The Revolution Behind Bars

September 25, 2007

MOST OF THE YEAR LIMA IS GRAY AND SAD. This is particularly striking at the city's edge because the desert landscape is laid bare. On this Sunday in August 1988, around Canto Grande, the site of Lima's major prison, the cement of the half-constructed houses, the dust, the sandy ground and pale sky, all seem to be of one color. Considered the most secure in the country, the prison is home to two high- ranking guerrilla leaders: Osmin Morote, said to be second- in-command of Shining Path; and Victor Polay, commander of the other large rebel group, MRTA. (Polay escaped in July 1990.) With them is Reynaldo Rodriguez L6pez (The God- father), Peru's biggest drug trafficker-though no more than a street thief compared to his Colombian counterparts. At 8:30 a.m. when visiting hours begin, the line in front of the prison stretches out for nearly three blocks. An hour later, after checking my identification documents, an officer applies three different stamps to my right arm. The same operation will be repeated once we are inside the building, but to the left arm. This time the officer adds his autograph above the stamps. Every visitor is taken to a small room to be scrutinized. "Shoe laces are forbidden here compadre, but for a small fee..." While I walk toward the gate I try to read the stamps on my arms. One of them says "Javier Heraud Sports Club." They must use whatever stamps they can find. Heraud was a poet and a member of the National Liberation Army, killed in the jungle in 1962 while trying to slip into the country incognito. Walking through the passage between the last checkpoint and the prison commons takes my friend Jorge and I no more than four minutes, but it seems an eternity. We have come to see our friend Paco. Behind the bars to ourright several dozen prisoners shout unintelligibly. Those closer to the bars ex- tend their arms as if trying to touch us. Each pavilion is a four- storey building containing 80 cells, service areas and a courtyard. Pavilion 4B is where the "terrucos" (people jailed for terrorism) are held. At the door, a young man who looks like a student opens the gate. He shakes our hands and invites us in. Once inside, we walk between two lines of yoing fellows waving red flags, clapping and cheering. At the end of the line a tall white man is waiting to shake our hands and give us a "warm welcome to Canto Grande's shining trench of combat." "By coming here," he continues, "you are defying the reaction- aries who try to isolate us, who try to apply their black goals of genocide to the prisoners of war of our glorious party. We consider you our friends and today you will be the guests of our party." I recognize his face. He is the son of a wealthy Lima family and a cousin of Lima's bishop. He was arrested in Puno in 1981 while supposedly doing field research. I recall the outrage with which intellectuals and politicians de- nounced his torture at the hands of the police. It was hard to believe that a young student from a "good family" could be involved with what was then perceived to be an irrational group of Indian or nearly-Indian people. I remember his stern stare photographed in a hospital in Puno. Embarrassed, the police let him go. After a time in Lima, he returned to Puno. There he moved about freely for at least three years before being caught again. First he organized "support bases," then began leading assaults on mining centers and agrarian cooperatives, actions which left several persons dead. Witnesses talked about a man who "looks like a foreigner" and who was understanda- bly nicknamed "El Gringo." Sometime between 1986 and 1987, he and his compafiera were arrested in Juliaca. She was the daughter of a well-known landowning family from Azangaro, a province of Puno famous for its extensive cattle- raising haciendas. She was said to be the most beautiful girl in town, and to have a terrible temper. According to some "Azangarinos," she led military assaults and killed people with her own hands. N THE PRISON COURTYARD COTS AND MAT- tresses have been set up to provide seats where prisoners and visitors can chat comfortably. While we wait for our friend Paco, we are greeted by another member of the welcome committee. Jorge and I are not left alone even for a moment. Comrade P6rez is in his late twenties and speaks with a heavy Quechua accent. He asks our opinion on "the development of the armed struggle." I mention Cuzco, where Sendero has begun to operate in recent years, and Puno, where the guerrillas have met fierce resistance from peasant organizations affiliated with Izquierda Unida. He answers with absolute assurance, "Puno is already under the control of the party...Cuzco will be taken later in the war. That will be harder. It will probably be one of the last places to fall because it is the center of bureaucratic and repressive power." P6rez then lectures us on Nicaragua, a showcase, according to him, of how revisionists conspire to make revolutions fail. Then he digresses to Deng Xiao Ping's betrayal of Maoist principles. That, he maintains, provoked the upheaval of students who want to return to Chairman Mao's way. P6rez speaks of Deng as "infected pustule." He VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 4 (DECEMBER/JANUARY 1990/1991) Historian J'osi Luis Rinique teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York. 17Rert o4n dth Amrc4a Peru's Shining Path mentions Deng several times, and each time repeats me- chanically, "Deng Xiao Ping, infected pustule." Later Paco would tell us that Perez has spent the most time in prison. A sarvivorof the first massacre in the neighboring jail of Lurigancho, he was originally caught "in action." "He is great, you know," Paco says. "He is illiterate, so to participate in the discussions he asks somebody to read the documents over and over so that he can keep every detail in mind."' Paco takes us on a tour of the pavilion. At one end of