For 18 years, Angelica Mendoza waited for word of her son Arquimedes, taken from her home in the Andean city of Ayacucho by hooded men and never heard from since.
Now, though, Mrs. Mendoza thinks she may find out what happened to him. "So many people don't want the truth known, but I believe we're getting closer," says Mendoza, the leader of an Ayacucho organization of relatives whose loved ones disappeared during 15 years of terrorism and state-sponsored violence.
But just as the window is being cracked on one of Latin America's darkest periods, some here fear that it could suddenly shut again.
The end of former President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian regime last year cleared the way for the creation of a national truth commission. It is expected to tell Peruvians what happened from1980 to 1994, when more than 35,000 citizens died or disappeared.
Commission proposals from Congress and from a group of human rights activists appointed by President Valentin Paniagua recommend punishment of the worst perpetrators of violence and reparations to victims' families.
"This step is needed to establish a sense of justice in Peru and to demonstrate that impunity will not stand," says Anel Townsend, a member of Congress and a sponsor of the bill.
But many commission advocates fear that if a transition government that leaves office in July doesn't act, the truth may never be revealed.
"We want the [Paniagua] government to act on this before it's too late," says Mendoza, whose home province of Ayacucho was especially hard hit by the terrorism of the Shining Path insurgency and by the state's strong-arm response to the guerrillas.
The surprisingly strong finish by former President Alan Garcia in the first round of presidential elections April 8 means that the man who governed Peru during 1985-90, five of the worst years of violence, will be in a runoff next month - and could end up governing during a truth commission's tenure.
Human rights specialists say the Garcia factor throws a new twist into an already complicated situation. Peru's case was already characterized as more complex than that of other Latin American countries - Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador - that established truth commissions as a means of promoting national healing after years of state-sponsored rights abuses.
For one thing, the Maoist Shining Path was so ruthless in its terror campaign that it is considered responsible for half or more of the violence. In countries like Argentina and Chile, political killings and forced disappearances were largely the work of state forces.
Also, because so many of the victims in Peru were poor peasants, gaining the confidence necessary for full and honest testimonies will be more difficult work. "Perhaps 80 percent of a commission's work would be in rural areas, but that means working with people who have always been without a voice" in Peruvian society, says Carlos Basombrio, director of Lima's Legal Defense Institute and a commission advocate.
Most victims of political violence elsewhere in South America were members of the urban intelligentsia that military dictatorships considered the enemy.
In Peru, perhaps two-thirds of victims were from Ayacucho alone. And the violence occurred during years of "relative democracy," when the media and congressional committees were reporting on and investigating massacres and other violence, Mr. Basombrio says. "Just answering why this happened here involves more actors and a more complex concept of responsibility," he adds.
One trap to avoid will be simply placing the blame on the disgraced Mr. Fujimori and his spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos - both of whom fled the country. Right now, Fujimori and Mr. Montesinos are being tagged with everything bad that has happened in Peru. As Basombrio notes, however, the bulk of human rights violations occurred before Fujimori took office in 1990.
But several high-profile cases of the state's reliance on paramilitary teams to carry out its dirty work in the early 1990s can be tied to the despised duo.
One of Peru's worst single moments of violence occurred under Mr. Garcia in 1986, when the Army bombed prisons where inmates, including suspected Shining Path terrorists, were rioting. More than 300 people died. "There were massacres and disappearances in Garcia's years that I tend to doubt he'd want investigated," says Congresswoman Townsend, a Toledo supporter.
Felipe Leon, a survivor of the 1991 Lima Barrios Altos massacre of 15 people the government suspected of being Shining Path leaders, holds Garcia responsible for some of the bloodshed.
"His responsibility in these acts needs as much investigation as Fujimori's," he says.
The Barrios Altos massacre was carried out by a paramilitary group tied to Fujimori's regime. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently ruled that an amnesty law for police and military personnel signed by Fujimori in 1995 does not cover that case - raising hopes that earlier amnesty acts can be weakened.
Mr. Leon says he fears Garcia might impede a truth commission's work - even though Garcia joined other presidential candidates, including front-runner Alejandro Toledo, in signing a statement of support for setting up a commission. "I don't think Garcia really wants [a commission]," says Basombrio, "but he's not going to say that in public."
Peruvians, who overwhelmingly support creation of a truth commission, face a growing debate over whether the prospects for a commission are better if it results from a law out of Congress, or a presidential decree.
"We still have a strong element in Congress that doesn't want an investigation of the past," says Walter Alban, Peru's "people's defender", a kind of national ombudsman. But he says a decree will be tricky, too. The president faces opposition to a commission in already tense military and police ranks.
Peru was thrown into an uproar earlier this month when Congress released another "vladivideo" from ex-spy chief Montesinos's large library of secretly taped footage - this one from 1999 featuring hundreds of military and police officers signing a commitment to defend Fujimori's 1992 self-coup and the amnesty law.
And then there's the presidential runoff with Garcia, set for mid-May "I have a feeling," says Mr. Alban, "the president will wait until after the second round to act on this."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor