The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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JANUARY 4, 2012 11:54AM

What I Learned in Peru

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Kids in Pampamarca, Peru   

Kids in Pampamarca, Peru 

It was November 2002 and I was sitting in a small conference room in Lima, taking notes as a woman tearfully related the story of her years in detention. She spoke, low and soft, eyes cast down. In her lap, the woman (who I'll call Lourdes) cradled a newborn baby bundled in a pink blanket.

I had left my own 9 month old baby at home to lead a volunteer team on a one week trip to Peru to monitor the work of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación or CVR). Our team was interviewing Lourdes and several other inocentes, just a scant handful of the more than 14,000 Peruvians who were detained, tortured, and denied a fair trial under 1992 anti-terrorism decrees.  

Between 1980 and 2000, the conflict between the Peruvian government and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebel groups resulted in approximately 69,000 people killed and disappeared.

Sendero Luminoso   

As many as 600,000 were internally displaced.  I saw the tent cities on the outskirts of Lima, where thousands of people who had fled the political violence in the highlands had lived for twenty years.

Internally Displaced   

Most of the deaths and disappearances happened in the altiplano, the highlands of Peru.  Up here, far from urban Lima, the air is fresh.  The windswept landscape seems hardly touched by humans, much less their conflicts. Human rights abuses are ugly, but they happen even in the most beautiful of places in our world. 

Altiplano near Ayacucho

Lourdes told us about the day she was arrested in early 1993. She and her husband were students. They had a three-and-a-half year old son who had health problems, so she had left the house before daybreak to get medicine for him. As she was returning to her house, she was stopped and arrested by the National Directorate Against Terrorism. It turns out that the Shining Path had bombed a nearby part of Lima. Lourdes and four other women who also happened to be out early that morning were arrested, blindfolded and interrogated. “One police officer told us that all of us would die,” she said quietly. Two hours after they were arrested, they were exhibited to the media at a press conference. The arrest was presented as a triumph over terrorism.

For the first several months, Lourdes was detained on a military base. The conditions were very bad. She was allowed to use the bathroom only once a day - with 3 or 4 soldiers pointing their rifles at her - and to bathe once a week.

She was tortured, a word that we Americans use casually.  Having to stand in a long line for your burrito at Chipotle is not torture.  Enduring beatings and being told that they will send soldiers for your small son if you don't give them information - information that you don't have - about other "terrorists". Not knowing when it will ever end. Not knowing if you will ever see your family again.

Lourdes was later moved to a prison, which she described as looking “like a paradise” compared to the military base.  

Lourdes' husband, who we also interviewed that day, was arrested a month after she was. His father had to go to the police station to recover their little son, who was cared for by relatives for the next 9 years. Six months later, one of Peru’s “faceless” courts (called that because a one-way mirror concealed the identity of the prosecutors and judges) found Lourdes and her husband guilty of treason and sentenced them to life in prison.

Lourdes and her husband were not allowed to see each other during their detention. Their letters to each other were read. For one whole year during her detention, after her sentence was reduced to 30 years, she was not allowed to have visits from anyone. Eventually, Lourdes and her husband were able to submit their cases to a Presidential pardons panel. She was pardoned in 2001, just a few weeks before the ninth anniversary of her arrest.  Now Peru was at peace again, trying to repair the damage of 20 years of conflict.

 Plaza de Armas in Ayacucho

Plaza des Armas, Ayacucho 

The interviews went on for more than six hours, but either Lourdes or her husband held that baby for the entire time. They didn't put her in her baby carrier or pass her to the others who offered to hold her. They just took turns holding her close. She wasn't angry at the government, but she was sad.  I remember Lourdes saying to me afterwards, “We lost so much time with our son. Now he is a teenager and we’re strangers to him.”

Lourdes’ story highlights some of the problems of a government response to terrorism that doesn't provide adequate protections for due process and other rights in the administration of justice. The Peruvian experience with terrorism was striking back in 2002, when the US human rights community was very concerned about just how far the War on Terror might go. Nearly ten years later, it is a lesson that remains relevant.

Be vigilant.  Hold your loved ones close.  Forgive if you can. Never forget. 


CVR photo exhibit   

The photos of  Sendero Luminso and the displacidos above are images from the Peruvian TRC's Photographic Exhibit Yuyanapaq. Para recordar (Yuyanapaq. To Remember). More than 200 photos of the conflict in Peru from 1980-2000 were displayed in a partially demolished house near Lima.  I visited the exhibit in 2004.  

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Haunting and harrowing, and a very old story in Latin America. Your post could have been about Chile during the Allende years or Argentina during the Dirty War. Here's what kills me about Latin America: It is a geographical, cultural and historical paradise that has been blighted by centuries of bad, bad political systems.

Sadly, Latin America has been reduced to narrow stereotypes in the United States, and most Americans have never experienced its true beauty and potential. Thank you for caring, and for sharing your story. Rated for bold storytelling and humanity.
I meant "Chile during the Pinochet years," of course.
Thank you for your comment, Deborah. I agree with you 100%.
Unimaginable. One of the things that struck me, as I was reading this, is how often these atrocities occur, and no one knows. Human lives are stamped out, or mangled, and fade into oblivion. That kind of injustice is hard to fathom. So glad you're using your power to tell the story of Lourdes and her family, and others like them.
When I was in Lima a couple years ago, one of the "places of interest" we could visit was a display (maybe it was in the National Museum?) of photos of the horrors of that time. We declined. We also did not visit the exhibit of horrors from the time of the early church occupation.

