End of Hostage Crisis in Lima

Anthony Vincent, Canada’s lanky ambassador to Peru, thought rebel leader Néstor Cerpa seemed distracted. Still, he urged Cerpa once again to give up the 72 hostages that his 13 Tupac Amaru fighters had held in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima since Dec. 17.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 5, 1997

Anthony Vincent, Canada’s lanky ambassador to Peru, thought rebel leader Néstor Cerpa seemed distracted. Still, he urged Cerpa once again to give up the 72 hostages that his 13 Tupac Amaru fighters had held in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima since Dec. 17.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 5, 1997

End of Hostage Crisis in Lima

Anthony Vincent, Canada's lanky ambassador to Peru, thought rebel leader Néstor Cerpa seemed distracted. Still, he urged Cerpa once again to give up the 72 hostages that his 13 Tupac Amaru fighters had held in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima since Dec. 17. As they talked, eight young rebels dressed in the brightly colored T-shirts of their favorite soccer teams began to kick a makeshift ball of tape and cloth around the building's massive tile foyer. With the siege in its fifth month, their game had become a daily ritual to relieve the boredom and grinding tension. As they played, other rebels leaned over a second-floor banister to watch. Unknown to any of them, Peruvian commandos had tunnelled under the building and placed powerful plastic explosives directly under the players' feet. As he left, Vincent literally walked over the heads of heavily armed soldiers who were jammed into the tunnels, waiting to attack Cerpa and his followers. " 'Hasta luego' were the very last words I said to them," the ambassador recalled last week. "They looked quite preoccupied."

Perhaps the rebels sensed the end was coming. Two hours later, at approximately 3:13 p.m., President Alberto Fujimori finally gave the signal that his keyed-up soldiers had been training for weeks to expect. The explosives were triggered in a massive explosion that killed some of the rebels and wounded Cerpa, who cried out, "We're screwed, we're screwed." Hundreds of soldiers swarmed into the building and an interior garden from the blown-out tunnels. Others smashed through the front door and lobbed in tear gas through a side window. In a hail of bullets and hand grenades, they cut down almost all the guerrillas, including two young females who reportedly begged for mercy. Some soldiers said another insurgent who was captured was quickly taken away and shot, although Fujimori later denied it. The shocked rebels still managed to kill two soldiers and wound Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti, who died later of a heart attack in hospital. But in just 15 minutes, the commandos wiped out all 14 guerrillas and rescued all of the hostages, whom they led from the smoldering compound. The soldiers weren't finished. To send a grim message to other would-be terrorists, they bent over each of their dead or wounded opponents and shot them in the forehead. When Fujimori arrived minutes later, he bluntly declared: "The rebels have been annihilated."

Fujimori, wearing a black bulletproof vest over his signature white shirt, toured the shattered compound like a conquering general. In a spectacle televised around the world, he stepped over the rebels' bullet-riddled bodies to shake hands with his victorious troops. As they gathered around him, they punched their firsts into the air and broke into a spontaneous version of the national anthem: We are free, and we will be forever.

The tough-guy president had good reason to celebrate. He had spent his seven years in office battling terrorists, drug traffickers and an economic collapse with a fearsome resolve, and before the Tupac raid he appeared to be winning. Hundreds of rebels had been arrested. Foreign investment was increasing. The rebel attack, however, shattered Peru's newfound confidence. Now, with his dramatic victory behind him, political analysts say Fujimori will be able to entrench his sweeping economic and political reforms. "By this one very audacious action," said Max Cameron, a political scientist and expert on Peru at Carleton University, "he restored his image of strength."

Fujimori's "crisis of embarrassment" began without warning on Dec. 17, when the Tupac Amaru rebels - named for an 18th-century native who led an uprising against the Spanish - seized the palatial embassy residence during a party marking the Japanese emperor's birthday. The rebels blew a hole in the back of the building while white-clad waiters, who had been pouring champagne, suddenly produced automatic weapons and ordered 450 guests to lay on the floor. The rebels had captured dozens of important diplomats and businessmen, including ambassador Vincent and his wife Lucie.

Hours later, the guerrillas released about 80 women. The following day, Vincent was freed along with the ambassadors of Greece and Germany with orders from Cerpa to help negotiate the release of 450 imprisoned Tupac fighters. Over the next few weeks, most of the other hostages were let go. Those left behind were mainly Peruvian government and military officials and 20 Japanese nationals. But as Fujimori steadfastly refused to give up the Tupac prisoners, the mood among the captives grew darker. "The situation got more tense as time went on," Vincent told Maclean's. "They never knew when they went to sleep if they would wake up alive. They were reaching the end of their endurance."

As Vincent and his fellow ambassadors shuttled in and out of the compound, government anti-terrorist experts secretly launched operation Chavin de Huantar - a phrase taken from an ancient Peruvian culture meaning "special energy and force." They deployed a ring of high-tech eavesdropping equipment in homes surrounding the compound. Other tiny listening devices were smuggled in to the hostages, one placed in the lining of a religious image a wife sent to her husband, another sewn into a shirt. Retired general Gaston Ibanez, who helped set up Peru's National Intelligence Service in the early 1980s, said the gadgetry was part of $40 million worth of sophisticated intelligence equipment that the military bought from the United States shortly after the crisis began.

Sunday, April 20, proved to be a crucial day. A poll showed that Fujimori's approval rating had fallen steeply, hurt by charges that his intelligence service used torture. He fired his interior minister and swore in a hardline general to replace him. And Vincent reported that Cerpa was now saying he would cut back on the hostages' medical visits - arguably a threat to their well-being, which Fujimori had said would justify using force. Before the day ended, Fujimori had sent 140 crack soldiers into five air-conditioned tunnels that had been dug under the ambassador's residence.

