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Ten Days and Nights in a Latin American Novel

[In February, 1999, I went to Lima, Peru with three other members of PEN International, writers from Sweden, Denmark and Spain, on behalf of Peruvian writer Yehude Simon Munaro, in the seventh year of a 20-year sentence for collaboration with terrorists.]

Lima: the presidential palace in the Plaza des Armas
Lima: the presidential palace in the Plaza des Armas


Lima has its hour of redemption every day just before sunset. The light, reflected off the Pacific Ocean below and the surrounding barren yellow desert hills, is suddenly, briefly alive, an intense glow that deepens, like blushing skin, into red. It is a breathtaking light, a luminosity that drenches the city; you will be sitting in a bar, or careening around a corner in a clapped-out taxi, or looking at a high, spiked concrete garden wall, and suddenly everything looks different. A filter over the lens, a veil of unexpected beauty dropped on the harsh glare and brutal edges of this tough, unforgiving city.

The period of grace is short-lived. A military band strikes up on the steps of the presidential palace in the Plaza des Armas, and mercilessly grinds out anachronistic marches. Behind the palace, the blue shacks of the shanty towns clinging in desperation (no water, power, sewage) to the mountain are erased by the descending dusk, while the enormous cross on top of the mountain virtually crackles with bright light. Darkness falls, and the sense of menace intensifies. Taxi drivers lock all doors.Thieves and kidnappers emerge. Outside a few beautiful little squares, where people throng on weekends until three in the morning, the shadows are dangerous; a quiet street is not a place to stroll in Lima.


Peru is a democracy. A precarious democracy, struggling to achieve transparency and fairness in its fledgling institutions, especially the judicial system. A democracy shadowed by extreme poverty and corruption, haunted by the terrorism of the 80s and early 90s when almost 30,000 Peruvians were slaughtered, half by terrorist groups like the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), half by the army. A democracy in which there are still numerous military zones, but a democracy nevertheless.

So it is possible, we learn to our surprise, to request a meeting with almost anyone and to be met graciously. It is possible to discuss with almost anyone the subject of Yehude Simon Munaro. (I can scarcely imagine a similar ease of access to Canadian politicians and public officials; I can hear the dull thud of bureaucratic response: not our department, no comment. Currently under investigation, no comment.)

Not so in Peru. Everyone has an opinion, for or against, Yehude Simon Munaro.

Yehude Simon is 51, a veterinary surgeon, a congressman from 1985 to 1992, when he was on congressional Human Rights and Justice Committees. In those days, an outspoken, radical leftist, leader of the small Patria Libre party, briefly editor of Cambio magazine. A man who believed he could negotiate with Shining Path and MRTA leaders. Some accuse him only of idealism and naivety; others of being a leader in the MRTA and party to violent acts.

In June, 1992, right after President Alberto Fujimori's "self-coup", Yehude Simon was arrested, charged with collaboration with terrorists on a motley body of evidence, and sentenced by a faceless judge for 20 years, the minimum sentence for terrorism. (There are quirks in Peru's democracy: in 1995, the miltiary was given a slate-wiping amnesty for all human rights abuses since 1980, yet everyone freely admits that thousands were wrongly convicted of terrorism.)

Yehude Simon has spent most of the past seven years in appalling conditions at the maximum security prison Miguel Castro Castro just outside Lima. Sharing two mattresses laid on the floor, with two other men, 23 and a half hours every day in the cell. At night they put the mattresses over the shit hole to stop rats from crawling up into the cell. He was allowed a visit from his wife once a month. The food she brought for him he hung high on the cell bars and parcelled out, bit by bit, to the rats.


For six days, from a small hotel in Lima, once a gypsy house, we engage with defenders and accusers of Yehude Simon. We traipse through offices all over the city; everyone is a lawyer, including taxi drivers. A charismatic former prime minister (operating two phones and a fax while he talks to us) loudly championed Yehude's innocence last summer, before he himself was ousted after only 75 days as prime minister. A powerful Opus Dei congressman of the right, with toy Lamborghinis on his table and a photo with the Pope on his wall, energetically defends Yehude's innocence and regularly intercedes with Fujimori on his behalf. Left-wing congressmen come unattended to our hotel. Journalists give us the rumours, the contexts.

