Born in 1969, Lori Berenson grew up in New York City, the adored, privileged daughter of two college professors. Her tendency to be a “social justice” nag manifested itself early. In her freshman year at MIT, when a dryer broke down, “she was adamant that the replacement shouldn’t be from General Electric because of the company’s involvement in producing nuclear weapons.” Around that time, she traveled with an all-female group of Quakers, apparently pro-Sandinista radicals, to Nicaragua, which was then experiencing a civil war. She also made a couple of visits to El Salvador, which was also, at the time, torn by civil war, and where, she later said, “I got a sense that the world was much bigger and the suffering was much worse than I had thought.”
Soon Berenson had dropped out of MIT in order to work full time for a Communist-linked Salvadoran “liberation front” while living off the $50,000 trust fund her parents had set up for her education. Dad and Mom raised no protest. “You had to see Lori and her enthusiasm, her concern,” Mom later explained. “Look, we’re academics. Education is very important to us. But Lori thought, `How can I be here reading a book when there are people who need help?’ What can you say?”
Soon after relocating to El Salvador, Berenson wed her first husband. But the marriage disintegrated within a few months, as did her passion for continuing work in El Salvador. You see, the violence ended, and her “liberation front” signed a peace accord with the government. “She had such huge hopes, but then after the accords, it became clear that they weren’t going to be fulfilled,” husband #1 later told the Village Voice. Get it? Berenson claimed to be working for peace, but when peace actually was achieved she was disappointed. She wanted to be where the action was.
So she moved on to another place where there was still terrorist violence – Peru. By the time she’d settled in Lima, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) had already run up a long rap sheet of terrorist acts, from kidnappings to bank robberies to assassinations. Berenson didn’t just sign up with the MRTA: she rented a mansion in a prosperous Lima neighborhood that her fellow terrorists used as a safe house and as a storage depot for weapons and ammunition.
Over two decades later, Berenson offered this explanation as to why she’d exchanged MIT for MRTA:
I decided that I was not in agreement with the type of academia work I’d be able—you know, you could, yeah, get a degree, and then you become part of the system. And I thought that becoming part of the system somehow—you know, I mean, other people are able to use that to—and to use it very well to the benefit of social justice, but others tend to be absorbed by the system. And I didn’t want to be part of—absorbed by the system. I also, you know, had a very different—at the time, I sort of started seeing that the world has a lot less to do with what you learn in school than what you learn in life, and that the meaning of degrees is—shouldn’t be that. So it was—in part, it was my way of saying, you know, I don’t believe in this type of system.
Once enrolled in MRTA, Berenson posed as a journalist to gain access to the Peruvian Congress, where her “photographer,” actually a fellow MRTA member, gathered information about the building layout and security as part of a plan to storm the building, take members of Congress hostage, and exchange them for MRTA prisoners. But Berenson and her new comrades never had a chance to pull off this caper: in November 1995, she was arrested and charged with terrorism; in a police raid on the safe house, three MRTA members and one police officer were killed.
In the wake of Berenson’s arrest, then Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori described her on TV as “la gringa terrorista” – a name that has stuck ever since. She was tried by a secret military court – her absurd defense was that she hadn’t known that the people living in her house were members of the MRTA or that they were stockpiling weapons there – and was sentenced her to life in prison.
After her sentencing, Berenson appeared at a press conference that is now famous in Peru. One report described her as “looking feral, her hair wild and her eyes possessed,” and says that she went “berserk on camera.” Another account put it this way: “her face twisted with anger, she marched onstage screaming.” Screeching at journalists about “hunger” and “misery” and “injustice” and “institutional violence” in Peru, Berenson insisted that the MRTA was not a gang of “criminal terrorists” but “a revolutionary movement.”
This image of Berenson as a savage, shrieking wackjob has stuck in the minds of Peruvians ever since. In the years that followed her incarceration, Berenson’s mother repeatedly insisted that this wasn’t the real Lori – that her daughter had been abused and traumatized in prison and was temporarily discombobulated. But a woman who had known Berenson back at MIT saw a picture of Berenson ranting at the media and said she immediately “recognized the expression on her face.”