a hard line, and release no prisoners. He offered to send US Delta Force and Navy SEAL hostage rescue teams to assist the Peruvian police and military. Fujmori declined the offer.
The desk before him now contained a model, two meters by three, of the Ambassador’s mansion. The roof had been removed, and small plastic figures were arranged throughout: blue for hostages, red for rebels. Montesinos’ men had come up with a plan they called Operacion Papa Noel. The idea was to attack the residence on Christmas Eve. It was estimated that 20% of the hostages would die during the operation, and 40% would be wounded. “Too many”, Fujimori declared. “Come up with another plan.” In the mean time, he told them to cut off power to the residence.
Cerpa was expounding his vision when Chiappori approached him. Shadowed by two armed guerrillas, he explained that he had been politicized during the Cromotex strike some seventeen years ago. The strike was two months long, and ended with the police storming the factory. Several strikers were killed, and Cerpa had been jailed. Thereafter, he decided that the armed struggle was the way forward. The Cromotex strike was the subject of the book he’d given away to a reporter, two nights ago. Chiappori said he understood Cerpa planned to launch a political career. If that was so, he should keep the momentum going and release some more hostages – “especially the elderly.” Cerpa laughed, and asked the 72-year-old his name. A few minutes later, the guerrillas called for him. One of the hostages had mentioned that Chiappori was recovering from lung cancer surgery, and the guerrillas had decided to let him go.
The MRTA gave permission for two Red Cross doctors to examine and treat sick hostages. Two rebels also needed attention. Cerpa had sprained his ankle in the attack, and received an ace bandage. More seriously, Tito had shot himself in the leg. One of the doctors told him that the bullet was lodged between tibia and fibula, and that he needed x-rays. Cerpa advised Michael Minnig of the need for surgical supplies and an x-ray machine. They arrived within an hour. In a nearby clinic, a specialist studied the x-rays and concluded it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. Tito would spend the next fifty days wearing a cast.
Suddenly, it occurred to the rebels to search their prisoners, and confiscate their cell phones (by now, most of the batteries had died). Lt. Col. Roberto Fernandez, however, was able to conceal his pager. And just after six, four more hostages were freed: Chiappori, a Red Cross official, and two elderly Peruvians of Japanese descent. In the US, a State Department spokesman revealed that a team of “counter-terrorism experts” had flown to Lima, to help Ambassador Jett “protect the lives of the nearly ten thousand US citizens who live in Peru.” The experts included agents of the FBI.
These were the salad days of the hostage-taking. The guerrilla leaders fraternized with their prisoners, discussing the electoral system and the privatization of state industries. To the surprise of the industrialists and politicians seated on the dining room floor, the rebels weren’t dogmatic. “it wasn’t the old debate of ‘business should be appropriated’” one hostage recalled. “We talked about privatization, the rate of privatization, and what types of industry should be privatized.” As the hours passed, some of the hostages plugged in vacuum cleaners and pushed them around; others engaged in impromptu lectures, and rounds of joke-telling. “The first two nights, guards from the MRTA came in and asked us to keep it down to a dull roar…” According to a sympathetic source, this was the night that Cerpa assured a fearful general that there would be no executions. “Don’t worry… we’re not killers.”
20 DECEMBER 1996
Today, according to the newspapers, the Americans got involved. FBI agents were supervising surveillance of the residence. A Delta Force group from Fort Bragg, NC, landed in the Panama Canal Zone and awaited instructions to deploy to Peru. Members of the British SAS posing as diplomats flew to Lima, bringing secret monitoring equipment microphones, and ‘pinhead’ cameras, in their diplomatic bags. The RAF also flew weapons including stun grenades and explosives to the Delta Force commandos. Why the Americans were unable to rely on their own explosives and ‘pinhole cameras’ is unclear.
It was, as the rebels observed, the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Panama. The MRTA sang rebel songs and did jumping jacks. Then the power went out and the water pump shut down. A diesel generator kicked in, restoring power till its fuel ran out. Hostages were seen in the second floor windows, holding hand-lettered signs written in Spanish, English, German, and Japanese. “No food. No water. The hostages.” Other signs called for a resumption of telephone service and electricity.
Then a convoy of Red Cross trucks arrived, bearing 500 liter water tanks, apples, chicken, medicine, toilet paper, and bologna and cheese sandwiches. The MRTA allowed the hostages to give hand-written messages to the ICRC personnel, to be passed on to their families. And they permitted the installation of sixteen portable toilets in the compound. Giampietri watched as the rebels commandeered two thermoses of hot coffee, which they carried into their downstairs operations centre. Both contained listening devices: tiny radio mikes. This was the first of multiple surveillance penetrations of the residence.
The MRTA waited till after the hostages had eaten, in case the food or drink was drugged. Per Giampietri, the rebels demanded extra portions of food, “so as to confuse the government as to their numbers”. They would continue to eat double rations thereafter, growing fat and lethargic, he claimed. But they were not lethargic now. After they ate, Cerpa sent a note, via Minnig of the ICRC, to the President, asking him to reciprocate and free some of the MRTA prisoners – first and foremost, Peter Cardenas. Fujimori promptly replied, via Minnig. He insisted that the rebels release more hostages first.
At seven thirty, the MRTA did so. They opened the gates and let out thirty-eight more hostages: politicians and journalists. Congressman Javier Diez Canseco, bathed in TV lights, read a statement from the remaining 180 prisoners. It urged the government to rule out any military intervention. “We find ourselves in an extremely difficult and delicate situation. A peaceful solution is complicated but indispensable. A military attack “not only would cost many lives, but would leave deeper wounds.” Needless to say, Giampietri detested Diez Canseco, whom he viewed as a liberal appeaser of terrorists. He reported that Diez Canseco, grandstanding as he was led to safety, promised to return the next day, at one in the afternoon.
