ACCOMARCA, Peru — Scene of one of the worst massacres of Peru’s internal conflict in the final decades of the 20th century, the town of Accomarca is closing a chapter that’s been open for more than 35 years.
On Friday, families of some of those killed buried the remains of their loved ones, including some of the 69 people killed by soldiers in 1985 in this mountainous town in Peru’s south.
Peru’s internal conflict from 1980 to 2000 saw the army fight the Shining Path rebel group. In total, almost 70,000 people died. Some who survived remember what people went through.
Justa Chuchón, 48, still has fresh memories of what she saw and recalls surviving four incidents in which she could have been killed.
“Finally, our friends and neighbors will find rest,” said Chuchón, who was 10 years-old the first time she thought she was going to be killed. In 1983, soldiers stormed her house in Accomarca and one of them pushed his rifle against her chest. She said the soldier kicked her and her brothers and ordered them to pick up and bury the bodies of 11 people. The soldiers accused them of being Shining Path rebels.
A total of 80 caskets, including those of people killed as late as 2000, were being buried in a graveyard on what used to be a military base where soldiers tortured locals they thought were Shining Path rebels, according to subsequent investigations.
Of the caskets, only 37 will contain remains, the rest will have clothing that was recovered and identified by families as belonging to their loved ones.
The Shining Path established clandestine bases in rural towns like Accomarca, where the group killed the local authorities and forced farmers to feed its members. In response, the army accused the farmers of having become “terrorists” and killed some of them..
Chuchón said that in July 1985, a group of soldiers stormed into the town’s fair and some of them raped her and her cousin. “I didn’t know if I should scream or cry,” she said. “I asked him not to kill me.”
The worst for Accomarca came on Aug. 14, 1985, when soldiers started shooting at its houses. They gathered 69 people, including elders, women and children. The soldiers raped the women, then placed those gathered into three houses. They shot up and dynamited the houses, and set them on fire, as people watched in terror, including Chuchón.
That day Chuchón escaped death because she was with her grandmother. Her parents had gone to another town to play in a rural fair, because her father was a harpist.
A week after the massacre, once her parents came back, the family fled Accomarca for Lima.
In Peru’s capital, family members of the victims denounced the massacre before Congress and for years sought justice.
A legislative committee investigated the case and in 1985 it interrogated army second lieutenant Telmo Hurtado, who pleaded guilty in connection to the massacre.
“One cannot trust a woman, an elder or a boy,” he said before the committee. He was dubbed “the butcher of the Andes” by the media, but he wasn’t initially convicted for the massacre. He was sentenced to four years in prison for not having reported the killings to his superiors. He remained in active duty in the army.
After Hurtado retired in 1999, he went to live in Miami, but the families of the victims kept asking for justice, and he was finally arrested and extradited in 2011 to face charges for the massacre in Peru. He changed his testimony and said he was following orders. He accused the army of committing extrajudicial killings.
Finally, a Peruvian tribunal found Hurtado and nine other army officers guilty of the massacre. They were sentenced to 23 to 25 years in prison. But five of them remain fugitives, including retired general Wilfredo Mori, who gave the verbal order to kill the 69 people in Accomarca.
“What’s the point of convicting them if they’re still free?” Chuchón asked..
Briceño reported from Lima, Peru.