To the casual tourist eye, modern Peru looks like a bustling, thriving place with lovely people. I hope that this is not just a facade.
The contrast of such a beautiful country aganist the amount of insurmountable human misery is numbing. You've shown this stark reality very movingly in your piece. Thank you for sharing and caring.

I can't get past the image of being tried in front of a one-way mirror. It is not hard to decide who the true terrorists were. R
Most of us have only a limited knowledge of human rights abuses in foreign countries. Thank you for sharing your stories and doing it so well.
I spend quite a bit of time in Cambodia working for a small NGO. The reminders of the horrors from the Khmer Rouge are everywhere and the scars remain.

Thank you for what you do.
Hi Pauline! I think one of the biggest tragedies of the conflict in Peru was how little was known about what was going on with the counter-insurgency efforts in the highlands. Most of the victims were Quechua-speaking indigenous people in the highlands. Due to centuries of discrimination and exclusion, it was acceptable policy for security forces to kill 100 campesinos if they got 1 terrorist. Most people in Lima didn't even know (and some say, didn't care) what was going on out there in the 1980s. It was a big surprise when the Peruvian TRC estimated that almost 70,000 people were killed.

@Myriad Nice to meet you! I don't think it is a facade. While some say it has been too slow, Peru has made progress on addressing its past through reparations as well as policy changes to address the root causes of the conflict. Since the TRC's work, they have a new national history which is part of the national curriculum. And, as you say, Peru appears to be thriving and the people are lovely. I'm glad you got to see some of Lima; a lot of Americans just go straight to Cusco and Machu Picchu, which isn't really experiencing Peru. I am much more hopeful for Peru than some of the post-conflict African countries where I have worked. Thank you for reading and commenting!
@Fusun Thank you!

@Rodney The "faceless" courts were like something out of Kafka. The mirror was, in theory, to protect the identity of the judges so that the terrorists couldn't target them. Yet often the "judges" in these courts were not even lawyers. I know a Peruvian lawyer who represented inocentes like Lourdes before the faceless courts. He said that the trials were such a foregone conclusion that often there was nobody beyond the mirror. He tested this theory one day by reading the football (soccer) scores out of the newspaper instead of his arguments for innocence. He got no response. Talk about a miscarriage of justice!

@jlsathre Thank you for your kind words!

@firechick Ah, Cambodia. Another beautiful country where it may take generations to heal. Have you been following the tribunal there.? It's very disappointing.

How could she be a terrorist? Sounds like there were quotas during the terrorist sweeps. Just awful. I was not aware of conflicts in Peru. Thank you for sharing and that she could even talk about what had happened tells you how strong spirit is.
My stepmother hails from Peru and she would tell me horrors similar to what you've described and many smaller inconveniences that made life in this beautiful country unbearably difficult. She only went back to Lima once a year to see her mother whom she worried about constantly.
The United States government has long been a collaborator with torture and assassination in Latin America. As a nation, we have yet to stand up, apologize and make some kind of restitution for the brutal treatment of our neighbors.
@Mango Sherbet Hello! Nice to meet you - I like your handle. No, Lourdes was not a terrorist. She was picked up in an area near where a bomb went off because she had gone to get medicine for her son. Her real problem was that she and her husband were students at a university where there had been Sendero Luminoso activity (the movement had its roots in the academic/intellectual community). When they saw her student ID card, it was guilt by association and it triggered the rest of the story. I've never heard quotas but they definitely needed scapegoats. So she and a couple others picked up that morning were paraded on national TV within a matter of hours to show that the "terrorists" had been caught. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Hi Miguela! Thank you for your comment. I'm glad your stepmother shared her stories with you. I hope no harm came to her mother or other friends and family.

@Bob Of course, you are right. The bigger challenge for me in my work has actually been the inverse. Countless Liberians have asked me, "Why didn't the US intervene in our conflict? Just a few Marines would have stopped Charles Taylor in 1990." What can one say? Thank you for reading and best wishes!
I was in Lima a couple years ago - a great wonderful, modern city with better roads than the ones I drove on last week end in my own, "first world" country. However, I feel the people cautions and my peruvian friends always advised on the side of caution. The reminents of a difficult time. The museam, Museo de la nación, as Myriad mentioned, offered a "darker" exhibit. The guide informed us of it because she had to, but I got the distinct feeling she would rather us see the Peru of the present, and the ancient past, rather than the horrors, and take away those good memories with us. There is so much beauty... and also sadness... I wish beaty reigns.
Great post once again Jennifer! Wow, is this your second on the front page? Congrats! We should be reposting some of these articles on WMB too as they are fabulous. I am behind in getting organized these days. On another note, how do you post a reply to readers on Open Salon? I couldn't figure it out on my page so I haven't responded. Also, is there a way to get your comments in OS emailed to you like as in WordPress? I forget to keep checking my page! Now you are the blogging guru!
Horrible. And now we can have our own detention without trial, accusation, or appearing before your accusers...courtesy of the new military funding bill. Brought to you by Republicans-USA, signed into law by our own President. Hell.
Branwen - thanks for stopping by! I think the desire to "just move on" is a common reaction in post-conflict countries, especially among people who maybe weren't direct victims. In Peru, I also saw a determination to move towards economic success. Tourism plays a big role in that goal, and it was seriously impacted by the conflict. I think that in the end, though, beauty will triumph in Peru.
@Nicole Thanks! I just sent you a message. I'm no OS expert, but maybe it will help.

@C Berg When I was in Peru in both 2002 and 2004, people kept saying to me, "The US needs to learn from our experience." Sadly, we did not. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
My father spent a great deal of time in South America during WWII. I have always appreciated it and I am sad about what has taken place there and hope that all that violence has ended. I hope peace will truly return to that area of the world. It is so beautiful.