Armed, dangerous, and hooked on soap operas

Exclusive: a female leader of the Lima embassy siege's girl guerrillas gives a secret interview to Phil Davison

They were born and brought up in the Peruvian jungle. Now they are hooked on tear-jerker TV soap operas. They are teenagers, barely five feet tall, but they are walking bombs, armed to the teeth, and say they are ready to die for their cause.

On their bandannas, they carry only their code numbers. Their hostages have dubbed them charapas (jungle turtles, a nickname Peruvians give to jungle women). But their leader prefers to call them "Che's Grandchildren". Hostages released from the besieged Japanese ambassador's residence here say there are at least three young girls among the 20 or so guerrillas of the Tupac Amaru Liberation Movement (MRTA).

The group, still holding 74 from more than 500 original VIP hostages, is demanding the release of 400 jailed comrades, safe passage to a jungle hideout, changes in President Fujimori's free market economic policies and an unspecified cash sum.

When the guerrillas stormed a pre-Christmas diplomatic cocktail party on 17 December, the girls were described as the coolest and most determined, peppering the chandeliers with bursts from their Korean-made AKM assault rifles to show they meant business.

Donning gas masks against police tear gas, they wrestled visiting dignitaries to the ground, threatening them with their rifles, pistols and impressive jungle knives. Their black flak jackets bulged with ammunition clips and what they later claimed was more than 40 pounds of dynamite around their waists.

With trendy black trousers, designer t-shirts and brown jungle boots, they looked as though they had just ended a shopping spree.

The two girl guerrillas pictured here carry the numbers 15 and 17 on red and white bandannas carrying the MRTA insignia - an image of anti- colonial Indian leader Tupac Amaru and a rifle. For the sake of conversation, their captives nicknamed them Luchita and Martita.

The third girl, rarely seen, has her hair virtually shaved off but all three have one thing in common - a devotion to the Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, instilled in them barely out of primary school when they joined the MRTA. They are even younger than Che's own grandchildren in Cuba.

In an exclusive secret interview with the Independent on Sunday this week, a high-ranking MRTA woman guerrilla said some 50 of the group's "Central Front" of 150 members were women, mostly teenagers "and all feminists". It was the first time any MRTA leader not in the besieged building had surfaced in Peru to speak to the media.

The woman, an eloquent, well-educated redhead in her mid-thirties, appeared at a previously-agreed location in the back of a van. She lives underground in Lima and faced life in jail as a known terrorist suspect if caught. When I asked what I should call her, she replied: "Choose an Irish name. Most of the IRA women have fallen." She declined to comment on whether the MRTA had any contacts with the IRA. I said I would call her "Carmen".

"The MRTA has always tried to develop the role of women, to give them a place," she said. "And unlike in the Sendero Luminoso [the Maoist Shining Path, previously Peru's best-known guerrilla group], they are encouraged to be feminists. They defend the right to do what they want with their bodies.

"The MRTA has intellectual women leaders but for combat operations, it chooses young girls from the jungle. They are poor. They have nothing to lose. They learn to live quickly and intensely. The young girls are the most vehement, they will do things people our age wouldn't dare.

"If you lose a partner in combat, you find another immediately. The main thing is to continue the struggle.

"The movement depends on its women. They have more resistance. They train harder. These girls from jungle villages grew up without water, electricity or TV. They are humble but they are people of pure heart. The perspective the group gives them is that they can change the world. And the first thing they are shown is a poster of Che."

When pressed, "Carmen" conceded that the jungle girls were "essentially cannon fodder" while MRTA leaders ensured their own children lived in comfort in exile, mostly in France or Germany. "The girls under siege are well aware they might die. They take an oath before every combat operation, seeking strength from one another," she said.

The two young children of Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, leader of the Lima attack, live in France with his mother. The money to keep them apparently comes from cupos de guerra, or "war taxes" extorted by the guerrillas from coffee ranchers or others. Those who don't pay tend to find their crop in ashes. Cerpa's wife, Nancy Gilvonio Conde, is serving a life term in Peru on terrorism charges and is one of 400 prisoners the MRTA is seeking to have freed.

The group's senior woman commander, Lucero Cumpa, - known by the nom de guerre "Esther" - is also doing life. Its leading woman intellectual, Cecilia Oviedo, alias "La Tia" (Auntie), is in exile in Mexico.

"Luchita and Martita rarely talked," freed hostage Carlos Aquino Rodriguez, a university professor, told the Independent on Sunday. "They were about 16 or 17. They just sat in armchairs, with their rifles on their laps, at the door of the 2nd floor salon I shared with 27 other hostages. They spent most afternoons following the soap operas on TV.

"Their favourite was Maria from the Barrio, a rags-to-riches story of a poor but pretty Mexican girl. They knew all the characters, the goodies and the baddies. Apparently, they'd spent three months following it in the safe house they used to prepare for their assault. But their favourite seemed to be an ad for Donofrio ice cream which features pretty young girls in bikinis. They sang along to the ad's mambo-style jingle," Mr Aquino said. "After battling with troops in the jungle, this must have seemed like a holiday to them. One of the Japanese hostages tried to teach them his language, `Sayonara', and things like that. They were doing quite well.

"Once, one of them complained of a headache. A gynaecologist among the hostages took her temperature and realised she was having her period. He gave her a prescription for relief tablets and suggested she give it to our Red Cross visitors.

"Occasionally, they'd prop their loaded rifles against the wall but none of us fancied having a go. None of us were military types and the charapas just looked too serious. One of them even lent us her knife to prise open a jammed bathroom door."

Alejandro Toledo, another freed hostage and former Peruvian presidential candidate, said: "The men were far more nervous than the girls. They were tranquil and determined and showed us the grenades and explosives in their backpacks and bum bags.

"They were extremely disciplined and slept in rotation in an uncomfortable position on the stairs. They told me they had trained to resist siege conditions for as long as three months.

"I passed the time playing golpeado, a poker-like card game, with them but they always won. They had poker faces. I'm a lousy poker player. And, after all, they had the guns."

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