New Yorker who aided Peruvian rebels returns home

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2015 1:27 PM
New Yorker who aided Peruvian rebels returns home

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvians still largely resent Lori Berenson for conspiring with the nation's No. 2 leftist rebel group in the 1990s, and she and her prison-born son lived in a kind of limbo for five years after she was paroled.

On Thursday morning, Berenson, who traveled to Peru two decades ago bent on revolutionary change, returned to her native New York City.

In Peru, she faced hostility to the end.

With 6-year-old son Salvador in her arms, the 46-year-old single mother sped through Lima's airport terminal ringed by police. Recognizing her, people shouted "get out of here terrorist!" In a text message, Berenson called the incident "incredibly surreal although entirely typical."

Although paroled in 2010, Berenson was not permitted to leave until her 20-year sentence for "collaboration with terrorism" for aiding the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement lapsed.

Before her departure, Berenson had harsh words for Peru's economic and political elite. In an interview, she said it was unwilling to confront the open wounds of the country's 1980-2000 internal conflict.

And she said she still believes, as she declared when arrested, that Tupac Amaru was not a terrorist group.

"It could have acted at times using terrorist tactics, but that it was a terrorist organization, I don't think the label fits," said Berenson, calling it similar to the Salvadoran rebels, who negotiated peace in 1992. She worked for them before moving to Lima in late 1994.

Berenson says that while she regrets any harm she may have done — Tupac Amaru robbed, kidnapped and killed but did not commit massacres like the fanatical and much larger Shining Path — she also objects to Peru's economic inequality and racism.

"It's not like feudalism went away recently," she said, recalling how rural estate holders denied peasants education well into the 20th century.

Berenson said she and Salvador initially plan to live in New York City with her university professor parents. She hopes for employment in social work. Last year, she finished a bachelor's degree in sociology online from the City University of New York.

"My objective is to continue to work in social justice issues, in a different capacity obviously," she said.

While on parole, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropout did translations at home for clients she would not name, including a human rights group.

The view from her 6th-floor apartment in Lima's middle-class Pueblo Libre district provided comfort after years behind bars.

The streets below were not very friendly.

People would regularly shout "terruca" at her — a slang term for "terrorist," though rarely to her face, she said. Several times people threatened Salvador's life, she said, including from the street over the intercom.

Many Peruvians were angered when mother and son were allowed to visit her family in New York in 2011. In response, Congress passed a law barring paroled foreigners from travel abroad.

At the time she was paroled, a government decree stripped others of the same benefit in what Berenson termed "vengeance." About 400-500 people were affected, said Anibal Apari, an MRTA militant and Salvador's father. She and Berenson met in prison and are amicably divorced.

Initially convicted of treason by hooded military judges, Berenson was re-tried in 2001 by a civilian court after U.S. pressure.

Before that, her health suffered behind bars, the skin of her hands cracking and turning blue during nearly three years in a frigid penitentiary at 12,700 feet.

Today, she says most Peruvians who despise her have been misinformed by a media establishment largely controlled by the country's conservative elite.

Peruvians tend to lump Tupac Amaru, which a truth commission blamed for 1.5 percent of the deaths in the 1980-2000 internal conflict, together with the Shining Path, which it held responsible for 54 percent.

The conflict claimed nearly 70,000 lives, three-fourths of the victims impoverished Quechua-speaking highlanders. The truth commission found that security forces committed more than 40 percent of the slayings, and rights activists complain that a disproportionately small number of state actors have been brought to justice for war crimes.

Berenson was convicted of helping the Tupac Amaru prepare to seize Congress and take lawmakers hostage.

She denies knowledge of the plot, but had visited Congress with journalist's credentials accompanied by a "photographer" married to top Tupac Amaru leader Nestor Cerpa.

The conspiracy was foiled on Nov. 30, 1995, when police stormed the safe house that Berenson and Panamanian Pacifico Castrellon had rented. Three rebels and a police officer were killed, and police found an arsenal — of which Berenson said she was unaware.

Paraded after her arrest before TV cameras, Berenson shouted angrily that Tupac Amaru was a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist group. That outburst probably added five years to her sentence, said Castrellon, who served 11 years before his 2007 release.

Tupac Amaru projected a Robin Hood image, stealing food and distributing it to the poor. But it also committed ransom kidnappings, killed police and soldiers and assassinated an army general.

The insurgency's 1996 hostage-taking at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima sealed its fate.

Berenson's name was No. 3 on the list of people whose release rebel leader Cerpa demanded in the 126-day ordeal, which ended when commandos killed him and other hostage-takers.

"There is no way anyone can look at her story and conclude anything other than she knowingly, willingly and enthusiastically worked for a terrorist organization," said Dennis Jett, then the U.S. ambassador.

Supporting that argument is Castrellon's claim that he and Berenson met with Cerpa in Ecuador in 1994 on their way to Peru. Berenson denies ever having met Cerpa.

Asked whether she had any regrets — and about criticism that she was arrogant and naive for falling in with the Tupac Amaru — Berenson was typically circumspect.

"That's my life. I chose that, and I'll live with that."

She did allow, though, that she wished she'd finished college before moving to Latin America.

Asked whether she thought taking up arms against abusive governments could be morally justified, she demurred.

The 1980s and 1990s were different times; people in the region now prefer the ballot box, she said.

In New York, Berenson said she hopes to find a job as a social worker "supporting disenfranchised populations."

As far as political activism goes, she said "I don't believe much in electoral politics," preferring "community empowerment."

"I could be out in the streets," she said. "But I don't need to be a leader. I can be a follower."

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak

Recent articles by Frank Bajak: http://bigstory.ap.org/author/frank-bajak

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Associated Press video journalist Zoran Drakulic in New York City contributed to this report.