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A Pestilence of Violence

By Michael L. Smith

Newsweek, June, 1986

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were War, Famine, Conquest and Death. In Peru these days, they rise again. Their modern incarnations, says psychiatrist Carlos Rodriguez, are kidnapping, political terrorism, hunger and repression. And they are transforming Peru into one of those unfortunate countries where violence or the threat of violence shape and distort the lives of the citizenry. "There are shots everywhere," says Elizabeth Villegas. "If it's not the police, it's criminals or terrorists."

If a date could be set for the beginning of Peru's current time of troubles, it would be May 18, 1980. That was the day Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist guerrillas whose members rioted in three Lima prisons last week, announced its intent to take over the country -- and its disdain for peaceful change. Sendero guerrillas attacked a small polling place in remote, mountainous Ayacucho Province and burned the ballots. The guerrillas' commitment to violence has not faltered since then, but Shining Path is by no means the only force pulling Peru toward chaos. Other rebel groups have sprung up in its image. Cocaine smugglers and common criminals have followed the path blazed by the guerrillas. According to unofficial counts, there were more than 100 kidnappings last year. The victims ranged from rich businessmen to poor shantytown dwellers, whose ransom might be as little as a television set. More than 40,000 people have been arrested for curfew violations since President Alan Garcia imposed a state of emergency in February. Most were drunks or vagrants who merely spent a night in jail, but 15 have been shot to death by Peruvian troops, allegedly because they refused to halt when ordered to do so.

Military rule: Garcia and his predecessor, Fernando Belaunde Terry, tried to fight the violence without turning Peru over to the military. Belaunde remembered all too well that back in the 1960s, the Army crushed a guerrilla insurgency, then turned on his civilian government, overthrew it and ruled the country from 1968 to 1980. But after civilian forces failed to control Sendero's new insurgency in the Andes, Belaunde finally sent the military into the hills in 1983 with a mandate to root out the guerrillas. The military killed thousands of people, but the insurgency merely shifted to the cities.

Garcia has tried to cope with the problem in two ways. He has allotted more of Peru's scare development funds to the rural poor. And he has tried to improve the Peruvian police force, which has always been a poor cousin of the military. About 1,8000 officers have been dismissed from the top-heavy command structure, and Scotland Yard has helped to train a new anti- kidnapping squad. But the police and the Army are sometimes part of the problem. Human rights groups say that have received complaints of torture in rural jails, one of the places where Sendero recruited new guerrillas. In April, two captured kidnapping suspects bribed their way out of Lima's courthouse jail.

The incessant violence is changing the way Peruvians live, and damaging their far-from-robust economy. Peruvians with money no longer flaunt it by driving a Mercedes or a BMW; that would attract the attention of kidnappers. Instead, they spend it on special security precautions, on bodyguards -- and on kidnapping insurance in case those measures fail. The violence distorts normal economic activity. Leaders of the miners union recently led a 45-day strike that cost Centromin, the country's largest mining company, $50 million. The union turned militant shortly after Sendero assassinated several union leaders it accused of being too conciliatory with the company. Sendero attacks in the mountains have crippled everything from the alpaca wool trade to electric power stations. Companies operating in Peru have seen rates for insurance against sabotage rise by 500 percent. Says a Lima broker" "Who the hell needs Peruvian risk these days?"

Bomb blasts: Prior to last week, Garcia's leadership had produced a few signs of progress. The kidnap rate seems to have leveled off, apparently because of the capture of several gangs that specialized in it. Thanks to his determination not to give the military a completely free hand in combating violence, the number of terrorism suspects who disappear has dropped from 3,000 in the 2 and a half years before he took office to 100 since then. But a car bomb exploded in April near the residence of U.S. Ambassador David C. Jordan, and just two weeks ago, four bombs exploded in a Lima plaza, killing three people. One went off just before a Garcia speech, and the other three exploded after he left the area. With the military pressing on one side for more authority to crush dissent, and the guerrillas and criminals no the other working to destroy the social system, Garcia has little margin for error.

© 1986 Newsweek International. All rights reserved