“I Am Not a Terrorist.”
Lori Berenson is showing off her handicrafts Â— note cards whose colorful designs are glued with small pieces of thread. As she flips through the images Â— a happy family, a nativity scene, a girl leading a pet llama Â— it's hard not to notice her hands. Blood red and chafed, they stand out against the bleached white paper. Years ago, they would swell up like catcher's mitts as her circulation struggled to adjust to the cold and altitude of the remote mountain prison where she was held captive. Now damaged, perhaps permanently, they look as if she had just packed a snowball without wearing gloves.
Her eyes, too, have been harmed. Endless hours spent in dimly lit solitary confinement have ruined her vision, and the squint behind her glasses gives her a look of bitterness over and above that which she feels about the six years she's been a convicted terrorist in Peru. Even so, she laughs easily, if not often. Talking about her days as an anthropology student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1980s, she admits she wasn't the stereotypical MIT student. “People probably looked at me as a bit of a weirdo.” Still, she says, “it's the place where I finally learned the connection between politics and human suffering.”
That's a surreal comment, delivered as it is in the yard of the Santa Monica Prison in Chorillos, a district of Lima, Peru. Conditions here are luxurious compared to the Andean prisons where Berenson has served most of her time, but they are far from pleasant. Concrete walls hem in a bleak yard. The other prisoners, all Peruvian women, sit on rows of chairs and talk to their husbands and children while Latin music plays beneath a rectangle of overcast sky.
It's a long way from the polished marble halls of MIT, where Berenson arrived in 1987 from an upper middle-class upbringing in Manhattan. In the late '80s, Central America was on the mind and conscience of the nation. Lt. Colonel Oliver North was testifying daily about the Iran-Contra affair; closer to home, Congressman Joe Moakley was crusading to end U.S. funding of the death squads in El Salvador. Berenson got caught up in the fervor. She dropped out of school to begin a tour of social justice work in Central and South America, finally ending up in Lima in 1994. There she was dragged off a city bus and accused of living in a house with violent terrorists involved in a plot to seize the Peruvian congress. She was summarily tried and sentenced by a regime besieged by terrorism and willing to do anything to defeat it Â— even capturing a gringa and using her as a political show horse.
Six years and two trials later, she continues to insist she never knew her housemates were militants. This month, a historically corrupt legal system is expected to decide whether she has served enough time and should be freed, or should stay in prison in Peru for another 14 years. Neither outcome can settle whether Berenson is an unsung freedom fighter or simply an overzealous anthropology student who took an idealistic crusade too far.
The public service announcement begins with moody cello music, over which the liquid voice of a young girl urgently intones a warning: “Each day a part of our beautiful earth is dying. Already over half the children on earth are hungry and malnourished.” But there's hope, a 14-year-old Lori Berenson finishes before the rising swell of her junior high school chorus, which had been chosen to record the radio commercial: With a donation to relief organization CARE, “you'll be helping the earth's needy people to reclaim the land, to grow trees and life-giving fruit.” It was Berenson's first brush with social awareness, and for the young girl it was an awakening. After this broadcast debut, Berenson was more sensitive to everything, says her mother, Rhoda. Berenson and her sister Kathy convinced their parents to sponsor a child in Guatemala and contributed a few dollars a month from their own babysitting earnings.
Mark and Rhoda Berenson are archetypal midtown Jewish intellectuals who marched against the Vietnam War Â— though they haven't been particularly radical since. Both former college professors, they have quit their jobs to work full-time for their daughter's release. They paint a portrait of Berenson as a responsible teenager, who worked two jobs and still volunteered at a blood bank. “She never bought things for herself,” says her father, Mark. “She made her own clothes and bought secondhand clothes, and she walked instead of taking taxis.” Their daughter attended a performing arts school for her singing (Jennifer Aniston was a classmate) and then chose MIT because of her interest in math.
