Peru’s ‘Difficult Times’ and the Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights

The years 1980 to 2000 in Peru have been given a special name in the Quechua language used in parts of the country: ‘sasachakuy tiempo’ or the ‘difficult times’.

During those two decades, a Maoist rebel group known as the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso) fought what was effectively a civil war against the Peruvian government and armed forces.

The war was bloody and protracted, with massacres and torture of combatants and civilians common, and both sides guilty of committing atrocities. By the time it ended, approximately 70,000 Peruvians had died and 500,000 people had been internally displaced.

This traumatic period in Peruvian politics has left two distinct legacies that still compete for space in the country’s modern public memory.

The first is – depending who you talk to – the unifying or infamous Alberto Fujimori, president from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori led the state’s crackdown on Sendero Luminoso while also aggressively pursuing economic reforms, leaving a profound impact on Peru’s rural areas. Though the ex-president is now imprisoned, Fujimori’s name remains ubiquitous, especially as his daughter Keiko is currently leading opinion polls for next month’s presidential election.

Keiko Fujimori is a front runner in Peru's 2016 president election (Photo: Alan, via flickr)

Keiko Fujimori is a front runner in Peru’s 2016 president election (Photo: Alan, via flickr)


The potential return of a Fujimori to power has also raised new questions over the second issue still unresolved since the conflict ended: the demand that the human rights violations of these decades – especially those committed by the State against civilians – be recognised, with justice and dignity brought to those most affected.

Remembering ‘Sasachakuy Tiempo’

The purported goal of the Shining Path was to overthrow the Peruvian political system and replace it with a communist peasant revolutionary regime. As such, its main recruiting efforts occurred in Peru’s impoverished mountainous provinces, where combat was most widespread. Civilians in these regions, many of them indigenous peoples, were among the most affected by the human rights violations of the period.

One of the poorest parts of Peru, Ayacucho is a heavily indigenous region and the site where the Civil War emerged under Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman in May 1980. Even today, many of the crimes committed in the era remain under-acknowledged.

Shining Path propaganda and the areas most affected by the conflict (Images via Wikipedia)
Shining Path propaganda and the areas most affected by the conflict (Images via Wikipedia)


Attempts to preserve the memory of those who died in Ayacucho during the Civil War and advocate for the protection of those human rights which were violated during this period is a key goal of the Peruvian National Association of Relatives of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared (ANFASEP), founded by Angélica Mendoza de Ascarza Pocos in September 1983.

The ANFASEP’s Museum of Memory documents other attacks on civilians, including the killing of eight journalists in Uchuracchay in January 1983. It also describes how in December 1984, 125 women and children were killed after having been forced to dig their own graves. The group’s members also reveal details of the traumatic past.

Isabel Escalante is a current member of ANFASEP and works at its Memory Museum. Born in December 1980, the life of Escalante’s family was turned upside down during the ‘difficult times’. She told the Argentina Independent that: “three of my siblings disappeared in my community and one of them here in the city of Huamanga [Ayacucho]- he was a student of the San Cristobel of Huamanga University and was taken captive by the people who took him to the Police Investigation… to this day none of us know his whereabouts”.

Mila Segovia Roja is another ANFASEP member who also works as a nursery teacher. She grew up in Wachinga, Ayacucho, with her grandparents in what she describes as a state of ‘grandeur’,  with cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and birds. She says that in 1984: “the terrorists assassinated my relatives. I wanted to die- when I found out [that my grandparents had died] I felt that I didn’t have a family, my biological mother took me to Lima, and 15 days later I returned”.

Whilst Shining Path and state killings were worst in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the culpability of government action during the Civil War was compounded by a government sterilisation program introduced in 1996.

Peru’s Health Ministry estimated in 2002 that over 260,000 women were sterilised between 1996 and 2000. Few of these women gave consent, many were indigenous, impoverished, and Quechua speakers and almost all are still seeking justice today with the support of human rights organisations.

The ANFASEP memorial museum in Ayacucho (Photo via ANFASEP)

The ANFASEP memorial museum in Ayacucho (Photo via ANFASEP)


A Country Still Divided

In the years following the ‘difficult times,’ many more stories like those of Escalante and Segovia Roja have come to light. In 2003, a Truth and Reconciliation Report (which was commissioned two years earlier) was published, aiming to move the country towards accountability, historical consciousness, and reconciliation.

This report is similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which followed the end of Apartheid in that it aimed to give voice to those who had been silenced during the country’s conflict. The Peruvian report found that 69,280 people died during this period. At least 43 incidents of crimes committed by the government and Shining Path were identified.

In this way it formally condemned the actions of both sides and provided a context for the imprisonment of both Abimael Guzman and Alberto Fujimori. In 1993 Sendero leader Abimael Guzman was handed a life sentence for terrorism against the state, whilst in 2009 Alberto Fujimori received a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity.

However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also found that the government, media and the education system were co-opted in the perpetuation of violence. It reported that for reconciliation to be effected, there must be a institutional acknowledgement of Peru’s multiethnic composition.