Repeatedly, people say that at first they thought Yehude was guilty; now they believe absolutely in his innocence. We find ourselves unpicking the fine points of his case, digging into the still-fresh graves of recent history, when the line between radicalism and terrorism was very thin indeed; friendships and families torn asunder by shades of ideas or by a single shocking act. We meet with human rights activists; Yehude is a trophy for hardliners who advise Fujimori, they say. Who, exactly? We spend sad, whispering hours with Yehude's wife Nancy, poring over documents while she relives his arrest, ugly threats to her children. She is fierce and tireless in her pursuit of justice for her husband.

On the afternoon of the fourth day, we are ushered past a saluting double military column on the steps of the Congress, parked in a series of marble and gilt waiting rooms, and finally swept into the presence of Ricardo Marcenaro, President of the Congress, an urbane, articulate man who assures us he of course has nothing to do with terrorists, and cannot help. To prove this, he has brought along the former government prosecutor, who recites loudly from the case against Yehude Simon, insists on his guilt and assures us, glaring, twice, that "no resolution" for his pardon has gone to President Fujimori. None. Absolutely not, confirms Marcenaro, rubbing his hands and smiling.

That morning we had been told the exact opposite by one of the three men who had signed that recommendation for pardon, Peru's powerful and popular Ombudsman, the Defensor del Pueblo.


"This case has to be looked at with a magnifying glass. Oh, but we have examined this case with an electronic microscope."

One of the democratic institutions bringing hope to Peruvians is the Defensor del Pueblo, responsible for restoring constitutional and human rights and improving prisons. This office, and its incumbent, an accomplished, dedicated jurist, Dr. Jorge Santistevan de Noriega, have the respect and support of Canada, in the form of a hefty $2-3 million CIDA infrastructure grant.

The Defensor del Pueblo also chairs the Ad Hoc Indulte Commission, three people who exhaustively examine cases of those claiming to be innocent of terrorism, according to strict criteria, and recommend a presidential pardon or "indulte". The commission consists of Dr. Santistevan, the Minister of Justice, and Padre Hubert Lanssiers, a Belgian priest who has been teaching philosophy in Peru since 1964, an outspoken defender of the innocent, a lean dry man with a sharp wit who smokes incessantly. He taught the children of Fujimori.

Over lunch in December, 1996, Fujimori asked Padre Lanssiers to sit on the Ad Hoc Commission as his "personal representative". Two days later the MRTA (thought to be moribund) overtook a reception at the Japanese ambassador's residence and a four-month siege began. It was a difficult time to begin the task of proving people innocent of terrorism.

So far, the Ad Hoc Commission has recommended 452 people for "indulte" and Fujimori has pardoned all of these. On December 23, 1998, the Ad Hoc Commission's unanimous, unequivocal conclusion, that Yehude Simon was innocent of all charges and deserved pardon, was sent to Fujimori (an earlier version "went astray"). The president has not yet responded.

In the prison library: from left to right, Eugene Schoulgin, Marian, Jehude Simon Munaro, Jens Lohman and Carles Torner

In the prison library: from left to right, Eugene Schoulgin, Marian, Jehude Simon Munaro, Jens Lohman and Carles Torner


At noon on Friday, we report to Miguel Castro Castro prison for what becomes a five-hour visit with Yehude Simon. Under the kindly watch of Padre Lanssiers and Sister Francesca Biondi (a tiny, tough Italian nun who drives a pickup), our entry is swift, the search (women only) perfunctory. The prison is layer upon layer of iron gates, thick concrete walls, narrow, high corridors, an outer perimeter wall studded with watchtowers; beyond, the bleak sandy mountain glints with observation stations. On the roof, guards practising silently the manoeuvres of attack: run, crouch, pivot, aim; boys playing at war, or a dress rehearsal for a movie.

