Peru: army, cabinet shake-up in fallout from Amazon hostage crisis

A month after the jungle hostage crisis in Peru—when 36 pipeline construction workers were briefly abducted by Shining Path rebels—facts are starting to emerge about the murky affair, and the revelations have prompted the resignation of two cabinet ministers. Defense Minister Alberto Otarola and Interior Minister Daniel Lozada stepped down May 10, when President Ollanta Humala was on a tour of South Korea and Japan. Both were harshly criticized in the deaths of 10 soldiers and police officers over the last month in the conflicted Apurímac-Ene River Valley (VRAE). The toll just over the past month is already higher than that suffered by the security forces in all of 2011, when nine police officers and soldiers were killed in the VRAE.

Many Peruvians were outraged when the father of a slain National Police officer had to trek through the jungle to find and retrieve his slain son’s body nearly three weeks after the officer went missing. Peruvians were already outraged this month when a police helicopter team left three of its officers behind after a failed incursion in a Shining Path area. Another officer struggled out of the jungle on his own 17 days after he was stranded in hostile territory when his helicopter was shot down; two of his comrades who also survived the crash were killed on the ground, presumably by guerillas. There were widespread accusations in the press and in Peru’s congress that the men had been abandoned by the armed forces. (AP, WSJ, May 11; LAT, May 10)

Dionisio Vilca, father of the missing officer CĂ©sar Vilca Vega, found his son’s body after hunting through the jungle for days with a local indigenous Machiguenga guide, and carried the decomposed body out of the jungle wrapped in a blanket. But—perhaps under pressure—he went to pains to make clear to reporters that he did not accuse the armed forces of abandoning his son. The National Police Special Operations Directorate (DINOES) insisted that it had maintained a vigorous search for CĂ©sar Vilca. (The Independent, May 5; Peru21, May 3; La Republica, May 2)

A week after the cabinet resignations, President Humala announced that the army commander, Gen. VĂ­ctor Ripalda Ganoza, had been replaced by his second-in-command, Gen. Ricardo Moncada Novoa. This enflamed the controversy, because Gen. Moncada had been personally leading the controversial operations in the VRAE over the past several months. Humala would not confirm rumors that overall armed forced commander Gen. Luis Howell Ballena is next in line to be sacked. (Peru21, May 17)

Dirty war in the VRAE?
Reports are meanwhile emerging of ongoing abuses by government troops in operations centered on the “Oreja de Perro” zone of the VRAE, a pocket of jungle bounded by the RĂ­o ApurĂ­mac and its tributary the Pampas in Ayacucho region, where security forces believe the guerilla column is hiding. The Defense Ministry has admitted to recent clashes with guerillas near Sanabamba village. Erasmo Gonzales SaldĂ­var, a comunero from nearby Alto Lagunas sector, just across the RĂ­o ApurĂ­mac in Cuzco region, told the Lima daily Ojo by telephone that troops are firing indiscriminately at local residents, and that some 70 have been “disappeared.” He said that villages and fields have been bombarded from the air, forcing several families to flee to Kiteni, the nearest town and municipal seat, where Ojo reached him. “[T]hey don’t respect our children or elders, our houses and our chacras [agricultural plots] have been bombed,” he said.

JerĂłnimo Alvarez Quipo, the Alto Lagunas “lieutenant governor” in the traditional village self-governance system, said several villagers had fled in panic from the bombardment into the jungle, and had not been seen since. He said he especially feared for their safety because they spoke little Spanish (only Quechua), and due to their unfamiliarity with military customs, “they are not capable of waving a white flag to let the soldiers know they are not terrorists; now we do not know what will become of them.” (Ojo, AQPSoluciones, April 17)

The villagers may also face harsh privation when they are able to eventually return to their homes; they had to abandon their fresh harvest of cacao and coffee, and much of the crop may have been lost. Several residents from the nearby indigenous Machiguenga community of Inkare have also taken refuge in Kiteni after their lands came under bombardment. (RPP, May 17; El Mundo, Spain, May 16; La Republica, May 9)

Confusion about the geography persists in media reports. Technically, the Oreja de Perro enclave is within the VRAE—meaning the watershed of the Apurúimac-Ene river system—while Kiteni municipality is across a mountain divide in the watershed of the Urubamba, the next river to the east. The two rivers meet some 150 kilometers to the north, to form the Ucayali, a major tributary of the Amazon. It was in the Urubamba valley—near Kiteni, in La Convención province, Cuzco region—that the hostages were taken.

