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RIGHTS-PERU: Alleged Letter-Bomb Killer Faces Justice

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Mar 29 2010 (IPS) - The arrest in Peru of a former Army Intelligence Service (SIE) agent, retired Captain Víctor Penas, may clear up the murder of journalist Melissa Alfaro, and the mutilation of human rights defender Augusto Zúñiga, both victims of letter-bombs in 1991.

Captain Víctor Penas Sandoval Credit: Policía Nacional de Perú

Captain Víctor Penas Sandoval Credit: Policía Nacional de Perú

According to the case file, Penas, a sabotage expert who graduated in 1980 from the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), made the letter-bombs as part of a covert operation to eliminate suspected collaborators of the leftwing guerrilla movements Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

One other person lost his life and another lost a limb due to plastic explosives allegedly sent by Penas to different addresses in Lima, including Congress.

The operation had the approval of Vladimiro Montesinos, de facto chief of the National Intelligence Service (SIN) and security adviser to then president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). Both men are currently serving long sentences on human rights and corruption charges.

“It has taken nearly two decades for Penas and his accomplices to be brought to answer for the murder of Melissa, a journalist who was just doing her job,” Alaín Alfaro, her brother, told IPS.

The prosecution file opened against Penas by judge Magalli Báscones, to which IPS had access, states that the accused sent the first letter-bomb to Augusto Zúñiga, a lawyer with the non-governmental Human Rights Commission (COMISEDH), on Mar. 15, 1991. Zúñiga lost his left forearm in the explosion.

On Jun. 21 that year, Penas is alleged to have sent another bomb to the head of Cambio magazine, Carlos Arroyo, suspected of links with the MRTA. But the letter was wrongly addressed and was delivered to a neighbour, who was killed on opening the envelope.

Seven days later, Penas sent another letter-bomb to the head of the El Diario newspaper, a mouthpiece for Sendero Luminoso. But it was the building’s caretaker who lost an arm, when it exploded as he checked the contents.

These collateral victims did not stop Penas’ efforts to kill Arroyo, following orders from his superiors. On Oct. 10 he sent another letter-bomb, correctly addressed this time. But the letter was opened by Melissa Alfaro, Arroyo’s assistant, killing her instantly.

Penas sent a fifth letter-bomb to leftwing lawmaker Ricardo Letts, which arrived at his congressional office on Oct. 16. But Letts’ suspicions were aroused and he called the police, who disarmed the device just in time.

Judicial police arrested Penas in Lima, by order of judge Báscones, who is also prosecuting retired general Pedro Villanueva, the army commander in 1991, as well as Montesinos and Fujimori in the letter-bombs case. All three are accused of planning and ordering the murders.

Penas’ undercover operation was the start of a new method of combating members of subversive groups in the 1980-2000 civil war between state security forces and Sendero and MRTA.

At Fujimori’s trial for human rights violations, it was determined that in 1991 he granted Montesinos special powers for military intelligence to mount covert operations, including acts of state terrorism, against the rebel groups.

The letter-bomb crimes were described by an SIE officer to personnel at the U.S. embassy in Lima, according to a secret 18-page report by the U.S. State Department dated Jun. 30, 1994, a copy of which was obtained by IPS.

The document was declassified in 2007 at the initiative of the non-governmental Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA), and served as evidence in Fujimori’s trial on human rights charges.

The anonymous officer gave U.S. diplomats a blow by blow account of the crimes he had committed, and said that he had carried them out with Montesinos’ authorisation, according to the declassified document.

“Source claims that National Intelligence Service (SIN) de facto chief Montesinos’ aide LTC (lieutenant-colonel Roberto) Huamán told him after the fact that Huamán had coordinated orders authorising the letter bombings between the source’s unit and the SIN,” the document says.

“Source concluded this showed Montesinos had approved (the operations),” it says.

Documents in Judge Báscones’ prosecution file indicate that the anonymous officer is Penas, a conclusion arising from the exact account he gave his interviewers of the covert letter-bomb operation.

“We have no doubt that the informer who spoke to the U.S. embassy is Víctor Penas, because he made the letter-bombs and sent them to the targets’ addresses. Now that he is in jail, we hope that he will confirm what he said in 1994, and receive the punishment he deserves,” said Alaín Alfaro.

“There is evidence indicating that Víctor Penas made the letter-bombs and sent them to the victims,” Gloria Cano, the Alfaro family’s lawyer and a member of the non-governmental Peruvian Human Rights Association (APRODEH), told IPS.

The evidence given in testimony also indicates “he worked as part of an undercover operation which must have had the approval and authorisation of his superiors. He would never have taken such action on his own account,” Cano said.

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