The Embassy continued to monitor the hostage crisis, which took up an enormous amount of Peruvian political attention and energy, but there was no evidence that negotiations had even begun. Then, in early January, Ambassador Vincent was asked to serve in a personal capacity as one of a Group of Guarantors. With Ottawa’s consent and support, he accepted the role. As the acting foreign minister explained to us, the group was to include Japan (representing Asia), the Vatican (representing Europe), Canada (representing the Americas), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (providing food, water and amenities to the hostages on a daily basis). The Japanese representative opted to be an observer given the large number of Japanese hostages, and the ICRC representative decided to continue to devote his efforts entirely to the care and feeding of the hostages. The Guarantors effectively were limited to Tony Vincent and the Archbishop of Ayacucho, Monsignor Juan Luis Cipriani (representing the Vatican), although the Japanese representative, Terusuke Terada (Japanese ambassador in Mexico) provided much wise counsel.
The mandate of the Group of Guarantors, as initially stipulated by the Peruvian government, was to be present when the terrorists laid down their arms, released the hostages and left the residence for a safe haven. They were not to be present during negotiations. The Guarantors argued successfully, that they could guarantee the implementation of an agreement if they had not been party to the negotiations. The Peruvian government reluctantly agreed with this point of view, and the guarantors discovered at their first meeting between the government and terrorists that negotiations had not yet started, and that the terrorists were becoming nervous about the unwillingness of the government to discuss their demands.
In order to kick-start negotiations, the Guarantors began to introduce ideas and to stimulate discussion in order to clarify positions and build at least a small measure of confidence. The Guarantor’s role moved from passive observer to facilitator, and eventually to mediator. As part of that process, I got to lead a sub-group to visit the MRTA leadership incarcerated in high-altitude, maximum-security prisons – scary, but that is another story.
To digress slightly, at some point in their career, diplomats receive training in “negotiating skills”. I had completed such a course several years before, and dug out the course material and my notes to see whether there was any inspiration there. It was a depressing exercise since, in this instance, none of the criteria for a successful negotiation were present: There was, inter alia, no willingness on either side to negotiate, no flexibility in positions, no mutual confidence, and on the terrorist side no clear understanding of what they really wanted. At times, they demanded the release of all their comrades from jail, at others better health, food and visits privileges, at others just the release of their key leaders. The Guarantors attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the terrorists that the release of their leadership was a non-starter, and they should lower their expectations.
I had talked with hostage rescue experts from a number of countries, including our own, and the consensus was that an armed assault on the Japanese residence would be extremely costly in human lives, since the building was large, with many rooms and hostages and captors were spread throughout the building. A major factor was that the MRTA regularly practiced their routine for responding to such an attack – which essentially meant killing as many of the hostages as possible before being overwhelmed. The view was that if the takeover could be accomplished in under 3 minutes, 50% of the hostages would become casualties, 50% of the remaining hostages would die within the next 3 minutes, and so on. If the operation lasted more than 12 minutes, it was likely that all the hostages would be dead or wounded.
The Guarantors believed that the only conceivable favourable outcome was a negotiated exit strategy. All efforts were made to ensure such a conclusion, but as the months passed, very little progress was made. Meetings between the government and the terrorists were few and pro forma, accomplished little. In consequence, the Guarantors spent more of their time in the Japanese residence attempting to make the terrorists listen to reason and urging the hostages to keep calm and not provoke their captors. In this, the Guarantors were more successful. Moral remained relatively high among the hostages, there were few instances of confrontation between the hostages and terrorists, and a form a reverse Stockholm syndrome emerged - several of the young (15 to 16 years of age) and impressionable terrorists were awed by being the presence of ministers, generals and ambassadors and saw them as role models.
In the meantime, the Peruvian army was digging tunnels under the residence…