The Lori Berenson Papers
While the DINCOTE documents paint an incomplete portrait of Berenson's role, they clearly demonstrate irregularities in the police surveillance and investigation. Although the accepted period of police observation at DINCOTE was at least two weeks, the Atestado shows that the surveillance at La Molina lasted less than twelve hours.
At 9 am on November 30, the day of the police assault, a member of the DINCOTE, in a routine surveillance operation, saw Miguel Rincón. Excited, he followed Rincón as Castrellón drove him back to the house at La Molina. When Castrellón pulled out of the garage at 4 o'clock that afternoon, his passenger, Lori Berenson, made her inaugural blip on the DINCOTE's radar screen. Castrellón dropped her off at a shopping center. One surveillance team followed him, another trailed her. After Berenson met a woman whom she had hired as a photographer (a woman she knew as Rosa Mita Calle but who was, in fact, Nancy Gilvonio, the wife of Néstor Cerpa), both women headed downtown to the Congress. At 6:30, the police arrested Castrellón.
In only a few minutes he presented them with a long and complicated story. "He indicated," the report says, "that the house served as a meeting place for the MRTA and that there was a group of approximately fifteen people, some of whom were armed, a fact that indicated that it was a base for this terrorist organization." Half an hour later, the team tracking Berenson and Gilvonio confronted them on the public bus they were riding. "Then they drove us to this police station," Berenson testified, "without telling us a thing.... A man came up to me and identified himself as a captain and after I asked told me I was in the custody of the DINCOTE." At 8:30 pm the attack on No. 1049 Alameda del Corregidor began. "There was no intelligence operation," said Col. Benedicto Jiménez in a recent interview. Jiménez, in a 1992 DINCOTE operation etched into the Peruvian consciousness, captured Sendero's leader, Abimael Guzmán, without any casualties after two years of intelligence work. In La Molina, he says, "They came, they saw and they attacked."
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The operation may have been rushed simply because of pressure to make a quick arrest of Rincón, who had slipped past the police before. But another factor has now become clear, based on interviews with several top antiterrorist police officials: The DINCOTE's commanding officer, Gen. Carlos Domínguez, needed to deflect attention from a spiraling scandal. Just nine days before the La Molina operation, the police had been forced to admit publicly that seven police generals, including Domínguez, were living in luxurious houses and apartments confiscated from convicted drug traffickers. The scandal not only cost Domínguez a fifteenth-floor beachfront aerie in the fashionable district of Miraflores, it also threatened his career. He turned to his subcommanders. They told him they were searching for Rincón. "He said, 'OK,'" one of them remembers, "'Drop everything else and get me Rincón.'"
"There was tremendous political pressure in the Rincón case that didn't exist when I was pursuing Guzmán," said Benedicto Jiménez. "The reputation of the police was in question.... Circumstances contrived to accelerate the operation," he says dryly. One year later, Domínguez felt the irony of his haste. On December 17, 1996, Domínguez and Gen. Máximo Rivera, the new head of the DINCOTE, were taken hostage along with more than 400 others when Néstor Cerpa and thirteen MRTA militants seized the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. "Cerpa told Domínguez," Rivera recalls, "'General, if you had waited two more days, you would have arrested all of us who are here, because we were due to arrive at the house in La Molina.'" (Cerpa and the other militants were killed when, on April 22, 1997, government forces stormed the residence and freed the hostages.)
Hasty surveillance was followed by sloppy investigation after the La Molina arrests. The main charge against Berenson--"treason against the fatherland"--was based on the theory that her press access aided the plot to take over Congress. Yet according to the transcript, the police asked her only two questions related to Congress--to identify who took some photographs of congressmen (she couldn't) and to admit that a list of congressmen was in her handwriting (she wouldn't).
Said Rincón in his statement, "There were no concrete operative plans for the taking of the Congress," although he conceded later that "it was a goal for the near future" in order to create the conditions for an end to the armed conflict and to obtain the release of MRTA prisoners. The most detailed discussion of the MRTA plan appears on page 80 of the 100-page Atestado and charges Cerpa with meeting with Rincón, Gilvonio, Berenson and Castrellón "with the goal of directing and supervising the plans and tasks related to the attack on the Congress." Although Rincón concedes that Cerpa came to the house, he says nothing about any such meeting. Two additional charges against Berenson materialize only toward the end of the police document. One is the accusation of moving weapons, although the only support for this is Castrellón's statement that Berenson helped him transfer closed sacks from his van to the house. Another is that she was a political and tactical instructor for the combatants in the La Molina house; the only proof offered is a drawing of escape routes for the house, but again, there is no evidence that the drawing is Berenson's.