Alfredo Torres, the director of a polling firm, Apoyo, was one of the group of freed hostages. Before he left the residence, Torres surveyed his fellow prisoners with an impromptu opinion poll regarding their situation. Clearly, this was a poll taken under extreme duress: several hostages refused to participate. He released the results of his poll on his release:
How would you rate the treatment you’ve received from MRTA?
Very good: 0%
Very bad: 0%
What troubles you most about the situation?
The uncertainty: 80%
Living conditions: 8%
Lack of communication with family: 3%
Condition of the bathrooms: 7%
What do you think the government should do?
Do you think MRTA is a terrorist or guerrilla movement?
In general, the answers were positive. The clients had few complaints about the food and wanted a negotiated settlement! But the response to the last question preoccupied Cerpa and his fellow rebels. It was the MRTA’s ardent contention that they were not terrorists; they were legitimate combatants in a guerrilla war against a corrupt despotism. Thus they differentiated themselves from Sendero, and from the police and military. But why did it matter what their enemies called them?
According to one definition, a guerrilla fighter’s targets are military ones, while a terrorist deliberately targets civilians. By this definition the Edgar Sanchez Special Forces were both guerrillas and terrorists. The captured generals and police were military. But the diplomats and businessmen were victims of a terrorist kidnapping. According to another definition, guerrilla warfare is violent action taken within the normally accepted rules and procedures of international law, whereas the violence in terrorism is directed against civilians, and the terrorist’s goal is publicity. The MRTA had concrete goals, yet seeking publicity was also part of the plan. This was a political, more than a military, action. A third distinction between guerrillas and terrorists proposes that the former occupy physical territory, whereas the latter do not. The MRTA’s plan was to free their comrades and decamp to the Amazon jungle. Presumably they controlled territory there, or believed that they did. Or did they?
That evening, in a garage a couple of blocks away, agents of the SIN began the excavation of a narrow tunnel, in the direction of the residence.
21 DECEMBER 1996
According to Aoki, the MRTA began each day at six, singing what he considered their lugubrious and sombre revolutionary hymn. The Red Cross provided breakfast at six thirty: bread, cheese, and jam. A Japanese institute had sent 600 rations of instant ramen, which fascinated the guerrillas. The rebels gathered again at eight, received instructions from Cerpa, and sang more hymns. Then they did exercises and jogged along the corridors, while the hostages did the cleaning. There were already tensions among the hostages. In his memoir, the Ambassador remarked that he never saw Tudela do any cleaning.
That morning, Tudela was giving an interview, via a guerrilla radio. He complained about the absence of communication between the government and the MRTA. Tudela urged the government to examine the MRTA’s demands “deeply and with reflection.” He and several other hostages had been struck by the obvious impasse – the rebels’ inflexible demands and Fujimori’s intransigence – and come up with a proposed “political alternative.” This they gave to the MRTA and forwarded via the ICRC to Fujimori and the foreign ministers of other impacted nations. Their proposal called for both sides to embrace dialogue and negotiation as a means of resolving the larger crisis of the nation; to negotiate the demilitarization of the conflict; and to discuss the possibilities of reducing jail sentences and freeing prisoners. It laid out a concrete plan for the liberation of the hostages, the safe passage of the MRTA commando out of Peru, and subsequently a new negotiation to find a political solution to the violence which had devastated much of the country.
The proposal received little attention. Fujimori rejected it at once; the MRTA was unwilling to give up the liberation of its prisoners. This was a compromise no one liked – and yet, in retrospect, it was a route to ending the occupation without bloodshed, and and to a possible defusing of the wider conflict. Javier Diez Canseco supported it. He later observed that Fujimori, Montesinos, and army general Nicolas Hermoza Rios were all committed to a military solution, while the rebels overestimated their position, and the possibility of success.
Diez Canseco did not return to the residence. At one that afternoon, according to Giampietri, it became a standing joke among the hostages for someone to call out, “What time is it?” “One o’clock!” someone replied. And a chorus of voices would yell, “Has Javier returned yet? Where’s Javier?” In a TV interview, Diez Canseco warned that the rebels were well armed and carried dynamite and plastic explosives, and cautioned against a violent resolution. “I’m saying this so that the North Americans will understand.”
A Red Cross spokesman said that the organization was “quite preoccupied” by the pitch darkness in the residence. “This has to be solved. The lack of electricity has a destabilizing effect on the hostages, and it can be a real security problem.” He complained that the government refused to supply fuel for the diesel generator, and would not restore the water supply.
After the evening meal, Cerpa sent Fujimori a message via his negotiator, Palermo, suggesting a mutual release of hostages and MRTA prisoners. Fujimori refused, telling Palermo not to encourage any more hostage releases. “We want to keep the numbers up, so that he’ll have problems of control.” The President proceeded to give a TV address to the nation, in which he denounced the MRTA as terrorists. He offered no deal. He told them to lay down their arms and let the hostages go.
According to Giampietri, that night the rebels abused the hostages, and resumed the execution drills.
22 DECEMBER 1996
Sunday. According to the English language press, “tens of thousands” of Peruvians marched to the Residence to demand the hostages’ release. Peruvian media reported a march of several hundred San Isidro residents. Dressed in white and green, the protesters were stopped a block from the building, by police. There was no response from within. In Rome, Pope John Paul II condemned the rebels. He told a group of pilgrims, “I ask that the Lord illuminates the minds and converts the hearts of those responsible for such a deplorable action.”
Jesuit priest Juan Julio Wicht, a hostage, held mass on the spiral staircase of the residence. Per Giampietri, the chalice and crucifix were both bugged. Meanwhile another hostage, former labour minister Sandro Fuente, announced via megaphone that the MRTA would release 255 more captives. “We are releasing everyone who has nothing to do with the government,” he read. The process of calling out names and separating the hostages into groups again was time-consuming. It was not until nine in the evening that a fleet of buses pulled up in front of the mansionh, and the hostages were released. Many of the departing hostages wished the rebels luck and shook hands with them. Some asked Cerpa for his autograph. Among those freed were a number of Americans, including Embassy political officer James Wagner, economic officer John Riddle, senior narcotics officer John Crowe, and several US AID employees. Wicht, the priest, declined to be liberated. He asked for Oscar Mavila, a car dealer, to be freed in is place. The rebels agreed.
