For victims’ families, the long road of recovering bodies left by two decades of violence nears an end — an unprecedented national law.
By Elizabeth Miles
Within Los Cabitos, a Peruvian military barracks in the region of Ayacucho, a forensic team had been searching for corpses, tortured, burned, and buried, for five days when they finally found a shred of cloth.
“Some piece of clothing… it was blue,” remembers Dr. Susana Cori Ascona, seated in her office on a quiet residential street in Lima. Now the technical secretary of the Ministry of Justice’s Council of Reparations, Cori traveled on behalf of Peru’s Defensoría del Pueblo when the existence of fosas, or mass graves, became widely known in the mid 2000s. She served as a supervisor for the first exhumations, of what Peruvian society would realize were thousands.
At Los Cabitos, the army had arrived in 1983 to interrogate suspects, trying to stem the tide of insurgency begun by Sendero Luminoso. Sendero, a Maoist guerrilla group, had begun to terrorize the countryside and take over territory in 1980, burning ballot boxes in a town called Chuschi on May 17th. In the midst of the civil conflict that tore Peru apart between 1980 and 2000, Los Cabitos became a place where hundreds were brought, from which almost no one returned. It’s one more case of what is known in Latin America as los desaparecidos — the disappeared.
“When we arrived, we had so much testimony that within the barracks, people were tortured, killed and buried,” Cori recalls. The Ministerio Público, a ministry that unites public prosecution nationally, had dispatched a forensic team to Ayacucho in 2009. “It was like looking for dead people in the patio of your house.” For four days, the team hadn’t found anything. Perhaps the rumors weren’t true.
Then they found the shred of clothing. “All of us were paralyzed,” Cori says. They kept excavating and found the complete piece of clothing; they kept excavating, and found a body. Face down, with hands tied, the remains left Cori feeling massively indignant — and impotent. “I thought it was going to be a global headline, it’s going to transcend society, the country won’t be the same…”
As of 2016, Cori still feels powerless. In Peru, an estimated 16,000 people were victims of forced disappearance between 1980 and 2000. This occurred at the hands of Sendero Luminoso, who wished to intimidate the rural population, and of the military, who apprehended and interrogated primarily indigenous people in the countryside who they suspected of ties to the terrorists. A disappearance typically resulted in a rapid extrajudicial killing.
The estimate of 16,000 comes from the Comisión de la verdad y Reconciliación, or Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), whose final report in 2003 largely galvanized efforts in Peru to compensate victims and investigate the matter of los desaparecidos. Between 2002 and 2015, only 3,202 bodies had been recovered. Only 1,833 had been identified, only 1,644 returned to their families.
“There are more than 6,000 sites of burial, more than 4,000 mass graves that have to be exhumed. And there? That’s where we think they are,” said Luis Arones Huallanca, when I asked him about the more than 12,000 bodies left to find. Arones is the national coordinator of Organizations for Those Affected by Political Violence in Peru (CONAVIP). He remembers the violence too well. On October 16, 1983, Sendero Luminoso came to the village of Raccaya, 7 hours from the capital. They took more than 40 villagers by force to Umasi, six hours away, and guarded them overnight in a school. “They told them, ‘be careful, don’t leave this place, we’re watching,’” remembers Arones. One of those villagers was his cousin, Benjamin Arones. Arones himself had left Raccaya with his mother for Lima only the week before.
The military, on arriving in Umasi to track the villagers, believed that there were members of Sendero inside the school, ready to launch an armed confrontation. They began to throw grenades. Older men in the community recalled hearing them say, “This is how all the terrorists will die.” Arones told me, “the soldiers should have rescued the civilians who weren’t armed. They killed everyone, everyone, they killed practically everyone without any judicial proceedings.” Behind the school in Umasi, in four mass graves, 41 people were buried. Most wore school uniforms.
In 2009, the graves were exhumed, and five years later, the remains were returned to the families of Raccaya. “After more than thirty years, after passing through the process of exhumation, the process of investigation, by matching DNA, we’ve managed to give a dignified burial to the victims,” Arones told me. Without bringing up these bodies, Arones says, the country can never truly leave the conflict behind. He used a phrase I saw on a poster in Susana Cori’s office. “El pasado que no pasa” — this is the past that doesn’t pass.
