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The Struggle for Accountability: Civil War Atrocities


The Struggle for Accountability: Civil War Atrocities

From 1980 to 2000, some 70,000 Peruvians, the majority of them indigenous, died in fighting between government forces and guerillas.  Both sides of the civil war committed systematic human rights atrocities. The number of dead and disappeared surpasses the casualties of all other wars in modern Peruvian history. 

Nearly half a million of Peru’s poorest citizens, most of them indigenous peoples from the Andean highlands, were forcibly displaced by the state or the armed opposition.  Many of these IDPs were concentrated in the slums of Lima, in zones of squalid poverty. [1] In the 1990s,  as the guerilla and counterinsurgency strategies shifted from rural areas to the urban theater, these same populations found themselves preyed upon once again by death squads. In the 21st century, Peru has begun the difficult task of reestablishing the rule of law and holding accountable those responsible for atrocities. CJA’s work in Peru strives to support these efforts.

ORIGINS: 1532-1980

Modern day Peru was once the seat of the Quechuan civilization, whose empire in the high Andes covered a terrain the size of the eastern United States. A brutal civil war and the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1532 led to the collapse and subjugation of the Inca dynasty. Violence and the introduction of the smallpox virus decimated the native population, which declined in the ratio 58:1 during the years 1520-1571. [2] By the 20th century, many of the indigenous people of the Andes,  who had once produced the marvels of the Incan empire, were reduced to what some describe as “Fourth World” poverty. [3]

Peru won independence from Spain in 1824, but didn’t achieve relative political stability until the early 20th century. Even then, intermittent periods of democratic development were broken up by autocratic military rule. Far more determinative of Peru’s socio-economic character was the nation’s long domination by an aristocratic oligarchy of Spanish descent.  Until mass party politics developed in the latter half of the 20th century, the majority of the country, including large numbers of indigenous peoples, suffered from political exclusion and economic marginalization. [4]

In the 1960s, revolutionary leftist movements were on the rise throughout Latin America. The resulting wave of political violence was largely symptomatic of the entrenched economic inequality and anti-democratic political traditions that plagued the post-colonial order.  In Peru, the insurrection of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) was quelled by 1965, but Peru's internal discord would gradually culminate in the 1980s, with the emergence of a Maoist-inspired guerrilla movement called Sendero Luminoso: the Shining Path. [4]


Founded in the late 1960s by a philosophy professor named Abimael Guzmán, the Shining Path grew from a small radical cell to a guerilla army numbering over 10,000 combatants. It deployed insurgency tactics and terrorist attacks against military and civilians targets, in an attempt to replace the Peruvian government with a centralized revolutionary regime. Guzmán was an isolationist; he refused to align his movement with foreign powers or even with the second-most prominent leftist group in Peru, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). [5]

Thus, the civil war in Peru was not a simple binary conflict between government and rebel forces. Instead, multiple parties vied for control over overlapping territories and constituencies.  Where the allegiance of the indigenous masses became in itself a military objective, native civilians of Peru found themselves the inevitable targets of violence.


No part of the country was untouched by the conflict, but the worst violence was concentrated in the Andean highlands, particularly in the Ayacucho region, where guerilla and government forces vied to control the native populace through terror. Human rights reports reveal that the use of violence against civilians became systematic. Shining Path fighters were allegedly ordered to hack their victims to death with machetes in order to save ammunition.  Government and paramilitary forces were given license to unleash waves of torture and sexual violence and even to massacre entire villages. One such massacre near the village of Accomarca killed 69 civilians, including children and the elderly. [1]

» Read more about the Accomarca massacre and CJA’s effort to bring its perpetrators to justice.

In July 2001, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) was convened to investigate the human rights abuses that took place between 1980 and 2000. The CVR's final report, published in August 2003, found that the combined insurgent and counterinsurgent violence had caused an estimated 69,000 deaths and disappearances. The majority of these victims were indigenous civilians. [1]

The report found that all parties to the conflict had engaged in egregious human rights abuses:

“During the two decades of internal armed conflict, thousands of serious abuses of fundamental rights had been committed by armed opposition groups, mainly Shining Path and, to a lesser extent, the MRTA, and that gross violations of human rights, which, at certain times and in certain places, were systematic and widespread and amounted to crimes against humanity, had been committed by State officials, especially the Armed Forces.”


