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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (p. 199)

From chapter "Violence"

On December 17th of 1996, members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took over the Japanese ambassador’s house in Peru and seized some 500 hostages. They released women and children immediately, and for humanitarian reasons released all but seventy-two of the remaining hostages over the next several weeks. Their primary demand for the release of the final group, which included several Supreme Court members, a former chief of Peru’s secret police (responsible for the torture and murder of countless civilians), and regional executive officers for many Japan-based transnational corporations, was that imprisoned MRTA members be freed.

Because of my obvious interest in the relationship between unarmed and armed resistance to the violence of the culture, I spoke with Isaac Velazco, an MRTA member since 1984. In 1988, Velazco was arrested and beaten. He escaped, and fled to Germany.

I asked him why the MRFA formed. He said, “Tupac Amaru formed because there is nothing resembling democracy for the majority of Peru’s citizens. For the perhaps three million privileged Peruvians there is a democracy; but their democracy is our dictatorship, a continuation of the often irrational destruction that’s been going on in Peru for five hundred years.

“Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Peru was home to one of the most advanced cultures of America, where, with collective ownership of the means of production, the problem of hunger was solved. Yes, the Incas subjugated other peoples, sometimes violently, and they were sometimes met with violent resistance. But better scholars than I have shown that even the ruling classes showed respect for the land, and for children. They made sure everyone was fed through a sophisticated network of storehouses. Contrast that to today, when one hundred and eighty of every thousand children in Peru die of curable diseases before they’re five, and adults die as slave laborers washing gold in the jungles of Madre de Dios. An FAO report suggests poverty will be eliminated in Peru before 2025, not because of improving conditions, but because we’ll all be dead of starvation. Our country is turning into a huge concentration camp.”

I asked what the MRTA, wants for Peru. He replied, “I am not sure what you mean. We arePeru. We want nothing fromPeru. There are others who want plenty from Peru: our oil, wood, fish, gold. Our lives. Capitalism is taking away what is elemental to our lives: our land, rivers, forests are being violated by institutions and individuals who have deafened themselves to the meanings they have for us. The majority in Peru have traditionally lived by hunting and fishing, and small-scale agriculture, by growing bananas, manioc, and fruits. These people are not reaping the benefits—whatever they may be—of neo-liberal ‘development.’ They— we—are being killed. We want to stop this annihilation of our people, and we want our people—the vast majority who are denied a voice in our so-called democracy—to be heard.

“Truth, as someone once said, is revolutionary. This is one reason those in power routinely lie. The takeover of the ambassador’s house, and the consequent attention focused on the appalling conditions in Peru’s prisons, conditions which up to then had been for the most part ignored, points out that when those in power lie, the only way to conduct a meaningful dialogue with them is to have in your hands a way to force them to be accountable. Even then you can be sure they will remain true only so long as you continue to hold them tightly in your hands.”

I asked how he became politicized.

“Because each of us is born into already-extant political systems, we are born politicized: we each must either accept (sometimes by default) or reject the political system into which we’ve been born. Those born and raised farther from the centers of political power are less likely to be influenced by the entire politics of servitude and slavery.

“I have long opposed capitalism and its effects on my people. I tried unarmed resistance, but soon grew to see that as useless. To witness the murder of one’s comrades, without a weapon to defend themselves, is a quick way to be convinced of that approach’s futility. Almost all MRTA members have had that experience, through the disappearance of their parents, the torture of their brothers, the rape of their sisters; others have suffered the violence in their own flesh, directly.”

If the government were to disappear, I asked, and the MRTA were to govern, what would they do? “Our goal is to build a society that respects the autonomy of each region. We’d continue our current program of respecting each village’s grassroots organizations, we’d assist them in electing their own representatives, and together we’d develop the production of food and other necessities. We need to produce and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.”

I asked whether writing helps bring about social change. “In our villages a high percentage of people do not read or write. But it’s important that ones like you, who know how to do it, write so sensitive persons of the middle and upper classes may understand it’s possible to live in a world where the lives—and the ways of living—of all beings are respected. This in no way implies it is incompatible to write andtake up the rifle. Many poets and sensitive or conscientious intellectuals have done exactly this in Peru and other places.”


The standoff at the ambassador’s house ended on April 22—Earth Day here in the United States—of that next spring. It ended the way stand-offs between “decent” and “indecent” people so often do: with the slaughter of the decent by the indecent. A single incident stands out: as Peruvian soldiers burst into the Japanese ambassador’s residence, one of the MRTA members ran into the room where a number of the hostages were being held. He aimed his automatic rifle at them, stopped, stared, turned, and walked back out of the room. Moments later he was gunned down trying to surrender.

I cannot get this image out of my mind. Again and again I picture him aiming the rifle, stopping just before the moment of inevitability, and walking away. I picture him dead. I can think of nothing that better illustrates why the world is dying, or rather being killed, and why the best, most heartfelt efforts of those of us struggling for justice and sanity so often end in betrayal, loss, and sometimes bloodshed—inevitably our own blood and the blood of those we are trying to protect.

