Trial of Peru’s Comrade Artemio gets underway


BOGOTA, Colombia — Florindo Eleuterio Flores, otherwise known as Comrade Artemio, spent 20 years at large in the eastern hills of the Peruvian Andes, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. Holding red flags with yellow hammers and sickles and sporting T-shirts with “Popular Guerrilla Army” emblazoned on the front, he continued to wage a revolutionary war against the state that most Peruvians only wanted to forget. He was the last member of the Politburo and the final historic member of the Shining Path, a group of Maoist fundamentalist guerrillas who terrorized Peru in the 1980s in a civil war that left about 70,000 people dead. That was until February, when Flores was found badly wounded in a northern jungle after a skirmish with Peru’s security forces.

On Wednesday, his trial on charges of terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering began at a naval base on the outskirts of Lima. Prime Minister Juan Jimenez and the prosecutor’s office have asked for a life sentence. If Flores is convicted and that sentence is passed, he will be locked up close to his mentor, Abimael Guzman, the philosophy professor who founded the movement urging his devotees to soak the Andean country in “rivers of blood.” Guzman has been serving his sentence since 1992. Flores led a spent force of about 150 rebels in the Upper Huallaga Valley.

According to government officials, he was also running drug operations in one of Peru’s most productive coca-growing regions. The United States even put a $5 million bounty on his head. Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president, is still combating another of the movement’s splinter groups, which also appears to be heavily involved in the country’s flourishing cocaine trade, according to authorities and security analysts.

Roaming the lush valleys of the Apurimac and Ene rivers, the breakaway squad has killed a score of soldiers and police this year. But Humala, a former army officer who fought against the rebels 20 years ago, seems to be waging the fiercest battle closer to the presidential palace. To the distress of the majority of Peruvians, some of the members of the Shining Path group who were imprisoned 20 years ago will start to be released next year. A number of the movement’s followers have sought to set up a political party, Movadef, which they say has up to 500,000 supporters already.

“In today’s world, the armed struggle is a thing of the past. We just want political representation, we are never going to take up arms,” Alfredo Crespo, Movadef’s leader, said. Despite Crespo’s reassurances, the mere mention of Maoism still makes most Peruvians uncomfortable. So the country’s congress recently began preparing to pass legislation that will give the state increased powers to control terrorism — including banning anyone convicted of engaging in terrorist acts from teaching at schools and universities.

“The fear of Peruvians about a Maoist revival is understandable. . . . Movadef and the persistence of Shining Path in this society are serious problems, and the government has to deal with them,” said Cynthia Sanborn, a Harvard-educated professor at the University of the Pacific in Lima. Not having dealt with those things appropriately 20 years ago proved deadly, as Comrade Artemio’s past criminal record highlights. The Nuremberg-style legislation would make it a crime for anyone publicly “to approve, justify, deny or minimize” terrorist crimes.

Critics say the new antiterrorism laws will infringe freedom of speech and could encourage a partial view of history. To some, the Truth Commission established in the early 2000s did not establish a common version of what happened during the internal conflict, nor bring reconciliation of any kind. Unlike neighboring Colombia, which is considering granting political representation to the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end the 50-year armed conflict, the idea of incorporating former insurgents into legitimate political life appears unthinkable in Peru. “This society is lacking in mechanisms for discussing these issues reasonably,” Sanborn said. “Passing this law is not going to help resolve the problem. . . . What is? That is the challenge.”

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