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The Strange Story of Alberto Pareja Lecaros

I. The Legendary Mine of Catalina Huanca

In the chilled sierra dawn of March 18, 1983, 30 hooded guerrillas swept down on the Canaria mining camp to the percussion of dynamite blasts and overpowered the five policemen sleeping at the local post with breath-stealing ease. They proceeded to "expropriate" 60,000 sticks of dynamite, five automatic weapons, three .38 calibre pistols and a pickup. With the swift simplicity of a "people's trial," the guerrillas pardoned the lives of the policemen and a mine employee who was accused of being a scab. They distributed confiscated food among the 560 miners and their families, hungry for quick justice. For four months, the mineworkers had been on strike against the company management. Payrolls had not reached the camp since Christmas.

It was a guerrilla raid that preyed on the isolation that predominates in the barren, rugged mountains in and around Ayacucho, a tactic that Sendero Luminoso would use again and again over the next decade. At Canaria, this kind of revolutionary violence burned through the nuances and subtleties that ran through the mine and its troubled owners, the austere life of the Andes and the Byzantine scheming in Lima, but it did not do justice to the human drama.

Located 100 kilometers south of the city of Ayacucho in the province of Vitor Fajardo, Mina Canaria is really the legendary mineral deposit of Catalina Huanca that was worked by the pre-Colombian natives for centuries. In the 1550s, it was held by a correguidor named Antonio de Ore, a Spaniard from the Canary Islands (thus the name of the district and the mine), who discovered silver in the Chumbilla hill and began exploiting it, in part to finance the building of the Santa Clara nunnery in Huamanga (known as the city of Ayacucho today) for the Clarisa sisters. Ore had five daughters who needed adequate shelter. But within five years, the easily reached ore had run out and the claim was abandoned for 400 years untill the mid-1950s when a few locals tried to revive the mine.

The mine did not pick up its fortunes until the arrival of a mining engineer from Lima, Alberto Pareja Lecaros, who chanced upon the opportunity and became obsessed with the idea of owning the legendary Catalina Huanca mine. In the beginning, it was a time of sacrifice. He shared the same harsh conditions as his mine workers, drawn from the local Indian communities. He slept under sheepskins, ate dried meat and used pick and shovel to open up the first shafts. The ore had to be carried out by muleback until a road could be built. Pareja pushed his venture forward by force, carrying a thick, black leather whip, as a sign of authority, when he went down into the pits. In 1964, the company Mina Canaria S.A. was founded. In 1973, it was the eighth largest lead producer in the country, with minor output of zinc and 7,000 kilograms of silver.

Alberto Pareja Lecaros was remembered at the Lima engineering university as studious and hardworking. He graduated at 21 years old and worked through a series of jobs in mining, construction and petroleum over the years. At an early age, he fell in love with a young beauty, Piedad Pflucker, by all accounts, an attractive cross between European and colored stock. Raised in the "Bajo el Puente" neighborhood of Rimac, across the river from the presidential palace, this vivacious woman was surrounded by suitors, courting her with music and flirtation. In this group of young suitors, Pareja Lecaros did not stand out. Heavy set and tall, he was not a great catch for a women. A closely cropped mustache under a bulbous nose, close-knit brows, he was socially clumsy and tight-lipped. "Maybe it was the life in the mine, the solitude," said a close friend. "He is very introverted. You're lucky to get a word out of him in half an hour."

In any case, after five years of amorous siege, Piedad Pflucker accepted his proposal. They married and had three sons and three daughters. They settled into a rising middle class life style that seemed to be in keeping with Pareja Lecaros's prospects as a professional and entrepreneur. The severity that his silent figure imposed at the head of the family dinner table seemed to balance the mother's gaiety and talkativeness.

This seemingly predictable, normal existence came to an abrupt end in January, 1977, when Piedad de Pareja died of cancer after six months of excruciating pain.

II. Madness in Lima

About this time, the first, strange half-page advertisements began appearing in El Comercio newspaper -- "Gloria Hubner de Cardenas y los Derechos Humanos." It was signed by Alberto Pareja Lecaros. An acquaintance said about the ads, "You read the entire thing and asked yourself at the end what he was trying to say. It was surrealistic, written in a literary style, but it ended up like a painting by Salvador Dali."

The advertisements were the most publicly visible signs of a mental crisis in Pareja Lecaros that was diagnosed as a maniac-depressive psychosis by some of Peru's leading psychiatrists. There had been signs before his wife's death, as well. For instance, he ordered shamans to be brought from Chiclayo and Piura in a last vain attempt to save her life. There were also reports that Pareja Lecaros was under psychiatric care before her death and that both the Pareja and Pflucker families had a "history of mental weakness." During her illness, relations between father and children worsened.

Pareja Lecaros had always been an admirer of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator from Spanish rule, had collected an exceptional private library and made several trips to Colombia and Venezuela to visit historic sites in Bolivar's life. But with his mental crisis, this trait twisted into madness. He offered a dinner at the Hotel Crillon to which he invited the ambassadors of Colombia and Venezuela, their staff and the Peruvian diplomatic corps. Pareja Lecaros had decided to announce that he had discovered that Bolivar was God. The guests never arrived. Outraged at this offense to Bolivar's memory, he fired off letters of protest to the presidents of Venezuela and Colombia and to Peruvian president Francisco Morales Bermudez.

