Hostage Takers In Peru Seen as Vanishing Breed

The Marxist guerrillas who still hold dozens of hostages in Peru have surprised observers not only with their well-organized tactics, but also the fact such a group continues to exist at all in this day and age. Some see the crisis as a last-ditch act by vanishing, violent Latin American leftists.

Counterinsurgency experts believe the members of Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) that attacked the Japanese ambassador's residence Dec. 17 are among the last few MRTA guerrillas at large in Peru. Their leader, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, is the group's last high-ranking leader still free.

Mr. Cerpa, who met with an envoy of President Alberto Fujimori for the first time Saturday, said he is now willing to negotiate an end to the standoff. But despite releasing 20 more hostages the same day, the group continues to hold 83 Peruvian officials, foreign diplomats, and businessmen.

Though heavily armed, the MRTA stands out as a rather archaic movement compared with the high-tech terrorist groups of the 1990s.

During the 1980s, the MRTA was largely eclipsed by the larger and deadlier Maoist group, Shining Path. The MRTA was founded in 1984, four years after then-President Fernando Belaunde ended 12 years of military rule, freeing the media and reopening Peru's Congress.

That was when founder Victor Polay - a former opposition militant of the Apra party and a former roommate of Mr. Belaunde's successor, Alan Garcia, at Sorbonne University in Paris - set out to redress the wrongs that the newly returned democracy had been unable to tackle.

"They want to bring about general social change and to build a Marxist-Leninist state," says Carlos Arroyo, former head of the weekly Cambio, the MRTA's mouthpiece. "But they never thought they would come to power."

Erudite and dashing, Mr. Polay was arrested in 1989 and staged a spectacular jailbreak in 1990 - only to be caught again three years later and jailed for life. Even so, many felt it was not the end of his movement.

"Victor has always fought for social ideals," his mother, Otilia Polay, told the Monitor. "I have faith that he will be released some day under an amnesty."

The group, believed to have been funded at one time by Cuba, operated as a Che Guevara-type guerrilla outfit, dressing in military fatigues, ambushing military patrols, and distributing stolen foodstuffs in impoverished areas.

The MRTA was said to have no more than 1,000 armed guerrillas at its height. And despite videos taken of them in the 1980s showing jungle villagers applauding and dancing with the rebels, the MRTA does not enjoy any real mass support among Peruvians.

But such was their appeal that New York human rights activist Lori Berenson, who was accused of planning to take over the Peruvian Congress with the guerrilla group in 1995, was sentenced to life in prison.

"The MRTA are not delinquent terrorists - it is a revolutionary movement," she shouted at a press conference before being led away. "There is a great deal of injustice in Peru."

The MRTA placed great emphasis on forging international links, forming part of the Battalion America, an umbrella group that included the M-19, one of Colombia's largest guerrilla groups, which in 1988 signed a peace treaty with the government and has since become a major political party.

Alfaro Vive of Ecuador and FPMR of Chile were also members of Battalion America. The MRTA also enjoyed close ties with Nicaragua's Sandinistas and the FMLN of El Salvador.

The group lost much of its foreign support, however, when half-a-dozen guerrilla movements in Latin America laid down their arms after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and Fidel Castro's regime - hurt by growing economic difficulties - distanced itself from such groups.

The MRTA in recent years has been campaigning for a peace agreement with the government that would lead to the creation of a political party along the lines of the M-19.

But the rebel movement earned the undying hatred of Peru's armed forces when it assassinated defense minister Gen. Enrique Lopez Albujar in 1989.

The group also sullied its Robin Hood image when it staged several high-profile kidnappings, such as mining executive David Ballon Vera, who was later found starved to death and scarred by torture.

The MRTA's main power base was the northern Huallaga jungle valley, an area where the rebels protected drug traffickers and gained support among locals as a counterweight to corrupt government officials.

But since the conservative Mr. Fujimori took office in 1990 and launched a barrage of free-market reforms, sweeping away decades of statist polices, many Peruvians are clinging to the hope that foreign investment will bring the economic development that they have longed for.

And after a long guerrilla war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives and left Peru's infrastructure in ruins, the prospect of billions of dollars in foreign investments is clearly more attractive than continuing an apparently unwinnable war against an elected government.

"Peruvians just want these subversive groups to go away," says Raul Gonzales, a Lima-based sociologist who has studied the MRTA. "We have paid a high price over the past decade."

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