The Long Wait of Lori Berenson
Nearly two decades ago while planning a mountaineering trip to Peru, my interest was greatly piqued by a most unlikely and emotional story of international terrorism.
While I would make more bold climbs to more remote locations in the future, I was fairly new to the sport and wanted to test myself at altitude, and see that part of the world, its mountains and majestic beauty. So, Peru became the destination. I pictured Inca ruins in jungles, and high snowy peaks. I knew next to nothing about the politics of the country, or its history.
In my studies and preparation I learned that while Peru was a country of friendly people, and the area I would be visiting safe, it was during the tail end of political strife, with two rebel groups, the Sendero Luminso (or Shining Path) and MRTA (Movement Revolutionary Tupac Amaru – now you know where Tupac Shakur got his name), fighting against the government – mostly in areas far away from where I would be going. The leader of the Sendero Luminoso had been caught, and neither group harbored much anger towards North Americans, though both were considered terrorist organizations by the United States (and government of Peru, obviously).
But in 1996 a story caught my eye that shocked the hell out of me, and gave me a little pause. Pause that I would later learn was a bit misplaced. An American freelance journalist named Lori Berenson had been arrested, along with the wife of an MRTA leader, and a house she had rented involved in a serious firefight between MRTA members caching an arsenal of weapons, and the police.
In a scene that seemed surreal, Berenson briefly appeared on national TV in Peru, standing next to two female police officers wearing skirts and sunglasses, yelling in clunky Spanish, her eyes glaring, her arms tense at her sides, that the MRTA wasn’t a group of terrorists, but a revolutionary movement. I had rarely seen a person so intense, especially considering the seriousness of her situation. What on Earth would possess a young American woman to become so vehement, to such extreme?
Then President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori appeared on national TV holding up Lori’s passport stating that it didn’t matter what country you came from, if you tried to overthrow the government of Peru, your justice would be swift.
Her parents, who grew up in a quiet, well to do family, were astounded by her demeanor. This wasn’t the young woman they raised they said, and they tried hard to get the US government to pressure Peru for her release. Her case was compared to Jennifer Casolo, an aid worker who was jailed in El Salvador when a house she owned was said to have weapons in it. But Casolo was never known to associate with any terror group, and she didn’t appear on TV, bitter and angry. The Berenson family also got former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark to try to get Lori home. All to no avail, Lori was tried in a military court by a hooded judge, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, at the age of 26.
Whatever thoughts there were about the MRTA not being a terrorist organization didn’t turn Lori’s favor, when less than a year later the MRTA ambushed the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Lima. The MRTA wanted members of their organization released in exchange, and Lori was one of the people on their list. A subsequent commando raid by the government that killed all the rebels, finished off what was left of the MRTA, and Lori stayed locked up, in a cold prison cell, high in the foothills in Andes.
But once I got down to Peru soon after this event, I found that not all in the country was what it seemed at that time. Not just the “American filter” with which I had attained my information about the strife in the country, but with how life was for Peruvians. In my very first taxi ride I passed a large building with beautiful architecture, which I mentioned to the driver. He said, “Department of Justice…or no justice” holding his fingers up like a gun, implying that “justice” for those who don’t like what the government does, are dealt with by way of the bullet. But I also came across others who while acknowledging this to some degree, looked at it from another view. In the 1980’s into the 90’s, the Peruvian jungles produced coca plants for cocaine like Saudi Arabia produces oil, the MRTA helped traffic that for cash, with many people killed in the process, and the people of Peru were sick of it, and after her angry appearance on TV, not very sympathetic towards Lori all the same. If people who conspired with terrorists were tried in military courts with hooded judges, then that’s what it took.
I said Peru was stable? Well, the people were friendly, that’s for certain, including all government people and police I came across. And I certainly felt safe everywhere I went. But this wasn’t what was easily read about in the US papers in the 1990’s, and very early internet days. This was the real Peru. The details were so complicated, it was all but impossible to paint them with a simple, broad brush for a foreign audience.
After heading into the Andes and mountain climbing there for a month, back in a café I ran into an American who had worked “for the US government…at some point”. The subject of Lori came up. He quietly, though almost casually told me while he hadn’t met her, and wasn’t involved in her case, it was widely known that unlike what one might believe reading American papers, she wasn’t exactly an innocent bystander, and those who had looked into her case, or talked to her, knew that very well. She would not talk much about how she got involved, or thoughts on the actions of the MRTA in much detail, but was a very committed woman to their cause, and while maybe naïve, in her mind she thought the MRTA could, in some way or another, change, even overthrow the government, help the poorest of the poor, and she would somehow be heralded as a “gringa Evita”.
But even after this wake up call, I still knew not all was as it seemed in Peru, and time moves more quickly, and radically there then it most of the first world. What seemed etched in stone, could certainly be un-etched over time. In fact, the authoritarian rule of President Fujimori came to an abrupt end a few years later. After fleeing the country, he was eventually returned, convicted of widespread corruption and human rights violations, and ended up in prison himself, where he will likely spend the rest of his days in his own small prison cell, rotting away next to the bandits and terrorists he so sternly sent there.
As to Lori, despite a lot of pressure and a “Free Lori” campaign in the US, even after Fujimori’s regime fell, her case did not move quickly. While she did eventually receive a re-trial, she was convicted once again, this time in a common judicial court, no hooded judges. Though when facing the possibility of parole she did issue statements admitting guilt to an extent, apologizing, and showing remorse for her actions. Those that met her, and talked to her, found her to be quiet, pensive, nothing like the angry young woman on TV from years gone by, avoiding discussions about that time, or the events leading up to her arrest.
Her sentence was ultimately reduced, from life to 20 years, and the long clock started ticking.
That clock finally ended, her sentenced completed, Sunday, November 29th, 2015 when she returned home to the US.
It was my hope, perhaps, for the first time in two long decades, the enigmatic mystery of Lori Berenson, now free to completely speak her mind, might finally come to light, but she has so far remained virtually silent.