Peru: Survivors Come Face to Face with Massacre Leader

 (IPS) – Teófila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido, survivors of a 1985 massacre in Peru, said that seeing retired Peruvian army officer Telmo Hurtado in prison-issue clothing and shackles was the closest they have come to seeing justice done.

On Aug. 14, 1985, Hurtado led the massacre of 69 women, children and old men in the highlands village of Accomarca in Peru’s southern Andean region of Ayacucho.

Ochoa and Pulido, who were 13 and 12 years old, respectively, at the time, managed to survive by running away and hiding. But they lost their mothers and siblings.

"When I saw him come in dragging his feet, guarded by police officers, I felt incredible relief. At last Telmo Hurtado was facing justice," Ochoa told IPS.

The soldiers commanded by Hurtado killed Ochoa’s mother and five brothers and sisters.

"I wanted to hit him, to shout ‘murderer!’ but I controlled myself. There was the man who had caused so much harm to so many innocent people. At last justice will be done, although it makes me really sad that it is in a court in the United States and not in Peru," Pulido, whose mother and nine-month-old brother were among the victims, told IPS.

On Feb. 11, the two women testified before U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan in a federal court in Miami, Florida, where Hurtado is facing a civil lawsuit for damages filed by Ochoa and Pulido on behalf of the members of the Association of the Relatives of the Victims of Violence in Accomarca.

The Peruvian army patrol led by then second lieutenant Hurtado reached Accomarca at 7:00 AM on that tragic day in 1985, rounded up villagers, raped women and girls, and killed their victims by locking them into two houses, opening fire, and throwing in grenades.

In an earlier interview with IPS, Pulido said that after the two houses were burnt to the ground, the soldiers searched their victims’ homes and ate and drank, "to celebrate what they had done."

The atrocity occurred just a few weeks after current President Alan García was sworn in for his first term, on Jul. 28, 1985. But it did not lead him to modify the "anti-subversive" policy followed by his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde.

Around 70,000 people were killed in Peru’s 1980-2000 war against the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas and smaller rebel groups, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Hurtado was arrested in March 2007 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Florida for violating U.S. immigration laws.

He had fled to Miami in December 2002 when the Peruvian state, on the instructions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, lifted the amnesty that president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) had decreed to benefit human rights violators, and the case against Hurtado in Peru was reopened.

When they heard about his arrest, the Association of the Relatives of the Victims of Violence in Accomarca began to prepare legal action against him, with the support of the San Francisco-based human rights group Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

The CJA based its arguments on the Alien Torts Statute, under which non-U.S. citizens can seek justice in U.S. courts for violations of international law if the defendant lives in the United States or owns assets there.

Ochoa was testifying when Judge Jordan interrupted her to announce that Hurtado had arrived. The judge then informed the retired army major that he had no obligation to sit through the hearing in which Ochoa and Pulido were giving their testimony, and Hurtado left, in the custody of U.S. marshals.

"He left because he is a coward," said Ochoa. "He did not express repentance or shame. He didn’t even look at us. When I saw that he was in shackles, it made me so happy. I told myself, ‘at last the murderer has begun to pay for what he did!’"

"I didn’t feel sorry for him at all, seeing him like that, dressed as a prisoner and shackled," said Pulido. "’You have finally started to pay for what you did,’ I said to myself. What did make me sad was to remember that horrible day when they killed and burnt my family and my neighbours."

Next week, the two women will travel to Accomarca to personally inform the villagers of the good news about the trial against Hurtado.

"I am going to tell my fellow villagers that the wait has not been in vain. That the killer is in prison and that he will not be set free until he has paid for all the damages and pain that he has caused us," said Ochoa, choking back tears. "I thought this suffering would never come to an end."

"I wanted to tell him: you killed my mother and my little brothers and sisters: Gerardo, Víctor, Ernestina, Celestino and Edwin, who was only one years old," she added.

The Peruvian lawyer representing the survivors, Karim Ninaquispe, who also flew to Miami to attend the hearing, told IPS that in the first week of March the judge may hand down his decision about whether or not to accept the case.

"The two witnesses’ devastating testimony about the brutal killings was very moving. They escaped the gunfire and grenades, and saw what the soldiers did," said Ninaquispe, who said the victims were 30 women, 23 children, and 16 men.

The CJA said it was confident that the court would decide in favour of a trial.

During the Fujimori administration, Hurtado was tried by a military court which sentenced him to a mere six years in prison for "abuse of authority". In that trial, he described the massacre in detail.

But there is no evidence that he actually served any time in prison before benefiting from Fujimori’s amnesty decree. On the contrary, he returned to active service, was promoted, and was later decorated as a hero by then army chief Nicolás Hermoza.

Ninaquispe said that in the Miami hearing, Hurtado stated that he did not know why he had been summoned to court, alleged that he could not afford legal representation, and took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

"I thought that 22 years after the bloody event, Hurtado would express some kind of repentance or remorse," said the lawyer. "I thought that maybe, knowing that the two victims were there, he would apologise to the entire village of Accomarca, through Teófila and Cirila. But he didn’t do that.

"On the contrary, he showed up acting arrogant and defiant. It was a way of hiding his fear, the fear of the increasingly likely possibility of receiving the conviction that he deserves," Ninaquispe added.

If the judge does not allow the case to go ahead, Ninaquispe hopes that Hurtado will be deported to Peru and tried in a special human rights court, by Judge Armando Salvador Neyra.

Also testifying in the Miami hearing was former Peruvian senator Javier Diez Canseco, who formed part of the commission that investigated the Accomarca case. He pointed out that Hurtado had stated earlier that the order he had received, and followed, was to "capture and eliminate."

"Hurtado also admitted that he ordered the detainees, who included children, to be shut up in a house where they were shot, and that he threw in a grenade so the house would burn down," said Diez Canseco.

Between sobs, Ochoa said "we cannot bring our families back to life, but we want to give them the dignity of justice."

"Neither abandonment, nor marginalisation nor impunity have defeated us in 22 years. Seeing Hurtado in prison has filled us with hope. Soon there will be much less pain among our people," said Pulido.