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The Price of Passion : Thousands of young Americans have gone to Latin America to right what they see as injustices. Most come back. But not Lori Berenson, who sits isolated--for life--in a Peruvian prison.

February 07, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outraged by injustice and perplexed by U.S. policies in the region, legions of Americans--most of them young, many from Southern California--visit Latin America each year in support of causes both personal and political.

Most of them come back. This is the story of one who didn't.

Lori Berenson, 26, sits today in an unheated cell in the notorious Yanamayo prison, located on a wind-swept plateau high in the Andes of Peru. On Jan. 11, she was sentenced to life in prison for assisting a group she says helps the poor but the government says traffics in terror.

On Nov. 30, Berenson was pulled from a public bus in Lima and arrested by authorities, who accused her of being an active member of the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), one of two main armed factions waging a guerrilla war against the Peruvian government. Convicted of treason by a closed military tribunal, she remains in isolation while her lawyers fervently appeal her sentence and seek a new trial.

She is an unlikely terrorist. As a teenager, friends say, the daughter of college professors from Manhattan was gentle and compassionate, frequently volunteering at soup kitchens and blood banks. At that, she wasn't remarkably different from many Americans her age. Oh, she may have been a little better in school--especially in science and math--than some, and she had a talent for music, playing guitar and singing in a chamber choir. But like many rebellious young people coming of age in the self-indulgent '80s, she figured there had to be more to life than good grades and personal success.

So shortly after dropping out of MIT in 1990, she used what was left of her college tuition money to visit Central America.

Thousands of students from U.S. colleges have made similar trips in recent years, volunteering to harvest crops in revolutionary Nicaragua or standing in solidarity with beleaguered grass-roots organizations in war-torn El Salvador. Berenson, her serious, round face framed by round glasses, hardly stood out from the pack, bouncing from Nicaragua to El Salvador, Panama and eventually to Peru.

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Latin America has never rivaled Hawaii or Disney World as vacation spots go, but it was the destination of choice for many political activists in the 1980s.

"We brought so many people to Nicaragua--literally thousands--during the Contra war. It was to have a presence there and to know that that presence would have an effect of a nontoleration of the Contra war," says Blase Bonpane, director of Office of the Americas, a Los Angeles-based educational group that sponsors numerous delegations to areas of conflict in Latin America.

Organizations that have directed similar trips, such as faith-based groups like Witness for Peace and the SHARE Foundation, issue detailed synopses or hold orientation sessions to explain local customs and to help visitors recognize and avoid dangerous situations.

"We sometimes spend a whole day talking about precautions, security precautions," says Lana Dalberg of SHARE, which brokers sister-parish relations with more than 50 churches in El Salvador. "What to do with their rolls of film. . . . How not to do anything stupid. Try not to be abusive and abrasive with the military. Always be respectful."

Sometimes, however, preparation is undone by passion. In 1987, Bonpane led a peace march from Panama to Mexico, and although the marchers' presence was a nonviolent one, daily exposure to the poverty and injustice of Central America inspired some to consider taking matters into their own hands, despite the obvious dangers.

"Some would be almost suicidal," he says. "There were many times I felt I was holding people back, physically sometimes."

Although delegations such as Bonpane's--composed mainly of activists opposed to U.S. policies--made up the bulk of those visiting Central America in recent years, they are by no means the only ones. Tom Reisinger, a deputy editor at Soldier of Fortune magazine in Boulder, Colo., has made about a dozen trips to El Salvador and Honduras with conservative groups. But despite differing ideologies, Reisinger, an Army Special Forces medic in Vietnam, says he saw members of his group overcome with the same kind of emotion that moved Bonpane's peace marchers.

"It's certainly easy to go down with stars in your eyes, so to speak, and get caught up in what you're doing," he says. "I think it's easy for right-wingers or left-wingers to get caught up in the fervor-of-the-moment type of thing. I think United States citizens have to realize that when they go to these other countries and they do mix in politics, they are really laying their lives on the line."

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In Peru, meanwhile, Berenson's defenders insist the former A student and human rights activist never crossed that fine line separating fervor from fanaticism.

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