Facing the swath of marshland behind Fenway Park in Boston, the rambling Victorian where Berenson lived her freshman year is both physically and temperamentally as far from the center of MIT as any student residence could be. Once a fraternity, Fenway House has a reputation for being where the “creative” students live. Inside, there's an anarchic paint scheme of purples and greens, and murals depict such subjects as the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland and the playful beasts from Where the Wild Things Are.
Berenson fit right in. Taken to wearing bulky sweaters and peasant skirts, she liked to climb onto the roof to play guitar and look at the stars. “She has this beautiful voice,” says Lindasusan Ulrich, a former housemate. “I'd be sitting in our living room, which has this big spiral staircase, and I'd hear her singing upstairs.” Visiting for their daughter's 19th birthday, her parents remember singing Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the house.
Berenson was frequently the peacemaker in disputes among her housemates, the kind of person who called people “babe” and “sweetie pie.” While she was serious about politics, she could also be silly, inventing a gobbledygook language that confounded her housemates. Since another Lori was already living in the house, Berenson capriciously adopted the nickname Simon. Frustrated with her studies, she filled pages in the Fenway House diary with rants and slogans for pseudorevolutionary groups like CAU (Coffee Achievers Unite) and MAMIT (Morons at MIT). A guest staying over one weekend wrote a message to the house which included, “Simon, since I'll probably never see you again: I like you a lot. I thought when I met you, you were one of those few Cool People who must have it all together. I'm glad I read the housebook; I like you even better.”
Even as a freshman, Berenson struck those who knew her as focused on social justice issues. When the dryer was on the fritz, she was adamant that the replacement shouldn't be from General Electric because of the company's involvement in producing nuclear weapons. “She was much more apt to go work on issues than go to a party,” says Kristen Gardner, her roommate for a year and a half, who now works at an ecology center in Northern California. “Watching her commitment and talking to her was a main inspiration in my own political work.” Ulrich, who is now involved in human rights issues in San Francisco, agrees. “She had a huge influence on me. I was just trying to get my bearings and figure out who the heck I was. She had this clear sense of what was right.”
Berenson was not alone in her desire to help Latin America's poor. In the 1980s, thousands of Americans in organizations like Witnesses for Peace traveled to Latin America as observers of the U.S.-funded atrocities committed in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. “Something new happened in the whole history of imperialism,” says MIT linguistics professor and outspoken leftist Noam Chomsky. “The United States was basically at war with Central America, and a great number of American citizens went down there to live with the victims.” While many of the activists came from rural churches, Boston and Cambridge stand out among urban centers at the heart of the movement. The epicenter was the Old Cambridge Baptist Church: It housed several Central American solidarity groups, where Lori helped organize protests against U.S. policies.
On campus, a small but committed group of activists held demonstrations against the university's investments in South Africa and its complicity in weapons research. Berenson worked with Martin Diskin, an anthropology professor and well-known Latin American scholar and activist in whose classes she finally started teasing out the political roots of the poverty that had galled her as a young girl. “He was definitely a second father to her,” Mark Berenson says. Before Diskin died from cancer in 1997, he gushed about Lori's commitment to social justice, and told her father she was the first person who practiced what he taught.
Berenson signed up for a research project on El Salvador, and traveled to the country for two weeks during spring break her freshman year. “I got a sense that the world was much bigger and the suffering was much worse than I had thought,” she says now. A year later, she took off a semester to attend a three-month exchange program at the University of El Salvador. There she observed the police crackdown on students, including a campus building bombed by a Salvadoran death squad.
It was then that an incident occurred that, more than any, changed her life. Berenson was staying with an economics student named Mario Flores, who had become a friend. One afternoon she met Diskin for lunch at a hotel in San Salvador to talk about human rights with Moakley and his aide Jim McGovern, now himself a congressman from the Massachusetts Third District. When Berenson arrived home, she found Flores' wife crying hysterically, saying the National Guard had dragged him off at gunpoint. Diskin and McGovern spent the night driving to different military headquarters to find him, but it wasn't until the next day that they got word of his fate. “When they found his body by the side of the street,” remembers McGovern, “literally every bone in his body had been broken. He'd also been shot in the head.”
