Rights Abuses by Army-Backed Militias Add to Desperation of Peruvian Peasants

PABLO MED fidgets as an Army truck roars along a street shaking the foundations of the one-roomed house where he is staying. He pauses in mid-conversation and limps to the rickety wooden front door, glaring through a crack to see if any other vehicles are approaching.

It is pitch-dark in the central Andean city of Ayacucho; there hasn't been any electricity for almost two weeks, and Mr. Med prefers it that way.

"I don't know whom they will send to kill me. They are working with many groups - the Army, drug traffickers, and the police. I can't trust anyone, but I feel safer in the dark," he whispers.

Med, a peasant farmer, is fleeing the latest wave of violence engulfing remote parts of Peru and adding another painful chapter to an already violent history.

Three other people fled with Med six weeks ago from the remote jungle region of the Apurimac River, where responsibility for the war against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas is in the hands of the ronderos, a civil militia formed by the government.

The ronderos were created nearly three years ago and are armed by the Peruvian Army. They have been given a free hand to police remote regions where the underequipped and underpaid Army is reluctant to venture or establish a permanent presence. But violence has become a way of life, and the militarization of rural communities has only compounded problems for the peasants who have suffered most during the 12-year insurgency.

"The ronderos have become the law. They are organized and armed and have become worse than the guerrillas," Med says.

He was forced to flee his home, near the village of San Francisco, after he complained about the murder of a peasant by local ronderos. Med, a former rondero himself, says he was abducted from his home, tied up, and tortured for two days before he escaped the area with false identity papers. He now walks with a limp after his ankles were beaten with sticks and rifle butts.

"I was lucky because I managed to get out, but nobody knows what's going on in the remote regions. The ronderos are extorting money and providing protection for drug traffickers, but there is no one I can turn to for help," Med says.

For Med, like many other Peruvians exhausted by the violence of both the state and the guerrillas, the process of law and order and the institutions assigned to ensure them are corrupt and obsolete. The military and the police, he claims, give the ronderos a free hand in return for cash, as long as they keep the area free of guerrillas. The judiciary, he adds, acts according to whoever is paying it the highest sum.

"The morality of the judiciary is seriously in question.... It has become very easy for an accused person to be acquited purely on the basis of how much money is handed over," reports the National Coordinating Committee of Human Rights, an umbrella group for independent human rights organizations in Peru.

Human rights advocates in Lima have already voiced concerns at the growing number of abuses by the ronderos. But since President Alberto Fujimori's suspension of constitutional rule on April 5, the government has not responded to human rights groups' requests for meetings with ministers.

"It is very difficult to know what is actually going on, because of the difficulty of communications. There are violations being committed by the guerrillas and the state, and now a third party - the ronderos - is adding to the misery," says a spokesman for the human rights group.

In the city of Ayacucho, where Med is hiding (and where Sendero was founded), Gen. Ronald Benavides, the military chief for the central Peruvian region, dismisses the allegations made against the ronderos.

"The ronderos are working with us and have been instrumental in reducing guerrilla activity in the area, and there are no violations," he says.

But the general has only one helicopter at his disposal, parked on a runway outside his office. And he admits: "We can't go into the jungle because it's too dangerous. And if we go by air, we can't see anything. We have very limited amounts of equipment, and this one helicopter has to cover two districts. So these areas are the responsibility of the ronderos."

The military, too, has alienated many people with its poor human rights record. According to the National Coordinating Committee of Human Rights, "The military have killed and attacked people purely out of vengence and assumptions that they are terrorists. The state has violated human rights as much as the Shining Path."

"We are caught in the middle and can't turn to anyone. We won't go to see the general, because we don't trust him," says Jose, a former rondero who escaped with Med. Their only hope, he says, is to get to Lima and try to make contact with human rights organizations and the international community.

Twelve years of political violence, in which 25,000 people have died, have left Peru as a mix between Pol Pot's Cambodia and the American Wild West. The violence shows no signs of relenting, particularly in the capital, Lima, where bomb attacks and gun fights have become common.

President Fujimori has promised to "cleanse the system" and initiate a democratic system adequately able to end economic misery and political violence. But the government's control extends barely beyond the few urban centers it has secured, and such assurances provide little hope for ordinary Peruvians.

"We are desperate and isolated. We are being attacked from all sides but there is no one listening to our cries for help," Med says.

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