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Lessons for the War on Terrorism: Pam Yates In Conversation with Williams Cole

Photograph from State of Fear by Vera Lentz.

State of Fear, the powerful story of Peru and how its war on terror devolved into incredible governmental abuse, will premiere at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival on June 10th (with additional screenings on the 12th and the 14th). Williams Cole corresponded via e-mail with the director Pam Yates, who is currently shooting a documentary aboard the Naval aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz somewhere at sea.

Williams Cole (Rail): The war in Peru ended up killing 70,000 and part of the story is how the government first responded to Shining Path rebels by going into the countryside with extreme military aggression. How pivotal was this in prolonging the violence, and what does it tell us about fighting terrorism?

Pam Yates: While it’s clear that Shining Path started the violence, the Peruvian State was blind to the nature of the insurgency. When the Armed Forces were sent into the highlands to wrest control back from Shining Path, they didn’t really understand their opponents. In the beginning there was support for Shining Path amongst the Andean Indians in many villages and hamlets. The government waged a scorched-earth policy throughout the Andes, killing and disappearing many Quechua-speaking Indians who had nothing to do with Shining Path. This caused the ranks of Shining Path to grow and the war escalated. Many Peruvians now say that it is important to confront terrorism with more democracy not less. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the state had come in as protectors rather than aggressors, and had used intelligence and the rule of law to round up insurgents and prosecute them—I suspect that Shining Path would have lost support from the civilian population a lot faster than they eventually did, because their tactic of intimidating civilians with terrorist attacks would have backfired sooner.

Rail: In the film you effectively represent how upper class Lima was for years unaware of both the war in the countryside and later the killing, corruption, and abuse under the Fujimori government. What was the role of Peruvian media during these times?

Yates: Much of the press was controlled by Fujimori and his chief aide, Vladimiro Montesinos. In fact they bribed television broadcasters and newspapers in order to be able to write their own news and we included the secretly recorded videotapes of this in the film. They even created new newspapers as propaganda tools that came to be known as “prensa chicha” aimed at the lower classes. This is partly because they managed to achieve almost complete control over radio and TV (with one exception, CANAL N, a small cable news channel) but found more resistance from print media especially Peru’s two main newspapers, El Comercio and La Republica, and a weekly magazine, Caretas. That being said, there are world class journalists in Peru who never stopped covering what was really going on in their country, though they risked their lives to do so. And many Peruvian journalists died trying to get the truth out about what was going on in the Andean countryside. Many Limeños remained passive bystanders when they could have done something to stop the violence. That’s disturbing because it was precisely this educated middle and upper class that were the readers of the print media that criticized Fujimori.  Why did they continue to stand by? I think it can be attributed to fear of terrorism, and the idea that a tough leader was the solution—when Fujimori dissolved congress in his “auto-coup” in 1992, he had a 70% approval rating.

Rail: You managed to interview both Shining Path rebels and military men who told you about atrocities they witnessed or were even involved in. Why do you think such an array of people were willing to talk so candidly?

Yates: The producer, Paco de Onís, and I spent five months over a two-year period in Peru. First we sought out people who would be least likely to want to talk to us, and then tried to build a relationship with them. I showed genuine interest in wanting to include their perspective and why they played their role. I would often meet two, three, even four times with people before filming them. Twice I went into the prison where Shining Path members are being held, taken there by Fany Palomino, who appears in State of Fear as a Shining Path follower. I talked to many, many people including the second in command of Shining Path, Osmán Morote, to try to get inside their heads and really understand what drove Shining Path. Other characters, like the Marine Carlos Sánchez, felt deeply guilty for the role he played, as did the Shining Path lieutenant José Vizcardo.

Rail: The most chilling theme of the film shows how after the leader of Shining Path was caught and the organization effectively damaged, the government of Fujimori carried on with extreme executive power, extra-judicial killings, and unbelievable corruption. What kinds of lessons could this tell us about the current “war of terror?”

Yates: The film’s name “State of Fear” says it all. When a citizenry is kept frightened, they are more likely to accept anti-democratic security measures without question. But trading democracy for security is a false choice. We can have both, and we should demand both from our government. The Peruvian Truth Commission concludes in its Final Report that terrorism is best battled with more democracy, not less. This is one of the biggest lessons we hope people will take from State of Fear. In Fujimori’s case he used the fear of terrorism to consolidate his power and to rob the county blind. The end result is a real weakening of the Peruvian democracy, and the fact that it’s a lot easier to destroy than to build a democracy.

Rail: So how did Fujimori specifically use fear?

Yates: Fujimori skillfully used the media he controlled to create an atmosphere where the threat of terrorism always lurked. He would accuse people of being terrorists (who later turned out to be innocent) and parade them on TV in striped suits and in show trials. People who questioned his policies were accused of being “apologists” for terrorism or “traitors to the nation.” These terms were common currency during the Fujimori years, and people were afraid of being branded as terrorist sympathizers.

            But an important fact to keep in mind is that in spite of Fujimori’s intimidation tactics, there was always resistance from human rights activists, some journalists, and many victims of the violence who were politicized by the experience. Because of its steadfast resistance to violence and terrorism both from the state and the insurgents, the Peruvian human rights movement is one of the most cohesive in the world—but bear in mind that they went through many dark years, both before and during Fujimori’s years, during which they could only document the abuses and cases at great personal risk. But this documentation became essential later on in dismantling the myth of Fujimori as “terror-vanquishing hero.”

Rail: It does seem that the Truth Commission is the real hero of the story. Can you talk about why you think it was so successful in Peru compared to other countries?

Yates: The Peruvian Truth Commission held the first open public hearings of any truth commission in Latin America and the Peruvians were able to build on the successful aspects of other Commissions around the world that came before it. It is hard to measure the impact of the Peruvian Truth Commission because its recommendations must now be taken up by civil society, which in turn must pressure the government. Other Truth Commissions in Latin America are just now bearing fruit after many years—the Chileans bringing Pinochet and torturers to justice, the Guatemalans trying to indict former President Rios Montt, the Argentines reopening cases against the Generals for their role in the “dirty war.” And as far as true heroes, the human rights activists and journalists mentioned above should be recognized as such, because they not only had an essential role in pressuring the transitional government to create the Truth Commission, but also provided the vast documentation that allowed the Truth Commission’s work to have the incredible depth of analysis that it has.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2005

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