Golden Cages: Wealth and Misery in Peru’s Highlands

Source: ZNet

"Chiquito, chiquito, chiquito…" she says quietly, shaking her head as she describes how incredibly small the airplane looks in the sky from the fertile land she stands on. But Doña Maria, a Quechua woman no more than five feet tall, should be thinking about different things. Standing in line for hours outside the looming Huacariz Prison in a remote part of Cajamarca in northern Peru, this dark-skinned woman with long black braids is too embarrassed to mention that her son is imprisoned for a petty crime in a land where half the population survives on less than two dollars a day. Instead, Doña Maria talks about the real travesty in the broken heart of Cajamarca: the planet’s second largest gold mine. A joint venture operated by private U.S. and Peruvian interests, along with an ever-helping hand from the World Bank, the 22,000 acre Yanacocha Mine has brought its partners $7 billion worth of gold, and counting. According to the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation, which owns more than half of the mine, Yanacocha holds "significant reserves, high production and low cash costs." But it is the land and the people of Cajamarca that absorb the real cost of Newmont’s over-production: diluted cyanide and mercury has polluted the air, land and water, causing death and illness to the fish, animals and humans.

Doña Maria uses her leathered hands to point and looks up towards the picture perfect white clouds draping as if hung on the blue sky backdrop. "That plane, it’s so small", she says. "It takes away all our gold…. And it brings us all our misery."

Cages of the Past

Cajamarca is plagued with a steep memory of stolen precious metals. It was here that an encounter between Spanish colonizer Francisco Pizarro and Sapa Inca Atahualpa forever changed the course of Tawantin Suyu (the Inca Empire), and along with it, forever sealed the fate of what came to be known as Latin America.

The year was 1532. More than a decade earlier and 3,000 miles north, Moctezuma had already been captured by Hernán Cortés and faced his demise in Tenochtitlan. The Spanish now turned their gaze and greed south, and set plans into place that would secure the fall of another empire. Atahualpa’s emperor father, Huayna Capac, had already fallen to the invisible stabs of smallpox contracted from other colonizers in present-day Colombia. With no apparent heir to the continent’s most powerful empire, Atahualpa battled his half-brother Huáscar for control and, with strategic precision and a massive military force, won handedly. Atahualpa and roughly 80,000 devout soldiers, some of whom may have been comfortably resting on their martial laurels coupled with ill advice, were making their way back to Cajamarca from Cuzco when they were trapped by Pizarro and 168 Spanish soldiers. Spears and arrows aimed and shot with skilled accuracy proved to be no match against Spanish cannons and heavy armor: as many as 7,000 soldiers died in a battle that lasted less than one hour. Not one of them was a Spaniard.

Once captured, Atahualpa began to negotiate his release, a negotiation that was guided by mistaken rumors that the Spaniards sought only gold and silver, when in fact they sought to acquire even more riches, land, slaves and subjects in their insatiable quest for domination. In exchange for his life, Atahualpa offered to fill a 22′ x 17′ x 8′ room once with gold and twice with silver. Pizarro agreed and the two men signed a contract outlining the details. For months, Atahualpa’s people in Cuzco would strip their homes and temples of gold and silver, which was then carried by tireless runners who would sprint 1,000 Andean miles north on the established four highways, finally making their way to Cajamarca to drop off the heavy goods. In weight alone, the ransom would be equivalent to roughly $100,000,000 today. Yet the ornate designs and patterns that graced those temples and homes were of no value to the Spanish who quickly melted them down, forever obliterating meaning and leaving behind only the raw traces of the story we are left to contend with. Anecdotes abound, but rest is history: one set written and disseminated by the Spanish, another recorded and told today by the indigenous decedents like Doña Maria that populate this land – this land that still signifies riches for the few and poverty for the many. What remains clear is that after he was handed over the largest ransom in recorded history, Pizarro went back on his word. Atahualpa, imprisoned in a golden cage with what must have seemed an infinite amount of gold, was nevertheless executed.

Cages of the Present

After two hours of standing in line, Doña Maria is tired. To enter the Huacariz Prison is to surrender to an extended game of patience, silence and luck. There are various checkpoints on the single file line where one may be riddled with demands ranging from explanations for the visit to consenting to a strip search before entering the prison as part of a security check. Not all prison protocols in Peru are like this, but this one is unique in that it houses political prisoner Lori Berenson.

It could be said that Berenson left her own golden cage in the United States to put her beliefs and life on the line to struggle for the common dignity of people in Latin America. Not content to merely gaze at movements for social, economic and political justice in textbooks, Berenson left the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to work with people displaced by El Salvador’s bloody civil war in 1990. Four years later, she would move to Peru to chronicle the government’s response to overwhelming poverty for two U.S.-based publications. Soon after, she would learn that her sense of solidarity would forever change her life.

On November 30, 1995, she was pulled out of a bus in the capital city of Lima, accused of being a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA for its Spanish acronym), and forced into marathon interrogations for nine days and nights without legal counsel. She was symbolically granted an attorney on December 9, 1995 – one who was not allowed to give her legal advice as she was required to give an 11-hour testimony before Peru’s National Anti-Terrorism office. Berenson was made to answer questions, but barred from presenting evidence in her defense or cross-examining the witnesses against her. Those first few days in Peru’s system would become the unjust norm by which Berenson would be tried and ultimately convicted.

