Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: No Peace for Living or Dead 22 Years After Massacre

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Aug 13 2007 (IPS) - Cirila Pulido and Teófila Ochoa were 12 and 13 years old when a Peruvian army patrol entered their village of Accomarca in Peru’s southern Andean region of Ayacucho on Aug. 14, 1985 and murdered 69 villagers, including the two girls’ mothers and siblings.

Teófila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido Credit: Angel Páez

Teófila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido Credit: Angel Páez

Since those responsible for the massacre have not been held accountable in Peru, the two women have turned to U.S. courts in search of justice.

"It’s as if we were the condemned: condemned to suffer unbearable pain because of the loss of our families and the lack of justice," Pulido told IPS, in tears. "This is worse than hell."

"Every day that goes by without a condemnation of the killers is as if they killed our family members again," said Ochoa. "Neither our dead nor we ourselves have peace."

That day 22 years ago, the two girls, who survived by running away and hiding, watched as the soldiers rounded up the villagers, raped many women and girls, and killed 69 people, mainly women and children.

On behalf of all the members of the Association of the Relatives of the Victims of Violence in Accomarca who lost loved ones in the massacre, the two women have brought legal action in courts in Miami, Florida and Greenbelt, Maryland against two former officers who are living in the United States: retired majors Telmo Hurtado and Juan Rivera.

Hurtado commanded the patrol unit that occupied Accomarca and carried out the largest mass killing of civilians during the 1980-2000 counterinsurgency war against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. Rivera participated in the army operation.

On Mar. 28 and 29, the two men were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Florida and Maryland for violating U.S. immigration laws.

Hurtado had fled Lima on Dec. 28, 2002, after the case against him was reopened. Rivera has been residing in the United States since 1998.

"The lawsuits against Hurtado and Rivera have already been accepted by U.S. judges and the former officers have been notified in order to answer to the charges," Karim Ninaquispe, a lawyer for the relatives of the Accomarca victims, told IPS. "As soon as we heard that they had been arrested, we started preparing the legal action."

Ninaquispe works out of a small six by four-metre office in the neighbourhood of Santa Anita in southeastern Lima, an area that few lawyers would choose for opening a private practice.

Because her clients cannot afford to pay the legal costs of the case, Ninaquispe turned to the San Francisco, California-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) for assistance.

On Jul. 18, the CJA brought the case in the name of Pulido and Ochoa. As the group states on its web site, "These cases mark the first of their kind filed in the United States for atrocities committed during Peru’s twenty year civil war".

"The aim is to provide the victims with a forum, a place to tell their stories and seek justice," CJA lawyer Almudena Bernabeu told IPS. "If the case is won, the victims would receive reparations for the damages suffered," added the lawyer, who is from Spain.

But she is under no illusions that it will be an easy task.

Hurtado was accused of lying on a visa application on which he indicated that he had never been arrested or convicted of a crime even though he had been found guilty in Peruvian military courts of abuse of authority. He has pled guilty to those charges and was sentenced in June to six months in prison.

Rivera is in immigration detention and does not face criminal charges, but has been placed in deportation proceedings in connection to a previous criminal case in which he pled guilty to a charge of "contributing to a minor child in need of assistance."

Both men could eventually be deported.

"The lawsuit has been accepted and the accused have been served with the summons. Now we have to wait and see if the accused name lawyers to represent them and respond to the charges. After that, the process could take slightly over a year until we are all ready to go to trial," said Bernabeu.

But "if the deportation orders arrive before the trial comes to an end, our lawsuit does not have the power to freeze or interrupt the process; that would be up to the federal authorities.

"However, if they deport them while our trial is going on, that doesn&#39t at all mean the process would end. It would go ahead, and the rights of our clients would be perfectly guaranteed," she added.

In Peru, Hurtado was tried by a military court which sentenced him to six years in prison for abuse of authority. During the trial, he described the massacre in detail.

But in June 1995 he benefited from an amnesty issued by the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) for members of the military who had been sentenced, or were facing investigation or prosecution, for human rights violations.

After he was released, Hurtado returned to active service, was promoted, and was later decorated as a hero by army chief Nicolás Hermoza.

Rivera was never tried.

"The soldiers arrived early, at 7:00 in the morning. They went from house to house and after rounding up everyone they found, they put them all in two houses. I was able to escape and I climbed a hill, and saw everything from up there. Some of the soldiers opened fire on the people in the houses. I heard screams, pleading, groans. The children were shrieking and crying," said Pulido.

"I was desperate because my mother, Fortunata Baldeón, and my little nine-month-old brother, Edgar Pulido, were in there. After the shooting, the soldiers tossed grenades and everything blew up and caught on fire. It was a huge fire. Nobody survived," she added.

"Then they dug around for food in the houses of the people they had killed. They ate and drank, celebrating what they had done," she said.

Ninaquispe said the victims were 16 men, 30 women and 23 children. "During a recent exhumation of the burnt remains, fetuses were found. That means that some of the women were pregnant," she said.

Ochoa, through her tears, said "They killed my mother, Silvestra Lizarbe Solís, and my little brothers and sisters: Gerardo, Víctor, Ernestina, Celestina and Edwin, ages nine, eight, six, three and one. I was 13."

"When the soldiers came I wasn’t in the house because my mother had asked me to go and get the donkey. When I heard the racket I got scared and returned home quickly. I saw my mother with the soldiers. She was offering them food. Some of them started to eat until an officer showed up and shouted at them to continue on with their mission.

"I left the house fast without them noticing, pulling my brother Gerardo, who I was able to grab by the hand. My mother was shouting, begging them not to do anything to my little brothers and sisters. Frightened, I ran and ran with Gerardo. The soldiers shoved the people they had grabbed into two houses and then shot them. After they burnt everything down, using grenades, they went out to look for more people.

"They spotted me and started to shoot. Gerardo and I ran, but they caught him. The bullets were whistling around me. I hid and I didn&#39t see my little brother again. They caught him and killed him. I couldn&#39t sleep out in the cold. The dogs were howling with sadness. The village seemed like a cemetery," she continued.

"At dawn, the adults who returned to the village found me. Then my grandpa came and he and I went to the place where the people had been burnt. There were just burnt skulls and pieces of arms and legs. My mom and my little brothers and sisters were there."

The atrocity occurred just a few weeks after Alan García – who is now president again – was sworn in for his first term, on Jul. 28, 1985. But it did not lead him to modify the "anti-subversive" policy followed by his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde.

A total of 69,280 people died in the 20-year war, according to the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Six months ago, the relatives of the victims of Accomarca asked García to meet with them, to help speed up the judicial process in Peru. But he has not done so.

In December, he rewarded retired General José Williams, the direct superior of Hurtado and Rivera at the time of the Accomarca killings, with a diplomatic post in Washington.

The legal action against Hurtado and Rivera was filed by the CJA under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute that gives non-U.S. citizens who are survivors of serious abuses committed anywhere in the world the right to bring suit in U.S. federal courts against perpetrators who are in the United States.

The lawsuit is also based on the 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act, which gives similar rights to both U.S. citizens and non-citizens to bring claims for torture and extrajudicial killings committed in foreign countries against suspects who are in the United States.

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