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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 01:26 GMT
Peru struggles with its dark past
By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Ayacucho

The Andean city of Ayacucho is famous for its sunlit plazas and many ornate churches. It is also renowned for its melancholy music and colourful dances.

Angelica Mendoza holding photo of her son, Arquimedes Ascarza Mendoza
Angelica Mendoza's son "disappeared" 24 years ago

But many Peruvians also know the Ayacucho region as the heartland of the brutal Maoist guerrilla group, Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, which began its armed struggle against the Peruvian state in 1980.

Here too, the Peruvian military fought terror with terror. Hundreds of young men, suspected of being guerrillas, were plucked from the street or dragged from their homes and taken to Los Cabitos military base on the outskirts of the city.

They were "disappeared". Most were tortured and executed and have never been found.

The trial of the former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, is likely to bring the memories of Peru's 20-year internal war - a murky period of atrocities and disappearances - flooding back.

Mr Fujimori, who was president from 1990 to 2000, is charged with ordering a paramilitary death squad to carry out two massacres in the early 1990s.

But in total there were more "disappearances" during the 1980s than the 1990s. Most of the victims were poor peasants from the central highlands.

Digging up the past

In 40C heat, a non-governmental organisation, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF), scours the ground next to the still-operational military base.

Jose Pablo Baraybar holding skull of victim of extrajudicial execution
Researchers have dug up many bodies in Ayacucho

Helping them are North American handlers with dogs that have been specially trained to sniff out human remains.

"We have done a lot of missing person cases in the US, a lot of criminal cases, a lot of missing Alzheimer's patients, children or suicides," said Pat Lansom, one of the handlers from the US-based Institute for Canine Forensics.

"But this is truly the first human rights case that we've been involved with and all the political ramifications that are associated with a human rights case."

It is not just the harsh desert terrain that is hostile and unfamiliar for the American dog handlers.

They have been subject to tight time restrictions and they believe their work has been overzealously monitored by the state authorities.

"It's hard to see how there isn't a black hand at work," says Jose Pablo Baraybar, the director of EPAF who has worked on exhumations for the UN in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

He says 15 bodies and parts of others have already been found on this patch of land and he believes there could be many more.

'Mountains of corpses'

Hundreds of women in Ayacucho think the remains of their missing husbands and sons are still there.

Mural depicting Shining Path atrocities
The legacy of the bitter conflict lives on as this mural shows

"It was half past midnight when the soldiers came into my house. They were hooded. They woke us all up and turned everything upside down but they didn't find anything, what would they find here?"

Angelica Mendoza, 77, tells the story she must have told a thousand times. She tells it meticulously as if every detail is important, as if her life stopped on 3 July 1983, the day her 19-year-old son, Arquimedes was abducted and "disappeared".

"They started to take my son. 'Why are you taking my son,' I said. 'Just for questioning' they told me, but I wouldn't let them take him so they beat me until I fell down, then they stamped on me in the doorway where their cars were waiting."

Mrs Mendoza talks unblinkingly about how she searched through "mountains of corpses" for her son.

She tells how she was turned away by the police and public prosecutor's office and endured death threats but she never gave up.

"They tried to shut me up. But I will never keep quiet up, I will never give up until I die," she says.

"When I die my daughter will continue our fight to know what happened."


In August 2003, a truth and reconciliation commission in Peru found there had been 69,280 deaths during the period from 1980-2000, a high proportion of which were in the department of Ayacucho.

Left-wing guerrillas, it found, were responsible for 54% of the deaths; the military is blamed for 37%. Most of their victims were forcibly "disappeared".

Members  of the Institute of Canine Forensics team
The seach for bodies is far from over

These extrajudicial executions happened under three presidents, including Alan Garcia in his first mandate as president of Peru between 1985 and 1990.

Mr Garcia is now president for a second time but he has already been acquitted of any involvement in the atrocities.

EPAF director Jose Pablo Baraybar says there are still almost 14,000 unresolved disappearances in Peru and the state needs to be more transparent by "not giving up on its responsibility to investigate".

"It needs to be giving delegated authority to civil society to deal with those investigations because the state is allegedly an implicated party," he adds.

"We are creating generations of people who are lost, that had a life that was at some point interrupted," says Mr Baraybar.

Efforts to suppress or stall investigations are preventing Peru from moving on, he says.

"Those people will not be very willing or open to reconcile with the past, because they are living in the past. And it's not one; there are thousands of people like that, so what kind of time bomb are we creating?"

One woman fighting for the truth in Peru

Fujimori faces first questioning
13 Oct 07 |  Americas
Q&A: Fujimori's extradition
22 Sep 07 |  Americas
Peru police 'kill leading rebel'
28 Nov 07 |  Americas
Peru slams ruling on rebel rights
10 Jan 07 |  Americas
Profile: Peru's Shining Path
05 Nov 04 |  Americas
Profile: Alberto Fujimori
22 Sep 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Peru
25 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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