the courtyard, a quotation from Mao Zedong has been painted at the top of a 10-meter wal: "The strength of iron militants permits them to conquer the highest altitudes," There is no apparent way to climb that high without a ladder. If they climbed that high. they could have escaped. "No," says, Paco, "we do not escape. By painting this Mao phrase up there, we show the reactionaries how small they are. The guards go crazy wondering how we did it," It's also a mystery how they painted a series of murals illustrating the phases of the "popularwar." In the best style of Maoist iconography, a paternal and wise "Presidente "Gonzalo" is portrayed against the backdrop of a rising sun, accompanied by radiant massesofpeasants and workers. The paintings are impressive, admirably done, all the more so considering the scarce resources available in a prison. " So youhaveanartisthere?" Iask. "No," Paconswers: "These pictures, like everything here. are made collectively. Every person must learn to paint and to play a musical instrument, no matter how clumsy they are. When the paint- ing is finished a discussion on how it looks follows. If the majority think that Presidente Gonzalo looks too serious or superficial the painting must be changed." In one corner of the courtyard plastic soda containers have been skillfully converted into a pigeon-house. "If they cut the food rations wecan eatthe pigeons," says Paco. But rumor has it that these are carrier-pigeons we use to keep in touch with our compaetleros." Nearby, an area for new arrivals infected with contagious illnesses has been set up. Food and health are crucial matters in the pavilion organiza- tion. Considering the circumstances, everything looks sur- prisingly clean. Sports and martial arts are part of the daily routine, as is military training. "As prisoners we have not lost our position of soldiers in the Popular Army." Paco says. "We learn how to discuss, how to explain the party line without making concessions, how to be clear but strong. We practice physical and oral belligerence." Inside the building, quotations from Presidente Gonzalo cover almost every wall, The quotes emphasize the impor- tance of a healthy body. of clear and pure ideas, of strong morals. They praise the "iron militants," and refer to happi- ness, art and love. Dialectics is the key 1o understanding the "ultimate meaning of life. The day before my visit, the national female volleyball team had been defeated by Brazil in the semi-finals for the world championship in Lima. Like the rest of the country, pavilion 4B watched the game on television. After the game they examined Peru's defeat through the lens of "Presidente Gonzalo's guidance of thought." Since Shining Path is a clandestine organization formed by autonomous organisms yet coordinated by a unified command, dealing with new arrivals presents problems. Any person arrested for terrorism and sent tojail in Canto Grande could ask to be housed in pavilion 4B. "We usually receive information about the political background of who is com- ing," Paco says. "If not, the new arrival is placed under observation, questioned, and submitted to a period of ideo- ogical discussion Any cadre can d etermine howinvolved a person is in the party organization by analyzing his method of discussion, his style of argument, and his choice of words." ''A GITATION, PRODUCTION AND MILITARY " action: These are the basic principles for any member of the Popular Army, and we fulfill every one of them," says Armando solemnly. I saw him on my way to the second floor, waving his red flag near the entrance. We recognized each other with amazement. Some years ago, he had been a clerk ina Limathink-tank run by my friend Mario. It was funded by the Ford Foundation and U.S.AID. I met Armando there in 1984. Mario was always complaining about Armando's laziness and irresponsibility. Armando looked reckless and arrogant, which aroused Mario's own arrogance. The arrogance of the barrio versus the arrogance of Lima's posh Miraflores neighborhood. (Today Mario is finishing his doctorate in the United States; Armando is about to be released after three years in Canto Grande.) Armandois distrustful and aggressive. "So how are your friends at CEDEP, CEPES, IEP?" the acronyms of several research centers. "How is Mario? Are they still working with the Dutch and all the gringos?" "Of course they are," I tell him, "nothing has changed." Aftera while the conversation becomes more friendly, even intimate. "My life has changed completely since the moment I joined the party...d feel like a different person ... a stronger person.. .I would never have imagined I would learn so much here." A tall slinm man in charge of the workshop shows us the different models of straw bags they make. "Now we have a more trendy model, with a small pocket," he says. In the shoe-making section Jorge recalls a previous visit. "I was wearing a fancy pair of sandals a friend of mine brought me from Miami. One compa/lero asked if he could borrow them for a while. Two weeks later my sandals were one of the models produced and sold here." In order to assure theirautonomy, the inmates demolished the old prison walls and built new ones. They built a kitchen out of old metal beds after they discovered how to hook up their own electrical connection. Unlike other prisoners, they cook their own food after receiving raw ingredients from the prison authorities each morning. They have an electronics workshop that offers services to other prisoners. "Our main client is The Godfather," says Paco, who is in charge of finances. "Everybody says we are kind of anti-modern, but let me tell you. I'm doing my accounts in such a way that if I could put them into a computer tomorrow I would be ready." They also have a small library. I check the titles: Jose Carlos Mariategui, the founder of Peruvian Marxism; Histo- ria de ta Reptiblica Peruana in 17 volumes by Jorge Basadre, the standard bourgeois history