The house at No. 1049 Alameda del Corregidor fits in well with the rest of Lima’s upper-middle-class neighborhood of La Molina. Partially screened from the street by a pair of olive trees, with a large garage and four floors on a plot of 500 square meters, the house is big enough to hold, say, a childcare center or a college-prep outfit, as it has for the past few years. Only a few bullet holes in the stucco bear witness to the fiery events of November 30, 1995. On that night, members of the DINCOTE, Peru’s antiterrorism police force, fought a pitched battle with the inhabitants of the house. By morning, one person was dead, three critically wounded, four hostages rescued and twenty-one purported members of the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) arrested. The prize catch was one of Peru’s Most Wanted–Miguel Rincón Rincón, second in command of the MRTA, one of Peru’s two armed guerrilla organizations.
Several other suspected associates were brought into the DINCOTE headquarters that night in a general roundup from other parts of Lima, including a middle-aged Panamanian and a young American woman. Within six weeks of her arrest, 26-year-old Lori Berenson would find herself center stage in one of the most heavily marketed terrorism trials of the year. Accused of “treason against the fatherland,” of participating in a plot to attack the Peruvian Congress with a guerrilla organization, of transporting weapons and instructing militants, Berenson was convicted based on secret evidence by a panel of hooded military judges (in the manner prescribed by Peru’s draconian 1992 antiterrorism law) and sentenced on January 11, 1996, to life in prison.
During the nearly five years of her incarceration, much has been written in the United States about Lori Berenson, on how the daughter of liberal, academic parents turned a youthful concern for social justice into a committed passion. Although there have been some reports focusing on Berenson’s work with leftist organizations in Central America, little is known about the circumstances of her arrest in Peru. To many of her US supporters, Berenson’s story features a good-hearted pacifist who makes a naïve wrong turn and finds herself the victim of a deeply unfair justice system.
But mention the name Lori Berenson to Peruvians, and the face most of them see in their minds is the one that appeared on their television sets on January 8, 1996, when she was presented to the press by the police, making her first public statement since her arrest. It was less what she said, defending the MRTA, than how she said it, her voice defiant, her eyes blazing. For most ordinary Peruvians, too exhausted after fifteen years of warfare to distinguish between sympathizers, guerrillas and terrorists, the contempt in that face was enough to convince them that Berenson was guilty. Of what, they didn’t much care. In their version of the story, she is a Beauty who slouches from New York to Latin America, only to turn into a terrorist Beast, eyes wide open.
Now, documents have surfaced that shed light on Lori Berenson’s case. These papers, never before seen by the public but obtained by The Nation in collaboration with Peruvian journalists, include a 100-page transcript of the police investigation of Berenson and her co-defendants (called “Atestado Nro. 140–DIVICOTE II-DINCOTE”), and Berenson’s signed fifteen-page interrogation. Together they appear to compose the DINCOTE’s complete record of her case (minus the exhibits), which, as in all cases of terrorism in Peru, has been unavailable even to her lawyers.
The story that emerges from the documents is one of unusually hasty police surveillance, negligent interrogation and reckless reliance on one witness whose testimony was neither challenged nor corroborated. The documents give a crude demonstration of how hyperinflation can be applied to a police charge, raising Berenson, in its final pages, from the obscurity of a minor suspect to the limelight of a major leader of the MRTA. At the same time, there are troubling discrepancies between Berenson’s own account, as it appears in the documents, and other available evidence.