But the technology was essential. Fujimori later said the precise moment of the assault was not determined until the eavesdropping devices alerted the soldiers to exactly where the Tupac rebels and hostages were located in the building. "I was in permanent contact with the intelligence service," said Fujimori. "We knew perfectly the location of terrorists and the majority of the hostages."

On Tuesday afternoon, he gave the signal to set off the explosives and begin the assault. Cerpa, who was injured in the attack, still tried to drag himself to the second floor of the residence, where most of the hostages had been held since the rebels first feared that tunnels were being built. But before he could reach the captives, troops gunned him down.

One of the hostages, Bolivian ambassador Jorge Gumucio, said they knew an assault was imminent because they had been secretly warned to expect it if they heard the Peruvian navy's anthem being played on two consecutive days from government loudspeakers blaring outside the compound. It was played on Monday morning and again on the day of the attack. Shortly before the assault, another warning message was relayed to a Peruvian admiral who had kept a small radio receiver hidden from the rebels throughout his time in captivity.

Even so, Luis Chang Ching, one of five Peruvian congressmen held by the rebels, said most of the hostages were caught off guard. "I was playing a game of chess when the assault began," Ching told Maclean's. "We heard the blasts and immediately knew that we had to head towards the door that leads to the garden." As he fled, he wondered if his fellow hostages would make it out alive. "I was the 27th or 28th hostage to be taken out," he said. "I was worried sick that my friends could be dying."

Canada's Vincent was also taken by surprise. Arriving at the Canadian embassy, he took an urgent call from his wife. "She was frantic," he said, "because she had seen the beginning of the intervention on television and she thought I might still be in the residence." Vincent said the lives lost in the action had to be balanced against Peru's bloody history of violent attacks. "I think the terrorists are looked on by Peruvians as an enemy - a dangerous enemy," he said. Still, the ambassador said the negotiators were saddened because they had come to know many of the rebels. At a news conference following the battle, his fellow negotiator, Peruvian Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, broke into tears over their deaths. "Many of them were quite young," explained Vincent. "Somehow they had gotten involved in this, which turned out to be a hopeless situation."

Most Peruvians, however, expressed little sympathy. After the rescue, Fujimori's approval rating shot up to 67 per cent from 38 per cent. But in Cameron's view, the price will be more power for the armed forces. "The way in which the hostage crisis was resolved," he said, "could embolden the military and accentuate the more authoritarian feature of the Peruvian political system."

The international community, however, was quick to back Fujimori. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said that while the violence was unfortunate, the government had a "responsibility" to act. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said it was regrettable that Japan, which had earlier called for a peaceful resolution, was not informed in advance. But he added: "How can I criticize Fujimori? He successfully rescued the hostages."

Whether the victory over the rebels has finally put an end to guerrilla attacks in Peru is open to question. A Tupac spokesman in Hamburg said the group plans to strike back at the government. But terrorism expert John Thompson, director of Toronto's Mackenzie Institute, said many insurgents now realize that modern technology, such as eavesdropping and thermal imaging equipment, makes it easier for governments to fight back. "Most terrorists have already learned that you just can't take hostages anymore," he said. "It's not a winning proposition." Certainly not in Fujimori's Peru.

The 'Japanese Torpedo'

Alberto Fujimori attracts dramatic labels. After he was first elected Peru's president in 1990, the son of Japanese immigrants became known as the "Japanese torpedo" for his zeal in attacking the country's grave problems. His program to stop runaway inflation by drastically cutting subsidies was dubbed "Fujishock." Every bold initiative is inevitably called a presidential "tsunami," or tidal wave. And in the wake of his triumph last week in the Tupac Amaru hostage drama, Peru's moniker-makers will no doubt produce a steely new nickname to replace the fond, if inaccurate, "El Chino" (the Chinese guy). His critics are already calling him "Rambo."

Fujimori prefers "samurai," but the 58-year-old president once seemed an unlikely warrior. He was born in Lima four years after his parents arrived from Japan. The couple, who operated a tire-repair shop, tried to integrate him into their adopted country by raising him as a Roman Catholic. By the mid-1970s, he had settled into a quiet career in academia, becoming rector of the National Agrarian University in Lima. So political analysts were somewhat amused when the bespectacled mathematician and sometime TV talk show host launched his presidential bid under the banner "Change in 1990" - an alliance of small businessmen, peasants and shantytown dwellers. "My relatives didn't believe in me," Fujimori later recalled. "They thought I was crazy."

But his slogan, "Work, honesty and technology," struck a chord with voters angry over chronic economic problems and a fierce insurgency. Fujimori astonished everyone by beating world-renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in a runoff election. "Peruvians," he declared, "are fed up with being fed up."

Then came the tsunamis. After only eight days in office, he launched his assault on inflation. Later, he turned his attention to government corruption and the Marxist guerrillas. Backed by the army, he dissolved Congress in 1992 and fired nearly 100 judges - leaving himself with near dictatorial powers. Peruvians called that his "self-coup." With civil rights curtailed, thousands of rebels - and many innocent civilians - were arrested. But the back of the insurgency seemed broken when Abimael Guzman, leader of the extremist Shining Path, and Tupac chief Victor Polay were captured.

As stability returned and the economy picked up, Fujimori easily won a second term in 1995, beating former UN secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar. But his popularity ebbed as the economy slowed and human rights groups castigated him over the treatment of imprisoned rebels. Then came the Tupac raid on the Japanese ambassador's residence in December - a massive loss of face. Peruvians, however, have long since learned not to count out El Chino. His high-stakes counterattack last week sent his approval ratings soaring again. As he sets his sights on a third term in office, his nickname may become El Apostador - The Gambler.

Maclean's May 5, 1997