On one of his moral-raising visits to the Japanese residence, Tony was called into the dining room by the leader of the terrorists, Nestor Cerpa, and asked to put his ear to the floor. After a few minutes, scraping was heard underneath, and Cerpa said, “They are digging tunnels, aren’t they”. Tony would not reply. Later, in the Embassy we discussed this and saw it as a bad omen.
With hindsight, it is now clear that Fujimori was pursuing a two-track approach: If the terrorists gave up, all well and good. If they didn’t, he was prepared to send in the army – even though his younger brother was a hostage. For him, the role of the Guarantors was to keep the situation in the residence calm for long enough to build his tunnels. In the meantime, the presence of the Guarantors had given the MRTA a false sense of security. They felt protected, and relaxed their vigilance. Dangerous for them, they slipped into a routine and the Peruvian authorities ultimately took advantage.
On April 22, 1997, Tony came back from a visit to the Japanese residence at about 13:30. He said that the police around the perimeter of the residence were edgy, tense and aggressive with him. We filed this thought away, but at 15:20 the assault began. Tony, and eventually Cipriani, Terada and one of his officers, clustered around the television in my office at the Embassy and we watched the attack unfold with horror. The final shots were fired some 20 minutes later, but the armed forces assault force did not declare victory until almost 16:00. We felt failure bitterly, believing that four months of work had all been for nothing. We were sure that the bulk of the hostages must have been killed, since the assault took so long. As reports filtered in, however, it emerged that most of the hostages had survived, to us a miracle. In the end, of the 72 hostages, only one died, although four others were wounded. In the operation, two commandos were killed and 10 badly wounded. All 14 terrorists died.
How had they accomplished this when experts from around the world said it couldn’t be done without massive losses among the hostages? In secret, the Peruvian army had build a full-size replica of the Japanese residence on a local army base, where 150 officers from the special forces had been practicing and refining assaults for weeks. In addition, the authorities were able to communicate clandestinely with some of the hostages, and on “D Day” told them to prepare for an assault at 15:20 by getting themselves up stairs without raising the suspicions of the terrorists, and behind some protection. The MRTA had gotten into the habit of gathering in the main dining room shortly after 15:00 to play table football. The commandos simply blew up the dining room at 13:20 from a tunnel below, killing or disabling probably half of the terrorists. Commandos simultaneously attacked the front door, emerged from tunnels to blast holes in the outer walls, or landed on the roof by helicopter. Also, when it came to the crunch, several of the young terrorists could not bring themselves to kill men that they had come to know and often admire. Fujimori played the assault as a major victory over terror, and his popularity soared in the immediate aftermath.