Activists like Arones hope that this will change with the recent passing of a law in Peru, Ley No. 30470: Ley de búsqueda de personas desaparecidas durante el período de violencia 1980-2000 (Law for the search for persons disappeared during the period of violence, 1980-2000). Heavily promoted by the defensor del pueblo, the head of the national ombudsman office created to enforce constitutional rights at the individual and community level in Peru, it had yet to be approved by then-President Ollanta Humala when I spoke with Arones in May.
The law directs the state to take charge of exhuming the known burial sites in the country. More specifically, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights will coordinate with relevant public and private organizations to design, implement and execute a national plan to search for los desaparecidos. A central registry of the disappeared and burial sites, will be created, along with a DNA bank to aid identification. The state’s capacity for forensic processes and psychological support for families will be strengthened. “All this,” Arones argues, “no one can deny us, because it has to do with human beings, with men and women and children who were disappeared during that time.”
Shortly after Arones spoke with me, on May 26, 2016, the Congress approved the proposal. A month later, on June 22, President Ollanta Humala made it law.
For many families, this law is unimaginable compared to the long process of finding remains — at best, difficult, at worst, completely unfeasible. Sitting outside of the Palace of the Government, in Lima’s Plaza de Armas, Luis Arones showed me a document dated May 1 of this year. “This is how we’ve worked,” he says, referring to family members in Putis, in the region of Ayacucho. Holding the document, he pointed out the section mandating that 27 people who disappeared near Putis in 1983 will be exhumed. “All this time that’s gone by, and just now, these 27 people will be found.”
In Peru, family members cannot just go in search of remains, though Arones and others said that in the vast majority of cases, many know exactly where their father, husband, brother, wife, or child might have been buried. The public ministry must receive a complaint, typically lodged with a fiscalía, or district attorney. Specifically, an accusation of a murder must be made, with evidence, launching an investigation. The events of the case will be reconstructed, the victim’s identity and burial site verified as much as possible, before a specialized forensic team is sent to carry out the exhumation.
The low number of bodies successfully recovered is due in part to the length of the process and the difficulty of a successful criminal investigation, but also to the geographic pattern of the violence. The great majority of the disappeared came from rural regions of Peru, often areas in which record-keeping was sporadic in the 1980s, and literacy in Spanish, spoken by the governmental offices in Lima, is still low. Many of the victims spoke Quechua, as do their family members today. What age a victim might have been at the time of death may be an estimate, based on memories of a schoolteacher, or a priest who conducted a baptism, rather than legal certifications. Some families may not have recent photos, or any at all. That creates even more complications on the road to opening a grave. Military forces were even known to interchange the clothes on the bodies, and deceased members of the military themselves were buried with civilians. “It’s been a mix of everything,” says Miluska Rojas, the executive secretary of a national citizens’ movement, “Para Que No Se Repita,” or “So It Never Happens Again” (PQNSR), intended to promote reflection on the violence.
Susana Cori’s office is specifically tasked with verifying additions to the Registro Único de Víctimas, or the official list of victims of torture, murder, forced disappearance, rape, and other war crimes committed during the civil conflict. Her one story office is packed with hundreds of red file boxes, all the way out to the leafy patio. Though the files are digitized, all of the original materials are kept. Over 216,000 cases have been added to the official list. 20,000 are still pending, also due to gaps in official documentation. “People maybe knew their father as Pedro, or Pedrito, but his birth certificate says Juan,” Cori mentioned. Many victims lived in regions so isolated that the state didn’t issue national identity documents to begin with.
Cori and Arones agree that if action came from the state, as opposed to every case being brought by a family member, more victims would be found. The state has only opened up new cases in response to the advocacy of individuals like Arones who are willing to find the necessary evidence and push an investigation forward. Cori believes that immediately after the conflict ended, Peru “wasn’t ready as a country, and the authorities weren’t ready,” for a top-down procedure, so instead, protocols were set on exhuming bodies, and training began for district attorneys and judges to specialize in verifying cases of forced disappearance. “That’s where the state began, and they’ve maintained that up to now,” Cori said. “There hasn’t been a state policy to find the disappeared. It’s just been reactions to the existence of mass graves.” Families often don’t want to go through the process of filing a complaint, for different reasons including physical distance from a fiscalía, or a distrust of the authorities. In these cases, the search for a body can’t begin.