Berenson was inconsolable. She told her father after she returned that she felt partly responsible for Flores' death Â— that if she hadn't been late returning from the meeting, he would still be alive. From that point on, the incident haunted her. When she returned to the states, she took a leave of absence from MIT to work on Latin American issues full-time. “I had the sense that what I was doing was useless. I wasn't going to get anything out of it,” says Berenson. “I have always been respectful of people who have worked within academics, but it wasn't my calling.” Her parents had hoped she would stay in school, but they didn't force her Â— even when she tapped into the $50,000 trust fund set up for her schooling. “You had to see Lori and her enthusiasm, her concern,” explains her mother. “I couldn't say, 'No, don't do that.' By the time it was her decision to leave school, it was already a commitment to herself.”
At this point, Berenson's movements become harder to track. She worked briefly in the New York and Washington offices of the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, then traveled to Central America at the beginning of 1989, first to Nicaragua to work with Salvadoran refugees, then a few years later to El Salvador itself. There she was briefly married to an economics student, Walter Mej'a, whom she had met on an earlier trip.
Continuing her activism, she served as personal secretary to Leonel González. He was the leader of the Popular Forces of Liberation, a political party associated with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist guerillas opposing the right-wing military government. Berenson contends she worked solely on political issues and had no association with the military wing of the FMLN. This March, Gonzâ€¡lez, now known as Salvador Sánchez Cerén and a member of the Salvadoran congress, publicly confirmed Berenson's claim.
In all, Berenson stayed for nearly five years in Central America, returning to the United States to take part in the final negotiations for peace in El Salvador from December 1991 to January 1992, and formally withdrawing from MIT in April 1992. Reportedly she moved into González's second home to be on call for him 24 hours a day. Her marriage disintegrated within a few months, as did eventually her passion for continuing work in El Salvador. “She had such huge hopes, but then after the accords, it became clear that they weren't going to be fulfilled,” Mejía later told the Village Voice.
She wrote her ex-roommate Gardner in late 1993 that she was feeling restless and considering returning to MIT. The Voice article, however, speculated that Berenson hooked up with Peruvian militants through connections in the FMLN and developed a scheme to travel to Peru to work with them. “It looked very dramatic, like it was written for a movie script,” Berenson says of the article. “I don't think my life was that dramatic.” She claims she traveled to Peru to learn about the culture and later decided to write about issues of women and poverty. Eventually, Berenson obtained press credentials from two radical magazines, Third World Viewpoint and Modern Times, but she never submitted any articles.
If she had come to Peru looking for revolution, she was disappointed. Torn apart by years of violence directed against a democratic government, the country had rallied around the banner of a new president, Alberto Fujimori, who had vowed to end terrorism by any means necessary.
A 10-minute cab ride from the Chorillos prison, the house at 1051 Alameda del Corregidor, in the suburb of La Molina, is padlocked and empty. The neighborhood is fashionable by Lima standards; while the air is clogged with pollution, the median strips are green and even dotted with palm trees, and American retail chains including Blockbuster and Burger King are just around the corner. In the neighboring hacienda-style houses live the city's most prosperous businessmen. All of the homes still have the gates and security precautions installed to protect them against the kidnappings for ransom committed by guerrillas in the 1990s.
Like most Latin American countries, Peru has seesawed between dictatorship and democracy ever since it gained its independence in 1824. In the 1980s, extreme rural poverty spawned the Maoist revolutionary group known as the Shining Path, which engaged in a war with drug dealers and the army. Typically, the guerrillas would swoop into a town, kill the mayor and the most prominent businessmen, and demand protection money from cocaine farmers to fund their campaign. The army eventually would move in, drive off the militants, and kill those who had collaborated with the terrorists. An estimated 30,000 people were executed or simply disappeared. Less violent was the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a group of Robin Hood revolutionaries who would march into jungle towns in sharp military uniforms and redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. After several disastrous defeats, however, the MRTA moved to the cities and began kidnapping businessmen for money or ransom for their imprisoned colleagues. In all, the group was reportedly responsible for 200 deaths. It took the world's stage in 1996 when it seized the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, killing one hostage before the guerrillas were massacred in a government raid.