Adding to the confusion is that there are two remnant Shining Path factions now active in separate zones of Peru’s selva alta (high jungle—the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon basin). The other is the Upper Huallaga Valley, some 500 kilometers to the northwest of the VRAE. The Wall Street Journal mistakenly locates the VRAE faction, led by the Quispe Palomino brothers, in the Upper Huallaga, but does tell us that VĂ­ctor Quispe Palomino (AKA “Raul”) was an anthropology student at the same university where imprisoned Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán taught (presumably the University of San CristĂłbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho). Questions persist on whether the VRAE guerilla column really has a lineage back to the original Sendero Luminoso, and to what extent these neo-senderistas (as Lima’s La Republica dubs them) are motivated by ideology or ambition to control the selva alta‘s lucrative trade in illicit coca leaf. The Journal suggests that the VRAE guerillas do not actually call themselves the Shining Path, but the”Militarized Communist Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Party of Peru.”

See our last post on the struggle in Peru.

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  1. Corrections to Kiteni kidnap report
    Additional geographical & numerical corrections for the Kiteni kidnapping story — The entire Machiguenga community of Inkare have been staying in Quillabamba (NOT KITENI) in dormitories of the head quarters
    of the COMARU federation of Machiguenga; as of this writing (mid June 2012) the Machiguenga comunero families have been displaced
    for 2 months by the Peruvian Army’s random bombarding of their territory in the Army’s fruitless search to engage with guerrilla troops.

    Also a total of 41 persons were kidnapped –contract workers for the Camisea gas pipeline transportation company TgP taken in from TgP’s Kiteni and Kepashiato workers’ camps.

    The state of seige in La Convencion
    Province is interrupting normal life and residents want it to be lifted.
    (The guerrillas are long gone — presumably returning to some base back to the illegal coca areas in the VRAE in the adjacent Apurimac basin
    where thousands of Peruvian soldiers have been deployed for at least 4 years
    to uproot coca plantations.)

    1. Kiteni or Quillabamba?
      We’ve noted the discrepancies about the number of workers taken (and much else in this murky affair). But is this report from Ojo incorrect about the displaced being housed in Kiteni? Or have they been relocated to Quillabamba since then? We will do an update soon, any links or updates would be welcome…

      1. Kiteni and Quillabamba…
        These appear to be distinct displacement crises. The entire Machiguenga community of Inkare, also in Lagunas sector, have taken refuge in the compound of the Machiguenga Council of the RĂ­o Urubamba (COMARU) in Quillabamba, capital of La ConvenciĂłn province. They have received some aid from the state and the municipal government, but are facing harsh conditions. The displaced community is made up of 16 families, numbering some 120. The majority don’t speak Spanish, and are not accustomed to wearing western-type clothes donated by Quillabamba residents. They fled after fighting near their communities in April, and authorities are concerned about parasites and malnutrition in the COMARU compound. (El Mundo, Spain, May 16; RPP, April 20)

        And yes, armed forces chief Gen. Ricardo Howell Ballena was sacked, replaced by José Cueto Aservi. (RPP, May 21)

        Contradicting English-language reports, Peru’s press (e.g. Peru21, April 30) indicate that s Luis Astuquillca Vásquez, the officer who struggled out of the jungle after being lost for 17 days, was in the same incident as CĂ©sar Vilca Vega—ambushed after having been dropped from a helicopter April 12, rather than being on the helicopter that was shot down apparently the same day.