You're in the Army now, Peruvian-style

Tales of conscription by force call attention to a regional shift to volunteers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When armed soldiers boarded the midnight bus carrying Henry García to the next stop on his sales route, he expected a routine roadside check. But the soldiers forced him off the bus and onto their truck. Late the next day the truck arrived at an Army barracks with 33 captives.

"Nobody could relax," Mr. García recalls. "We were scared because, according to what the soldiers told us, they were going to take us to the jungle to complete military service."

A forced illegal conscription is known here as a leva. The leva is the subject of long-standing debate in Peru. More recently it has opened up a wider debate on whether Peru should join a growing regional trend by eliminating obligatory military service altogether.

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Like many other Peruvians, García had been declared "not selected" when he registered for obligatory military service nearly 10 years earlier. Now his family and the governmental human rights office were able to secure his release.

As he left the barracks, a free civilian once again, he knew many of the people he left behind would not be so fortunate.

The military has played an influential role in many Latin American nations, as it does in Peru under President Alberto Fujimori. But such lands as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Argentina have ended obligatory service in recent years.

Paraguay and Ecuador have instituted a conscientious objection clause in their laws. In Honduras and Colombia there are growing debates on the issue.

In Peru the Constitution establishes obligatory military service for men 17 years or older for a maximum of two years. But, according to both civilian and military experts, the service is obligatory only on paper.

"Whoever has a godfather in the Army or comes from the middle or upper-middle class doesn't fulfill their service," says human rights advocate Susana Villaran. The Army's ranks are overwhelmingly filled with dark-skinned youths from the lower economic classes of Peruvian society. People pay as much as $160 to "fail" medical exams or use influence to be declared "not selected" for service, says Ms. Villaran.

The Army, the largest of the three armed forces, often comes up short of the required conscripts it needs.

"The Army is structurally addicted to the leva," says Villaran. "They cover the difference in the number of conscripts they need and the number they have with levas, because there is no other way to secure the required number."

According to complaints registered at the governmental human rights ombudsman's office, leva victims include 15- and 16-year-olds who are too young to serve, those who have already been "not selected" such as García, and those who were selected and failed to report to duty. Even in the case of the latter, levas are illegal, arbitrary detentions, since there is a clearly outlined judicial process to sanction those who fail to report for duty.

The military continues to deny that levas occur. But many Peruvians have started to widen the debate and look at the leva not only as a problem but also as evidence of an obligatory service that doesn't work. For this reason the governmental human rights ombudsman's office has suggested in a recently released report that Peru do away with obligatory military service as it is known today in addition to working to stop levas.

"All over the world today the tendency is toward professional armed forces. That's why in so many countries military service is voluntary," says Samuel Abad of the ombudsman's office.

"Obligatory service could work here," he says, "but only if there were alternative, civilian options as well."

Mr. Abad is not a maverick in his opinions. September polls showed nearly 75 percent of those interviewed in favor of civilian service options. Majority and minority lawmakers have also raised the issue of alternative service.

While Peru's Congress hasn't yet attacked the laws governing military service, it recently approved changes in the law governing firemen. Under these, voluntary service as a fireman will count as fulfilling obligatory military service.

Many, like Abad, are hoping this change in service options is the first of more to come.

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