On November 30, 1995, the residents of La Molina were shocked to learn that there were MRTA members living in their midst. That night, the peace of the neighborhood was shattered by the jackhammer of machine-gun fire, as antiterrorist police traded salvos with guerrillas hiding out on the top floor. Lori Berenson heard the gunfire as she lay facedown in a police car. Earlier, she had been roughly grabbed by plainclothes antiterrorist police as she and a photographer were returning by bus from conducting interviews at the Peruvian congress building. The police brought her back to the house in La Molina. “There was gunfire exploding right in front of the car,” she remembers. “They had to move it back when the fighting started.”
It wasn't the first time Berenson had seen the house. When she arrived in Peru a year earlier, she had rented it with Pacífico Castrellón, a traveling companion she had met at a layover in Panama, and she moved into a room on the third floor. Based on her residence there, she was now accused of being a leader of a terrorist plot to take over the Peruvian congress. The house, police said, was a “safe house” for members of the MRTA who began to move in during January, later bringing a cache of guns and ammunition. One of the residents, who Berenson says she knew as an engineer named Tizoc Ruis, was actually Miguel Rincon, the MRTA's second-in-command. Berenson's photographer was Nancy Gilvonio, wife of MRTA head Néstor Cerpa. And then there was Castrellón, in reality an oily Panamanian gunrunner who told police in 1995 that he and Berenson had met with Cerpa in Quito, Ecuador, and developed plans to rent the house as a base for the MRTA in Lima.
The case was tried a month later before a panel of hooded judges, but the proceedings were mostly a formality. After Berenson's arrest, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori appeared on TV waving her passport and dubbing her the gringa terrorista. On January 8, Berenson herself appeared to give statements to the press. Disheveled, her face twisted with anger, she marched onstage screaming.
“If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman condition in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment,” Berenson shouted in Spanish. “But this is not a love of violence. This is not to be a criminal terrorist, because in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement. I love this people and although this love is going to cost me years in prison, I will never stop loving, and never lose the hope and confidence that there will be a new day of justice in Peru.”
Berenson says now that she was under extreme psychological stress when she made that statement. She had been kept in a cell for 10 days with a woman who had been shot in the raid on the house but was denied medical aid. Furthermore, she says, the police had told her there were no microphones on stage, and she'd have to shout to be heard. But even now, she says, she wouldn't take back any of her words, including those in support of the MRTA.
On January 11, 1996, Lori Berenson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Mark and Rhoda Berenson saw the footage on television. “We watched the news and were frightened beyond belief,” Rhoda later wrote in a book about her daughter. “I knew Lori's eyes, and these weren't her eyes.” They enlisted the aid of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who appealed to the State Department for help, but they were told to sit tight. “We heard, 'Just go home, and in two years you'll see where you stand,'” says Rhoda. Only when the Berensons and their supporters called their congressmen for help did the State Department start pressuring Peru for a new trial in civilian court. “The message I got from the very first weekend is that they were not going to do anything unless there was pressure,” Rhoda Berenson says. She and her husband set forth on a tour of talk shows, embassy rallies, and visits to Congress to raise the visibility of the case. Whenever they were allowed, they traveled to Peru for visits.
Among the first people to offer support after the arrest were Berenson's friends from Fenway House, who had fanned out around the country since their MIT days. One of them set up a Web site and an e-mail chain, while other classmates organized local chapters in San Francisco, Denver, and Syracuse of a movement to free Berenson. A junior high school classmate set up a chapter in Massachusetts, where Rhoda Berenson says support has been greater than anywhere outside of New York. In 1998, President Clinton gave the commencement speech at MIT, and was greeted by dozens of “Free Lori” placards. MIT president Charles Vest met with Clinton to discuss the case. In 1997, Fujimori himself had come to Boston University for the graduation of his daughter and to receive an honorary degree. The Berensons were there to protest, along with Martin Diskin, Congressman McGovern, and about 20 other supporters. “The excuse you get from the guys in the pinstripe suits,” says McGovern, “is that if we make too big a deal out of this, it becomes a more difficult problem to solve. I always thought that was a bullshit argument. If an American citizen is held hostage, we should be very forceful in demanding her release.”