Something that should be abundantly clear by now is that while many of us enter into this struggle because we care about life and about living, the truth is that our enemies, those who are destroying life on this planet, the “indecent race,” the cannibals, have shown themselves time and again to be willing, in fact eager, to kill to increase their power. It’s that simple.

The siege at the ambassador’s house lasted a little over four months. During those four months prisoners seized by the MRTA played chess, gave and received cooking and music lessons, sang Happy Birthday to each other, and compared their imprisonment to “a cocktail party without liquor.” On release, most of the prisoners the MRTA voluntarily let go shook the hand of Nestor Cerpa, head of the MRTA commando that undertook the action, and wished him well. Many asked for his autograph. After their release, some expressed solidarity with the MRTA. These expressions lasted long enough, and came in the face of a repressive enough government force, to make the Stockholm syndrome unlikely.

During those same four months, members of the MRTA imprisoned by Peru continued their existence in “President” Fujimori’s prison tombs (“President” is in quotes because, as often goes unreported in the corporate press, Fujimori disbanded the legislature, overturned the constitution, and enacted a self-coup in 1992). “They will rot,” said Fujimori, “and will only get out dead.” During those four months, Victor Polay—founder of the MRTA—and other prisoners at Callao Naval Base continued to be confined to tiny cells twenty-five feet underground; they were allowed to walk outside, hooded and alone, for thirty minutes each day. In those four months, prisoners in Yanamayo (12,000 feet) and Chacapalca (more than 15,000 feet, and an eight-hour drive from the nearest village) suffered bitter cold, once again in solitary confinement, in rooms with paneless windows. During those four months, more MRTA members—or more likely peasants or Indians unfortunate enough to have caught the attention of secret police—were captured, tortured, and in at least one case, murdered. The survivors will probably be sentenced, by faceless military judges in trials lasting only minutes, to life imprisonment in these “prison tombs.”

During those four months, those responsible for the death squad killings of thousands of Peruvians continued to lead comfortable lives, their anxiety eased by a general amnesty issued June 16, 1995 by Fujimori, which quashed all investigations or indictments of human rights violations occurring after May 1980. The hostages released by the MRTA who expressed solidarity received death threats from Peru’s secret police. At least one radio reporter who criticized the military was kidnapped and tortured.

In those four months, the Peruvian government, central to the region’s drug trade, continued to traffic in cocaine; in 1996, one hundred and sixty-nine kilos of cocaine were found in the presidential plane, one hundred and twenty kilos were found in one Peruvian warship, and sixty-two in another. Also that year, Demetrio Chavez Petaherrera, one of the biggest drug kings in Latin America, testified in a public hearing that since 1991 he’s been personally paying Peru’s drug-czar Vladimiro Montesinos (an ex-CIA informant long linked to drugs, death squads, and the torture of civilians) $50,000 per month in exchange for information on United States Drug Enforcement Agency activities. A few days afterwards, Petaherrera was taken to Callao and tortured until he recanted. And Fujimori’s brother, Santiago, his nephew, Isidro Kagami Fujimori, and other of his relatives continued to traffic cocaine through any number of dummy corporations. Some of the profits from this trafficking go to purchase blackmarket helicopters used to kill civilians.

The children of Peru continued to starve, the forests continued to fall, and the fisheries continued to be depleted. In other words, Fujimori continued his policy of committing genocide and ecocide to benefit transnational corporations. In other words, it was business as usual in the civilized, industrialized world.

Fujimori and the military, while pretending to negotiate in good faith, dug five separate tunnels beneath the compound. Two of the miners hired to dig the tunnels died, and the rest disappeared: their families have no idea what happened to them. Members of the security forces—trained in the United States at taxpayer expense, and wearing taxpayer-purchased flak jackets (one of their American instructors called the assault and subsequent massacre “money well spent”)—prepared for an assault, and listened to the routine inside the compound through a pinsized microphone smuggled in when a hostage requested a guitar (as well as microphones hidden in the chess set, and in other amenities brought in to help the hostages pass the time). The CIA helped Fujimori prepare the slaughter.

During or after the assault, all the MRTA members were summarily executed. Military microphones picked up the sounds of two of the guerrillas—sixteen-year-old girls—begging soldiers not to shoot. They were, of course, immediately murdered. Other rebels, including Nestor Cerpa, were shot at point-blank range in the forehead. At least one of the rebels was led away to be tortured before his murder. One of the soldiers who participated in the slaughter said, “The order was to leave no one alive. For us, the instruction was to leave no prisoners.” Relatives who went to claim the bodies of the dead were beaten and arrested at a military hospital. Nestor Cerpas aunt was allowed to view the bodies. All but two had been cut into pieces and placed in plastic bags. She counted thirty bullet holes in her nephew’s head. The dismembered bodies of most of the rebels were scattered in unmarked graves, and some relatives who visited marked graves were arrested.

