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End of a Honeymoon

July 16, 1986

Peru, battered by economic recession and bloodied by shadowy guerrillas, desperately needed the vigor and hope offered by its young new president, Alan Garcia. But Garcia's political honeymoon has come to an abrupt, violent end.

Peru's capital, Lima, was host city last month to the first Socialist International meeting ever held outside Europe. Garcia's Peruvian political party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, is affiliated with the socialist federation and planned to use the meeting to promote his vision of Latin American and Third World solidarity on the international debt crisis. Peru is one of many Latin nations unable to pay its debts and demanding more help and other concessions from international banks and lending agencies.

But Garcia's most dangerous political enemies, members of a guerrilla organization known as Sendero Luminoso, had another plan--to embarrass the Peruvian leader. They succeeded beyond their own expectations, thanks to the brutality of elements of Peru's security forces.

Days before the opening of the socialist congress, suspected Sendero guerrillas who were being held in three prisons staged a series of simultaneous uprisings while sympathizers on the outside staged bombings and a mortar attack on the hotel where the international congress was being held. In response, an angry Garcia gave Peruvian police and soldiers a free hand to control the situation. As a result, more than 250 people were killed before the prison riots were put down. A would-be terrorist also died when an explosive device went off prematurely, and several foreigners were killed when a bomb exploded aboard a tourist train in Cuzco.

Once the smoke cleared, even more troubling events followed. In a televised speech Garcia revealed that as many as 124 of the prisoners slain when the military regained control of the Lurigancho prison in eastern Lima had been killed after surrendering. Warning that he would not tolerate human-rights abuses, the president ordered 100 police officers involved in putting down the insurrection arrested and held for trial. Now rumors of discontent within Peru's armed forces are circulating, and the danger of a coup is being openly discussed in Lima. Rumblings like that are worrisome, for the Peruvian military surrendered power to civilians only in 1980, after 12 years of military government.

Garcia's decision to suppress the disorders was made too quickly, with little thought of its possible consequences and without time to find other means of controlling the violence. But his decision to persecute abuses committed by security personnel during the outbreak was courageous. Garcia now deserves international support--especially from the United States, which has maintained a distance from Garcia and his populist policies. The Peruvian generals must see that their young president has the approval of the world in protecting human rights, even in the face of insurrection. If not, the Peruvian military may be tempted to try to settle all of Peru's problems the way some of its men apparently did at Lurigancho.

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