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1991: Barrios Altos massacre

November 3rd, 2010 Michael Baney

(Thanks to Michael Baney for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1991, a Peruvian death squad showed up at the wrong party, and altered its country’s history.

In 1980 the Communist Party of Peru, better known as the Shining Path, launched its “People’s War,” which was never actually supported by the majority of Peruvians. Latin America had had its share of Marxist revolts, but this one was different from the others. There was nothing romantic about the revolutionaries, who wore plain clothes rather than uniforms, attacked the civilian population rather than invest significant capital to win them over to the Shining Path cause, and rose up in an effort to overthrow a democracy rather than a dictatorship.

The Shining Path was based mainly in Andean villages, but once they began to take serious losses in their own territory, they made a concerted effort to accelerate the war by pushing into the capital city, Lima. Both the Shining Path and the Peruvian military were committing deplorable human rights violations by the time Alberto Fujimori was elected president in 1990, although the vast majority of the violence had been confined to the hinterlands of the country up until then.

With Fujimori’s election, more urban-based death squad activities began. Perhaps the most famous was the November 3, 1991 massacre in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima, a poor barrio only a few minutes’ drive away from the Congress and the Presidential Palace.

The murders are described in great detail in this old US government document (pdf) once classified as secret, but since declassified thanks to the efforts of expert Tamara Feinstein of the National Security Archive.

This date’s incident occurred when members of Grupo Colina (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a death squad that was part of the Army Intelligence Service, believed that they had identified a group of Shining Path militants having a pollada, which is a traditional fundraiser in Peru where a party is held so that chicken and beer can be sold to the neighbors. (Here’s a description, in Spanish)

A Grupo Colina squad drove to the building where this terrorist pollada was supposed to be taking place, lined the partygoers up, and extrajudicially executed them with submachine guns with silencers that the army had provided the group for the operation. Then the leader of the group, Santiago Martin Rivas, shot a young child who came running over to the body of his father. The troops got back into their vehicles, turned on their sirens to appear like they were the police in an effort to shift blame over the killings, and got drunk at the beach to celebrate.

Almost immediately it became clear that the death squad members had completely screwed up their hit.

The people who had been murdered were indeed having a pollada … not to fund the Shining Path’s Maoist agrarian war, but to fix the pipes in their building

And it transpired that that fateful night of Nov. 3, there was a different pollada being held on a different floor in the very same building. The participants of that other party fled the building, never to return. There were reports that upon searching the rooms of those who fled, police uncovered many issues of El Dario, the Shining Path newspaper.

If Grupo Colina indeed crashed the wrong party, then it not only slaughtered a bunch of innocent people — it helpfully tipped the Shining Path to the fact that the army was onto them.

In any event, the executions became a media spectacle and the police had to at least go through the motions of investigating them. At first, the government suggested that the murders might have been actually carried out by the Shining Path, and as evidence of this theory they showed that one of the people who had been killed was previously a member of a Ronda, which is a peasant patrol group that fought against cattle rustling and, in some cases, the Shining Path. But it later turned out that the man had been a member of the Rondas many years before and hundred of miles away from the killings, and it seemed extremely improbable that the Shining Path would even bother to target him.

By December 4, 1991, the US embassy in Lima was informing the Secretary of State that the Peruvian government lacked the political will to investigate the murders, and had lied about whether or not the guns used in the extrajudicial executions were equipped with silencers in “an apparently deliberate attempt to obfuscate the situation.”

The Congress created a committee to investigate the crimes, which was a real threat to the Fujimori government because the Fujimoristas did not have a majority in Congress.

This ceased to be a problem on April 5, 1992, when Fujimori suspended the Congress, permanently disbanded the Senate, and fired a good number of the judges in the country, all in total violation of the Constitution. That ended the investigation.

Under pressure from the international community, a new Congress stacked with Fujimoristas was convened to write a new Constitution, and the investigation of the Barrios Altos killing nominally restarted. When the Congress called Nicolas Hermoza Rios de Bari, the Chairman of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces to testify, he took the oppotunity to remind the Congress that the military would never tolerate being “insulted.” When hearings continued, Hermoza Rios held an impromptu tank parade directly in front of the Congress. The few brave Congressmen and women who actually desired to expose the truth about the killings got the message loud and clear: the case would never go anywhere as long as Fujimori remained president.

When it finally looked like the perpetrators might be punished, for example, Fujimori rammed a law through the Congress that provided a general amnesty to everyone who had violated human rights “in defense of the fatherland.” When a judge ruled the amnesty law unconstitutional, Fujimori’s Congress stripped the power of judicial review from the courts in cases of amnesty laws.

In a very real sense, the Peruvian government had legalized illegality. Fujimori created a system in which there was no way to punish — or even investigate — murder so long as someone, somewhere considered the crime to have been committed for patriotic reasons.

All that changed in 2000, however, when Fujimori’s government collapsed amid scandal.

An opposition figure who vowed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was sworn in as into office, and Peru reaffirmed its commitment to the American Convention on Human Rights. In 2001, in a groundbreaking decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in its Barrios Altos case that countries cannot issue an amnesty for “serious human rights violations.” The amnesty was thrown out and Grupo Colina members were arrested.

In 2007, Alberto Fujimori was extradited from Chile, where he had traveled, to Peru. In 2009, the Peruvian courts convicted Fujimori of a number of human rights abuses, including ordering the Barrios Altos murders. Just last month, justice was finally served when the members of Grupo Colina were convicted of murder, kidnapping, forced disappearance, and conspiracy, and were given various sentences ranging up to 25 years of prison. After 19 years, the Peruvian government has finally acknowledged that the extrajudicial executions that took place during that country’s cold war were crimes that must not go unpunished.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Peru,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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One Response to “1991: Barrios Altos massacre”

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    Peru's Leftist Student Revival - Analysis Says:

    [...] 20 years after the painful events at La Cantuta and Barrios Altos, among others, and just 11 years after the San Marcos military occupation ended, student [...]

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