To stop the genocide and ecocide that characterizes—and has always characterized—our culture requires that we learn to fully internalize the implications of one very important fact: we and they—those who are destroying the world—are operating under two entirely different and utterly incompatible value systems. As Frankl said, there are those who are decent, and those who are indecent. We value life, and the living, and they value control and power. On the largest scale it really is that simple (on an individual scale it is much more complex—human rights and environmental organizations are rife with petty power struggles, and there probably exist at least a few in power who retain some level of decency). Time and again we show ourselves willing to die or to live to support ecological and economic justice and sanity, and time and again our enemies—the indecent ones, the destroyers, show themselves willing to lie and to kill to maintain control. Throughout the entire siege, members of the MRTA treated their captives with humanity and grace. In response they were lied to and betrayed. I know of no long-term activists who have not repeatedly experienced this same pattern of lies and betrayal, although for many of us in the more privileged sectors of the world, the full consequences of our enemies’ behavior are yet to be brought home with such force and finality as is normally reserved for the colonies.

I have thought long and hard not only about the siege but about what we can learn from it. Isaac Velazco’s words roll round and round inside my head: “When those in power lie, the only way to conduct a meaningful dialogue with them is to have in your hands a way to force them to be accountable. Even then you can only be sure they will remain true so long as you continue to hold them tightly in your hands.” This statement, and the massacre, have many implications. The first is that, ultimately, negotiations are bound to fail. You cannot negotiate with someone who systematically lies to you. If you win your points during negotiation, the agreement will be broken. Indians have seen this, as have forest activists, toxics activists, nuclear activists, antiwar activists, and so on. This is not to say we shouldn’t negotiate. But to expect to be dealt with fairly by those who have shown no scruples about lying and using naked force to take what they want is to engage in magical thinking. It is delusional. It is, to speak of this as we would a dysfunctional family, like playing the part of co-dependent partner in a parasitic and abusive relationship. It is to participate in our own victimization.

The bitter truth that most of us are unwilling to face is that our enemies are institutionally and oftentimes individually psychopathological. They have the cannibal sickness. The lives of those they kill simply do not exist in the minds of the killers. This is true for victims whether the Forest Service and the timber industry speak of board feet rather than living forests, agribusiness corporations speak of 10,000 “units” in confinement instead of living hogs, or the corporate media reports that United States warplanes caused “collateral damage” in Iraq—the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women, and children in apartments, buses, and bomb shelters. Thus after the assault, Fujimori stated that he was “very sorry for the loss of three human lives,” meaning the two soldiers and one hostage who died in the assault (the hostage who died was a Supreme Court Justice who had voted against Fujimori’s amnesty of death squad leaders; reports vary as to whether he died of a heart attack or a bullet wound; the Peruvian Human Rights organization DeRechos alleged that he was murdered by the military). The other lives that Fujimori caused to prematurely end were evidently something less than human. Representatives of the various transnational corporations with an interest in Peru’s resources stated they would change none of their genocidal and ecocidal policies. Most of the transnationals fully supported the decision to use force. A representative of Mitsubishi said there was “no other way” to end the crisis. A representative of Mitsui Metal and Smelting said it was “very regrettable” that one Peruvian hostage died. He did not regret, of course, the killing of the MRTA members. What was there to regret?

Those of us in the United States, those who are at least somewhat privileged—probably white, perhaps male, possibly rich or at least not so hungry as the children of Peru—must recognize that in a world of shrinking resources it is only a matter of time until the guns are turned on us. Someone once asked John Stockwell, an ex-CIA agent whose conscience forced him to speak out against the agency, why he had not yet been killed. He said, “Because they are winning.” We who are relatively privileged need to ask ourselves what we are willing to give up, what amount of security we are willing to sacrifice to change the status quo. In the wake of this action by the MRTA, and the consequent murder of those involved, we—each of us— need to question what we can do to help change things for the better, and stop the mindless destruction.

During those four months, fourteen members of the MRTA held the attention of the world, and they held back, if only for a brief time, and if only in the so-very-tiny space of one house in one city in one country in South America, the steady march of our culture as it relentlessly destroys everything it encounters. For that brief time the world was shown an alternative of determined and fully human resistance, of people fighting for their right to be on their own terms. What if there were fourteen more, or fourteen more than that, or fourteen hundred more than that? What if we each individually began to organize, knowing full well the stakes and the potential consequences—both good and bad—of our actions? What if we each in our organizations at long last said to those who run the country, those who run the companies, those who help further the destruction, run the machine, “You shall not pass. This is where I live, and this, if necessary, is where I shall die.” And what if we meant it?

We are losing a one-sided and defensive war. If we learn nothing else from the bravery and deaths of the fourteen tupaca-maristas, it is that we must take the offensive, we must struggle, never for a moment letting go of the life-affirming values we believe in—and bring that struggle to their doorstep instead of ours. We must learn also that resistance is never futile, and that we have no option as human beings but to struggle as though our lives depended on it—which of course they do—to ensure that each and every one of us is granted the right to be. Our goal must be nothing less than the rediscovery of what it means to be a human inhabitant of this world into which each of us is born. The planet is waiting for us to rediscover it, waiting to be allowed nothing more than the simple right to be. It will grant the same favor in return—anything else will bring about our completely unnecessary demise.