Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Face of the "Monster:" Lori Berenson's Saga as the Criminal Other in the heart of Peru

Jennifer Egan provides a moving account in the NYT Magazine of Lori Berenson's life since being sentenced to life in prison as a terrorist by the Peruvian government of dictator Alberto Fujimori, and since being released on parole (in fits and starts beginning last fall). Berenson a 25 year old American, was convicted in 1996 of collaborating with the Tupac Amaru revolutionary movement, whom the government claimed (apparently with some reason since) was planning a violent seizure of Peru's parliament. Despite the fact that Berenson was at best a minor participant in the plot, including renting an apartment for the group and if the government's case is to be believed, scouting the parliament using her cover as a journalist (something that as Berenson notes, anyone could do since it was a public building), she has long been vilified by ordinary Peruvians as the very face of terror, and her legal travails and recent parole release have been subjects of enormous media frenzies.

Now released to parole in the city of Lima, Berenson is still subject to hateful comments by Lima residents as she goes about the city with her young son Salvador (born in prison). Egan describes going for a walk with Berenson and Salvador

Berenson insisted we wait until dark to go out; since her parole, she has been hounded by strangers who scream obscenities or call her “assassin” and “murderer.” Just that day, on her way back from the playground with her mother and Salvador, “this woman said: ‘You’re under house arrest! You should be in your house!’ She was with a cellphone, taking pictures. I don’t like going to the park, because people stare at you and make you feel as though you’re not welcome.”

One explanation given for this hatred is the enormous trauma that Peru suffered during the years of terrorism and its repression by the Fujimori regime. Some 70,000 Peruvians are estimated to have been killed, more than half by the government. But while Fujimori is long since disgraced and himself serving a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes in office, and the exposure that so much of the violence was due to the government itself, there is little evidence that Peruvians view Berenson in any more redeeming light, despite the fact that she served 15 years in harsh prison conditions with apparently no trouble or resistance.

Egan's article suggests a number of reasons why Berenson exceeded many far more responsible militants in becoming the face of terror for Peruvians. As a foreigner and especially an American who came to Peru after involvement with left wing groups in Central America, it must have been a relief to Peruvians to see the evil infecting their country as coming from the outside. Perhaps most importantly, according to Egan, Berenson's initial appearance before the media after her arrest was a grimacing and shouting performance that seems to have convicted her before the public, even before her trial.

Five weeks after her arrest, on Jan. 8, 1996, Berenson was taken to a small auditorium in the headquarters of Dincote, Peru’s antiterrorist police, and presented to the press. Her performance was indelible: she took the stage bellowing in Spanish, hands clenched at her sides, long dark hair tumbling down both sides of her face. After denouncing suffering and injustice in Peru, she denied that she was a terrorist by shouting: “In the M.R.T.A. there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement!” — words that, to Peruvian ears, amounted to a confession. She looked scary: big, ungoverned and enraged. To this day, clips from that 15-year-old tirade are part of any news story about her on Peruvian TV; stills from it, in which she appears to be baring her teeth, appeared on the front pages of Peruvian newspapers when she was paroled. Her father told me ruefully: “Forty-four seconds, and it ruined her life. It doesn’t take much.”

As Egan reports, the security forces had carefully stage managed the performance, keeping Berenson isolated in terrible conditions before the media show, and (falsely) telling her that she would have to yell because there were no microphones. But her own emotions and idealism must have played a role as well.

What is fascinating about the Berenson saga and troubling for those of us struggling with our own legacy of war on crime and terror in the US, is the way the creation of criminal/terrorist monsters for political purposes, endures in the emotions of a population for years after the circumstances and even the politicians are gone. As Egan notes, the Fujimori regime reaped major benefits in public relations at a time when the far more threatening Shining Path terrorist organization was in full operation, by presenting this foreign threat to Peru and showing that the police and judicial apparatuses could stop her. Yet decades later, and after the reality of Fujimori's dictatorship and its own responsibility for violence, death and terror are fully known to all Peruvians, the regime's construction of Berenson as a monster lives on.

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