“La gringa terrorista”

MRTA guerrillas in the Japanese embassy in Lima

Yesterday we covered the early years of Lori Berenson, who dropped out of MIT to become a terrorist in Peru (after brief stints as a budding revolutionary in Nicaragua and El Salvador). In December 1996, after she and other members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) were arrested, tried, convicted, and locked away, several of their MRTA confederates occupied the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, took hostages, and demanded that Berenson and the other MRTA prisoners be released in exchange for them; instead of negotiation, however, the Peruvian government sent in special forces, who succeeded in killing all the hostage-takers.

Rhoda and Mark Berenson campaigning for Lori’s release

Meanwhile Berenson’s parents were trying other approaches to springing her from the Peruvian cárcel. In fact, they quit their jobs to devote their lives full-time to this effort. They hired a filmmaker to produce a documentary about Lori. Rhoda Berenson, Lori’s mother, wrote a book entitled Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru. (Noam Chomsky wrote the foreword, Ramsey Clark the afterword.) In 2000, the New York Observer profiled Rhoda, describing her as having been “a real New York classic: a physics teacher who took dance lessons at Martha Graham, who had a subscription to the Joyce Theater, who cooked, graded papers and danced under the stars at Lincoln Center with her husband, Mark, a retired statistician who taught at Baruch College.” Now, however, her life was totally different: she and her husband were taking turns flying to Peru every other week to visit Lori and discuss their expensive legal efforts to free her.

Rod Dreher

Also in 2000, both parents went on Oprah, where, as Rod Dreher wrote in the New York Post, they “made an impassioned case for America’s support for their daughter.” Their case, alas, was based entirely on lies. When Oprah asked why Lori had been in Peru in the first place, Rhoda Berenson said, “She was there to help the poor.” The little detail of her involvement in the plotting of large-scale terrorist acts was neatly dropped down the memory hole. As Dreher noted, the two major Peruvian terrorist groups, MRTA and Shining Path, had between them “killed an estimated 35,000 Peruvians – many of them dirt-poor peasants and native people” in the previous twenty years. While admitting that Peru under Fujimori was “no model of human rights,” Dreher pointed out that secret courts of the kind that had tried Berenson had become necessary “after left-wing terrorists began assassinating judges who imprisoned their comrades.”

Lori Berenson in court

For her part, Lori made the following assertions in a 1998 statement to international human-rights organizations: “I have never been a member of the MRTA; I have never participated in the planning of a violent act, neither with the MRTA nor anybody else; neither have I ever promoted violence, and, what is more, I do not believe in violence and it would not be possible for me to participate in violence….. I am completely innocent of the horrendous charges made against me.”

All these claims would later prove to be lies. But they worked. International complaints about Berenson’s secret trial led Peruvian authorities to order a new trial by a civilian court. That event has been described as “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.” In her closing statement to the court, Berenson said: “I am innocent of all charges against me….I have been called a terrorist, a term that has been used and abused in Peruvian society for far too many years, mostly because of the psychological impact of a concept that brings to mind indiscriminate violence designed to terrorize; irrational destructive violence; deadly, senseless terror. I am not a terrorist, and as I stated in this courtroom before, I condemn terrorism, I always have.”

We’ll finish up Lori’s story tomorrow.

Trust-fund terrorist

Lori Berenson, 2015

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 saidI got a sense that the world was much bigger and the suffering was much worse than I had thought.”

A building at MIT

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. 

An MRTA get-together

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.

Alberto Fujimori

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.

Berenson haranguing the press, 1996

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.”

More tomorrow.