But Pareja Lecaros's most extravagant misdaventures did not come to light until later. He started to haunt Lima's shabbier night clubs, especially the Taboris on the Plaza San Martin. He had his retinue of violinists, strip-teasers and hangers-on who lived off his free hand, tips and half-empty glasses. When the night clubs shut their doors, the party would continue in a suite rented at a downtown hotel.

These reverie led him far and wide. Family sources say that he would chance across a restaurant or hotel that he liked and would try to buy it. He tried to buy a castle built in Cañete by another excentric and the Hotel Canaveral in Chincha, both south of Lima. His visits to Chincha are still remembered in local folklore. For instance, he offered to build a night club for the hotel and then invited the mayor, government officials and other dignitaries to the inauguration. The ribbon to the door was cut with pomp and ceremony. The lights were turned on, and before the crowd was a library dedicated exclusively to Bolivar. Pareja Lecaros turned to his guests and said, "Ignoramuses, so you can read a little."

In the midst of this strange behavior, Pareja Lecaros's children decided that he should be committed to a mental institution. In a surprise incursion into the family mansion on Pershing and Roma avenues in San Isidro, he was trapped in his bedroom, drugged and bundled off under the care of Dr. Baltazar Caravedo, a leading psychiatrist in Lima. However, Pareja Lecaros's relatives -- among them, a brother and a cousin who were both admirals in the Peruvian Navy -- intervened on his behalf and had him released under their responsibility.

At this point, the account of Pareja Lecaros's misadventures sinks into a whirlpool of accusations and countercharges between the two sides of the family. The attempt to have him committed marked a rupture between father and children. He immediately started court proceedings against his offspring, accusing them of having tried to kidnap him to gain control of the family fortune. The children's version is that they had to go into hiding to keep from being arrested on trumped-up charges, and a couple of them actually had to spend a couple of nights in a police station. There were allegedly attempts on their lives by thugs hired by their father.

The family's homes became the scenes of skirmishes for physical control, especially the mansion on Pershing Avenue, which has a story of its own. It had been the embassy residence of Nazi Germany. Pareja Lecaros bought it in 1973 at the height of his business success (Minas Canaria had a pre-tax net profit of US$1.6 million that year). On a lot of 2,300 square meters, the building was 1,600 square meters and housed 80 colonial paintings, pre-Colombian ceramics, crystal chandeliers and European bronze statues that Pareja Lecaros had collected over the years. In the garden there was a mausoleum but the ashes of Piedad Pflucker de Pareja rested in a safe deposit box in the library. Over the entrance, a statue of Bolivar stood guard.

Three times, the children, with the help of cousins, friends and medical attendants, tried to surprise their father in the street. Each time they failed despite chase scenes worthy of a police movie.

Finally, Pareja Lecaros disappeared completely from Lima. Two weeks later, he resurfaced in Arequipa. Exhausted, seated on a park bench, he had bruises on his face, his glasses were broken, had no shoes nor a cent in his pocket. Fortunately, a university colleague recognized him and called his family in Lima. Because the airlines refused to take him as a passenger, the family hired a Peruvian air force transport plane, a Soviet Antonov, and flew to Arequipa with a psychiatrist. In order to lure him to the airport and onto the plane, they told him they were taking him to a night club. Back in Lima, he was placed in a clinic. This was in August, 1979. He was released finally under the care of his eldest son, Alberto Pareja Pflucker, who had the most conflictive relationship of all the children.

III. A pauper seated on a gold bench

Peru has dug up and pilfered mineral wealth for centuries. Copper, zinc, lead, silver, gold, iron ore, plus other minor metals like bismuth, antimonium, molybendyum. Phosphate rocks in the Sechura desert. It mined guano -- bird shit -- in the 19th century only to squander it. Petroleum was discovered in the early 20th century.

In 1918, American investment arrived in Peru and opened up the central sierra to a mining revolution. Southern Peru Copper Corporation (SPCC) opened up two huge copper mines near the Chi lean border. Marcona Mining Corporation mines iron. Other smaller foreign companies also join while other major foreign investors (Anaconda, Kaiser Aluminum) study prospects of their claims.

The military government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado jumps onto the bandwagon. The State became a major mineral producer and processor, mainly by buying out the Cerro Corporation and founding Centromin Peru. Mineroperu. Minpeco becomes the marketing arm. At the time, dozens of major mining projects for base metals were on the drawing boards or under negotiations with Japanese, American, French and Romanian investors for joint ventures. Antamina, Ferrobamba, Tintaya, Michiquillay, Santa Rosa, Quellaveco, Berenguela.

But among these giants, there were also privately owned mines, though much smaller in dimensions. In the 20th century, new wealth was created and old wealth reinforced by the development of rich mineral holdings. As major generators of hard cash, the mine owners were in an advantageous position to benefit from sudden jerks in economic policy, especially devaluation. Although mineral prices were always cyclical, mine owners were pampered. When the military took over, however, things got rough. The heyday was the 1979-81 silver boom. Most mines in Peru are polymetallic and contain some traces of silver. The skyrocketing silver prices made fortunes.