Despite this growing pressure, Fujimori refused to back down. And, sure enough, some in the State Department blame the Berensons' tactics. “If she and her followers had played this low key, they might have made more progress,” says Dennis Jett, the U.S. ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999, who believes Berenson did collaborate with the MRTA on some level. Jett says she could have accepted a transfer to an American prison, with U.S. sentencing guidelines applied to her verdict. “I can't believe that, taking into account the time served and the conditions under which it was served, she wouldn't be out in short order.” To Berenson, however, applying for a transfer would be admitting her guilt, with no assurance of leniency. “I had a life sentence as a leader of a terrorist organization. [In the U.S.] I'd probably get the electric chair or a lethal injection,” she says. But larger issues are at stake, she continues, veering toward the rhetoric of martyrdom. “I was accused of doing something in Peru. I should take the consequences in Peru.”
When President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Peru's parliament in a bloodless self-coup in 1992, he reformed the judiciary as well, instituting draconian laws that set vague criteria for collaboration with terrorism. Suspects were given 20 years for renting apartments to terrorists, or for being the boyfriend or girlfriend of a terrorist. Police commonly used torture Â— from beatings to rape Â— to elicit confessions based on fabricated evidence. The results were immediate. Within a few years, most of the leaders of the guerillas had been rounded up, and by the late '90s both the Shining Path and MRTA had been destroyed as a viable threat. But there was a price. Of the 3,000 people detained under the antiterrorist laws, more than 700 have subsequently been found innocent and set free Â— even though many of them served up to five years in prison. Another 800 or so have been given new civilian trials, many earning reduced sentences as a result.
Fujimori himself granted Berenson a new trial last year when he was under fire for election fraud. The charges were inexplicably reduced from “treason against the fatherland” to “collaboration with terrorists.” A few months later, Fujimori fled the country to Japan, where he still lives in exile. (He has said he fears to return, doubting he'd get a fair trial.)
Berenson's new prosecution was the Peruvian equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial, broadcast on television every day from the end of March to June this year. For Peruvian justice, it was a giant step forward an open terrorism trial with cross-examination of witnesses. “She was tried under acceptable, respectable conditions,” says Enrique Zileri, editor of the Peruvian newsmagazine Caretas, reflecting the opinion of many Peruvians. Berenson disagrees. “If that's a fair trial for Peru, that's very sad,” she says. “This was more like the Inquisition than a fair trial.” Berenson and her supporters charge that the presiding judge was biased from the beginning and even made comments before the trial began that showed he presumed she was guilty. “It was not an impartial trial,” says Berenson's lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval. “They were just looking for evidence to back the arguments made by the prosecutor.” Berenson's defense was simple: She claimed she knew members of the house in La Molina under assumed names, and moved out several months before the guerrillas moved in. On visits, she never went to the fourth floor where they lived in hiding.
The evidence against Berenson was circumstantial at best, mostly hinging on the testimony of Pacífico Castrellón, himself a convicted terrorist trying to win a new trial. The physical evidence consisted of a map of congress allegedly containing Berenson's handwriting and a fake election ID with Berenson's picture, both of which police said they had found in the La Molina house. In addition, they say, they found a set of MRTA uniforms in a bag in Berenson's new apartment. To this day, she claims the evidence was planted, and Peruvian human rights organizations say she could be right. A spokesman for 61 human rights groups says police did have a reputation of planting black bags full of terrorist documents in the homes of people they detained on the street. Even so, not a single Peruvian human rights group has taken up Berenson's case because of questions about her innocence.