It is not a movie inside. The design of the prison is claustrophobic, a tight circle of six hulking pavilions, thick concrete walls broken by grids of iron. No windows, of course. Men still sleep three to a cell (rotating on two concrete berths), and all cells are open to the weather. The only shade is a narrow band next to the walls, where guards stand and dogs sleep. Food wagons with iron wheels screech over the hard ground. All sounds are magnified:clanging doors, shouts that echo, heavy footsteps, dripping water.

Yehude Simon's conditions have improved. The current prison governor is a compassionate man, and Yehude is a leader among prisoners in one of two pavilions now set up as minimum security. He has started a library in a small room where we meet with him privately, eat the lunch we've brought, take photos. His health is uncertain, his despair is palpable; he has been told several times that his release was a sure thing; on December 24th he was even told to pack his things, he would be leaving the next day; not true.

He is soft-spoken, kindly. He freely admits his former radicalism, but says "spilling one drop of blood cannot be justified." (We're told he was convicted not for what he said, but for what he did not say; he did not explicitly denounce terrorism, because he thought dialogue would work.) He asks for books for the library, literature he says, he wants to teach literature to the prisoners.

Sister Francesca and Yehude take us to meet other prisoners, who are learning skills such as tailoring and sewing (on machines provided through CIDA's Canada Peru Fund) and reading and writing and shoemaking. Bits of laundry hang from bars overlooking the open courtyard; men are showering behind a curtain; a game of soccer has just ended. We're caught up in clusters of shy, soft-spoken men who want to talk – a few words in English with a doctor who has a brother in Mississauga – or just shake hands, make eye contact, press small gifts upon us. The weight of hope is heavy. Yehude sits in the thin shade of the wall comforting a man whose mind has gone. He embraces him.


On Saturday morning we are summoned to meet President Fujimori at his palace; he rarely meets with foreign human rights delegations. Padre Lanssiers accompanies us; we are ten people in a large, mirrored boardroom. The President speaks English, slowly, in a soft voice; he is said to suffer from throat cancer. The meeting is a cordial dance lasting an hour and a quarter. Fujimori regards Padre Lanssiers with affection and listens carefully to us.

We acknowledge the strides he has made towards democracy, an improved economy and in achieving peace with Ecuador. He acknowledges that he knows Yehude's case well, that he has twice met him in prison, and that yes, he has received the Commission's recommendation for his release. But this is a very difficult case, he says. Give me time. He leads us out into the bright sunshine onto the palace steps for an unexpected, extended photo session. He sends us back to our gypsy hotel in one of his cars.

Two days later, during a press conference with the newly appointed Archbishop of Lima, Fujimori alludes to our meeting and to Yehude Simon. He says, according to news reports, that he told us he did not have the power to grant a reprieve to someone convicted of terrorism by the civil courts. Supporters of Yehude Simon are analyzing this surprising and enigmatic statement.

Is or was Yehude Simon Munaro a terrorist? I think not. Does he advocate violence; absolutely not. Did he have friends in the MRTA? Yes. Did he naively believe he might help his country by negotiating with terrorist leaders? Yes. Is dialogue in fact collaboration? Is sympathy with radical ideas the same as sympathy with the devil? Why does an entire army deserve impunity, while hapless individuals bear the full brunt of anti-terrorism laws?

There is a thin line between radicalism and terrorism, a shifting line, defined at one level by those who desire change, and then by those who push change through revolutionary activity, and then by those who move into darker territory, bent on forcing change at any cost, including lives of innocent people. But the thin line is also defined, moved and exploited by those in power to increase their power, also at any cost. Peru's march to democracy is criss-crossed with thin lines, and the case of Yehude Simon highlights such contradictions. He is a symbol of colliding forces in Peruvian politics; a slight, fragile, humbled man who may acquire the stature of tragic hero in this ongoing Latin American novel.

We, interceding on his behalf, have officially become a character in this novel. No one knows, for sure, who is writing it. But everyone knows, for sure, that the ending has not yet been written.

Postscript: In the fall of 2000, President Fujimori left Peru in disgrace, and is currently living in Japan. In the revived and jubilant democracy that resulted from his departure, Yehude Simon Munaro was pardoned and released from prison. He lives in Lima with his family.