The combination of the internal conflict, a global recession in the late 1970s and several natural disasters devastated Peru’s economy.  Under the presidency of Fernando Belaúnde (1975-1980), the rate of inflation rose to triple digits. Despite the austerity programs under Belaúnde’s successor, Alán García, unemployment soared along with blooming external debt.  As part of his proposed reforms, García promised to rein in the military from its excesses in the early 1980s. However, it soon became clear that the Shining Path’s attacks were escalating. García gave the military the green light for an unfettered counterinsurgency campaign. [1]


The rise of Alberto Fujimori from obscurity to the center of the national stage is best understood in the context of the general crisis that beset Peru.  By the end of the 1980s, the violent insurgencies appeared unstoppable, as did the staggering economic decline; inflation rates had reached quadruple-digits.  [6]

Blending populism with a “strong-man” image, Fujimori promised Peruvians an end to the crisis. And for a few years, he seemed to keep his word.  In the first two years of the 1990s, the Shining Path suffered a series of military defeats.  At the same time, draconian economic austerity measures had reduced inflation to pre-1988 levels. [6]

Then, on April 5, 1992, Fujimori staged an auto-golpe (self-coup) that led to the closing of Peru's Congress and the dismantling of the country's judicial system. After the coup, Fujimori implemented a clandestine, parallel strategy of counter-subversion that included widespread domestic surveillance against political rivals, “hooded” unconstitutional tribunals and a campaign of extrajudicial killing and torture that targeted suspected leftists. [7] [8] [9]

 Fujimori surveys the guerilla casualties following a raid to free hostages from the Japanese embassy, 1996.
Two great ironies marked this otherwise tragic period. First, Fujimori’s campaign of human rights abuses did little to defeat the Shining Path. The Peruvian army’s military victories were accomplished largely by conventional means, while the majority of the death squads’ victims turned out to be innocent civilians.  Furthermore, the September 1992 arrest of Shining Path leader Abimaél Guzmán was the result of a long-term conventional police investigation, initiated before the coup. [6]

Second, Fujimori’s broad net of domestic surveillance eventually exposed his own criminality.   In the first of hundreds of ‘vladi-videos’ leaked to the press, Fujimori’s security chief Vladimiro Montesinos was caught dispensing bricks of currency to members of Congress. As more of the videotapes surfaced, Fujimori fled the country in scandal and faxed in his resignation. [10]

A long effort to return Fujimori to Peru to stand trial culminated in his eventual extradition, arrest, and conviction in April 2009 on charges of crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In the light of the Fujimori conviction, Peru is poised to make a fuller reckoning of its history of human rights abuses. CJA will continue to work with our partners in Peru to support this transition. [10]

» Read here for more on Alberto Fujimori and CJA’s role in his trial.


[1] All figures from the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Volume VI, "Crimes and Human Rights Violations", p. 653. Available at http://www.cverdad.org.pe/ingles/ifinal/conclusiones.php [Accessed 7 August 2009]

[2]   "Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America". Newson, Linda A. Latin American Research Review 20 (3): 41–74, 1985.

[3]   "Missing the Revolution: Anthropologists and the War in Peru." Starn, Orin. In Rereading Cultural Anthropology, ed. G.E. Marcus, pp. 152-80. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

[4] "Background Note: Peru", U.S. Dept. of State, 2009. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35762.htm#history

[5] "Shining Path, Tupac Amaru", Kathryn Gregory, Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, 2009. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/publication/9276/

[6]  Conaghan, Catherine. Fujimori’s Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

[7]  Fujimori on Trial: Secret DIA Intelligence Cable Ties Former President to Summary Executions. Ed. Kornbluh, Peter and Jeremy Bigwood. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 237. December 10, 2007. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB237/index.htm [accessed 12 May 2009]

[8]  Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Violations and the Faceless Courts in Peru, Vol. 8, No. 5(B), New York: Human Rights Watch, August 1996. Available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/type,COUNTRYREP,HRW,PER,3ae6a7dd0,0.html [accessed 12 May 2009]

[9]  Peru: The Two Faces of Justice, Vol 7, No. 9, New York: Human Rights Watch, July 1995. http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/type,COUNTRYREP,HRW,PER,3ae6a7ed4,0.html [accessed 12 May 2009]

[10] International Center for Transitional Justice: Peru. Available at: http://www.ictj.org/en/where/region2/617.html#BAC