Peru’s “corner of the dead” suffers, again, the pain of repression

Ingrid Sánchez. Photos: Candy Sotomayor and Miguel Gutiérrez

Forty years after the violent repression in Ayacucho, Peru, the military are once again leaving the dead in the streets. Time has passed, but the stigma has not. 

“Here nobody listens to us, nobody will listen to us”.

This was the complaint of victims of military repression in Ayacucho, Peru, to the delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that recently visited this department. 

The reproach had the ring of pain rekindled by the military who, stomping their feet, toured Ayacucho once again. The last time they fired against the population was almost 40 years ago, during the internal armed conflict that left, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, around 70 thousand dead. 

On December 15, the army again left streets covered with dead.

In the meeting with the IACHR, it was denounced that the dissolution of the social mobilizations at the end of December was extremely violent, with the use of weapons of war at will, shooting to kill, which reflects the violent death of the 10 victims and the large number of wounded.

The government of Dina Boluarte, who assumed the presidency on December 7 after the dismissal of Pedro Castillo, focused the repression on Ayacucho—”corner of the dead” in Quechua— the contempt that was dormant within the State against this region of the Andean highlands was reactivated after the relative tranquility that existed with Castillo Terrones.

Lima looks at Ayacucho with distrust. People migrating to the Peruvian capital from this region are not welcome. 

For the people of Lima they carry the stigma of “terrorists”, an appellation given not only to those who were members of the Communist Party of Peru-Sendero Luminoso (PCP-SL) – an organization banned from word to memory—during the internal conflict. It extends to those who are “suspicious” or originate from regions where the communists had influence. 

On December 15, Ayacucho joined the strike called by several regions of the country to demand a Constituent Assembly to draft a New Constitution, and an end to the repression that has already occurred in southern Peru, such as Andahuaylas or Cusco. 

The organizers of the strike asked the Ayacuchans to take over the Alfredo Mendívil Duarte National Airport. They knew that from there the ships loaded with soldiers with bayonets drawn and heading south would leave.

The Ayacuchanos did not hesitate and took the terminal. Hours later the State responded with full force: for five hours bullets whistled in the Alfredo Mendívil. After approximately 5:00 in the afternoon, the persecution of the demonstrators began in the surrounding neighborhoods. 

The impacts of the bullets are the silent witness of the violence of the Boluarte government.

Where there were fallen, the ground is a little cleaner than around. The bereaved washed with holy water the blood of their husbands, sons, brothers, nephews, nieces, or grandchildren. 

Despite the bloodshed and the pain, the families will not remain silent and formed the Association of Relatives of the Murdered and Wounded. They began the tortuous struggle for justice.

Perhaps this historical combativeness and strength of the Ayacucho people is the reason that inflames the economic and political elites, and the current State, to rage against the region. It does not matter if it is the XIX, XX or XXI century. The repression is the same. 

HEAD OF REST: “I found her clothes, her little skulls”.

“Then I found. My husband has disappeared on July 17, but I found on August 15. But thus searching, I found his clothes, his skulls, his bones, what was left over from the dogs”. 

The testimony is from “Mamá Lidia” who speaks in front of her husband’s shirt with holes in it, kept in the Museum of Memory of Ayacucho; her story sounds current but goes back to 1984, when the military killed her partner. 

“Mamá Lidia” explains —while inserting a finger in one of the holes of the last garment her husband wore, that she found his body abandoned in a river. She relives that in addition to decomposition, his remains had been outraged, perhaps by dogs or local wildlife.

With her strong Quechua accent, she says that Huamán was arrested outside her house and then killed for not carrying his National Identity Card (DNI). 

This woman, with her traditional dress, braided black hair and choking back tears at the memory of her husband, is the president of the National Association of Relatives of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru (Anfasep), which since 1982 has focused on the recovery and identification of victims of internal armed conflict violence and justice for the families.

“They told me, ‘On this street there are dead. On this other street, there are quite a few dead.’ That’s where I found my husband,” Lidia explains, recalling the response of the authorities at the time. 

The Ayacucho Prosecutor’s Office refused to pick up the body because “the judge is busy”, so she returned to the river, gathered the remains in a sheet and placed them on the judge’s table, complaining about the lack of help. 

With the fortitude of her people she took Huamán and buried him, after which she began her militancy in the Anfasep intending to finding the culprits.

Lidia is a case of “success” in the search for family members because she found the remains of her partner. Others have not heard from their husbands, mothers, siblings, or children for 40 years. Now, the violent repression of December 15 opened several wounds among some members of the Association. The horror of the violence has rekindled the pain of being victims. 

Like that of Paula Aguilar, a woman who does not speak Spanish. In Quechua, she explains that her mother and brother were disappeared by the Army in the 1980s, and she has not found them. Now, her great-nephew was one of the 10 people killed by the military on December 15.

Jose Luis Aguilar was returning from work when he encountered the military pursuit in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport. He tried to hide, but a bullet hit him at a crossroads. He put his hand to his head and fainted; another young man dragged him to a sidewalk, where he died. 

“I feel sad, it’s like I’ve relived that year that has passed because on that date, the military killed, and now it’s the same thing. The military have killed. And that’s why I relive what happened in the 80s.”

Paula explains in her mother tongue, Quechua. The linguistic distance of her testimony is not an impediment to perceive her pain in her tone and gestures.

Her greatest concern is the future of José Luis’ two-year-old son. Paula emphasizes that in situations like this, the State should provide economic reparations to the families of the victims of repression. 

Ayacucho is one of the most marginalized regions of Peru. 

To get to Paula’s house, at one end of Huamanga—the departmental capital, it is necessary to reach the last stop on a truck route and then climb for 25 minutes, over dirt and loose stones, to the top of the hill where she lives.

This marginalization made the region the epicenter of the PCP-SL’s work since before the “People’s War”, the name given by the Party to the conflict that took place between 1980 and 1990.

Then, the Peruvian State, which ignored Ayacucho from the comfortable center of Lima, did not react to the first military actions of the Communist Party of Peru, Sendero Luminoso, in 1980. It was not until two years later that the Peruvian militia confronted the People’s Guerrilla Army—the name given by the Shining Path to its military organization, and horror was unleashed.

The internal conflict is not the only violent period that Ayacucho has witnessed. In 1824, the last battle against the Spaniards took place, with whose blood and pain the independence of what is now Peru was sealed and the Viceroyalty of Peru was buried.

The Quechua-speaking population explains the meaning of the region’s name: Aya is “dead” and k’uchu means “corner or dwelling”. Ayacucho, whether in the independence struggle, in the two decades of the “internal conflict” or in the uprising against Dina Boluarte, adds fallen to the “corner of the dead”.