An Austrian diplomat, Artur Schuschnigg, praised the “impressive discipline” of the guerrillas. He said that the two women rebels were 15 and 16 years old. Other released captives reported that the women complained they missed watching a Mexican telenovela, Maria del Barrio, having become addicted to the show while waiting long months in a safe house for the action to begin. “I have some respect for the calm with which they handled the situation,” said Andre Deschenes, co-director of a Canadian development group. “They are obviously professionals in what they do and believe in what they do deeply.” Kieran Metcalfe, director general of the Cominco mining company, agreed: “At no time did they lose their cool.”
The release was a setback for Fujimori’s plan to stress the rebels with an excess of prisoners. As the buses left, power in the adjoining streets went out. The remaining hostages feared an attack was imminent. Michael Minnig, of the Red Cross, volunteered to spend the night with them, to allay their fears.
106 hostages remained: government-affiliated individuals, the ambassadors of Bolivia and Uruguay, Japanese industrialists, and the unfortunate Pedro Fujimori, brother of the President.
23 DECEMBER 1996
In Tokyo, Takeo Nishioka, general secretary of the Shinshinto Party, criticized Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto for telling Yukihiko Ikeda to return from Peru. Nishioka said the foreignminister “should have stayed a bit longer” in Lima so he could make unspecified political decisions. All political parties expressed their support for the government’s stance that the safety of the hostages was paramount.
A Japanese government spokesman dismissed as baseless a report in London’s Independent newspaper that the MRTA was demanding a ransom for the remaining hostages.
24 DECEMBER 1996
At last, there was progress on the prisoner front. In Uruguay, an appeals court denied a Peruvian extradition request, and freed two MRTA militants, Sonia Rivera and Luis Samaniego. The two had been in custody for over a year, having entered the country on false Bolivian passports, and were accused by the Peruvian authorities of masterminding the kidnapping of a Bolivian businessman. Immediately Cerpa and co. responded, releasing Tabare Bocaldandro Yapeyu, the Uraguayan ambassador. The ambassador, head bowed and wearing a rumpled navy suit, was taken away in a police car.
As Bocalandro left, the Red Cross arrived, bringing a Christmas Eve dinner, holiday cards, sacramental wine and wafers. A guitar containing a tiny microphone and transmitter was given to the hostages. It broadcast audio to a receiver 100 meters away.
25 DECEMBER 1996
Christmas day. Around noon, Keiko Fujimori, the President’s daughter, showed up with eight roast turkeys As usual, the food was cold by the time it has been inspected by the police and MRTA. Michael Minnig of the Red Cross arrived with Juan Luis Cipriani, the Archbishop of Ayacucho. Cipriani was a member of the far right Opus Dei, and a close associate of Fujimori. Nevertheless, the rebels allowed him to enter the residence, and conduct Christmas prayers. To everyone’s surprise, Cipriani engaged with the rebels, and after prayers spent several hours in conversation with Cerpa, Tito, Salvador, and Rojas.
Ambassador Aoki remembered the scene differently. He reported that another archbishop, Augusto Vargas Alzamora, visted the hostages, and that Cerpa fell to his knees before him. Vargas was Vargas Llosa’s cousin, and an enemy of Fujimori. Did rival archbishops visit on Christmas Day? And why had Minnig brought Cipriani? Apparently he hoped to get the MRTA to agree that Cipriani supplement Palermo as a negotiator. Minnig had pitched this to Cerpa before, and Cerpa had refused. “That reactionary son of a bitch? Absolutely not. Anybody but him.” But their long talk apparently changed his mind.
Cipriani left the mansion with another freed hostage – a Japanese diplomat. Tito settled down to read all the letters the hostages had just written to their loved ones. He read slowly. After he was satisfied, the letters would be passed on to the ICRC, who would give them to the police, to read.
These rebels. Beside the two girls, who confessed their addiction to soap operas, the media had focused on the four most prominent rebels. The others were described as athletic, campesinos, “from the jungle”. Who were they? Ironically, the writer who describes the MRTA in the most individual detail is the one who detested them the most: Giampietri. In his book about the incident, the General described the MRTA team thus:
NESTOR CERPA – HUERTA Says he was formerly a member of Sendero Luminoso and M-19 in Colombia. Became political and military leader after the arrest of Victor Polay. Responsible for numerous bank robberies, kidnappings, and assassinations, mastermind of the Canto Grande escape and the aborted raid on Congress.
ROLY ROJAS – EL ARABE Friendly with the hostages, studied sociology at university, joined MRTA after graduating. Allegedly trained by Hizbollah; wears his MRTA bandanna like a burnoose. Always pleased to talk of the Canto Grande escape.
EDUARDO CRUZ – TITO “Intelligent, astute and persuasive”. Soft-spoken, cynical, avoids eye contact. Allegedly raised by Liberation Theology Jesuits. “The revolutionary conscience of the group, the political commissar, the worst ideologue.”
SALVADOR Military leader and best-prepared. Told Giampieteri he had been a corporal in the marines, with expert badges for marksmanship. Drills the MRTA in military exercises and rehearsals. Disposed to violence; apt to knock Gumucio to his knees.
CONE – EL PALESTINO “A crazed narcissist who was continually looking at himself in mirrors.” Practices marksmanship at imaginary targets, while talking to himself. Brutal in the early days, calmer later. Charged with killing TUDELA if necessary.
