An internal armed conflict began in 1980 and raged for much of the subsequent two decades. This saw violations of human rights throughout Peru and led to the deaths of approximately 70,000 people. Draconian laws were introduced in the 1990s to curb the activities of Sendero Luminoso and the smaller guerrilla group, MRTA, which led to many innocent people being imprisoned for long periods. To investigate abuses committed by both state and insurgent forces during the war, the transitional government of Valentín Paniagua appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2001. With its work concluded, in 2003 the commission made a number of recommendations as to how national reconciliation could best be achieved and future conflict avoided. Two of its principal proposals were that perpetrators be punished, and that individuals and communities affected by the conflict be compensated for their suffering.
Since the publication of the TRC report, there have been some limited advances in implementing these recommendations. Collective reparations, in the form of small public works and infrastructure projects to benefit the worst affected communities, began in 2007. The long delayed individual reparations programme finally began early in 2011 (though the small size of payments drew criticism from human rights groups). There have also been some high profile successes in prosecutions of those responsible for some of the worst atrocities. Most notable were the convictions of former President Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000) on human rights and corruption charges, and of his shadowy spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. In 2010, more than 20 senior military and intelligence officials who ran Grupo Colina, an infamous paramilitary death squad operational in the early 1990s, were also given lengthy prison sentences. Many others have also been convicted.
However, success in obtaining justice for the victims of civil war abuses has been far from universal. More than half of the 1,700 cases brought before the Public Ministry (the only entity empowered to bring such cases) have been closed, many due to lack of evidence and/or information about perpetrators’ identities. In addition, a considerable number of cases have yet to pass the preliminary phase of investigation. Even those cases which are heard by the National Criminal Court (NCC), a body created in 2005 to prosecute human rights cases, rarely lead to a conviction. Based on its rulings between 2008 and 2010, those brought to trial at the NCC are seven times more likely to be acquitted than convicted.
One of the key obstacles to the prosecution of human rights cases is the opposition of the more conservative sections of the political elite and military. These have frequently challenged the TRC’s conclusions and criticise human rights NGOs for defending the interests of “terrorists” and “persecuting” the armed forces. The military has frequently refused to provide information to facilitate the identification of alleged perpetrators, and defence ministers have consistently supported the armed forces over victims in the legal process. Finally, there have been repeated attempts, such as those of the García administration in 2008 and 2010, to pass amnesty laws to protect active or retired members of the security forces.
The enduring nature of these barriers means that for many of the civil war victims and their families obtaining justice remains a distant goal.