In early January, 1996, Berenson was "tried" in a military tribunal before a hooded judge for treason (although she was not a citizen of Peru), but was not allowed to hear or see the proceedings against her or even participate in her own defense. The physical and psychological trauma the state of Peru inflicted on her through deplorable prison conditions and chilling proceedings is so astonishing that it closely rivals the needless suffering prisoners in Guantanamo Bay face today at the hands of the United States. On January 11, 1996, Berenson was taken before a hooded judge who read the verdict and sentence as a hooded soldier held a gun to her head. The judge asserted that Berenson (who had spent less than one year in Peru at the time of her arrest) was not only a member, but the leader of the MRTA, and that she was to spend the rest of her life in a maximum-security penitentiary. Over the course of two months, Berenson’s case was appealed first before a set of three hooded judges and finally before a five judge panel. Both venues upheld the original sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

After a lengthy and diligent campaign for justice, Berenson’s military tribunal conviction was overturned in 2000; however, she was forced to stay in prison as the state prepared a new, civil trial against her in 2001. Although the civilian trial lacked hooded judges and secret proceedings, international human rights groups, along with the U.S. Department of State, pointed out that the new trial lacked fair standards, including the fact that Berenson was not considered innocent until proven guilty by the prosecutor – instead she was asked to convince the court of her innocence. Finally allowed to address the court, she argued her innocence. After a short recess, Berenson was sentenced to the maximum, 20-year sentence for "collaborating" with the MRTA. Oddly enough, the civilian court condemned the military trial against her, and also cleared her of being a member, militant or leader of the MRTA. Although her civilian case was also appealed, her 20-year sentence was upheld. Meanwhile, a series of proceedings in the Inter-American system that began in 1998 eventually yielded a heartbreaking result: the Inter-American Court of Human Rights reversed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 7-0 decision which denounced the proceedings again Berenson.

Today, nearly 11 years into her sentence, Berenson is dedicated to working in the prison bakery, where she makes unthreatening pastries and breads. By choice, she starts her days at 3 a.m. and works until 6 p.m., seven days a week to keep busy. As the Christmas season approaches, Berenson spends an ever-increasing amount of time in the bakery, preparing holiday breads called panetones. Her secluded and musty cell, behind a maze of solid walls and iron bars, houses a neat library of books and letters, and the slab of concrete that is her bed. More than halfway into a 20-year sentence, Berenson is happy to see the visitors that will inevitably help her with the daily 15-hour baking shift. In between weighing ingredients, kneading dough and checking oven temperatures, she demonstrates a deep and opinionated knowledge of current world events, and a sometimes indifferent sense of everyday prison life.

Having already left the confines of the north and its opulence, Berenson never made concessions; she never negotiated her release, but not unlike Atahualpa, her capture serves as the expansion of power and the condemnation of ideas. And perhaps every prisoner behind those walls is a political one, as is every citizen of the golden cage that is the city of Cajamarca, forced to carry the burden of being a poor person living on rich land.

Golden Futures?

Like most Quechuas in the region young and old, Doña Maria carries within her a vast knowledge of events past and present, and understands the contradictions of an uncertain future. Yanacocha, the massive mine whose flights she says take all the gold and bring all the misery, represents a new market that has caged the local economy – and while many people would like to see it forever closed, some wonder how they will make ends meet without it. Atahualpa must have contemplated contradictions as well, when, in a last ditch effort to avoid certain execution, he converted to Christianity, the religion and symbol of something he had long resisted. The people he ordered to strip their temples nearly 500 years ago may have wondered, too, what their new future void of traditional culture and customs might hold. Today, it is their decedents that live with the grueling legacies of colonialism and continued expropriation by foreign companies like Newmont Mining Corporation.

And then there is Lori Berenson, the fighter who continues to read, write and bake to pass time in Huacariz Prison, isolated with her thoughts, living next that the world’s most profitable gold mine. Her personal case remains as vague as Peru’s future. While her father, Mark, attempts to push the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to take a look at the case, Lori reminds him the last time they made a decision regarding her case in 1998 it was ignored by then-President Alberto Fujimori. Although Mark disagrees with his daughter and believes that the current administration might be more likely to honor the decision of an international body, Lori also reminds him that the process itself could take as long as four years – by which time she might be released if she is granted parole. Berenson has been a model, yet high-profile prisoner, and has reason to believe that political pressure will keep her behind bars for the full 20-year term. Even if she is released on parole as other political prisoners have been in recent years, her actions will be closely monitored and she will be expected to stay in Peru for five years. And while the U.S. government has promised in the past to protect her rights as a U.S. citizen, it has yet to extend an inquiry into the parole she’s certainly earned.

The future is always uncertain, but foreign (be it the Spanish Crown or Denver-based Newmont) control of lives, resources and ideas has taken a staggering toll in Peru for five centuries. Atahualpa and Lori Berenson are names we have come to know – but there are countless others who struggle for basic human rights and dignity, and have had to pay the price of their common dreams with their lives. As Berenson expressed shortly after her arrest, she "will never stop loving, and never will lose the hope and confidence that there will be a new day of justice." That justice might not be found in a 20-year sentence with or without parole; it might ignored if it’s found by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; it might be lost along with the resources that Newmont Mining robs from Cajamarca daily; but it may become real the day enough people work to see it through. Enclosed in our own mental confines, we tend to easily forget history, and are sometimes bound to repeat it before we learn craft a new future.

With the sun beating down at the 9,000 feet elevation, Doña Maria shouldn’t be standing in line today to visit her son. One knows she would give anything in the world for his freedom – but along with all the people of Cajamarca, she’s been stripped of her gold. Today, she should be enjoying the bounty of her land and water, but she knows all too well that even a golden cage is still a prison.

Aura Bogado is the host of Free Speech Radio News, a daily, independent, newscast, and the Training Coordinator for KPFK Radio’s Voices of Tomorrow, a Southern California youth media training program. She can be reached at