On August 15, an earthquake of approximately an 8.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale heaved off the coast of Peru. Entire neighborhoods were leveled and over 500 people lost their lives. Before long, a natural disaster became a man-made one in which donated supplies were stolen from trucks and citizens of the afflicted areas complained that days had gone by before any aid from the central government arrived. Now, a new and bizarre chapter of the earthquake saga has opened as the press looks into the shadowy past of the man in charge of rebuilding the destroyed areas of Peru – a past that includes stories of kidnapping, torture, and murder.
In the wake of complaints that the rescue and recovery efforts had been badly botched, the government resolved to create a “Reconstruction Tsar.” The man chosen was Julio Carlos Ramón Favre Carranza, owner of the Atahuampa chicken farm and member of the non-governmental Advisory Board of the Palace of Government, which is largely made up of the owners of large businesses. Favre was appointed as the President of the newly-created Reconstruction Fund for the South. As Julio Favre entered the national spotlight, questions emerged as to what exactly took place on his chicken farm during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
According to Favre himself, during the late 1980s his Atahuampa farm came under attack by the Shining Path, the Maoist terrorist organization that ravaged Peru for two decades. Favre’s response was to create, in his own words, “a private army” of gunman to defend himself. He also constructed a military base on his farm and invited the Peruvian Army to set up a counter-subversive installation on his land. This military base would be the scene of one of Peru’s more famous human rights violations.
On May 25, 1992, Rafael Ventocilla Rojas and his sons Alejandro, Agripino, and Simón Ventocilla Castillo were detained by the Peruvian military and accused of being Shining Path members. The charges were ridiculous – far from being a Maoist dedicated to the violent overthrow of the state, Rafael had been elected mayor of a town on the ticket of a conservative political party. Indeed, he had actually been run out of office by the guerrillas, who threatened his life. Furthermore, his sons were members of a Marxist political party that opposed the Shining Path.
Nevertheless, the powers that be in Peru decided that the entire Ventocilla family was actively involved in the Maoist insurgency. Rather than simply arrest the family, the military elected to employ the “iron fist” approach championed by then-president Alberto Fujimori. Years later, Agripino Ventocilla would explain that he was approached by fifteen hooded men who threw him into a car and wrapped a towel around his head as a makeshift blindfold. While in the car, the towel slipped a little, allowing him to see that he was entering a farm marked by a familiar sign reading “Atahuampa” – the same farm that was and is owned by Julio Favre. “They covered me back up again, but I already knew where I was. The smell of the chicken farm was evident,” Ventocilla explained. At Favre’s farm Ventocilla was beaten, kicked, dunked into a tub of water and detergent, and told to confess to being a terrorist. (“Favre admite que credió terreno a EP: ‘Yo construí una base dentro de mi granja.’” in La República, September 9, 2007, Year 26 Number 9383, page 3.)
It seems likely that none of the Ventocillas would have ever gotten out of Julio Favre’s chicken-farm-cum-torture-chamber had it not been for Pedro Yauri, a crusading radio journalist who led a campaign to free the Ventocilla family. Under enormous pressure to release the Ventocillas, the army stripped Rafael, Alejandro, Agripino, and Simón Ventocilla of most of their clothes and dumped them on a nearby beach. The Ventocillas believed that their nightmare was over.
Unfortunately for the Ventocilla family, the Peruvian Army was not finished with them. On June 24, 1992, men wearing army boots broke into the Ventocilla family house and detained six of the family members who were home. At the same time across town, Pedro Yauri, the journalist who fought to free the Ventocillas, was thrown into a car by a group of men wearing army uniforms. Yauri was taken to the same beach where the Ventocillas had been released months earlier. There he was interrogated by the leader of the feared Group Colina death squad, forced to dig his own grave, and murdered with a single shot to the head. (A great deal is known about the murder of Pedro Yauri, as one of the members of Grupo Colina who took part in it testified against his superiors. The case was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.) The six Ventocillas who were kidnapped suffered a fate even worse than Pedro Yauri’s: Their bodies were found bearing torture wounds along with point-blank gunshot wounds to their temples.
The question being asked now, of course, is this: What did Julio Favre know about what was going at his farm, and when did he know it? Favre claims, unsurprisingly, that he had no idea what taking place on his land and did not know any of the military personnel who ran the base. Furthermore, he claims that the base was established in 1987 and disbanded four years later, which would mean that it did not even exist at the time that the Ventocillas were taken there.
Others beg to differ. On September 3, 2007, the Lima daily La Primera published a letter it had received from an officer of the National Police of Peru who was a member of the elite group of police that arrested Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Shining Path. In the letter, the officer, whose name was withheld by the paper, claimed that he had been personally sent to the Atahuampa farm to help coordinate the actions of Grupo Colina death squad with Favre. He also claimed that Favre was a direct subordinate of Vladimiro Montesinos, the disgraced chief spymaster who served during the regime of Alberto Fujimori. The letter, which also accuses Favre of having been a spy for Montesinos within the campaign of Fujimori’s opponent in the 1995 election, is printed in La Primera September 3, 2007, Year 3 Number 891, pages 12 – 13.
The extent of involvement in human rights abuses by Peru’s new Reconstruction Tsar will likely never be known for certain. The case does serve as a reminder, however, that Peru has yet to cope with the legacy of its internal conflict. It further dispels the myth repeated by human rights abusers and war criminals throughout the world: that by simply forgetting past abuses a nation can “move on” and “avoid opening old wounds.” For the Ventocilla family and thousands of like them, the wounds inflicted by Peru’s torturers will remain open as long as their victimizers remain unpunished and, in some cases, in positions of power. Only through vigorous investigation of past abuses and punishment of those involved in them will Peru finally put this sad chapter of its history behind it.
MICHAEL BANEY recently graduated from the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC. He currently lives in Lima, Peru and works as an intern for APRODEH, the Pro-Human Rights Association of Peru. He can be reached at email@example.com