The high street in Tiverton, Devon, is just like that of any other small market town – with a tea shop, a barber's, an Indian restaurant and a second-hand bookseller – except that at the local Italian, the man tending the bar and waiting tables is on bail for alleged torture and crimes against humanity.
Il Gatto Nero was closed for business for two days this week, prompting the landlord to fear that his tenant Rodrigo Grande, a 46-year-old Peruvian, had "done a runner". In fact, Mr Grande was 15 miles away at Exeter police station, being questioned about his alleged role in the torture and murder of hundreds of Peruvian civilians in the 1980s and early 1990s, when government-backed death squads moved to quash the Maoist insurgent movement known as the Shining Path.
While Mr Grande was being questioned, Metropolitan Police officers searched both his restaurant and his rented home nearby, removing mobile phones and computer equipment. He is now on bail and expected to present himself to police in London in July.
Mr Grande, who is 6ft tall and was dressed in jeans and a cardigan when located by The Independent, protested his innocence yesterday. "They wanted to speak to me about when I worked as a police officer in Peru. I have done nothing. I have done nothing," he said, refusing to say more about the matter.
His high-profile arrest and the extraordinary nature of his alleged crimes have shocked residents in this quiet Devon town. The atmosphere could not be more different from that in impoverished Peru when hostilities were at their peak 20 years ago. Civil war led to the death or disappearance of 70,000 people between 1980 and 2000. Maoist fighters traded atrocities with government forces in an attempt to establish a socialist state.
"People are very surprised indeed by the news," said Grace Tennant, 60. "Not a lot happens here."
Tony Hendy, a landlord who rents the restaurant to Mr Grande, as well as his house in nearby Barrington Street, said: "I didn't know where he'd gone. In the end I put a padlock over the door with a note telling him to call me. Then he came back and saw me in the street and said, 'I'm sorry. I've been with the police. They've been asking me questions for two days'."
Mr Grande's arrest was made possible after a change in the law last year which extended the historical cut-off point – from 2001 to 1991 – for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Police have searched his rented properties. Officials would not divulge the conditions of Mr Grande's bail, but a suspect would typically have to surrender his passport. His arrest resulted from information passed on by the UK Border Agency's War Crimes Unit.
Mr Hendy said Mr Grande had come from Poland to Tiverton, where his brother was running the restaurant, about 18 months ago. "When I read the allegations I have to say I laughed," he said. "He doesn't seem like he'd be capable of that. He's a nice enough person to deal with."
Mr Grande rents his house through the restaurant as a business property, which means Mr Hendy does not keep separate tenancy agreements with everyone who might be living at the property at any one time. Police came to question someone living at the address a year ago, who Mr Hendy believes to have been a second Peruvian. He said several people had come and gone from the property in the time Mr Grande had been renting it. Mr Grande's brother now runs a second Il Gatto Nero in Truro, Cornwall.
Shining Path was founded in the 1960s by Abimael Guzmán, a former professor of philosophy at Huamanga University in Peru. It gained influence over students and launched military campaigns in 1980. It is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of civilians and Peruvian troops, but several thousand of its own number, and just as many civilians, were killed as the government fought back.
Guzmán was jailed for life in 2006 for aggravated terrorism and murder. He is incarcerated in a subterranean cell at Callao naval base near Lima.Reuse content