“22” Mid-twenties, tall, muscular. “Obviously a weight lifter and obviously on the precipice of insanity.” Claims to have beheaded policemen and eaten their hearts in the jungle. Near the end, he bleaches his hair with peroxide, then denies he’s done it, and wears dark glasses.
MARCOS A teenage recruit who follows CERPA everywhere. “CERPA was fond of the boy.”
ROLANDO, LUCAS (GATO SECO), EL MEXICANO, and ALEX Late teens or early 20s, short and dark, from the Amazon jungle, speaking a mixture of Indian dialect, Spanish, and Portugese.
LUZ MELENDEZ CUEVA – BERTA or MELISA Early 20s, reserved, lover of TITO. Constantly running errands for him.
GIOVANNA VILAS PLACENCIA – LA GRINGA Sixteen, girlfriend of GATO SECO, with whom she has frequent sex in the corridors. Also involved, perhaps platonically, with one of the young Japanese hostages.
Giampietri’s list only includes 13 MRTA members. Did he forget one? Still, it contains the most distinctive descriptions of the rebels. It makes some of them sound like Hollywood movie villains. It may not all be true, and it isn’t the whole story. The Admiral perhaps didn’t know, or care, that most of the MRTA commando had family members or loved ones in jail. La Gringa’s brother, Juan Carlos, was an imprisoned MRTA militant. So were two of Roly Rojas’ six siblings. So was Cerpa’s partner, Nancy Gilvonio Conde. Their mission wasn’t simply one of principle, or revolutionary fervour. It was also personal.
Cerpa had pulled off kidnappings before. He had negotiated their successful outcomes. According to some sources, he had been ejected from Sendero for trying to negotiate a merger between it and the MRTA. Nine days into the mission, nothing yet suggested it might fail.
On Sunday, 28 December – DAY 12 – Domingo Palermo, Fujimori’s negotiator, entered the mansion for the first time. He was accompanied by Minnig and Cipriani. Cerpa, seated in an armchair in the grand ballroom, supposedly harangued them for an hour. Three hours of discussion followed. Afterwards, the MRTA released another twenty hostages, and a communique in which they asked media and politicians to stop “calling us a terrorist or genocidal gang” and “comparing us with Sendero Luminoso, an organization which we have condemned repeatedly for its use of irrational violence.”
In response, Fujimori issued a press release of his own, stating that Cerpa’s and Palermo’s meeting was not a negotiation. “The President of Peru does not negotiate with terrorists. These are merely conversations.”
On new year’s eve – DAY 15 – a group of journalists managed to gain entry to the residence, and Cerpa gave them an interview. “I don’t see an immediate solution… We are not in a hurry.” According to the LA Times, the mansion was pervaded by the smell of rotting fruit left over from the reception, garbage, and human waste. According to Giampietri, a police agent disguised as a reporter gave Cerpa a camera, film, and a radio with which he could contact “the station”.
On 1 January 1997 – DAY 16 – the MRTA released seven more hostages. This was the last big hostage release. The hostage numbers reported by the media continued to fluctuate: by some counts there were 75 hostages now, or 73, or 72. Following a brainstorming session with Montesinos, the President had seized upon a new attack plan: the army would descend via helicopters, through the residence skylights. He visited Naoko Aoki, the Ambassador’s wife, to grill her about the layout of the skylights above the stairs. She could remember nothing about them. But she provided him with a complete set of blueprints of the mansion.
The blueprints would enable a full-size replica to be constructed at a secret miliary base, for training puroses. Meanwhile, in a walled building site in San Isidro, sixty miners from the mining town of Oruro began the first of three daily shifts, digging a new, ambitious tunnel system which would undermine the Residence and its grounds.
The days passed. Several hostages started giving classes. Congressman Eduardo Pando gave two levels of Spanish conversation to the Nikkei. Congressman Samuel Matsuda taught Japanese to the Peruvians – including several guerrillas. Aoki reported that, during the occupation, Tito learned to read and write hiragana and katakana, and to speak Japanese. Cerpa, whose mother and sons had political asylum in France, took French lessons from DINCOTE general Carlos Dominguez.
Every morning, the rebels gathered at six, and Cerpa asked them the purpose of their mission. “The liberation of the MRTA prisoners!” they replied in unison. Then revolutionary songs were sung.
Aoki decided to risk a daily cocktail hour. His residence was well-supplied with booze, and his first secretary, Mimura Haruo, was appointed bartender. Haruo served whiskey, cognac, gin, vodka, and Okinawa bandy. Whiskey was the preferred beverage. If you arrived promptly, you could manage three drinks before the ICRC served dinner. The Ambassador reported no drunkenness, and that he personally lost weight and became healthier during his captivity.
Rumours came and went about ransom demands. The MRTA denied that they were seeking any ransom. Fujimori insisted that the rebels were seeking to extort money from Japanese corporations. Newspapers reported that American satellites and spy planes were using infra-red photography to track the movements of the rebels in the building, and the placement of their mines. El Espreso reported that Cerpa considered a ground attack most likely, but had not ruled out one from the air.
Palermo dangled a couple of initiatives, including a negotiation commission which would include Cipriani. But it was always easy to make the MRTA suspend the dialogue; all Fujimori had to do was issue a press release. On 21 January 1997 – DAY 36 – the MRTA ordered a dozen Japanese hostages to sleep on the ground floor, supposedly as a shield against a military attack. The hostages heard the sound of digging beneath the floor. For several days thereafter the military flew helicopters overhead while armoured vehicles violated the ICRC’s “neutral zone” around the residence. The Red Cross suspended the provision of food and water to the hostages for four hours, in protest. The police also staged simulated night attacks, with further helicopter overflights.
