The Lori Berenson Papers

The Lori Berenson Papers

Research support: the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Additional reporting: Edmundo Cruz.


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.

Berenson’s parents and her US lawyer, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, question the authenticity of these records. They argue, further, that since they were unable to cross-examine witnesses, it is impossible to know whether the statements of those witnesses were coerced. Nevertheless, sources intimately familiar with the workings of the DINCOTE–including Berenson’s Peruvian lawyer, Grimaldo Achahui, who was present during her interrogation–believe the documents to be genuine. As such, the new information is a significant addition to an understanding of how the DINCOTE built its case against Lori Berenson.

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.”

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.”

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.”

* * *

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.

The past five years have seen some activity around Berenson’s case, to little effect. The government of President Alberto Fujimori has continued to insist that she was convicted and sentenced properly. When the Inter-American Court of Human Rights called for a retrial of four Chilean members of the MRTA, Fujimori simply pulled Peru out of the court’s jurisdiction, and Berenson’s pending case with the court was left in limbo. While Berenson’s parents have lobbied vocally to bring US government pressure to bear for her release, the US Embassy in Lima claims that it has been toiling quietly. “A number of people were working for a very long time to find a way out of the Berenson case,” an international businessman says. “I think they had gotten quite close to a solution that would have permitted Lori to be expelled from Peru.” Then a couple of factors intervened. One was “the strong response the US was forced to make to the blatant manipulation of the electoral process,” a reference to the massive irregularities leading up to the recent elections, in which Fujimori won a third term after a dubious constitutional ruling in 1996 permitted him to run again. The other was a comment by opposition presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo, a Stanford-educated economist. In New York on April 28, Toledo said that he was “going to look seriously at [Berenson’s] case.” The response back in Lima from certain members of the Fujimori campaign was instantaneous and harsh–Toledo is soft on terrorism, they charged. “In twenty-four hours,” the businessman says, “what had been very painstakingly achieved over months went out the window, when the government came out with its strongest terms, and said ‘Never!'”

Toledo boycotted the runoff in protest against the undemocratic nature of the electoral process. The Organization of American States has since put some pressure on Fujimori’s government to undertake democratic reforms. Yet while anti-Fujimori demonstrations took place in Lima and other cities around his inauguration on July 28, with the armed forces and most of the media securely in Fujimori’s corner, those protests were insufficient to loosen his grip on power.

Nevertheless, the newfound willingness of DINCOTE officials to question the accuracy of the charges against Berenson is itself an indication of how the country has recovered, over the past five years, from the nightmare of terrorism and backlash that once stifled debate. The reliance on Castrellón’s testimony and the circumstances surrounding the collection of evidence warrant, at the very least, further investigation. Benedicto Jiménez believes that Berenson was fronting for the MRTA and finds it difficult to imagine that she didn’t know about the arms. “But the charge of treason,” he says, “should only be applied if you are a leader, which she was not; or if you were a longtime activist, which she was not; or if you have participated in military actions, which she had not. She should have been charged with apology for terrorism, which carries a sentence of six to twelve years.” It is an opinion echoed by many, including Berenson’s lawyer, Achahui.

While some, including her parents and Clark, worry that the Fujimori government might drop the charge of treason against Berenson only to retry her on a new charge, “collaboration with terrorism,” which carries a sentence of twenty years, Achahui believes a prosecutor would have a difficult time proving collaboration, which implies a “conscious and voluntary role in the organization.” “Apology for terrorism is the more likely charge,” says Achahui, “based primarily on her statement to the press,” a statement, the Berensons claim, that came after Lori had been held for days in a dark cell listening to the moans of Francis, who was lying bleeding from her bullet wounds only a few feet away.

Berenson is in the fifth year of her imprisonment, in Socabaya prison, located in a poor neighborhood outside Peru’s most beautiful city, Arequipa. Neither she nor her lawyers have been given a chance to rebut the charges in the DINCOTE documents. No journalist, foreign or Peruvian, been granted access to her since her imprisonment–standard Peruvian treatment for prisoners charged with terrorism. Isolated in the maximum-security unit, Berenson is nonetheless a favorite among the 100-odd minimum-security prisoners, making birthday cards for the women and passing along vitamins to the few young children who live there with their mothers. She has been nominated as madrina of their volleyball team, although she is not allowed to play. In classical tragedy, the quality that makes a heroine great leads equally to her fall. Berenson may have reversed the process–she seems to be translating her fall into a theatrical grandeur.

Rhoda Berenson recoils at the thought. “Lori has always been a very private person,” she says. “She can’t wait to go back to being anonymous.” A clear presentation of the facts of her case may give her the chance to return to her former anonymity and free her, the United States and Peru from that grandeur.

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