Last week's government attack on three Peruvian prisons has dealt a severe blow to the prestige and integrity of the 11-month-old government of President Alan Garc'ia Perez. Since taking office last July, Mr. Garc'ia has enjoyed unprecedented popularity among Peruvians, despite severe economic problems and chronic social problems -- including the nearly daily attacks of a fanatical Maoist insurgency group seeking to destabilize the government.
At least 250 inmates who belong to the Maoist Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla movement were killed June 18 when thousands of troops stormed three prisons in or near Lima to put down uprisings, according to the government. Shining Path leaders are believed to have coordinated the riot in an attempt to taint the image of Garc'ia's government just as the Socialist International was holding its congress in Lima.
Both within Latin America and beyond, Garc'ia has been seen as a populist defender of democracy and a champion of third-world causes. He symbolized hope and personified power in a troubled country ruled by the military for 12 of the past 18 years. The Socialist International congress, the first ever held in a third-world capital, was an event that was supposed to enhance Garc'ia's carefully orchestrated image as a regional leader.
But, with allegations of human rights violations during the rebellion, Garc'ia's image is tarnished and the President is no longer on the offensive.
The uprising underscores the fragile nature of Peru's democracy -- which has found it difficult to deal effectively with several insurgency movements, including the Shining Path, and to control the actions of the military.
``For the first time since it took over 11 months ago, the government has lost political initiative,'' says Raul Gonz'alez, who has extensively researched terrorist movements for Lima's DESCO Institute. ``The image and prestige of the government has been seriously hurt by this.''
Garc'ia's vulnerability was clearly underlined Tuesday night when he pubicly confirmed reports that government forces had killed between 30 and 40 Sendero prisoners at Lima's Lurigancho prison after they agreed to surrender.
Under the state of emergency proclaimed in February and renewed twice because of guerrilla activity, the military command made up of the Army, Marines, and Air Force has control of law and order in Lima and the nearby port of Callao.
In Tuesday's television speech, Garc'ia promised to punish the military officers responsible for the excesses. But the paramilitary Republican Guard, the police force usually responsible for prison security, was the only group he singled out as responsible and for which he ordered arrests. He did not mention members of either the Army or the Marines, which were both involved in the attack.
``You've got a 36-year-old with no previous political experience with the hounds of the military lapping around him,'' one political observer said following Garc'ia's speech. ``He's scared.''
Garc'ia gave the military the go-ahead to restore order in the prisons during the riot. No civilian officials were present when the order was given, complicating the President's efforts to prove that he acted appropriately.
``His credibility as one who defends civil liberties has taken a powerful battering,'' said one Western diplomat. ``But, if he pressures the military, he could be in an even tougher position than he is now.''
A high number of Peruvians initially expressed support for Garc'ia's actions. Seventy-five percent of Lima's residents approved, according to one poll.
That they would actually approve of a massacre, said one government spokesman, ``is an indication of the extent to which people are afraid and feel powerless because of Sendero.'' More than 7,500 civilians, insurgents, political officials and members of the security forces have been killed since the Shining Path began trying to overthrow the government six years ago.
Anthropologist Juan Ossio, who has studied patterns of violence in Lima, says this sentiment is probably different in the shanty towns and impoverished countryside communities where Sendero recruiters are most active. ``People don't necessarily agree with Sendero's message, but they agree with the aims of the movement,'' Mr. Ossio said.
Officials worry that last week's attack will spark retaliation from the guerrillas. On Wednesday, seven tourists were killed (including one American and three Europeans) and about 39 injured when a bomb exploded on a train taking sightseers to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. No group has claimed responsibility, but the Shining Path is known to operate in the region.
Some officials are counting on Garc'ia's personal popularity within the country to help him ride out the storm spawned by the latest conflict. ``Garc'ia's personal popularity means everything right now,'' said one government spokesman.