On DAY 40, one of the hostages claimed he was suffering heart pain. This was Colonel Jose Rivas, deputy chief of the Peruvian National Police. A doctor, accompanied by Minnig and Cipriani, entered the Residence and diagnosed a probable heart attack. Rivas must go immediately to hospital for further tests, he said. At this point, Cerpa called bullshit. He thought the Colonel was faking it, and declared, “If anyone dies here, his blood will be on Fujimori’s hands!” Tito, Salvador and El Arabe were in agreement: Rivas must stay. But stern words from the Archbishop caused them to reverse their decision. Rivas was released next day. Cerpa ordered the remaining hostages into the foyer and yelled at them, “If one more of you sons of bitches gets sick, you’re going to die right here!” The rebels already regretted their decision. They felt sure the Colonel was far from sick, and already providing his fellow cops with information on the number of guerrillas (the newspapers still reported that there were twenty of them), their weapons, logistical support, and daily routines. They were almost certainly right.
A day later – DAY 42 – the police installed massive speakers outside the residence and began blasting the building with military marches. All this – like the helicopter overflights and fake attacks – was intended to cover the sound of the ongoing tunneling. Meanwhile, four or five dump trucks made nightly visits to the construction site in San Isidro, carting away quantities of earth, and Fujimori engaged in a series of foreign travels. He arrived in Toronto on DAY 47 to meet with the Japanese prime minister, then heading on to Washington DC for a meeting with President Clinton. Clinton praised the Peruvian president for “skillfully walking a very fine line … between resolving this crisis peacefully without giving in to terror.” In a press conference, Fujimori stated that he had discussed the possibility of Cuban asylum for the guerrillas… with the Canadians.
Suddenly, Canada and its ambassador, Anthony Vincent, were involved. In secret, a group of Canadian Joint Task Force II commandos was dispatched to Lima, with instructions to prepare a surprise attack on the MRTA. There, they “armed themselves with local resources.” The plan was for Ambassador Vincent to guarantee the MRTA safe passage to Cuba, and for the Canadian commandos to ambush (and presumably kill) the rebels when they boarded a Canadian Airbus.
DAY 50 – Tuesday, 4 February – began with the MRTA firing six shots into the air, to commemorate the victims of the police attack on the Cromotex strikers. The killings had occurred eighteen years ago to the day, and were still fresh in the mind of Cerpa, the organizer of the strike. One of the criticisms levelled against Palermo as a negotiator was that he viewed Cerpa as a disgruntled trade union representative, and treated him like an employee. Each side, as a result, hardened its position. In an attempt to bridge the gap between Palermo and Cerpa, a new mediator group appeared, calling itself the Commission of Guarantors, and consisting of Cipriani, Minnig, and the Canadian ambassador, Vincent. A house across the street from the residence was selected and furnished to facilitate the negotiations. It was swept by explosives experts, and fortified with sandbags. Meanwhile, waltzes and Afru-Peruvian music replaced the military marches on the police’s speakers – still played at maximum volume.
On DAY 57, a Red Cross vehicle drove Roly Rojas across the street to the house where the negotiations were to occur. There, he met Palermo, the Commission of Guarantors, and Japan’s observer and ambassador to Mexico, Terusuke Terada. Nestor Cerpa was also present, via closed circuit TV and a direct phone line. The talks went nowhere. The MRTA insisted on freedom for their imprisoned members. Palermo said the government would not consider this. While Cipriani counseled Cerpa to be more patient, El Arabe ended the dialogue and returned to the Residence. The talks continued in this fashion on DAYS 60 and 61. Rojas insisted on freedom for 371 prisoners. Palermo proposed in response that the MRTA commando should leave Peru for another country. Talks broke down again, and the next day La Republica published details of a secret Army plan to storm the mansion “should talks falter.” The attack would take place by night, from helicopters. It was anticipated that three quarters of the hostages would die, and all but one of the guerrillas.
As the ongoing tunneling attested, there was no such plan. The leak was a feint, designed to deceive and disorient the guerrillas. But it had clearly been coordinated with the Americans. A US embassy spokesman told reporters, “We are not advocating the use of force… but if the Peruvian government were to ask us for helicopters, surveillance equipment, or Spanish-speaking commandos, we would definitely consider such a request.”
Talks resumed on DAY 66, this time between Palermo and Cerpa, face to face. The rebel leader was accompanied by Roly Rojas. Palermo was partnered with a member of the SIN. Cerpa and Rojas rejected the offer of a flight to Cuba, and insisted that they would take the hostages to the Peruvian Amazon. Before that, the MRTA prisoners must be liberated. Stalemate again. Further talks were postponed to DAY 70. As Cerpa and Rojas were driven across the street by the Red Cross, the rebels played a revolutionary anthem and chanted slogans. “We are the ones who have taken the residence! Until death, damn it!” Cipriani proposed that the government free 85 MRTA prisoners, in return for the release of the hostages. Palermo responded that the government would consider pardoning a certain number of prisoners. No names were specified. Cerpa asked to communicate directly with the MRTA prisoners. The government would not agree to this. After the meeting, the Commission of Guarantors made a statement. Both sides had met “in a cordial atmosphere”, and broached “important issues.” A sixth round of negotiations would be held next day. Cipriani read the statement in Spanish; Vincent read it in English.
Fujimori was in the jungle town of Mazamari at the time. He gave a brief statement, emphasizing that he would release no prisoners, and that the police and security personnel who had allowed the rebels to invade the residence would be identified, and punished. The next day the guerrillas rejected the Guarantors’ proposal. Fifty-five freed prisoners wasn’t enough. Speaking for the government, Palermo said that MRTA leaders like Victor Polay could not be released, and that the release of lower-ranking prisoners could not be simultaneous with the liberation of the hostages. This was a response designed to insult and infuriate the guerrillas, and prolong the crisis.
