(en) In The Jungle With Peru's Tupac Amaru

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Mon, 21 Apr 1997 02:07:37 -0400 (EDT)

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Guerrilla University: In The Jungle With Peru's Tupac Amaru

By Jeremy Bigwood

I stopped short as dozens of biting ants showered down from a branch high in the jungle canopy. When I tried to brush off the centimeter-long bugs sticking straight like out pins from my uncovered skin, my guide stopped me. "Pull them off one-by-one", he said. I had traveled to this remote upper-Amazonian jungle in Peru's San Martin department to photograph the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the smaller of the two insurgencies fighting against the Peruvian government. A few weeks before, in early August 1992 in Lima, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, the group's top comandante, had approved the trip. He warned me to be prepared for longer treks and rougher conditions than I had ever experienced as a photojournalist covering the Central American wars. He was right. "Welcome to MRTA territory, cumpa (slang for companero)", someone called, as I huffed past two unseen Tupac guards. Ahead were three men and two women with AKMS rifles slung over their shoulders. They were clothed in olive-drab long-sleeved T-shirts, blue jeans, knee-high rubber boots, and topped with handmade peaked caps. Beyond them lay the heart of the three-acre guerrilla camp. Chairs and tables made from tree limbs painstakingly lashed together with vines dotted the weedy ground; clusters of hand-sewn cloth hammocks covered by vinyl raincover-roofs hung like giant black carapaces from branches. Slowly moving rays of light filtered down through the dense cover of trees and cast criss-crosses of sunshine. This canopy and the ambient heat shielded the camp from even the most sophisticated satellite surveilance. There was no clearing nearby for landing helicopter-borne troops, and any army bent on attack could only reach the camp after a daylong march from the nearest road. One of the cumpas passed me a water bottle. As I drained it, a man wearing glasses approached. Speaking slowly and thoughtfully in the style of a Lima intellectual, he introduced himself as "Edgardo". He looked about 30, although I later found out that he was a decade older and that his real name was Miguel Rincon Rincon. No. 2 man in the MRTA, he was commander of this zone. Edgardo motioned for me to sit at a table, sizing me up - an overweight, out-of-breath gringo in a sweat-drenched shirt. Then he turned away to tell Pamela, one of the young cumpas, it was time for formation. At least 50 fighters, mainly campesinos (peasants) with indigenous features lined up facing Edgardo who was flanked by a female comandante and three male subcomandantes. The Tupacs saluted as their flag was raised; it was the triplestriped red and white Peruvian flag emblazoned with a mace and assault rifle forming a "V" around the image of the 19th century revolutionary hero, Tupac Amaru. The cumpas sang - mostly out-of-tune - the dirge-like Tupac hymn. "Count off!" ordered the subcomandante. The troops, most ranging from teenage to late 20s, yelled out their numbers one by one. "At ease", replied the subcomandante and read off a list of kitchen and guard duty. Then Edgardo spoke, "We are here in this new camp to start a school. There will be many more of us coming in, both combatants and civilian supporters. We have to make the camp larger and more secure. I will be teaching the following courses on Monday after formation: "History of the World" and "History of Peru"; Comandante Liliana will teach "Human Rights and the Geneva Convention", and "History of the MRTA". Medical training, special forces training, and marksmanship will be taught in another camp. T'ai Chi will be before breakfast at the headquarters." Then the subcomandante dismissed the troops.

