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LIMA, Aug 27 2008 (IPS) - “They entered the village and called all the peasants together, tortured them to make them say who were terrorists, and killed them because they didn’t talk,” testified former soldier José Contreras, one of those involved in the 1985 killing of 69 people in the southern Peruvian village of Accomarca.
More than two decades after the massacre, Contreras and other soldiers have begun to be arrested and tried for killing 30 women, 23 children and 16 men in the highlands village of Accomarca, under the command of then lieutenant Telmo Hurtado.
Another former soldier, Francisco Marcañaupa, said in his testimony that the villagers were all rounded up in one small house, some of them after being “pulled out of the bushes, while other escaped.”
“They didn’t shoot or do anything to us, and all of a sudden I saw Lieutenant Telmo Hurtado opening fire on them, then he threw in a grenade, and smoke starting coming out of the house,” said Marcañaupa.
A dozen other former soldiers are also facing arrest warrants in connection with the Aug. 14, 1985 killings in Accomarca, one of the worst massacres committed in the 1980-2000 counterinsurgency war against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas.
There are strong indications that the killings were not the work of one officer acting on his own, but formed part of a counterinsurgency operation approved by Hurtado’s superiors – and hidden later by the army.
“After Hurtado put all the people in one house, he tossed in a grenade. But since they didn’t all die, he started to finish them off with his gun, and ordered that the house be burnt down,” said Contreras.
“That’s when a woman appeared, and the lieutenant gave orders that she be shot, but they didn’t hit her. On his orders, Sergeant ‘Managua’ ran after the woman. He shot at her twice and missed. But he killed her on the third shot,” he said. The woman was 80-year-old villager Juliana Baldeón.
Contreras also told the court that Hurtado “informed (then) army Major José Williams Zapata of everything that happened.”
At the time of the Accomarca killings, Zapata was the head of the Compañía Lince (Lynx Company), to which the patrol units commanded by lieutenants Hurtado and Juan Rivera Rondón belonged.
As commander of the Compañía Lince, Zapata took part in designing “Plan Huancayocc”, whose goal was to eliminate Sendero rebels supposedly hiding in Accomarca.
Hurtado is currently in jail in Miami, Florida on charges of violating U.S. immigration laws, but will soon be deported to Peru. He was arrested in March 2007 by U.S. immigration agents.
And on Mar. 4, a U.S. federal judge ordered Hurtado to pay 37 million dollars to two survivors of the massacre, Teófila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido, who were 13 and 12 years old when they managed to escape the killings.
Rivera Rondón was extradited two weeks ago from the U.S. state of Maryland, where he had also been arrested on immigration charges.
By contrast, retired general Williams Zapata has received deferential treatment from the government of Alan García, despite the fact that he is facing legal action. The president appointed him as the country’s representative to the Inter-American Defence Board, based on Washington, even though the position must be occupied by a serving officer.
“Lieutenant Hurtado told us that Accomarca was a ‘red zone’, that we shouldn’t lose sight of each other, because if we did, we would be killed,” Marcañaupa told the court. “They told us that the area was dominated by Sendero Luminoso and that we had to attack those people.”
When he was asked who commanded the Compañía Lince, to which he belonged, Marcañaupa responded that he did not know the officer’s full name. “I only remember that it was a major whose last name was Zapata,” he testified.
After the judicial investigation established that Williams Zapata was the only major posted in that area, charges were brought against him. As a result, he has to fly back to Lima every two months from Washington to sign in at court.
Now that Rivera Rondón has been sent back to Peru, he could help establish the chain of command and demonstrate that Hurtado was following higher orders to kill innocent, unarmed rural villagers.
Contreras’ testimony made it clear that the military’s aim was to get villagers to confess to being members or supporters of Sendero Luminoso, or to point fingers at each other. “Five women were stripped naked, submerged in water, and interrogated,” he said.
The soldiers also kept evidence of the massacre. “All of the soldiers in my patrol unit and soldiers in other units collected the spent shells. At the army base, Hurtado told us to keep quiet, because we were all implicated,” he said.
The testimony given by Contreras and Marcañaupa has helped shed light on who was responsible for the massacre, especially with respect to Hurtado’s role. According to Karim Ninaquispe, the Peruvian lawyer representing the victims’ families, the former soldiers’ statements are helping to clarify a crime that has been forgotten and has gone unpunished for nearly a quarter of a century.
“Contreras said his patrol unit went out the day after the massacre to clean up the area, and that José Williams Zapata was aware of this. That means (the officer) had immediate knowledge of the execution of the victims,” said Ninaquispe.
Both Contreras and Marcañaupa have also stated that after the Accomarca killings, they were transferred to the Los Cabitos base in the city of Huamanga, which served as the headquarters of the Military Political Front under the command of General Wilfredo Mori.
This indicates that the activities of the Compañía Lince had General Mori’s approval, which would explain why Hurtado moved around by helicopter.
“Indeed, it was the political-military chief Wilfredo Mori who authorised the patrols, especially the ones carried out by Compañía Lince,” Ninaquispe told IPS.
“The information provided by the ex-soldier Contreras would apparently make it clear that Zapata and Mori participated not only in planning the Plan Huancayocc, but also in the cover-up of those who were responsible for carrying out the massacre,” said the lawyer.
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