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HOSTAGE STANDOFF | FIRST PERSON

Media Attention: A Rebel Aim From the Very Start

December 20, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve years ago, guerrillas from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement burst onto the scene--and into my office.

In their first actions, Tupac guerrillas already displayed the theatrical flair and penchant for violence that have now been amplified into one of the most audacious operations ever in Peru's turbulent political history.

Tupac had its public debut in September 1984, firing about 60 machine gun rounds at the U.S. Embassy in Lima on a Friday night, then following up Saturday morning with invasions of the news bureaus of United Press International and Associated Press.

Minimum violence, maximum publicity--that, at least then, was their plan.

Tupac was still relatively unknown then. But not after that weekend.

Three men and a woman, dressed like typical university students in jeans and jackets but with dark glasses, shoved their way into my UPI office, where a clerk, Santos, and I were working alone.

At first I thought they were members of Peru's notorious secret police, and I was about to argue with them when they pulled their guns.

Then I assumed they were members of Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, the better-known, insanely vicious guerrilla army that had been waging war against the Peruvian government for several years.

My hands began to tremble and my internal organs began to congeal.

Perhaps sensing my growing terror, the leader of the group quickly explained who they were--that they were not Sendero--and that I would not be harmed as long as I did what they requested.

Santos was ordered prone onto the floor; I was ordered to the computer.

They gave me a revolutionary communique that I was told to transmit. It demanded justice for Peru's poor and blasted the government for corruption and human rights abuses. As it turned out, they believed that their missive would go straight to newsrooms around the world and did not realize that it would stop at a central desk in Washington.

Also, in those days, many wire services in Latin America had devised secret codes that a reporter filing under duress should include in the copy. I dutifully typed in the secret code, then typed in the revolutionary zeal.

As I worked, the Tupac rebels, who were educated and spoke with urban accents, painted the office with slogans: "Belaunde and [Ronald] Reagan, murderers of the people"--a reference to the American leader and the then-Peruvian president, Fernando Belaunde, whose speech that week at the United Nations was upstaged by the guerrilla attacks. Just as Tupac had hoped.

The leader did most of the talking.

"This is not against you," he told me, warning me not to look into his face. "You are a worker, just like us. This is against the forces of imperialism."

(I later realized Tupac had "cased" my office weeks before by posing as journalism students seeking a tour and an explanation of how international wire services worked.)

Santos and I were finally ordered into the bathroom and told that if we came out in less than 10 minutes, a bomb would explode. There was no bomb, but Tupac had time to make its getaway.

Wilkinson is The Times' Vienna Bureau chief.

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