The Commanders

The comandancia, which housed the leadership and the camp's radio communications, was on a small hill. There, Edgardo, Liliana, and subcomandante Perseo invited me to join them for coffee around a small fire. As Edgardo offered sweets, he told me about himself. In his youth he had been a member of the Peruvian Communist Party, which had splintered during the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s. He had maintained his ties to the pro-Moscow faction, and through the party was educated in many countries, including in the Soviet Union at Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University. The intellectual of the group, he had joined MRTA at its inception in 1984. Comandante "Liliana" (Maria Lucero Cumpa), on the other hand, was more in the romantic tradition of Che Guevara, with tempering by feminist and almost "New Age" influences. She spent her free time writing poetry and arranging campfire sing-alongs. As soon as she arrived in camp, she organized meetings of the women, who comprised about a quarter of the camp. The first discussion dealt with birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, but also served as a forum for complaints about treatment by male cumpas. Like Victor Polay, the MRTA's top comandante in prison, Liliana was raised in a family with close ties to the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party, which brought Alan Garcia to the presidency in 1985. Self-described as social democratic and nationalist, APRA proved to be neither, and in fact oversaw a complete pummeling of Peru's economy and the zealous repression of political opposition. At a very early age, Liliana recognized the sellout, and after a brief time with Bandera Roja, another leftist party, she became a founding member of the MRTA. Perseo, a handsome man in his 30s, considered himself a Bolivarista, and like Simon Bolivar, had fought imperialism all over Latin America. He traced his radicalization to the 1973 CIA- orchestrated overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratically elected government in Chile. Five years later, he went to Nicaragua to oppose U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza and fought with the Sandinistas until their 1979 victory. From there, he went to Colombia, where he took up arms with the Batallon America as an internacionalista until he joined the MRTA. Every day over the next week, MRTA cumpas and civilian supporters arrived until the camp grew to more than 100 people. The largest and most lengthy concentration of guerrillas in a "permanent" camp I had ever seen, it required a Ho Chi Minh-type supply trail. After the camp became too big to supply safely, another one was established five hours away. When the courses started, I bounced from one to another, usually waking too late for Edgardo's 5:00 a.m. T'ai Chi class. Liliana's "Human Rights and the Geneva Convention" course was always full. One of the sessions I attended was on interrogation and torture survival. Many of the 20 or so participants, including Liliana herself, had been tortured - most for belonging to the MRTA or to leftist labor unions such as Patria Libre and the Campesino Confederation of Peru (CCP). Peruvian government interrogators are well trained and routinely use tortures ranging from the psychological (threats, but not actions), to painful, mutilating, and even fatal ordeals. The survival strategy Liliana taught was to hold out without revealing anything for at least a day, and at the breaking point, to substitute plausible pre-synthesized fiction to mislead the captors. This approach is supposed to give time for cumpas on the outside to make necessary security adjustments, and for the victim to gain a psychological victory over the tormentors. Another of Liliana's courses was on the history of the movement, an organization that had a reputation for spectacular victories and equally spectacular defeats. It was founded in 1984 by Sorbonne-educated Victor Polay, who had previously been a member of two other Peruvian insurgent groups. In 1987, one year after the MRTA took up arms against the Peruvian government, the movement suffered its most serious blow when the army ambushed by helicopter and ground troops, killing more than 60 combatants as they rode in open trucks to attack the central town of Tarma. The army executed everyone who surrendered, and only 10 cumpas survived by fleeing what became known as the "Los Molinos" massacre. News of this tragedy stunted the movement's growth until 1990, when the MRTA staged a dramatic prison break and caught the world's attention. prison, 25 MRTA sappers spent three years planning and digging a 330 meter tunnel that bored directly into the cell blocks. They freed 47 MRTA prisoners, including Polay, the organization's leader, and Liliana.

Guerrilla Financing

Despite the sparse conditions within the camp, the cumpas were adequately fed and armed. Like the Peruvian Army, the MRTA fought with Soviet-made arms, the folding metal-stocked AKMS assault rifles being the most common. Support weapons included the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, the PKM machine gun, and the RPG-7 grenade launcher. They used cheap but effective radio communications equipment, as well as computerized codes for inter-front communications. All these require cash, but Tupac Amaru comandantes told me that, unlike most guerrilla movements in the Americas, they received no foreign funding, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In Lima and elsewhere, the organization raises money by kidnapping business executives and holding them for high ransoms in "peoples' jails", which have been criticized for their cramped and inhumane conditions. It also levies "war taxes" on businesses, which not surprisingly view the payments as extortion. In the jungle and hills flanking the eastern side of the Andes, they also "tax" cocaine and coffee industries as well as any other profitable enterprise within their reach. In the process, the guerrillas have also tried to enforce fair wages for workers, settle disputes, and become a kind of shadow government in the area. This strategy is in line with the Tupac Amaru's basic political goals and principles. As Edgardo explained at the guerrilla university in the jungle, the MRTA was fighting against a system that had gone from semi-feudal to an exploitative class system dependent on foreign capital and control. Added to this is a racial and class system dominated by people of European, and now Asian, origin. Edgardo's MRTA literature quoted Andres, a comandante from another zone who defined the group's ideology:

