The Lori Berenson Papers
Berenson's account in the transcript differs starkly from Castrellón's. She denies meeting Cerpa, either in Ecuador or Peru. She identifies herself as a journalist. She recognizes none of the fourth-floor inhabitants and says she had no idea there were arms and ammunition in the house, as Castrellón claimed she did. She denies ever having seen the pair of army uniforms the police found in her closet in San Borja or the four scraps of paper bearing cryptic computer passwords and notes like "20 long ones, 2 short ones." Above all, she denies being a member of the MRTA.
Since her imprisonment, Berenson has continued to protest her innocence, as have her parents. "President [Alberto] Fujimori has micromanaged Lori's case since the day of her arrest, when he waved her American passport on television," Rhoda Berenson says. She not only doubts the authenticity of the documents but insists that journalists could not have obtained them without Fujimori's knowledge. After five years of watching elements of the Peruvian police, government and press attack their daughter as everything from an arms dealer to an assassin, the Berensons' skepticism is understandable.
But Grimaldo Achahui, Berenson's Peruvian lawyer, who was present during her eleven-hour interrogation and was shown the DINCOTE documents, believes they faithfully represent the questions of the police and Berenson's answers. Achahui attests to the authenticity of both his and Berenson's signatures on the testimony and his memory of the interrogation, and says he did not witness any coercion. When asked about the relationship between Berenson and Castrellón, Achahui verified Berenson's use of the word conviviente. "Of course," Achahui said, "she could have misinterpreted the word to mean 'housemate.'"
So which Lori is the real Lori? The Lori who innocently traveled with an older companion to Peru, or the Lori of the ramparts, who led a man she had just met down a revolutionary path? The evidence doesn't support either view. Castrellón's portrayal of her as a ringleader is uncorroborated, and he may have had ulterior motives, including the reduction of his own sentence (he is currently serving a thirty-year sentence in Lima's Castro Castro prison); yet the story Berenson tells in the transcripts raises serious questions. First, there is the issue of her occupation. Her press passes were real, if the ink on them barely dry. It had been only two months since she had received letters from the small, progressive magazines Third World Viewpoint and Modern Times identifying her as a correspondent, and she had yet to publish any articles in them. Second, there is the question of how she could live in a house with fifteen other people and not be able to identify a single one. "I knew there were people upstairs," she says in her deposition. "I don't know who let them in. Although I used the kitchen, I never noticed anyone preparing a large quantity of food." Many of the fifteen supported Berenson's story, saying they had never met her. Two of those arrested, however, identified her as the woman who served them meals, although they also said she was wearing a hood that was supposed to conceal her face. Francis, a 30-year-old veteran of the MRTA, claims in the Atestado that Berenson, along with Castrellón, served as the "fronts" for the house in La Molina.
As for Rincón, Berenson said that although she had seen him living in the La Molina house and knew that he was linked to the MRTA, she never knew his name. "I used to call him compañero," she said. She said in her statement that all she knew about the MRTA was what the four letters stood for, and that she did not know it was a terrorist group. Yet a month later, when presented to the press, she stated that "in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement." The police inventory of arms found in the house included seven automatic rifles with over 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 100 hand grenades and more than 2,000 sticks of dynamite. When asked how this cache of weapons, along with forged documents bearing her photo, ended up in the La Molina house, which Berenson told police was still one of her two residences, she said, "I have no idea."
These issues made it problematic for Berenson's natural allies to come to her defense. The US Embassy presented her parents with several unenviable choices for lawyers. At the time, the Berensons were delighted with Achahui--especially Lori, who, her parents report, was thrilled at the choice of an "indigenous" lawyer who had represented many people accused of terrorism. It was only later that they learned that Achahui had never won a case, and moreover had represented MRTA leader Victor Polay, an association that they did not believe would help their daughter. (Achahui continues to represent Berenson, although he is not as active as he once was.) The Committee to Protect Journalists, which had successfully sprung Jeremy Bigwood when he was arrested for photographing the MRTA, found it difficult to make more than a token protest on behalf of a woman who had yet to publish a single piece of journalism. And Berenson's emotional statement to the press, broadcast repeatedly over the Peruvian and international airwaves, made her appear to be a committed sympathizer of a guerrilla organization. For these reasons, her fate turned out to be considerably different from that of Italian journalist Gabriela Guarino, who came to Peru in 1994 to shoot a documentary film on the MRTA and wound up carrying the baby of a regional MRTA leader. "There was more hard evidence against Gabriela," one former MRTA member says, "than there ever was against Lori." Yet just two months before Berenson's arrest, Guarino was expelled from Peru after serving only seventeen months in prison. "The difference," the former MRTA member says, "was that Gabriela claimed that she was innocent. But when you saw Lori on TV you thought--this is a terrorist."