In its 2003 final report, Peru’s post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission made two recommendations: reparations for the victims’ families, and a national policy of finding the disappeared. After two years of coordination between state offices like Cori’s and organizations including those led by Arones and Rojas, a plan exists: the ley de búsqueda.
It’s a massive undertaking. The process of investigation, identification, and return to families will be funded by the state. The registry created by the law would mean that even if a family member dies, their DNA could be compared with a victim found later to determine their identity. If a victim can never be recovered, at least families would know that systematic work has been done to compare all the remains found across the country. The principal objective, as Cori sees it, is to find and return the body of a person, or if they can’t, to tell the family what happened. “It’s not necessarily criminal prosecution or reparation, but rather humanitarian work.” Notably, the opening of a case no longer needs to be tied to a criminal investigation.
When I spoke with Arones in May, the law had a strong national consensus — from civilians, NGOs, and family members, and also from the state. The defensor del pueblo had supported it, and the Ministry of Justice had promoted it. It had yet to be approved by the Congress and the President.
Arones was, at the time, planning a press conference and vigil to appeal to the administration to pass the law before presidential elections took place in June. That election pitted Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, an economist, against Keiko Fujimori, a candidate best known as the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori. It was under his decade-long administration during the second half of the conflict that military death squads committed massacres, forced sterilizations, torture, suspensions of judicial rights, and other human rights abuses. Arones smiled wryly, saying, “We think that maybe if Keiko Fujimori gets it, we’re not confident that she would pass a law to find victims.”
He thought about it, and edited his reply. “We’re completely not confident.”
In the end, Kuczynski would narrowly edge out Fujimori, with a margin of 50.12% to 49.88%. But on June 22, while ex-president Ollanta Humala was wrapping up his time in office, he chose to pass the law that, for many Peruvians, had been decades in the making.
32 years ago, Jaime Ayala Sulca, a journalist, disappeared. No punitive actions have been taken against the military forces that took, tortured, and killed Ayala.
“The family of victims have been pushing for this law for so many years, to find our family members who were disappeared,” Rosa Luz Pallqui Medina, Ayala’s wife, told me. Pallqui is president of Anfadet, an organization focused on advancing reparations, from health to infrastructure.“We worked through the press to communicate to society, and to the politicians, that they should pass the law, because we believe that with this law we have hope of finding our family members.” She trusts in the formation of a national department for the disappeared within the Ministry of Justice, charged with finding, exhuming, and analyzing remains, as well as accompanying psychological health initiatives to support families. “I believe for the first time, we have certainty that the search for the disappeared is going to go forward, now that the Ministry of Justice is taking charge of all of the policies, and it’s been supported by Congress, and a consensus.” Family members including Pallqui will also be consulted during the implementation of the law.
According to Miluska Rojas, the law has been received with “so much joy, and hope by organizations of victims, and the movement for human rights in Peru, as well as the majority of Peruvians, simply because this law obeys, more than anything, a humanitarian demand to give a dignified burial to the disappeared.” However, Cori highlighted an ongoing resistance toward remembering the civil conflict, even in the case of investigation and exhumation, within some sectors of society as well as political parties.
“We’ve always had these criticisms, that we’re attending to terrorists,” Cori said. After two decades of indiscriminate killing, debates still persist over those who hold responsibility. But more often, many say they would simply prefer to close this part of their history. They ask Cori, “why reopen this?” Why reopen those graves, those thousands of graves?
Even among victims of the violence, that position exists. Many don’t want to tell their story anymore. Cori considers it entirely valid. “That’s why many don’t come to us — they told the NGO, they told the defensoría, they told the CVR and they didn’t get anything. These are people who say, ya no más (no more).”
Luis Arones agrees that too many years, and too much retelling, have gone by. “There are families from all over Peru who are still looking for their relatives. Some have found them, some of us are still looking.” But fighting for each individual case, in his opinion, is even more painful than a national reckoning. For Arones, bringing up all of the bodies would help reconcile Peruvian society, creating a real peace only “once this is all done with.”
Elizabeth Miles is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College, studying History and Political Science. She was a managing editor of the Globalist during her junior year, and can be reached at email@example.com.