It is in this area that change has been lagging, as there remains a vast power imbalance between coastal Peru, especially Lima, and the country’s other two regions: the Andean highlands and Amazon rainforest. In Ayacucho itself, in 2013 the local newspaper the Voice of Huamanga revealed that 92.5 per cent of its people don’t have potable water; 50 per cent of adults suffer from hypertension that cannot be treated due to the cost of medicine; and 9 per cent suffer from tuberculosis.

Many of the efforts to achieve reconciliation for what happened to the victims of the Civil War are impeded by these lingering divisions, and the way in which the conflict undermined community relationships.

Those who came to Lima from the Andes during the conflict were often perceived as being sympathetic to the Shining Path. Some were labelled as terrorists or subversives in Lima and ended up being targeted by both the armed forces and the Shining Path.

Moreover, these displaced victims sometimes faced further marginalisation from their own communities when they returned from where they had fled. After returning to her community of Punqui from Lima, Escalante describes how: “my parents were the ones who suffered the things that happened… when we wanted to return they didn’t want to receive us back into the community but my parents left and returned to our town in any case”.

For Segovia Roja, her grief was compounded by the excruciating search for the remains of her grandparents, and the resistance she has encountered among the villagers of Wachinga. Segovia Roja recounted to me that in her search; “the people in the village were silent about how they disappeared the body, they insulted me: at the start I was afraid but then I revealed myself [as searching for the remains] and began to call them assassins. I went forward very bravely, I said to them ‘screw it, kill me- where are my relatives you owe me’ later they began to run from me”.

Peru Moving Forward

Due to the difficulties they face as individuals searching for justice, the strength in numbers derived from ANFASEP for both Escalante and Segovia Roja has been crucial. Escalante states that: “ANFASEP is represented by fighting women that are never defeated by anything. There always have been difficulties since the organisation was initiated but they have never had their colours lowered in any way.” Like Escalante, Segovia Roja told me of the special bonds formed among ANFASEP members, “I feel like I’m amongst family with them”.

But while recognition of past crimes is key to healing the country’s wounds, a greater awareness of today’s socio-economic divisions and problems is also an essential part of finding justice.

A member of the Lima-based activist group Art for Memory, Mauricio Delgado Castillo is someone who is cognisant of the links between economic and social justice. He argues that in Peru the struggles of the ‘difficult times’ and today are very much the same, stating that: “The continuity faces the same issues (social inequality and structural racism) and suffers from the same common sentiments like contempt for others and negation of the common good”.

Addressing the hostility towards the culture of rural Peru within Lima is something Delgado Castillo emphasises as an important objective of his group. He said his group strong believes that “art allows us to open perspectives” and says the itinerance of its exhibitions around different cities is its main strength.

A temporary exhibit by Arte por la Memoria, which seeks to create more awareness of Peru's violent past (Photo via Arte por la Memoria)

A temporary exhibit by Arte por la Memoria, which seeks to create more awareness of Peru’s violent past (Photo via Arte por la Memoria)

“We saw the need to go right to the centre of things, to open space to the convulsion and dynamism of the streets,” he describes. “The flexibility of a museum that could be set up in a plaza, a university or a union, allows us a lot to access more members of the public than if we had a fixed location”.

The impact of the Peruvian internal conflict remains pronounced over fifteen years since its conclusion. Many of the difficulties which the country faces today – gaping social divisions, inter-generational trauma, and a highly concentrated media – make dealing with the legacy of that time will be very hard work.

Yet, there are reasons for optimism. The Peruvian Ombudsmen’s Reports into forced sterilisations has received backing from doctors and significant media exposure, and in 2015 saw the creation of a victim’s registry. Also last year, on 17 December, the Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion was inaugurated to provide more coverage of the Civil War to Limeños and international visitors.

Moreover, activists are increasingly pushing the government, demanding more. For example, critics simultaneously acknowledge the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and suggest that it may underplay the State’s role in human rights abuses during the Civil War.

And there is the visible and persistent part of civil society which is pushing for these events to be acknowledged: ANFASEP, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Art for Memory are just some of those seeking a better future through reconciliation with the past.

They are realistic and determined. Escalante says that: “I don’t know if we can achieve justice and the truth for all those events, it is difficult…but I would like to see those who are responsible pay for their crimes”.

For Delgado Castillo, this is an issue wider Peruvian society must take on, though creating “a space that the relatives of the victims feel in some way is theirs and with which we accompany their struggles”.

Whether this space will be created remains to be seen. The outcome of next month’s elections will go a long way to showing us the political will Peru has for adopting these struggles.


Cameron McPhedran 

Cameron McPhedran has traveled extensively through the Americas and lived in Buenos Aires and Berkeley. He is currently studying for a Masters of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of New South Wales, and has worked as a reviewer and editor for History in the Making.

This post originally appeared on the Argentina Independent, and we thank them for allowing us to republish it here.

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