The seventh negotiation occurred on 27 February – DAY 73. The rebels again asked to contact their imprisoned comrades, and for ICRC visits with the prisoners – suspended since DAY 2 of the siege – to be resumed. Palermo said the government would think about it. The meeting ended early. Cerpa remarked as he left that they weren’t getting anywhere. Back at the mansion, Rojas told Giampietri – of all people – how frustrated he felt. “In the meetings we talk, tell jokes, and make friends. But there’s no progress at all.” Cerpa complained to a group of hostages that Fujimori was the only one who made decisions, and that he never attended the talks. In Fujimori’s absence, Cerpa threatened to stop negotiating.
More days passed. The guerrillas chanted that they didn’t care how long it took. But they did. Captivity was wearing down the captives, and their captors. Some of the younger rebels told the hostages that they’d expected the siege to last no more than two weeks. That was what they had prepared for. One hostage said he found La Gringa crying. He asked her what was wrong. She told him she missed her family, and wanted to go home.
In March, Giampietri received a Bible containing – or course! – a hidden microphone, with which he was able to deliver “real-time intel.” At some point he advised Aoki that he and his military colleagues were planning an escape. Aoki became very upset, and a shouting match ensued. He apologised next day, and asked not to be included in any further plans for a break-out. The Admiral says a breach developed among the hostages; the Peruvians formed an escape committee, he wrote, while the Japanese and Japanese-Peruvian hostages opposed the project. According to Giampietri, the only Nikkei who joined the escape committee was Pedro Fujimori. Francisco Tudela, for all Giampietri’s dislike of him, was also on the escape team.
The Admiral reports that he and other hostages were subjected to mock trials and threatened with execution at the hands of “Twenty-Two”. Giampietri was brought before the MRTA leaders (one imagines in Aoki’s office, in front of a big desk with bookcases behind them … but perhaps the bookcases were all gone, having been used to block the downstairs doors and windows). He was accused of being the chief of naval operations, and ordering the murder of MRTA members. Giampietri denied this. He told them he had been a naval attache to the Peruvian embassy in Washington, when the killings occurred. Cerpa left the room. Salvador, Tito, and the designated executioner, Twenty-Two, scowled at him. Then Roly Rojas asked him a question: “When you were in the United States, did you ever visit Disneyland or Disney World?” Cerpa returned with Colonel Orlando Denegri, who confirmed Giampetri’s status as chief of naval operations. Somehow this satisfied Cerpa, and the trail was over.
The rebels had taken to moving the hostages from room to room. Now the practice ended. Henceforth, the highest-profile hostages, including Tudela, Aoki, Gumucio, Giusti, and Pedro Fujimori, would sleep in what they ironically called the VIP room. On DAY 77, the eighth meeting between Palermo and the MRTA went nowhere, and Fujimori diverted his executive jet to Cuba. There he was greeted with full honours by Fidel Castro, and the two met for several hours in the Presidential Palace. Castro agreed to accept the rebels as political refugees, as long as the MRTA, the governments of Peru, Canada, and Japan, the Guarantors, and the Vatican all formally requested it.
“Resistance! Resistance to the end!” the MRTA chanted in a radio transmission. At the ninth meeting, Cerpa turned down a flight to the Dominican Republic – “a country which oppresses its people” – and criticized Fujimori’s Cuba trip as a distraction. The MRTA’s priority remained “to stay in our own homeland… to fight on the side of our people.” Then Cerpa suspended the talks. He shared his reason with the Guarantors: increasing concern – among the guerrillas and the hostages – about the tunneling. He invited them to visit the residence, and all three turned up within minutes – Cipriani, Minnig, and Vincent (interestingly, an Agence France Presse report of this incident refers to Anthony Vincent not as Canadian Ambassador, but as “an anti-terrorism expert”). As helicopters buzzed the mansion, the three left without comment. The MRTA ordered all hostages to the second floor. Via radio, Cerpa insisted that the Guarantors agreed with the MRTA’s assessment: that the residence had been comprehensively undermined, in preparation for a military assault. Minnig spent the next day with the hostages, while Vincent and Cipriani met with Fujimori. The President assured them that he remained committed to a peaceful solution, as long as hostages stayed healthy. “The state, in consequence, will remain alert at all times.”
Government negotiator Palermo took offence at recent interviews by Cerpa, and began threatening foreign journalists with arrest and deportation. A Mexican reporter, told by DINCOTE that they had a cell waiting for him, fled the country. Media reports about the occupation continued to decline in number. On 10 March – DAY 84 – Cerpa, Rojas and the Guarantors showed up for talks, but Palermo did not appear. He sent a message, complaining that “the conditions for resuming the preliminary negotiations are still not sufficiently defined.” Fujimori issued a statement blaming the MRTA, and insisting that “both sides need a period of reflection.”
The MRTA went back to nightly rehearsals of the execution of the hostages. “If they attack us,” Cerpa warned his captives, “No one’s getting out alive.” Ambassador Gumucio would later claim that the guerrillas’ drills included their own suicides. It was reported that Cerpa now slept surrounded by hostages, watched by one of the guerrillas throughout the night. The women rebels shared their own room. Tito and El Mexicano patrolled the passages and shone flashlights on Pedro Fujimori.
Pedro’s brother the President gave an interview, in which he promised to pursue the path of peace, then lurched into another violent fantasy: “I will not say if there is a tunnel, or several tunnels; I will not say if there are air-transported commandos ready, or if we have commandos who could work with paralyzing gas or other methods… I neither confirm nor deny anything…”
On 12 March – DAY 86 – Cerpa and Palermo embarked on the tenth negotiation. Neither gave any ground. Afterwards, Cipriani said there had been “small advances.” The MRTA and the government’s negotiator never met again. A week later, the rebels received a letter from Fidel Castro, urging them to abandon the liberation of the prisoners, and to seek refuge in Cuba. The Commission of Guarantors announced that it had formed a working group, which had begun visiting prisons to check on the status of MRTA prisoners. According to the National Penitentiary Institute, there was a total of 456 sentenced MRTA prisoners.