But the silver boom was the last taste of glory. International prices fell sharply to their lowest levels this century. Peru and Chile could continue producing copper at the rock bottom price of 60 cents a pound for decades, unless the government in power kills the mines by adverse exchange policies.

There has been a change in the mining environment. The big mining operations are run by large foreign companies (actually only one remains), and by the State. The smaller mines, however, have also changed. One-man or one-family operations have become more professional, market-savvy and driven. The kind of mines, like Minas Canarias, are a dying breed, not enough capital and managerial talent to modernize and no other options for survival.

IV. Generational feud

The case of Pareja versus Pareja was finally settled in 1986. In 1983, the Supreme Court overturned the whole proceeding because of procedural deficiencies and sent it back to the initial stage.

Meanwhile, Minas Canaria S.A. slipped into effective bankruptcy because the children were unable to manage the unruly workers or start up operations. Workers and families marched to Lima and camped out in union halls and football stadiums for nearly three years. They could be seen pandhandling at major intersections or getting on buses to beg for contributions. The mine staff was withdrawn from the mine because of threats against their lives and the hovering threat of another raid from Sendero guerrillas. Besides, during the worst period of the fighting, the mine was in a no-man's land.

The relations between the unions and the family became absurd and vehement. The union leaders accused the Pareja Pflucker of being behind the guerrilla attacks. After all, they made frequent trips to Ayacucho where Sendero has its battle headquarters. Haven't they resorted to two "marxist-leninists" to run the mine (Manuel Benza Pflucker, a cousin and then a deputy for Izquierda Unida, and David Tejada, a brother-in-law, both leaders of the Partido Socialista Revolucionario - PSR)?

The children, meanwhile, accused the union of being in cahoots with Sendero by infiltrating cadres into the rank and file, a kind of alliance of convenience between the corrupt old leaders who were milking the company by graft and fraudulent purchase under the loose management of the old man. As an engineer, he seemingly accepted the indisputable figures and balances placed before him. The leaders weren't able to continue with their antics under the embittered children. The union wanted the old man back or else let them administer the mine themselves.

Pareja Lecaros had a close circle of friends who remained loyal. They reduced the drama to a case of a generation gap between a father imbued with old-fashioned virtues against children with modern vices. Luis Felipe Heraud, his lawyer, said, "The children are very difficult. They're part of the modern youth which uses drugs, gets drunk frequently and is used to being sexually licentious." Basically the same charges that the children hurled against their father when he was in his crisis.

For Pareja Lecaros's few friends, he is the wronged father who might have a mental defect ("He has a history of nervousness," said his lawyer.) but he is above all a man thrown to the exploiting hands of psychiatrists, left at the mercy of the courts, subjected to the humors of his children as to whether his allowance and rent will be paid that month.

V - Meeting the man

In the corridors of the Palace of Justice, there is no justice. The stacks of files pile up endlessly as they are shuffled from courtroom to courtroom, passing under the sleepy eyes of judges, clerks and lawyers who are cogs in a Kafkian machine of plots and conspiracies to perpetuate the psychological punishment. In this atmosphere of paranoia, the tales of influences and bribes, the suspicions of midnight phone calls and secret meetings take on a force that exceeds the yellowing texts of jurisprudence. There is no justice in the dank drab corridors where loiters block the doorways hoping that fate will trip over their feet. In this labyrinth, justice is metamorphized into a blind hag who wants sacrifices, blood and pain to stretch out the trials of men like a hookey soap opera. She has an appetite which grows insatiable for more words, proofs and arguments, that thrives on the flowery rhetoric of lawyers and scribes. In the corridors of the Palace, there is no justice.

During the final years of legal wrangling, Pareja Lecaros seemed to be the most level-headed of all the people involved. He lived in a sparsely furnished residence in the suburb of San Borja, which he shared with his second wife, the famous Gloria Hubner, and her two children from a previous marriage. Overweight from inactivity and looking his age (58 years in 1983), he sat chain-smoking in an armchair. A bust of Bolivar peered over the living room from a window sill. Pareja looked like an unemployed mining engineer who had lost his job six months ago because the mine's veins had run out and had since had trouble getting another job since he could no longer offer the perky efficiency of younger applicants.

He spoke with a calm directness, avoiding references to the scandals that had shattered his life and his children. To a blunt question about his mental health, he spoke of himself in third person: "Look, sir, when one enters a crisis, he is capable of doing anything, but once it's over, normality returns. Really, it's like being drunk. Once one's over the hangover, he's back to normal 100 percent."

He kept coming back to the subject of the mine. If you could take control of the mine again, would you go back to Ayacucho to work it despite the threat of guerrillas and violence? "Sure, for many reasons. Because, you know, when one creates something, as the founder of a company, one becomes attached. It's not an economic matter. One wants to see it progress, see it function, see it progress. Really, one wants to be occupied in something."