The Magazine


Feb 26, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 23 • By MARK FALCOFF
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ON NOVEMBER 30, PERUVIAN national police squadrons converged on a villa in the suburbs of Lima after they were told it might be a safe house for the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru -- one of the two terrorist organizations that have plagued the country for the past dozen years. The occupants engaged the police in a 12-hour shootout. When the authorities finally gained the upper hand and were able to enter the building, they found an arsenal of weapons and uniforms, as well as 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 3,000 sticks of dynamite. Twenty-odd Tupac Amaru militants were taken into custody, including its second in command -- and a 26-year-old New Yorker by the name of Lori Berenson, who was subsequently brought to trial by a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Since then she has become something of a cause celebre in America. The New York Times has taken up the Berenson case with special passion, since her parents are both residents of Gramercy Park, teachers at local colleges, and by all accounts exemplary citizens.

What is the case against Lori Berenson? She was working in Peru with journalist's credentials, which she obtained with false documentation. She had rented both the villa and an apartment for the use of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas. According to the Peruvian authorities, the building where she was apprehended was being used as a base from which to launch an attack on the Peruvian congress, with a view to taking various members hostage in order to exchange them for guerrillas currently in custody. Among other documents discovered at the time of her arrest were a chart of the seating arrangements in the congress building and a detailed escape plan for the house in the event of a raid. Both appear to be in Berenson's handwriting.

Berenson does not deny that she was a member of the guerrilla group, but insists that the group is nonviolent and that the building where she was captured was a school. She was defended at her trial by Grimaldo Achahui, the guerrilla group's lawyer of choice. At her trial Achahui admitted that she was a "collaborator" (but not a "leader") of the revolutionary group -- a legalistic distinction that, if accepted, would have gotten the case transferred to a civilian court, where penalties are lighter. The tactic failed to convince the military judges to remand jurisdiction.

Indeed, the oblique admission of guilt it offered stunned the human-rights community in Peru, which has been conspicuously absent in the campaign to free the accused.

For its part, the Peruvian press in recent weeks has been wondering out loud whether there are two laws for terrorists -- an implacable one for swarthy foreigners who ply their trade at places like the World Trade Center in New York, and a second, infinitely forgiving one for Americans on a revolutionary lark in strange, distant countries.

Lori Berenson appears to be another one of those Generation Xers suffering from what Joseph Epstein calls "sixties envy." According to a lugubrious portrait sketched by Carey Goldberg in the New York Times, from early adolescence she displayed a "serious streak of altruism," serving food in soup kitchens and seeking "responsible summer jobs [instead of going to] frivolous summer camps." During her student years at MIT she became interested in Central America through an anthropology course and went there for the first time in 1988 on a trip sponsored by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of E1 Salvador. Upon her return she went on to work for human- rights groups in Boston, New York, and Washington. She moved to Nicaragua in 1989 to bask in the final moments of the Sandinista revolution. When the Sandinistas were ejected from offce by popular vote the following year, she moved to El Salvador, where she met, married, and divorced a Salvadoran. The next step of her quest took her briefly to Panama, then to Ecuador (where she is supposed to have met the leader of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas), and finally to Lima.

Berenson's altruism is matched, if not exceeded, by a penchant for self- dramatization. At a press conference before her sentencing she claimed that she was being punished "for concerning myself with the situation of hunger and misery in this country. . . . No one can deny that in Peru there exists great social injustice and institutional violence. . . . It's not acceptable that children die of hunger because of the subhuman situation in which they live."