"We try to put Peruvian reality ahead of any pre-defined political ideology. ... We're proposing the building of a socialism appropriate to conditions in Peru. We don't want state centrism or the bureaucratization of Peruvian society. We should have a democratic, very participatory society; not an electoral democracy every five years, but a democracy where men and women get involved with their workplace, their community, their neighborhood, and decide their own destiny. We want a participatory democracy with the people as the actors." (1)

Nice words, but how does one get there? The strategy is best summarized by Comandante Polay himself:

"The goal of the MRTA is to replace the so-called representative democracy with the power of the people. Our organization has three levels: the revolutionary forces, which consist of full-time soldiers; when needed these forces are backed up by part-time militias; then there is the base, in the villages, where there are self-defense committees whose duties extend well beyond military matters into social, political, and legal fields as well. We don't establish 'liberated zones' in the classic sense of the term, rather we support, with military means, the creation of organized bases of popular power. When the guerrilla is successful, the people gain confidence in their own strength." (2)

But Polay was again in prison, as was the movement's second- in-command, Peter Cardenas. While the MRTA was planning to free them, it was also having to keep its areas of operation functioning and attract new members at the same time. And expansion was essential. Historically, volunteers came in after military successes, when the organization looked most viable. From the perspective of the comandantes in the camp, the dilemma was how to organize zones of control in the countryside out of reach of the news media, and at the same time capture popular attention. Too much emphasis on attention-getting raids meant sacrificing combatants through the inevitable mistakes this strategy causes, reducing the size of the movement. Too much time organizing the civilian population for a "prolonged popular war" in zones far away from Lima meant that the movement could go unnoticed for years by the most important population, the Limenos. I wanted to see how the Tupacs behaved with the general population, how much support they had, and if the "prolonged popular war" concept made sense.

