(IPS) – The discovery of more and more bodies of victims of Peru’s dirty war on the grounds of the Los Cabitos military base, which served as a torture and extermination centre during the 1980-2000 armed conflict, have substantiated the accounts of political prisoners who managed to survive.
Los Cabitos, in Huamanga, the capital of the southern highlands province of Ayacucho, was the central headquarters of the provincial political military command during the armed conflict.
Army commanders planned counterinsurgency operations against the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas at the base, which also served as a centre for the detention, torture and killing of suspected insurgents and rebel sympathisers.
Over the past week, the authorities have disinterred another 11 bodies, bringing the total so far to 97, including a number of children. But the forensic experts still have a large area to excavate in the ongoing task.
The exhumation of the remains of victims of the dirty war confirms that Los Cabitos was used as a centre for extrajudicial executions by the army, as reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) that investigated the armed conflict.
In its final report, presented in 2003, the CVR recommended a full investigation of the kidnapping and murder of 135 people in Los Cabitos between 1983 and 1985, one of the bloodiest periods of the war between the army and Sendero. It also called for those responsible to be held legally accountable.
Prosecutors and judicial authorities began the painstaking excavation work on the grounds of Los Cabitos based on the testimony of political prisoners who escaped or otherwise managed to survive their time at the detention centre, and on the statements of former members of the army who worked there.
Several members of the army told the CVR that commanders ordered the construction of furnaces at Los Cabitos, to cremate the bodies of detainees who were murdered, which would explain the large number of charred human remains that have been found.
In April 2008, forensic experts from the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML) found four ovens containing charred bones, which confirmed the witnesses’ testimony.
The Ayacucho provincial political military command functioned in Los Cabitos from 1983 to 1985, under Generals Clemente Noel, Wilfredo Mori and Adrián Huamán. Mori and Huamán are currently facing trial for other cases of human rights violations, and Noel is dead.
A source at the Ayacucho public prosecutor’s office told IPS that spent shell casings from FAL assault rifles were found next to the bodies in the most recently discovered clandestine grave. Most of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and were shot in the head with FAL rifles, which were commonly used by the Peruvian army in the 1980s.
"In most of the cases, they were executed at short range, which would appear to indicate a pattern of extermination," said the source.
The authorities have also begun to take DNA samples from people who say their parents, siblings or children were detained by the army, taken to Los Cabitos, and never heard from again.
In 2004, after the CVR had completed its work, journalist Ricardo Uceda published the book "Muerte en el Pentagonito" (Death in the Little Pentagon: The Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army), which included the testimony of former Army Intelligence Service (SIE) agent Jesús Sosa about an order that he was allegedly given to disinter bodies and burn them in an oven, because of the possibility of investigations on the site by legal authorities.
Sosa said the military commanders entrusted the task to him because he had taken part in the torture, murder and burial of several political prisoners, and knew where to find the victims’ bodies. Now they needed him to eliminate the evidence.
In 1985, "the army command decided to make all of the bodies buried since 1983 in Los Cabitos disappear. One of those most interested in having this done was, obviously, General Wilfredo Mori," Uceda wrote.
"How many bodies were buried there? At least 500, according to the military personnel who had worked there in the earliest years, but no one knew exactly The victims included those of General Huamán and those of General Mori himself, who was much more selective in choosing who was to be killed," he added.
The order received by "Jesús Sosa was to identify the possible burial sites on the grounds of the army garrison and help disinter the bodies and burn them in an oven built for that purpose. His job was to reduce to ashes any sign of the killings," he wrote.
Sosa told the author that one of the bodies that he exhumed and cremated was that of Eladio Quispe, who was seized by the army on Sept. 15, 1983. His family knew he was being held at Los Cabitos, but the military denied it. Quispe was married to Guadalupe Ccallocunto, and the couple had four children. On Jul. 10, 1990, Ccallocunto was also "disappeared" by the military.
Human rights lawyer Karim Ninaquispe of the Runamasinchiqpaq human rights association (ADEHR) now represents the children of Eladio Quispe and Guadalupe Ccallocunto.
Ninaquispe said that based on the information provided by Sosa, a lawsuit was brought in 2005 against those responsible for the 1983 torture or forced disappearance of 55 people who were held at Los Cabitos, including Eladio Quispe.
"In the early years of the civil war, between 1983 and 1985, the Los Cabitos garrison was the main clandestine centre for detention, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions," Ninaquispe told IPS.
"Responsible for this were army Generals Clemente Noel, Adrián Huamán and Wilfredo Mori, along with other officers, and the head of the joint chiefs of staff Carlos Briceño, because torture and forced disappearance were part of a counter-subversive policy approved by the highest-ranking military commanders," she said.
Lead prosecutor Luz Ibáñez is preparing charges against those allegedly responsible for the torture of 15 people and the forced disappearance of 40.
The authorities have not yet managed to confirm whether any of the 97 bodies exhumed at Los Cabitos belong to the 40 abovementioned victims of forced disappearance, because the results of the DNA tests are not yet in.
One of the plaintiffs is Edgar Noriega, who was seized from his home by members of the military on Jul. 1, 1983 and taken to Los Cabitos, accused of belonging to Sendero. Noriega’s wife, Olga Gutiérrez, who was pregnant at the time, was also arrested.
To get Noriega to confess that he was a Sendero commander, soldiers whipped his wife in front of him.
"They brutally beat me, kicking me in the back. They twisted my arms behind my back. They squeezed my breasts hard. They wanted me to say that my husband belonged to Sendero and that he headed up popular schools," Gutiérrez told the CVR. "Later they told me that I was going to hear a voice, and I heard the screams of my husband, as he was being tortured."
A few days after that, late at night, a group of officers entered the cell where the detainees were being held. "I realised that one of them was General Clemente Noel. I said hello to him and he thought he recognised me. That’s why he ordered my release," said Gutiérrez.
She and her husband were fortunate, unlike hundreds of other political prisoners.
As the trial looms, new bodies continue to be found. A former head of the Institute of Legal Medicine, Luis Bromley, estimated that there are at least 1,000 bodies in Los Cabitos.
"The military brass met in Los Cabitos, where they planned not only the massacres of Accomarca and Cayara but also approved a policy of systematic extermination to combat ‘subversives’," said Ninaquispe. "Los Cabitos was a centre of horror. The bones that are there tell it all."