La Republica reported that the Guarantors were planning to offer the rebels a multi-million dollar ransom for the hostages. Instead, they approached Cerpa with a list of 271 MRTA prisoners, and asked him to select ten names. The government would then release five. In response, Cerpa demanded freedom for all 271 prisoners. According to Aoki, during Easter Week the government actually shifted position, and proposed a solution, in four parts. The MRTA would leave for Cuba, with two freed prisoners; the Guarantors would supervise the improvement of the other prisoners’ conditions; an independent human rights commission would study possible releases or reduced sentences for the prisoners; and, in due course, the MRTA could return to Peru as legitimate politicians. To Aoki’s dismay, the rebels rejected the plan in its entirety. The Ambassador concluded that they simply lacked the capacity to negotiate. They had a finely-worked plan to get into the residence, but no plan to get out. When the government rejected their initial demands, the rebel leaders had been unable to agree upon a response. As the weeks went by, things did not improve. Fujimori had remained intransigent, and the rebels could not reach a decision. Aoki felt that Cerpa’s priority was to free his wife. Rojas seemed to have given up his faith in the MRTA, and was hoping to start a hardware store, somewhere abroad.
26 March 1997 was DAY 100. The MRTA replied to Fidel Castro’s letter, stating that they would not abandon their demand to have their prisoners freed. Frustrated by the breakdown in the talks, Hashimoto called Fujimori, and urged him to release some prisoners. It was the last time the two spoke, before the resolution of the crisis. Fujimori reiterated his position the next day: he would release no prisoners. Cipriani visited the residence, and Cerpa told him once again that the prisoners had to be released. Worried that his team were out of shape, Cerpa encouraged them to engage in games of five-a-side football in the ballroom. At first a couple of hostages played with them. But the rebels were much fitter, and before long the MRTA only played against themselves. The ICRC provided a soccer ball, jerseys, shorts and sneakers. But when the MRTA requested warmer clothes – they had not planned for a long occupation, and the coastal winter was cold and damp – their request was denied.
According to the press, Nancy Gilvonio Conde was transferred from a mountain prison to Callao Naval Base, supposedly as a concession to the MRTA. “It is completely false”, a spokesman for the National Penitentiary Institute told Agence France Presse. “There has been no transfer.” Via the Red Cross, Cerpa sent a verbal message to his companera, asking her to “understand the underlying reason for the seizure of the residence,” and saying she would always be in his heart. In Lima, the crackdown continued. Diez Canseco was briefly kinapped and interrogated by assailants wearing police uniforms. His car was torched. The editor-in-chief of La Republica was similarly kidnapped and interrogated by assailants who did not steal her purse. Gustavo Saberbein, a former hostage and critic of Fujimori, was attacked by machine gun fire outside his house. The government said common criminals were to blame.
The Guarantors met among themselves for discussions. According to Giampietri, Michael Minnig brought him his lunch one day, and urged him not to proceed with his escape plans. Minnig claimed a breakthrough was at hand. Giampietri, who hated Minnig and considered him “the enemy within”, swore that he would do nothing detrimental to his fellow hostages. On DAY 117, the Commissioners held separate meetings with Palermo and the MRTA. Cipriani and Cerpa came up with a list of 21 MRTA prisoners whose liberation the rebels would accept. The list included Gilvonio, Polay, and the American journalist Lori Berenson. Cipriani took the list to Fujimori, who rejected it entirely. A week later, Cipriani was back, trying again to persuade the rebels to quit the residence and fly to Cuba. He promised he could get Fujimori to liberate Gilvonio. Cerpa told Cipriani he and the other rebel leaders would discuss the matter after he had gone.
It was 19 April 1997 – DAY 124. Cerpa proposed that the leaders take a vote on whether to accept the deal and go to Cuba, or hang on. He voted in favour, the other three voted against. Tito and Salvador were adamant about liberating all the prisoners. Gumucio said he heard Tito declare, “I didn’t leave my family and my crops to come here, sell out, free three or four people, and move to Cuba. I came for my 450.” Roly Rojas was fine with going to Cuba – they had hardware stores there – but he was distrustful of Cerpa’s motives. And he felt it was still too early to leave.
How could Rojas and his colleagues have misjudged things so? They had planned for this operation to be over in fourteen days. Everyone was exhausted, depressed, and saw no end in sight. I’m sure one of the rebels carried, in his or her backpack, a book by the Peruvian revolutionary, Hugo Blanco – Land or Death. Blanco had been a legendary rebel of the 1960s, in the Castro style, with a lot of hair, a beard, and much charisma. Those were different times, and even after he was captured and imprisoned, Blanco was permitted to write and publish books of revolutionary thought.
Regarding the duration of an action, Blanco wrote, “The urban strike, though it hurts the employer, also means a sacrifice by the workers. Generally, if it is not widened, the longer it lasts, the weaker it tends to become.” Blanco was writing about a strike, like Cerpa’s Cromotex action. If a strike needed to be short and swift, how about a hostage-taking? “The longer it lasts, the weaker it tends to become.”
Blanco stressed that mass actions were the route to success. He cautioned against “the substitution of audacious actions by a courageous group for mass actions.” Yet what was the MRTA’s occupation of the mansion but an audacious action, by a small courageous group, backed by no mass movement at all? In Blanco’s view, such an action, especially if it dragged on, was doomed to fail. “The party is not a collection of exceptional individuals who can substitute themselves for the action of the masses.”
Indeed not. Cerpa and Rojas and all the rebels might have been exceptional individuals (Tito, who learned written and spoken Japanese during the occupation, seemingly was). But there were only fourteen of them. The masses hadn’t been inspired to follow their example. They controlled no territory. Their comrades remained in jail. Near the end of his book, Hugo Blanco observed, morosely, that “the masses still do not have the leadership that their courage deserves.”
