A U.S. citizen plans to return home to New York from South America 20 years after she was jailed on terrorism charges in Peru under the Fujimori dictatorship for aiding the armed struggle of left-wing guerrillas.
Lori Berenson is finally free to leave Peru after her 20-year sentence expired Sunday. She spent the last five years on parole living in the capital Lima with her son, who was born while Berenson was in prison. Berenson has not disclosed the details of her travel plans.
As a young leftist, Berenson traveled to Latin America in the early 1990s. She collaborated with revolutionary rebels in El Salvador before moving to Peru in 1994, where she got involved with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a left-wing guerrilla army.
Berenson was convicted of “collaborating with terrorism” and treason in 1996 for her involvement in a foiled plot to take control of Peruvian Congress, the Associated Press reported. Berenson denied knowledge of Tupac Amaru’s planned hostage operation. She served 15 years in prison before being released on parole.
In an interview with Peru’s La Republica, Berenson said she wanted to talk publicly about her case to shed light on the history of internal conflict in the country.
“What I want to be known is that no one, at least people like me, want this to be repeated, but that it is understood why it happened,” Berenson told La Republica. “There was a social reality that led people to take that course, it was not just a thing of a bunch of fools.”
Armed struggle in Peru between the government and Tupac Amaru and other Maoist revolutionary groups, namely the Shining Path, claimed close to 70,000 lives over two decades of internal conflict.
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Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission — launched in 2001 after the fall of Alberto Fujimori's dictatorship to investigate scores of forced disappearances, massacres, and human rights violations — documented widespread abuses at the hands of both the Peruvian army and rebels. The Commission also reported the existence of more than 4,000 mass graves in Peru.
According to the Commission, the Shining Path was responsible for some 54 percent of victims of the internal conflict, while Tupac Amaru was guilty of 1.8 percent. Berenson explained to La Republica that along with political and ideological distinctions, the main difference between the two guerrilla movements was that the Shining Path used arms of mass destruction like car bombs, while Tupac Amaru exercised targeted assassinations and did not provoke massacres.
“Lori Berenson: ‘To the people who have felt affected by my acts, I ask forgiveness.’”
Tupac Amaru and Shining Path faced a crackdown from 1980 to 2000 in Peru's so-called “war on terror.” The counterinsurgency strategy aimed to wipe out armed groups that posed a significant challenge to the state. Many of Peru’s disappearances have been seen as part of the U.S.-backed Operation Condor, which saw dictatorships quash rebellious voices and leftist movements throughout the continent.
While the Tupac Amaru movement dissolved without seeming to have regrouped, Shining Path members are said to still be operating in remote areas despite efforts by Peruvian forces to “exterminate” the group.
Berenson maintains that she is not a “terrorist.” Rather, she says that she struggled “to change situations that are unjust, like social exclusion related to poverty (and) inequality,” and that her jail time was the result of using illegal strategies as part of that struggle, she told La Republica. She said that although many acts of Tupac Amaru are condemnable, they did not constitute “terrorism.”
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“I deeply lament the suffering of all the people affected directly or indirectly affected by the confict,” Berenson told La Republica. “And from all the people who have felt affected or offended by my words or my action, I ask forgiveness.”
Berenson says a normal legal situation awaits her in the U.S.
WATCH: Peru's Former Guerrillas Face Social Condemnation