The Lori Berenson Papers
The charges hinge on the testimony of Pacífico Castrellón, a man with whom she shared a house in Lima and whom she identifies in the transcripts as her conviviente, usually translated into English as "lover." All accounts agree that in November 1994, almost a year before the police operation in La Molina, Lori Berenson met Castrellón, a Panamanian twenty years her senior, at the airport in Panama City, where they were both preparing to board a plane to Quito, Ecuador.
The genesis of that encounter, and its aftermath, are matters of dispute. Berenson's parents say that Lori has always denied a romantic relationship with Castrellón. Although she was not allowed to be interviewed directly for this article, she recently offered the following account: "I have never, ever, ever been or signed any document stating that Mr. Castrellón had been at any moment my significant other, lover, and much less conviviente," she said. She explained that an unnamed acquaintance in New York, who knew that she wanted to go to Peru, had recommended Castrellón as a traveling companion.
According to other sources, however, a romance blossomed soon after their meeting at the Panama airport, a meeting that Castrellón claimed was carefully orchestrated by the MRTA. In the Atestado, he tells a tale of shadowy Peruvians and Panamanians who hired him both as an architect and an escort. It was in Quito, Castrellón says, that Berenson spoke with Néstor Cerpa, then the leader of the MRTA, and a woman they called Ysabel. That was the first time, he stated, that he heard of the MRTA.
The MRTA, a traditional Latin American Marxist guerrilla organization, was significantly smaller and less complex in structure than the more ruthless Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which took its ideology from Mao and fought a war of terror with the Peruvian government from 1980 through the capture of its messianic leader, Abimael Guzmán, in 1992. The MRTA had been known, for much of its career, more for its theatrical escapades--distributing free food in shantytowns and breaking out of prison--than for its few dozen killings and kidnappings. Jeremy Bigwood, a war photojournalist who has covered armed conflicts in Central America since the eighties, spent considerable time in Peru with the MRTA while represented by Gamma Liaison. "They were extremely pleasant people," Bigwood says, "but much less competent than [El Salvador's] FMLN. I call them The Gang That Can't Shoot Straight. One time, two of the MRTA leaders were walking along the street and saw an old man pushing a car that had broken down. They had just helped him get the car in front of a bank, when the old man ran away. Suddenly it hit them--the man was a member of Sendero, and they had been helping him push a car bomb!"
In 1990, the MRTA had its biggest publicity coup, digging a tunnel into Miguel Castro Castro prison on the outskirts of Lima and freeing, among many others, its top leader, Victor Polay Campos. But the kidnappings of several businessmen turned public sentiment against the MRTA, especially when, in early 1993, the dead body of David Ballón, once a robust 200-pounder, was found emaciated. Quickly the heroic aura evaporated as the need for cash morphed the image of the MRTA from a band of Merry Men (and Women) into a gang of common kidnappers who associated with drug dealers.
It was during this period, according to the police transcripts, that Lori Berenson had her first contact with the MRTA. After the alleged meeting with Cerpa in Quito and a brief sojourn in Ecuador, Castrellón and Berenson decided to take a bus to Lima. A short stay in two hotels finally led them to rent a house, one month after their arrival, in La Molina; Castrellón signed the lease. "We rented a big house to be able to receive guests," Berenson says in her testimony.
Castrellón told the police that in January of 1995, Ysabel put them in touch with a man the DINCOTE wanted almost as badly as it wanted Cerpa--Miguel Rincón. Rincón moved into the house. Then, according to the transcripts, the Castrellón/Berenson relationship ended, although both continued to live there (in August Berenson rented an apartment in the less-well-heeled district of San Borja). "After my separation [from Castrellón], I continued living in that place [La Molina]," says Berenson's testimony. Soon another woman, called Francis, arrived. Castrellón slept next to the garage, while Berenson, Francis and Rincón had rooms on the third floor. The pecking order, Castrellón said, was clear: With money from Rincón, Berenson bought a computer to which only she, Francis and Rincón had the password. Castrellón was relegated to the role of chauffeur.
In March, Castrellón began picking up young MRTA militants and installing them on the fourth floor, where they received political and military instruction. Occasionally, Cerpa himself came to the house, Castrellón told the police. Castrellón said he was forbidden to touch the computers, speak with people on the fourth floor, enter the fourth floor without wearing a hood that covered his face (he said this was also a requirement for Berenson, with whom he occasionally served meals to the top-floor guests) or enter the third-floor rooms at all. Berenson, he claimed, wrote on the computer, cooked and served. Castrellón also reported that he constructed a model of the Peruvian Congress based on information provided by Berenson.
Castrellón's testimony not only contributed to Berenson's arrest but was used by police to foster the Peruvian myth of her as an international terrorist. "Castrellón was still in love with Lori," recalls a former MRTA member who shared a prison cell with Castrellón in 1998. "He was sad and bitter."