Peru: questions persist on 1997 hostage rescue

The Peruvian military held a ceremony at its Chorrillos base, near Lima, on April 20 to commemorate a commando operation 15 years earlier that freed 71 hostages who had been held by rebels from the leftist TĂşpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) for 126 days at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in the capital. One hostage, two soldiers and all 14 rebels were killed in the operation, which took place on April 22, 1997. The raid, codenamed Operation ChavĂ­n de Huántar, was ordered by the government of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), then a US ally; Fujimori is now serving a 25-year prison term in Peru for corruption and for ordering killings and kidnappings.

The brief military ceremony, broadcast on national television, included a reenactment of the rescue using a full-scale replica of the ambassador’s residence built at the base under the Fujimori administration; the Japanese government tore down the original building a few months after the rescue. (AFP, April 20, via Univision)

A small unit of the now-defunct MRTA seized the ambassador’s residence on Dec. 17, 1996, during a reception honoring the Japanese emperor’s birthday. A large part of Peru’s political class was attending, and the rebels initially took about 700 hostages, although most were freed within days. The successful rescue in April 1997 helped diminish the embarrassment the MRTA’s seizure of the residence caused the security forces and the Fujimori government. But the success was marred almost immediately by reports from a few police agents and freed hostages that at least three of the rebels had been executed after they surrendered. (See Update #378)

Relatives of Eduardo (“Tito”) Cruz Sánchez, one of the MRTA rebels allegedly executed, repeatedly tried to get the Peruvian court system to act on the reports; currently the charges are included in proceedings against Fujimori’s intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, that have been languishing in the courts for years. Starting this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish) has taken up the case as well, infuriating the government of President Ollanta Humala, a former military officer.

Hidetaka Ogura, a former hostage who was first secretary at the Japanese embassy in the 1990s, is an important witness in the case; he says he saw “Tito” Cruz Sánchez alive and bound after the rescue. The Peruvian military has dismissed Ogura’s testimony and has suggested that he might have collaborated with the MRTA. Another important source of evidence for the case is a secret cable (PDF) dated June 10, 1997, from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); the National Security Archive, a Washington, DC-based research group, obtained it from the US government in 2007 through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The cable cites an intelligence source apparently involved in the rescue who graphically described a commando killing an unarmed rebel, Roli (“Arabe”) Rojas Fernández, and said an unnamed “female MRTA militant was also executed during the operation after she surrendered.” The intelligence source said Fujimori had given a “take no prisoners” order.

On April 29, a little more than a week after the 15th anniversary celebration, the Peruvian daily La RepĂşblica reported that Kate Doyle, a director of investigations at the National Security Archive, had testified recently at the Montesinos trial on the Callao military base. In addition to confirming that the DIA cable was authentic, she noted that declassified US government documents had been used “in various trials in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and in PerĂş, in the Fujimori case.” (Three former military officers are being tried along with Montesinos: Gen. Nicolás Hermoza RĂ­os, Col. Roberto Huamán Azcurra and Col. JesĂşs Zamudio Aliaga.) (National Security Archive press release, Dec. 10, 2007; EFE, April 29, via Univision)

There have also been persistent questions about the killing of Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti Acuña, the one hostage to die in the rescue and an opponent of Fujimori’s changes to the Constitution. In 2002 a protected witness told a Peruvian prosecutor that Montesinos had ordered Giusti’s death and had put Col. Huamán Azcurra in charge of carrying out the killing, according to La RepĂşblica. In March of this year Argentine lawyer Alejandro Teitelbaum, citing a 1997 investigation by the Association of American Jurists, charged that Giusti was wounded in the leg and left to bleed to death. (LR, May 16; El Diario Internacional, March 13)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 13.

See our last post on Peru.