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Peru Siege: Human Rights, Fiscal Crises

August 17, 1986|Juan E. Mendez | Juan E. Mendez is director of the Washington office of Americas Watch, a human-rights organization

WASHINGTON — When Alan Garcia took office as president of Peru last year, he raised high hopes throughout Latin America with his dynamic new style of leadership. Like his counterparts, Raul Alfonsin in Argentina and Julio Sanguinetti in Uruguay, he was setting an innovative course, steering clear of revolutionary paths, yet distancing himself from the old imperialist powers.

A year later, although Garcia has realized some of that promise, a state of siege exists in areas where one out of every three Peruvians live.

The president faces insurgent turmoil from within and a financial crisis from without. On Friday, the International Monetary Fund, reacting in part to Garcia's fiscal policies concerning debt-repayment, declared Peru ineligible to borrow funds--an action that could deny the country financial credit from any source.

There is some good news: While Garcia began by inheriting a dismal economy, his initial domestic steps, though minor, appear to be working. He has instituted an economic stabilization plan that also promotes the redistribution of income and the regeneration of economic activity; many Peruvians say they are tangibly better off.

Garcia also has attempted to take the initiative in the war against drug trafficking. His government has launched dramatic operations to demolish laboratories, destroy landing strips and jail large numbers of corrupt police.

Yet beyond the immediate debt crisis, Garcia has been frustrated by other long-standing challenges, none of them susceptible to short-term solutions: mediating the balance of power with the military; creating the means to eliminate human-rights abuses, and bringing the perpetrators to justice when they do occur. His first year ended with a prison tragedy that highlighted these problems.

Coordinated riots by inmates belonging to the insurgent group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), in three Lima prisons were put down on June 18 with excessive force and only a token attempt at negotiations.

Later, the public learned that a majority of the 275 victims were killed in cold blood after they surrendered, by the Guardia Republicana police in Lurigancho and by the navy in El Fronton. Although Garcia promised to prosecute dozens of policemen, none are now in custody; no similar announcement was made about the navy and no investigation is under way of the army, in command of the Guardia Republicana.

Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, perhaps the most celebrated Peruvian writer, responded with an open letter to Garcia, published in the press: "One of the most celebrated acts of your government was to affirm the authority of civilian power over the armed forces, a primary requirement of any form of democracy. I deplore, and I am sure that many Peruvians deplore with me, the fact that during this event that authority was glaring in its absence."

The June episode dramatized a downward slide in the internal situation, clouding the sense of optimism that grew from Garcia's efforts at the outset of his administration to control human-rights abuses. Those early efforts produced a striking improvement in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations in the Andean region. The number of disappearances declined sharply from the days of the preceding regime under Fernando Belaunde; there were no more mass extrajudicial executions and massacres of civilians.

Three massacres did occur during the first weeks of Garcia's term, but even his severest critics acknowledge that they were either provocations by the military or a remnant of previous practice. Reacting forcefully, Garcia put a stop to such practices.

Yet there are serious shortcomings in Garcia's human-rights performance. On his orders, initially vigorous investigations by parliamentary commissions were all but halted. More, his administration has gone along with jurisdiction by military courts over prosecutions for human-rights abuse, thereby all but insuring that the guilty will not be punished. The Peace Commission appointed by Garcia was sidelined when it suggested effective measures to punish those responsible for human-rights violations. Garcia replaced it with three citizens whose roles are reduced to quiet diplomacy within the government.

The state of siege is supposed to combat Sendero Luminoso but its effects on the rebels are at best marginal; meanwhile, it creates serious hazards for the civilian population. In the first four months, curfew enforcement in Lima claimed eight innocent lives. The situation also legitimizes increasing military jurisdiction over civilian institutions and there is evidence of pressures--from the military, from the government--on the press, resulting in self-censorship.

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