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In the pre-dawn hours of July 18, 1992, nine students and one professor were "disappeared" from La Cantuta University in the Peruvian capital, Lima. Witnesses saw them being beaten and forcibly dragged away.

[The University at La Cantuta]

La Cantuta University, in Lima

Professor Hugo Muñoz Sanchez, one of ten victims

[Professor Hugo Munoz Sanchez, in memoriam]

Then, in April, 1993, a group of Peruvian military officers — calling themselves "Sleeping Lion" — anonymously released a document detailing the La Cantuta massacre: they said an official government death squad had kidnapped the ten victims, tortured and murdered them, and then hurriedly buried, exhumed, burned, and reburied the bodies. The document named the death squad members, including its chief of operations, Major Santiago Martín Rivas, and revealed that it operated under orders from the de facto head of the National Intelligence Service, Vladimiro Montesinos, a close ally of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. In response to these charges, the Fujimori government suggested that perhaps the ten people at La Cantuta had "kidnapped" themselves and were, in fact, hiding from the authorities.

Major Martín

[Leader of the death squad]

But on July 8, 1993, after a certain Mariella Lucy Barreto Riofano, an agent of the Peruvian Army Intelligence Service, had leaked a marked map to a Peruvian magazine, reporters found the brutalized remains of the "La Cantuta 10" in Cieneguilla, a holiday resort near Lima. Investigation suggested strongly that the Peruvian intelligence services and the Peruvian army were responsible for the torture and murder, and that the actions were approved by the highest levels of the Peruvian government. The case was taken to court in 1994 — and for the first time military personnel had to answer for their official acts. Charges were brought and eleven perpetrators were convicted, but the court — another one of Peru's ubiquitous "secret military tribunals" — officially cleared the military and the intelligence services of any complicity in the crime. In July, 1995 the government released even those individuals who had been convicted.

In the words of the US State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996:

A 1995 law granted amnesty from prosecution to those who committed human rights abuses during the war on terrorism from May 1980 to June 1995. When lower court judge Antonia Sacquicuray declared the Amnesty Law unconstitutional, Congress immediately passed a second law blocking any judicial review of the law's constitutionality. Subsequently, a split decision by a superior court overturned the Sacquicuray decision. These events created considerable concern over military and police impunity for past abuses. The Amnesty Law also cleared the records of security force personnel who had already been convicted of human rights abuses, including the eight military perpetrators of the 1992 La Cantuta massacre, who were sentenced in 1994 but released by military authorities a few days after the Amnesty Law's passage.

In July the United Nations Human Rights Committee severely criticized the Amnesty Law and called for its repeal. Committee members considered the Amnesty Law a violation of the Constitution, reflecting the earlier Sacquicuray decision. The Amnesty Law demonstrates a lack of serious commitment to accountability and the protection of human rights.

Or as Louis W. Goodman, dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington put it, "The power of [President Fujimori], backed by the armed forces and the National Intelligence Service, appears to be unchecked. Other democratic institutions exist, but the [Congress] appears to act as a rubber stamp on key issues. An important element of the judiciary has been, in the words of the opposition newspaper La Republica, 'defenestrated'" (Daily Yomiuri, June 7, 1997, p. 6).

Meanwhile, two months after the State Department released its annual report on Peru, Mariella Barreto, the Peruvian intelligence operative who had confessed to leaking the information about the La Cantuta massacre, was herself found murdered. Her body had been decapitated and dismembered by her colleagues in the Army Intelligence Service. "It is believed that Barreto was tortured to death, as her body was bruised, her spine broken, and some of her joints had been cut with a scalpel" (El Diario-La Prensa, April 8, 1997).

EPILOGUE: On September 13, 2001, under the rule of President Fujimori's successor, Peru's Supreme Court of Justice issued an arrest warrant for the former president, who is now wanted for "homicide, serious injuries, and forced disappearance" in relation to the La Cantuta massacre (and twenty-four other such episodes). Fujimori, who decamped to Japan the previous year, refuses to return. "He claims he would not receive a fair trial in Peru" (BBC News, June 25, 2001).

Alberto Fujimori

[Fujimori in full dress uniform]