In the end, the case comes down to whether or not Berenson knew that she was living with the MRTA. An expert on Peruvian terrorism and a member of the newly formed Truth Commission, Carlos Tapia, admits it's conceivable that an outsider might not have been familiar with the group. It was mostly inactive at the time Berenson arrived in Peru, and the press made no major reports of violence in Peru in 1995. Asked if a group as sophisticated as the MRTA would live with an unsuspecting gringa, however, Tapia laughs heartily and says “no” six times. “It's not possible,” he says. “She had to be in on what was going on. All of these people with guns in the house Â— you'd have to be an idiot to believe her.”
After seeing her on television, some Peruvians have softened their views on Berenson, but few believe she wasn't involved with terrorism. “It's a sad story,” says Zileri, the magazine editor. “I think she was an idealist, but when you start messing around with violent groups, you play with fire. As intelligent as she is, it's impossible to feel sympathy.” The judge agreed, giving Berenson a new sentence of 20 years.
Talking to Berenson in the yard at Santa Monica is a study in conflicting images. She hardly looks the violent terrorist the Peruvian media has made her out to be. In her bulky patterned sweater and blue jeans, she looks more like the “Simon” from her days at MIT. The only clue to her revolutionary streak is a necklace of bone jewelry that carries two pendantsÂ— a flower and a fist.
Her demeanor is guarded, and she parses her words carefully. Asked about why she was married in El Salvador, she's evasive. “Why do most people marry? Because they fall in love.” At other key moments in her account Â— when she's talking about renting the house, or about the ID card and the uniforms Â— she won't make eye contact. Whether it's because she's hiding something or trying carefully to choose the right words is difficult to tell. Most problematic is her refusal to condemn the MRTA. “I am not a terrorist,” she said in her closing statement at trial, but she also says that she does not believe the MRTA members were terrorists. “I don't think I have a reason to condemn them,” she says. “The whole social stigma around the word terrorism has to be changed. Everything that has happened in Peru has happened in many other countries, but it's not called terrorism. It's called something else.” Recently Berenson wrote an article for the Index on Censorship that quotes several women convicted as MRTA members about the deplorable conditions in jail. All she'll say about her own ordeals in prison is that “people survive. . . . Prisoners try to get information to each other and struggle against the jail regime, and that's something that motivates one.”
Back in the states, Berenson's parents continue to line up heavy-hitters to fight for her freedom. Recently 141 members of Congress sent a letter to the Peruvian government to urge her release. The New York Times and Boston Globe have written editorials questioning the civilian verdict and demanding her freedom. Even President Bush asked new Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo to consider humanitarian factors in her case when the two met in June. Berenson's supporters hope Toledo will grant her a presidential pardon as an act of goodwill. But given the overwhelming belief of her guilt in Peru, it seems unlikely that he would risk the backlash.
More likely is that when her case heads to the Supreme Court under appeal, the three-judge panel will find Berenson guilty of collaboration but reduce her sentence to ten years or even to time served. According to the Peruvian legal code, the Supreme Court does have the discretion to reduce the sentence, taking into account factors such as whether or not the accused has made a sincere confession of his or her guilt, or resisted association with terrorists in prison. Since Berenson has done neither, it's questionable whether she would qualify. “They should adjust her sentence according to the evidence, not according to the law,” says Gloria Cano Legua, legal chief of the Peruvian human rights organization Aprodeh, who hopes a ruling in Berenson's case might serve as a precedent for similar cases. If the Supreme Court doesn't free her, Berenson's lawyers plan to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which meets next in March.
Back at MIT, a small but committed group of students still holds campus political demonstrations. Today it's not apartheid or U.S. weapons funding that inspires the signs and slogans, but sweatshops and globalization. Still, many students, alumni, and staff haven't forgotten MIT's adopted daughter, and they are planning events this year to raise awareness about Berenson's case. They hope that one day Â— if not soon, then in 2015 Â— Berenson herself will return to inspire a new crop of social revolutionaries.