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HOSTAGE STANDOFF

Rebels Have History of Grandiose Plots

December 19, 1996|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — The takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence here by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stunned many Peruvians, but it was a classic operation by this leftist guerrilla group.

The attack was carefully planned, ambitious, and was foreshadowed: a desperate firefight in an affluent Lima neighborhood last year when police captured guerrilla leaders who were planning an invasion of the Peruvian Congress. That was a surprise because the guerrilla's movement was described as on the verge of extinction.

Last year's incident drew notice in the United States because of the arrest of Lori Berenson, a New Yorker.

Berenson insists that she was unjustly tried by one of Peru's notoriously harsh anti-terrorism courts, which convicted her of involvement in the elaborate plot to take Congress hostage.

"Everybody thought Tupac Amaru was defeated, and everybody was surprised," said Enrique Zileri, publisher of Caretas magazine. "Their plans were more or less comparable to what they have done at the [residence]. That is their style."

During its 12-year existence, Tupac Amaru, or MRTA, has developed a style that combines sophisticated combat and propaganda tactics with the classic anti-imperialist ideology of Latin American leftist rebel groups that have faded since the 1980s.

Despite its weakened state, it has shown a capacity to resurrect itself with selected operations designed for maximum media impact, a trait found in the tactics of the Zapatista rebels in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Named after an Indian leader who led an uprising against the Spanish in 1780, the group is smaller and very different than Peru's more notorious Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, rebels.

Tupac Amaru has fought Sendero Luminoso for control of the harsh slums of Lima and the rural coca-growing valleys where guerrillas, gangsterism and official corruption blur together.

Sendero Luminoso preaches an apocalyptic brand of Maoism that is founded on uncompromising destruction of the state. It has practiced a particularly bloody form of terrorism: indiscriminate murders, stonings, and hacking and dynamiting of bodies in a cult-like frenzy.

Tupac Amaru has cultivated a Robin Hood mystique and appears to make an effort to spare civilians. Its politics are a more straightforward brand of Marxism akin to Cuban and Colombian leftists; Tupac Amaru does not advocate obliterating the system, and it has proposed alliances with nonviolent leftist parties, according to Jaime Antesano, an expert on guerrilla groups and director of a Lima social organization that works with refugees who have survived political violence.

"Their idea is to negotiate with the state," Antesano said. "Their objective was like the M-19 guerrillas in Colombia, to integrate themselves in the political system."

But since they appeared in 1984, the guerrillas have failed to attract much broad-based support. At their peak, they numbered about 1,000 rebels drawn from the ranks of university students and unemployed urban youths in this society fractured by class and racial strife.

Tupac Amaru in its heyday bombed Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, killed a former defense minister and financed itself with robberies, kidnappings and shakedowns of narcotics traffickers.

The rebels were part of a Latin American coalition of guerrilla bands that shared resources and training centers in Cuba and Central America, experts say.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori built his political career on a vow to defeat Tupac Amaru and Sendero Luminoso. After he declared emergency powers with the backing of the military in 1992, he dealt crushing blows to both movements.

Using modern intelligence-gathering techniques rather than traditional brute force, Peruvian security forces tracked down key leaders, including Abimael Guzman of Sendero Luminoso and Victor Polay of Tupac Amaru.

"We thought Tupac Amaru was moribund, almost buried," Antesano said.

But a core group survives. Their current leader is said to be Serpa Cartolini, a former union activist in his mid-50s.

Antesano believes that Cartolini is involved in the attack on the Japanese ambassador's residence, which to the rebels is a symbol of the rise of the Japanese as the latest big-spending imperialists to exploit Peruvians.

The rebels' stated goal is to win the release of hundreds of imprisoned comrades and regroup in the jungles of the Upper Huallaga Valley. It is almost academic whether they pull it off. With a single operation, they achieved international notoriety: Peru's nightmare is a terrorist dream come true.

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