of modern Peru; and of course Mao. Then Jorge points to an unexpected title: Ghandi and NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 18the Non-Violent Struggle. "I bet this gets taken out the most," he says with an ironic smile. A T NOON THE COURTYARD IS PACKED WITH groups engaged in lively discussion. Several prisoners carrying musical instruments move to the center. The com- pafieros organize themselves in military formation. When they are ready someone enters carrying a red flag. The band begins to play. It is a martial tune, softened by the fact that it is played on guitars and Andean pipes and drums. Everyone is marching in place. They start to make different formations. First they march from side to side, then backwards and forwards, squatting from time to time as the red flag is unfurled in the center of their perfect circle. While marching they sing about the armed struggle. The song has a hammer- ing chorus: "All but power is illusion." When the music is over they stand still for more than half an hour, their eyes fixed on the horizon, their fists clenched in the air, chanting slogans in unison: "Long live Presidente Gonzalo, philosopher, leader, and teacher of communists!"; "Long live our first congress, historical landmark and the beginning of a new era!" Some identify the enemies, others the tasks which lie ahead: "Get modem weaponry at any cost!" P ACO WAS A LEFTIST IN THE 1970S, A POT- smoker in the Woodstock era, a womanizer and the life of the party, a guitar player and jubilant singer, a drunkard famous for his craziness and sense of humor. He was one of Jorge's closest friends. As students, they led the seizure of the university administration building and demonstrations against the "reactionary authorities." Later, during Gen. Velasco's regime, they played more serious politics. They were part of Peru's "New Left," which was extremely critical of the Communist Party and staunchly independent. They refused to align themselves,with either "revisionists" or "ultras." Paco, Jorge and a few other friends formed their own group. They worked closely with the powerful Mineworkers Federation. Under a state of siege, they smuggled a deported leader into the country to head a national strike. Then in 1980 the Left broke up into several factions just before the first national elections in 17 years. And then came the triumph of Beladnde. It was as if Peru were returning to the early 1960s, after a period of feeling that the revolution was just around the corner. Who was wrong, we or the masses? The question is still lingering in our minds after all these years. A kinl of diaspora followed. Today Jorge lives abroad, dividing his time between historical research and his new passion, the African National Congress. A few years ago Paco was an entrepreneur. He organized several rock con- certs and managed a few groups in Lima, before becoming the editor of a rock magazine. At the time of his first arrest, he was accused of being a member of the MRTA. Then came a second arrest and here he is, in the courtyard of a prison, marching like a soldier. When they stop marching, I approach him. "Seriously Paco, do you really buy all this?" "What is wrong with you?" he answers. "This is the revolution my 'friend. This is betting on the winner. We shall win." Sendero library at Lurigancho jail, before the 1986 massacre: Infiltrators are identified by their rhetoric VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 4 (DECEMBER/JANUARY 1990/1991) "Now," a prisoner announces, "the party will offer you a lunch in camaraderie. And while you eat, a group of compaferos will treat you to song." We have lunch with Armando and two other fellows while Paco performs with the band. When we finish eating, a few Senderistas invite the guests to dance. One of them approaches me and takes my hand. I have never danced with a man before. He holds me around the waist and I find my legs won't carry me. I can barely move. While we dance, he asks me how I view the development of the popular war. We dance a Peruvian waltz, then a salsa, and finally a dance from Puno, a sicuri. At one point, we join hands with everyone in the courtyard and we dance, all of us, in one grand circle. The music is joyful and at the same time sad. "Adi6s Ayacucho," say the lyrics. They sing of the suffering of the people of the highlands, obliged to leave home and go to strange lands. A T 4 P.M. WE FACE THE DISDAIN AND ARRO- gance of the policemen. Two and a half hours later, we are at home on the other side of Lima. The next day I tell part of this story to one of the most well-known political analysts in Lima, the director of a prestigious research center on de- mocracy, a man who would call himself a social democrat. He listens to me as if I were speaking of a different planet. When I mention Armando he tells me that I must give him a full report on this prisoner. "He obviously knows a lot about the research centers. We must keep track of him and be alert." I feel confused, even intimidated, as if I were being asked to betray a confidence. On Tuesday I spend four hours arranging my visa at the U.S. Consulate. On my way home, the taxi driver asks if I am one of the lucky ones leaving the country. "I am proud because my son, an engineer, is moving to Paraguay next month." The rest of the day I am told several times, "How lucky you are to be leaving." That night I show the airport officer my exit tax receipt, the hundred dollars every Peruvian citizen must pay to leave the country. All of a sudden someone approaches the officer from behind. He stops checking my documents and a feeling of dread and paranoia comes over me. But it's just a simple business transaction. The officer reaches into a drawer and pulls out a fresh receipt. He sells it to his customer for half the price. I walk past him and onto the plane.

Tags: Peru, Shining Path, prisons, ideology, education

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