PERU: Unearthing Victims of the Christmas Massacre

Posted on 16 August 2010 by editor

Approaching the cave where the killers concealed the bodies. Credit:√Āngel P√°ez/IPS

By √Āngel P√°ez

LIMA, Aug 12, 2010 (IPS) – The families of 40 villagers murdered in Peru on Christmas Day in 1984 are camping out next to the eight graves in which their loved ones were buried, to keep watch over the slow, painful process of exhuming the bodies, a task that is being carried out by the public prosecutor’s office.

In one important respect, this massacre differs from other human rights crimes committed during the civil war that gripped Peru from 1980 to 2000: it was not the work of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas or the military or police forces who fought them, but of the “rondas campesinas” or peasant self-defence groups.

These groups first emerged to defend rural indigenous communities from the Shining Path insurgents, but eventually began to be armed and trained by the armed forces.

The massacre whose victims are now being unearthed began at 5:00 AM on Dec. 25, 1984 in the Quechua-speaking indigenous village of Putka in the district of Huanta in the southwestern highlands region of Ayacucho, the epicentre of the armed conflict.

So far, 25 bodies have been found, including six children, all of whom were stabbed to death, according to survivors of the killings, whose identities are being kept secret for their safety.

The survivors say the villagers were killed by members of a “ronda campesina” that supposedly had the support of the military unit active in the area.

At that time, the army and the navy were present in Huanta, where the military partially relied on the armed resistance to Shining Path mounted by several local communities.

Just a few weeks before the Christmas Day killings in Putka, troops from the army counterinsurgency base in the area slaughtered 123 local residents in the nearby village of Putis.

The Defence Ministry claims that it has no information on the military officers or troops who were posted in that area at the time of the Putis and Putka massacres.

In November 2009, the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDDHH) brought legal action on behalf of the survivors of the 1984 Christmas Day massacre.

“The Putka and Putis killings were not isolated cases,” the former executive secretary of the CNDDHH, Ronald Gamarra, who headed the non-governmental human rights group at the time it filed the lawsuit, told IPS.

“In the beginning, the rural communities were acting on their own initiative against Shining Path abuses, but later they received support from the military to take action against villagers who were supposedly collaborators or sympathisers” of the insurgent group, he said.

“Under the slogan of pacifying the country and fighting the Shining Path, the ‘self-defence rondas’ committed many excesses against the population that they claimed to be protecting,” Gamarra said.

In their testimony to the public prosecutor’s office, the survivors said the “rondas” from the villages of Ccanis, Pampacancha and Ccacas, which had ties to the navy forces operating in the district of Huanta, raided Putka in search of alleged Shining Path members or sympathisers.

The witnesses said the armed men used deception or threats to take villagers, including pregnant women and children, to the mouth of an old mine, where they tortured some of the men and raped several women before stabbing them to death and sealing off the tunnel to conceal the bodies.

The survivors made it to San Jos√© de Secce, in the district of Santillana, where they reported what had happened. Relatives of the victims went to the mine, recovered the bodies, and buried them in eight graves, in the utmost secrecy for fear of reprisals from the members of the “rondas” or the military.

The Ayacucho public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation and in late February experts from the office located the graves.

The exhumation began Aug. 2.

Karina Ch√°vez of the Christian organisation Peace and Hope, who is one of the lawyers representing the victims’ relatives, told IPS that “the families will stay overnight next to the graves, until the experts have exhumed the last remains.

“They are afraid that the case will end in impunity, but they also fear reprisals from the killers,” said Ch√°vez, who is also witnessing the exhumation.

“There is evidence pointing to the perpetrators of the massacre, who were apparently members of the ‘self-defence rondas’ and the armed forces,” she said.

“The disinterment is a very painful process,” Ch√°vez said. “The relatives have recognised some pieces of clothing. Children’s garments have also been found. The criminals accused the victims of collaborating with the Shining Path. After the remains are recovered, DNA tests will begin to be carried out.”

The report issued in 2003 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) after a two-year investigation of the human rights abuses committed during the civil war states that the military co-opted the self-defence forces that indigenous villagers in the highlands organised against the presence of Shining Path, and began to provide them with training and weapons.

It also says the armed forces authorised them to kidnap victims.

The CVR established that 1984 marked a before and after in the activities of the self-defence “rondas” in parts of Ayacucho. “No longer was it a spontaneous, defensive reaction, but it became an offensive strategy that included the forced organisation of neighbouring villages and search patrols to capture subversives,” the report says.

“The navy, which set up bases in the district of Huanta, was the first military institution to realise the usefulness of the villagers’ armed response against Shining Path,” former CVR member Carlos Tapia told IPS.

“That is when the military gave the ‘rondas’ carte blanche to take action against anyone suspected of being involved in Shining Path. The members of the ‘rondas’ were themselves indigenous peasants, and many were victims of the subversives. But they also committed excesses of their own,” he said.

Tapia added, however, that “one must not forget that due to the participation of the ‘rondas’, which later became ‘self-defence committees’, the armed forces were able to defeat Shining Path.”

Ayacucho, one of the poorest and most remote, rural and heavily indigenous parts of the country, accounted for a full 47 percent of the nearly 70,000 people killed in the armed conflict, according to the CVR, which held Shining Path responsible for 54 percent of the killings.

In 1991, the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) issued a law that gave the “rondas” legal status, officially naming them “self-defence committees” and providing them with weapons and military training.

“The families of the Putka victims won’t leave the spot where the graves are located until the last body has been removed,” said Ch√°vez, because “they have waited 25 years for the remains to be exhumed and for those responsible for the killings to be punished.” (END)

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