And what if the MRTA had agreed? Would Fujimori have let them fly away to Cuba, with a trophy prisoner or two? Or would that commando team have been waiting to ambush and dispatch them, aboard the Air Canada jet?
So the rebels and the hostages went back to doing… not very much. Enthusiasm for language classes and economics lectures had waned. The guerrillas sat around doing puzzles, with their rifles lying on the floor. In the afternoon, most of them played fulbito in the ballroom. Cerpa wrote a letter to his two sons. “I’m especially in solidarity with your mother, because you need her by your side, and there’s no other way to get her out of prison.” The boys were ten and three years old.
On Sunday, 20 April – DAY 125 – Giampetri, Tudela and the escape committee decided it was time to break out. They had the key to a locked, barred door on the second floor. If they could make make it down the steps and avoid the land mines, they could reach the outer wall… At nine a.m., Colonel Fernandez started getting messages on his pager. Code words for locations within the building – FIRST FLOOR HELL – SECOND FLOOR HEAVEN – SPIRAL STAIRCASE PURGATORY. The hostages, rescuers and rebels were all given code names. Giampietri texted back, asking if this was a drill. After five minutes a reply came – DRILL. GO THROUGH SEQUENCE. OPEN DOOR. Giampietri did not believe it was a drill. During the course of the day he and Fernandez sent more than eighty messages to whoever was out there. They received few replies. Convinced the “drill” hadn’t started, they didn’t open the door.
Cerpa suspected that the doctors who attended the hostages were carrying secret messages for them. He decided to clamp down on this. Henceforth, he announced, medical visits would be weekly, not daily.
According to an interview Fujimori later gave to the New York Times, this was the day he ordered his commandos to take their positions in the tunnels beneath the mansion. He described the tunnels as four feet wide, and said they were ventilated, and very comfortable. The next morning, he called Cipriani, who had been planning to visit the residence, and told him to stay away. Cipriani sent a message to the rebels that he had a stomach ache. He still didn’t know that they had rejected his proposal. Surveillance reports in the afternoon advised Fujimori that Cerpa and two other leaders had not joined in the fulbito game. The attack was postponed.
22 April 1997
At six, the MRTA gathered in the ground floor hall for exercises and chants. Cerpa led the refrain: “One month is nothing! Two months is nothing! A year is nothing!” At nine, the rebels summoned Ambassador Aoki to the ground floor. There, they congratulated him on his wedding anniversary. At one, the ICRC brought lunch: sushi and tempura for the Ambasador, ravioli for the rest. After lunch, Anthony Vincent turned up. In halting Spanish, he addressed the rebels and the hostages, apologizing for Cipriani’s debilitating stomach ache, attempting to assure them that all was well. Giampietri later wrote, “I grew impatient for Vincent to leave so that the soccer would start.” If the Admiral had known of the Canadian plan to murder the rebels aboard the amnesty plane, he might have been more sympathetic to the final visit of the Ambassador/counter-terrorism expert.
At three, Giampietri observed the MRTA assembling downstairs, dressed in their football shirts, shorts and sneakers. He sent a message to the pager recipients, advising them. At three fourteen, a return message came – OPEN THE DOOR. The escape committee unlocked the metal door in the Ambassador’s bedroom, then lay down as if napping.
Fujimori was testifying in a court case brought against him by his former wife when he receive a phone call from Montesinos. His spy chief assured him all the rebels were downstairs. The President gave the go-ahead, and at three-thirty explosives went off below the ballroom, killing the rebels who were playing soccer there. Simultaneously, an army group blew open the Residence’s front doors, and 140 troops and marines stormed the residence, via the tunnels, the entrance, and ladders over the walls.
Cerpa and three football survivors grabbed their weapons and ran up the spiral stairs. They were killed in a crossfire. A surviving rebel entered the second floor room where high-level government hostages were held. He had practiced executing them with a grenade on numerous occasions. “With a look of agony, he lowered his gun, turned around and walked out the door” hostage Rodalfo Munante reported. “He was going to shoot me. He could have done it. But he didn’t.” The guerrilla turned and left the room. Seconds later, he was dead.
Fujimori, wearing a bullet-proof vest, rushed to the residence to be filmed and photographed among the bodies of the dead. It was reported that US Navy Seals or Delta Forces, or UK SAS commandos, had been involed in the raid. Fujimori denied this. In the immediate aftermath, numerous hostages, Peruvian and Japanese, stated that several MRTA rebels had surrendered. Some said that Tito was among them. He was last seen handcuffed, pleading for his life. According to these sources, the security forces marched the surviving guerrillas into the tunnels under the building. None of them emerged alive.
Five years later, after the downfall of Fujimori and Montesinos, the Peruvian Institute of Forensic Anthropology reported that eight of the fourteen guerrillas were shot in the head while physically immobilized. A protected witness stated that Montesinos had ordered the killing of at least two hostages during the “liberation” – supreme court justice Carlos Giusti, and foreign minister Francesco Tudela.
Col. Roberto Huaman Azcurra was assigned the two murders, according to the witness. Huaman succeeded in killing Giusti. But in attempting to kill Tudela, he shot another Colonel, Juan Valer Sandoval, instead. According to another officer, who spoke to La Republica, Huaman was charged with ensuring that all the guerrillas were executed. The executions were carried out by another army Colonel, Jesus Zamudio Aliaga. Huaman headed the National Electronic Division of the SIN. Zamudio was chief of the “Zeus Group” – the military company in charge of Montesinos’ personal security.
Three years after the raid, Fujimori turned against Montesinos. The spy chief was accused of bribery, and selling Russian rifles to a Colombian rebel group. Engulfed in multiple crises, Fujimori fled the country for Japan and saught asylum there. It turned out he had been a Japanese citizen all along, hence never eligible for the Presidency of Peru. Montesinos was arrested in Venezuela and returned to Lima. Fujimori was also extradited to stand trial. Both men are currently in jail.