When governments try to fight fire with fire

Four years after the coup d'etat that ended democracy in Peru, terrorism has made a spectacular return

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I had been reading Gngora's Soledades when the news programmes on all the channels of sunny Miami opened with the story of the audacious coup de main in Lima by the MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru). They had occupied the Japanese Embassy with more than 400 hostages inside - among them diplomats, state ministers, businessmen, officers, functionaries and the usual cocktail-lions, gathered there to celebrate the Emperor's birthday.

The first thing that entered my head was a quiet frivolous consideration: the extraordinary coincidence of having taken up again just now, when this new terrorist deed occurred, a book that I had been reading at every free moment during the Peruvian electoral campaign of 1989-90, when the MRTA perpetrated some of its noisiest operations.

Since then, the cold and perfect beauty of Gngora's poetry has been indelibly associated in my memory with the blood and thunder of the terrorist violence which marked that campaign. And it seems, in the future, that mysterious relationship between the most dextrous maker of metaphors in the Castilian language and the political savagery in my country is to continue, without the least hope that death (or deaths) ever do us part.

I hear on US television, and read in the press, that in Peru there are two terrorist organisations: one radical and fanatical, the Shining Path, and another moderate and political, the MRTA. The former are more cruel and intransigent on account of their Maoist affiliation, their model of society being the China of the Cultural Revolution and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and the latter are more flexible and pragmatic because they are only Castro-ists, and may eventually transform themselves into a political party operating in a legal context.

As proof of the MRTA's moderation, we are told of the decent treatment they give to their hostages, the cordial discussions on economic policy that the operation leaders sometimes have with captured businessmen, and the talks that the kidnappers offer to their victims, enlightening them as to their revolutionary ideals.

I am bound to say that this nomenclature of "radical" and "moderate" terrorists has always seemed a fallacy to me - and now more than ever, to judge by the events of the moment. Even if it is true that between the Shining Path and MRTA there exist marked ideological differences, in that which is really important, that defines a political movement - its methods - these differences are well nigh invisible. It is true that the Shining Path have killed many more people, but this is not because the MRTA are more benign - they are just not as numerous, and have a more limited capacity for destruction. Even so, the MRTA's record, since it was founded in 1983 to the present, is laden with innocent blood and corpses, assaults, kidnappings for ransom, all sorts of extortions, and an organic alliance with drug traffickers of the Huallaga Valley - to whom, in return for substantial remuneration, they have been supplying armed protection for many years.

It may be my judgement is tainted with subjectivity: an MRTA commando tried to annihilate me and my family at the airport of Pucallpa during that electoral campaign and, not managing to do so, consoled themselves by wiping out a handful of peasants who had discovered them. But it seems to me a gross aberration - this use of the adjective "moderate" for a movement that, in the name of the future socialist paradise, has murdered countless people and made a speciality of kidnapping for ransom. All the major kidnappings that have taken place in Peru in the past 10 years have been their doing, and have netted them many millions of dollars - invested, presumably, in arms and ammunition to make possible new operations that will again fill their coffers and leave a trail of suffering and horror.

One of my closest friends was a victim of theirs. For six months they held him captive in a tiny cave, where he was unable to stand up, and where, there being frequent power blackouts at that time, he spent long periods in total darkness, in the crunchy company of the cockroaches - which he learned to kill with feral alacrity, guided only by his sense of hearing. His family, meanwhile, was subjected to daily psychological torture, by telephone calls and cassettes with recordings intended to destroy their nerves. This person emerged hale and hearty from the terrible trial, but others did not survive it, or emerged as nervous wrecks.

If these people are the moderates of terror, what can the extremists be like? A compatriot of mine, to whom I made such a remark, replied: "Shining Path blew up a whole apartment building in the Calle Tarata in Miraflores, just because there were several banks in the neighbourhood. Compared with a mass crime of that calibre, the small bombs and kidnappings of the MRTA seem like child's play, don't they?" My opinion is that they do not seem like child's play, and that the numbers and scale on which terrorism is executed in no way attenuate the ethical iniquity of the crime.

This is why, from the first moment, I have opposed, with the same conviction and severity, both the Shining Path and the MRTA - maintaining that more than their ideological divergency, the important thing is the identity that exists between them in the vileness of their behaviour. Both of them consider that, in pursuit of their political ends, the killing of their adversaries or of innocent persons, along with robbery, assault, kidnapping and alliance with drug traffickers, are perfectly legitimate methods. And for the same reason, I have criticised the senselessness of the Peruvians who applauded the Fujimori regime when, to fight the terrorists more "efficiently", it borrowed their methods, and generalised the use of torture, disappearances or bare-faced murders, like those of the students and professors at La Cantuta.

A complacent attitude to state terror is, unfortunately, very widespread in countries where a feeling of insecurity and desperation, caused by the actions of extremists, lead wide sectors of the public to approve a hard-line policy of counter-terrorism. This is a pure illusion, a deceitful mirage. The fact is that when the state adopts terrorist methods in order to combat terrorism, the terrorists are already the winners, because they have managed to impose the logic of their game, and have deeply wounded the institutions of democracy. How can those who are entrusted with maintaining the rule of law operate in violation of it, exercising terror? The inevitable result is the spread of violence and, under its wing, of corruption, which follows violence like a shadow.

Peru is experiencing all this in these bitter days, as it wakes up from the authoritarian dream it embraced so enthusiastically: an authoritarian regime of "no nonsense" - no involvement of political parties, no free press, no independent judges or parliamentary representatives - which was to ruthlessly stamp out the terrorists and put an end to the "political haggling" of the supposed democracy. Well, now it seems that, four years after the coup d'etat that ended democracy in Peru, terrorism is far from stamped out, as the government's propagandists had been claiming. The MRTA, at least, has given spectacular proof of its existence, occupying the front pages of newspapers and prime time on television all over the world.

And in other departments, the so-called "Peruvian model" that shone so brightly in the eyes of Latin American militarists in recent years, looks every day less like a regime of peace and economic progress, and more like a poorly veiled version of the traditional dictatorships of our continent - that is to say, corrupt, with upper-echelon officers intimately linked to the drug industry; with the news media kept on their knees by a combination of the carrot and the stick; with an economic situation that is beginning to spring a lot of leaks, a social conflict that grows apace with unemployment and poverty, and a widening disenchantment with the authoritarian regime on the part of a public that seems to be gradually rediscovering the value of bygone liberty and legality.

I would like to end with an earnest wish that all the hostages in the Japanese Embassy may leave it safe and sound, though the price of this may be a free ticket to Havana - for the hostage-takers to tan themselves on the golden sands of Varadero beach with a calm conscience, having done their duty and filled their saddlebags with dollars for Comrade Nestor Cerpa and his moderate companions.

The writer is a Peruvian novelist. This article also appears in the Spanish daily `El Pais'.

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