CAYARA, PERU — A cluster of peasant women stood at the edge of a corn field and wept as they told reporters how they witnessed army troops slaughtering their husbands and sons. Nearby, a team of medical examiners removed bone fragments from freshly dug graves. On the mountainside above, the village of Cayara stood abandoned; the only sounds were those of dogs howling for their missing masters.
In its eight-year war against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgents, Peru's security forces have used dirty-war tactics against innocent civilians on several occasions. This time, despite government denials, villagers are charging that the military have again taken Draconian measures that threaten to weaken their country's fragile democracy even further.
Eleven eyewitnesses told a public prosecutor that soldiers on May 14 forced 18 men and boys to lie face down in the cornfield, then put branches of prickly pear cactus on their backs and stomped on them. Afterwards, the troops hacked their victims to death with machetes, picks and scythes, the witnesses said.
Others described how soldiers entered the village church and shot to death five men who were disassembling a processional platform in the aftermath of a religious festival.
The army denies the reports. A spokesman claimed that 18 who died were all terrorists attempting to escape from a military patrol. The weight of the testimony, however, favors the townspeople's version. The attack was an apparent reprisal for a guerrilla ambush against an army convoy the night before that claimed the lives of five soldiers and four guerrillas. The rebels frequently force villagers to attack army columns, then retreat, leaving the peasants at the mercy of the troops.
The Shining Path's use of terrorism, assassinations and massacres of both opponents and innocent peasants differs only slightly from the dirty-war tactics of their military adversaries. To ask whether or not they seek to protect their peasant constituents or annihilate them is a legitimate question.
Cayara is a case in point. Troubles with the military began in 1981 when the Shining Path arrived demanding food and clothing from the villagers. Those who cooperated were later found dead. Hostility to the army grew when Cayarinos refused to organize themselves into army-sponsored self-defense units as long as they were denied arms. Tensions were mounting when the ambush took place. There were abundant motives for military retaliation against the village.
Attempts to cover up the Cayara massacre began as soon as reports of the slaughter reached Lima. The government backed a military communique denying the massacre, but President Alan Garcia conceded that the army may have been guilty of "excesses."
For more than a week after the slaughter the army made it impossible for investigators, medical experts and journalists to reach Cayara, an isolated settlement surrounded by mountain gorges 100 miles south of the provincial capital of Ayacucho. Thus far the chief of Ayacucho's military zone has prevented international relief workers from delivering emergency food and medical care to the village, citing "security risks."
Meantime, witnesses say soldiers spent a week cleaning up after the massacre. Forensic experts opened four graves, but found them empty except for bone and hair fragments. Adelania Chucla, a 62-year-old widow, told me she buried her husband but found his grave empty two days later. Other witnesses said they saw soldiers remove bodies in helicopters and horseback, then return to scrub the bloodstained floor of the church and install Peruvian flags atop the town's adobe houses.
Government sources and major newspapers are minimizing the incident, accusing left-wing deputies of turning it into a political football.
The army's obstructionism has done little to support its version of the facts. After Gen. Jose Valdivia, chief of the Ayacucho military emergency zone, presented his account of what happened at Cayara, I asked him if he thought the witnesses were lying.
"No, but they are terrorists," he said.
Asked why he hadn't arrested them, he responded: "We have to investigate them first."
As for the mute testimony of the empty graves, to assume that guerrillas dug up the bodies of their comrades, one would have to explain how they evaded the army troops who have occupied Cayara since May 14.
The carnage occurred during Pope John Paul II's visit to Peru and at a time when President Garcia had pledged to improve his administration's anti-terrorist policies. Both the killings and Garcia's reaction to them seem to indicate a U-turn for Peru and a step backward for the human-rights movement in Latin America.