|MRTA guerrilla training|
During the off-and-on discussions between the terrorists and the Peruvian government, several times the MRTA expressed concern about the plight of their imprisoned comrades – shortly after the taking of the Japanese residence, all visiting rights to terrorists in jail were suspended by the government and any other of the limited privileges that the prisoners enjoyed in these stark institutions was curtailed. The Guarantors decided to form a sub-committee (I was chosen as the victim to lead the group) to visit the various prisons where MRTA members were being held. We were a small group consisting of myself, a Japanese diplomat, a Spanish nun, a Japanese doctor, a Peruvian doctor and another Canadian diplomat. We were to visit six prisons, and report back to the Guarantors on conditions within the prisons, including respect for human rights, as well as the health and well being of prisoners.
We started out well – sort of - in a minibus rented by the Japanese Embassy from “Mickey Mouse Tours”, which even had a picture of the smiling mouse on the side. The visit to one of the most notorious prisons in Lima, called Lurigancho, was extremely interesting. This was the prison in the late 1980s where there was an internal revolt and the army went in and killed hundreds of prisoners, mostly terrorists. There were four major wings, two of which contained hardened criminals and where the guards never went, and the others where convicted terrorists were held. We had ready access to prisoners, sampled their food, and were rather surprised that prisoner morale remained high given a very Spartan regime. We emerged from the prison to be surrounded by the media (mainly Japanese) who hounded us worse than the prisoners inside. The intrepid Mickey Mouse bus was unable to outrun the swarm of press vehicles and motorcycles and we arrived back in the Embassy to write our report with the press milling and shouting outside.
|Lurigancho prison cell|
We visited several medium security facilities, but the highlight (literally) was a high-altitude prison at 4,200 metres near Puno in southern Peru: Yanamayo. We arrived from Lima - almost deaf - on a Peruvian National Police Antonov 22 (Soviet 1960s equivalent of a C-130 Hercules). The prison we were visiting held most of the MRTA leadership. We wanted both to look at their welfare, and also try to convince them to instruct their colleagues in the Japanese residence to be more flexible in negotiations. One of the problems we had experienced was that the leaders in Yanamayo had given the terrorists in the Japanese residence their instructions, through intermediaries, prior to the assault. Although prisoners were, theoretically, held incommunicado in the high-altitude prisons, they were in contact with the outside world – we presumed through bribing guards to convey messages.
The first impressions of Yanamayo were forbidding. On a windswept hillside, the prison was a huge 4-floor cement block with no windows, with a few outbuildings. The complex was surrounded by two chain-link fences topped by razor wire, with armed soldiers every fifty metres between the two fences facing outward - presumably to deter any assault from outside. Signs indicated that outside the wire there were land mines. From inside we could hear shouting, slogans and chanting of patriotic mantras. The guards didn’t want us to go in, fearing a riot, but we insisted. With some trepidation we entered a cellblock. There were cells on all four sides, with bars across the front of the cells. Once they saw us, the MRTA immediately started shouting, banging on the bars – strangely the Shining Path prisoners were calm, and talked to us in a relaxed way. The MRTA appeared half crazed, including one whose photo I recognized as being a Chilean. I was extremely glad that there were stout bars between them and us. What I remember most though was the cold. It was intense and pierced to the bone. I shook hands with some of the prisoners whose hands were blue and appeared to have little feeling in them. They were four to a cell (about 3 by 3 metres), sleeping on concrete shelves with thin foam mattresses. They were allowed out to exercise for 30 minutes a day – but this “privilege” had been cancelled, along with visits and parcels from home. I found it hard to believe that they could maintain their militancy year-after-year under such conditions, but they had.
|Yanamayo maximum security prison, Puno, Peru|
Later we met in a small conference room with the leadership, who were calm, relaxed, but argumentative and not forthcoming. We got nowhere convincing them to introduce some flexibility in their negotiating position – after all, for them the whole purpose of taking high-level hostages was to gain their own release from jail. Nothing else mattered. We later visited the hospital, where I sat down on a bed with a Shining Path guerrilla paralysed from the waist down. He admitted that he had injured himself while preparing a bomb. He told me he had received little rehabilitation at the prison, but felt he was treated better than a poor Peruvian with no access to medical assistance. I found the Shining Path much more reasonable than the MRTA. We also visited the kitchen where we tried Alpaca stew (mostly leg bones, but nonetheless hearty and tasty). We went back to Lima late in the day with splitting headaches from the change in altitude (Lima is just a few metres above sea level).
Our final report served to reassure the terrorists in the Japanese residence that their colleagues were not being mistreated, and may have helped to build a better rapport between the terrorists and the Guarantors. On a personal level, we in the sub-group became good friends, and I grew to appreciate particularly the work ethic, professionalism, and good humour of my colleague from the Japanese diplomatic service, Kenji Hirata. While these visits were something of a sideline to the main negotiations, I learned that the MRTA leadership, even after years in jail and with little prospect of ever being released, remained militant, dedicated to their cause and with spirits unbroken – a daunting enemy.