Stopping Traffic

My first trip out of the camp was to photograph an armed propaganda action, a Toma de Carretera, or roadblock. A group of cumpas, joined by young militia members (part-time guerrillas called into action as needed), stopped traffic on a main road, handed out leaflets, and painted the stopped cars and trucks with MRTA slogans (using paint that could later be removed with gasoline). One driver joked: "Cumpa, get your spelling right. The last time you painted my car, you misspelled 'Vencera'!" Three cumpas, standing on the top of a pickup cab, gathered the crowd around and gave a speech extolling the MRTA, the memory of Che Guevara, and the need for resistance against both the Fujimori regime and Shining Path, which was organizing a nearby zone. The travelers responded by cheering, perhaps knowing that after the speech they could go. Then it was over. One traveler complained that the toma was a hassle. "Everyone in this region has a short- wave radio", she said, "and the cumpas have transmitters, so why don't they just broadcast this information, instead of endangering us?" She added that such actions needlessly expose the MRTA to spies and "guarantee greater persecution of the civilian population by the authorities". The cumpas let the cars continue after distributing propaganda. In the past, the army had responded to such provocations by sending out a convoy which the guerrillas then ambushed, but not today. It was wise to the game. I returned to camp content that the toma had been successful and that nobody had been hurt, but I wondered how useful such displays were. While tedious to me, camp life for the average combatant was a vacation from the daily hardships of guerrilla life in a combat zone, and the morale in the camp was high. I made four other trips out of the camp, two to a nearby camp containing about 80 combatants who were studying combat medicine and sharpshooting, and two sorties into the civilian population of the region. On these, the better food helped compensate for the danger and rigor of long marches. On one trip, accompanying a group of 12 combatants, we spent about half the time in makeshift camps, and the rest of the trip as guests of the civilian population - staying in their houses. This hospitality was a great risk for these families, who in many cases had relatives in the movement, and showed the level of support. However, two months later, I learned that the Army and security forces had targeted such supporters, killing three family members in a hamlet where I had stayed because their son was a member of MRTA special forces. Subcomandante Rolando, the leader of that expedition, was later captured alive but wounded by plainclothed security forces members lying in wait for him. He was tortured to death in front of villagers and his girlfriend whom he had gone to visit. The soldiers took her away and she was never heard from again, nor was the disappearance recorded by human rights groups. The last day in camp it started to rain at about noon, and continued all night. Streams rose and became savage rivers, rerouting themselves, digging out and dropping huge trees. In the morning, I wrapped my cameras in plastic bags and tied them securely into my backpack. I stripped down to T-shirt and swimming shorts, which were now loose after dropping 50 pounds during a two- month stay. Because of the rains, river crossings were treacherous, hard ground had become swamp, and I often had to walk barefoot carrying my pack over my head through neck-deep water. That evening, after shaving and dressing in clean, touristy clothes, a prearranged vehicle drove me and my guide back to Yurimaguas, the military-occupied town on the river Huallaga, where I took a plane to Lima. In the capital, I met up again with Cerpa, a stocky man with Andean features. Unlike many of the Latin American leftist guerrilla leaders who came from the middle class, Cerpa was from working-class origins. A union leader for years before joining the movement, he had little time for ideological discussions or dogmatic diatribes. While Edgardo was the intellectual, Liliana the romantic, Cerpa was the pragmatist. He asked about the courses, and what I thought of the school. Then he surprised me by saying: "Two months of school? We are supposed to be a guerrilla army, not a summer camp. We've got Polay and hundreds of our members and supporters in prison, and we have to respond." He asked me what I hadn't photographed, and I replied "combat". "Well, we'll have you come out at a later date for that." Then he told me to keep my eye on the news from San Martin. Only three weeks later did I learn that a Tupac commando had successfully interrupted a large drug deal between army officers and Colombian drug dealers. Army units had taken up positions on the main road to secure it for use as an airstrip. After the Colombian planes landed, MRTA commandos moved in and "expropriated" goods and money. In response, the military mounted its largest counterinsurgency campaign against the MRTA, found the camp, destroyed it, and after accusing civilians living nearby of being supporters of the insurgency, executed them. The cumpas, who suffered no casualties, soon set up a series of other smaller camps throughout the area. On the last of two more trips to photograph the Tupacs, I was arrested by the secret police for "apology for terrorism", a law imposed by Fujimori prohibiting press coverage of outlawed movements. After seven grueling days of interrogation, I was released because of pressure brought on Fujimori by the international press.

Another Day

Over its 12 year history, the MRTA has suffered major losses as it focused on the militarily spectacular actions but neglected popular organization and the establishment of strong zones of control. While maintaining a limited presence, the movement lost important areas, including much of the region where the guerrilla university was located. However, there remains one large zone where the MRTA has a patchwork of control: the mountains and jungles of "El Centro" in the departments of Junin, Huancavelica, and Pasco. As for the cumpas, they too have suffered blows. Comandante Liliana was arrested with a group of Tupacs at a safe house outside of Tarapoto. Edgardo was arrested with several other cumpas after a firefight in another safe house in Lima in a failed attempt to occupy the Peruvian Congress. Many of the combatants who had attended guerrilla school were killed, arrested, or just gave up the struggle. But Cerpa and other cumpas survived to carry out the MRTA's most spectacular action, the December 17th seizure of almost 600 hostages in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. No matter what the outcome, the action was successful in bringing international attention to Peru's human rights record, its faceless courts, and inhumane prisons, as well as the harsh economic conditions exacerbated by Fujimori's neoliberal policies.


1. Comandante Andres, interviewed in Mexico by Barricada International, January 19, 1991.

2. Comandante Victor Polay, interviewed in Canto Grande Prison by Nina Boschmann, Taz (Germany), May 6, 1990.

[Jeremy Bigwood is a photojournalist who spent a decade in Latin America documenting political and military events. He was in Peru from summer 1992 to early 1993 and made three trips with the MRTA.]

(Source: Covert Action Quarterly #60 - Spring 1997)

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