Thirty-one years after the event, and six years since the trial began, Peru’s National Criminal Court has handed down stiff sentences to three army officers charged with ordering and perpetrating the murder in August 1985 of 69 villagers in Accomarca, Ayacucho.
Besides the Colina Group death squad convictions, this is the only case related to events in the 20 years of internal conflict in which high-ranking military officers and the whole chain of command have been identified and tried.
The panel of judges led by Justice Ricardo Brousset sentenced General Wilfredo Mori —who was head of the 2nd Infantry Division at the time— and Major Telmo Hurtado and Lieut Juan Rivera to 25 years, 23 years and 24 years, respectively, for committing a “mass crime with cruelty and contempt against civilians . . . a grave violation of human rights.”
Another seven defendants, including two officers and five soldiers, were found guilty of being actual perpetrators of the crime. The officers were sentenced to 25 years and the soldiers to 10 years imprisonment.
On August 14, 1985, just two weeks after Alan Garcia had been sworn in as President, the Linx army patrol headed by then-lieutenant Telmo Hurtado —who became known as the “butcher of the Andes”— rounded up all the villagers in Llocllapampa, Accomarca, in Ayacucho and then locked up the 12 men in one house and the 27 women and 30 children in another. All the women were raped, including three who were pregnant. Many of the children were only two or three years old. The soldiers then killed all the villagers with machine gun fire, tossed hand grenades into the rooms and set fire to the buildings. A month later, the patrol killed seven or eight witnesses days before two members of Congress were due to arrive in Accomarca.
One of the survivors, Justa Chuchón, was 12 years old at the time. This week she told former Human Rights Coordinator Rocío Silva-Santisteban that she hid behind a bush with her grandmother. They could smell the villagers being burned. “It smelled like fried pork and we were desperate…. we didn’t understand anything because they (the soldiers), one supposes, had an obligation to protect us. They had no compassion.”
For years, top army brass blamed Hurtado, a 23- year old second lieutenant at the time, as the only person responsible, that he had acted on his own in an moment of madness. However, when Hurtado was extradited from the U.S. in 2011, he confessed that he was obeying orders to eliminate possible terrorists. He admitted to killing 31 of the victims.
Jorge Bracamonte, secretary of the National Human Rights Coordinator, said that the Prosecutor’s Office and the lawyers for the plaintiffs had provided “abundant evidence to prove the direct criminal responsibility of Telmo Hurtado as the direct perpetrator, as well as of the high military command who planned, ordered and later covered up the massacre.”
The Criminal Court ruled that the crime had been an intelligence operation whose objective was to systematically eliminate the population in Llocllapampa and proof of this, the justices said, is that when the scandal broke General Mori was sent into retirement and Hurtado was promoted.
Lawyers for the defendants are satisfied with the results of the trial, which has dragged on over six years, with more than 250 hearings and at least 30 postponements.
“An exemplary conviction,” tweeted Jo-Marie Burt of the Washington Office on Latin America, WOLA.
“It’s been proven that the Accomarca massacre was not an excess in the countersubversive fight nor the excessive reaction of a solder overwhelmed by the war, but the result of a state policy to fight subversion by using indiscriminate violence against the civilian population,” Burt said.
However, the only defendant at the sentencing was Telmo Hurtado, who has been held in remand since 2011 at the Castro Castro prison and was arrested and held in the U.S. from 2007 until his extradition. Other defendants have attended some of the hearings but none were present for the final day.
An order has been issued today for the arrest of the remaining defendants.
“Close the borders,” said former state prosecutor Ronald Gamarra on Twitter. “With the exception of Telmo Hurtado, those convicted for the Accomarca killing are free and in contempt of court.”
The Prosecutor’s Office charged 27 military of the crime, but only 16 were brought to trial and six of these defendants were absolved for lack of evidence, including General José Williams Zapata. The state attorney, Luis Landa, is assessing whether to appeal the ruling.
The day the court ruling was read was indicative of the stops and starts the case has suffered since investigations opened in 2002, even then 12 years after the attack.
The court was to convene at 11am on Aug.31. The hearing was then postponed until 1pm, and yet again until well after 6pm. When the court convened after 8pm, few of the victims’ relatives, human rights observers and journalists were allowed in and instead had to sit on cement benches outside the prison. Those who managed to get inside the courtroom were not allowed to use the bathrooms in the prison, and had to go outside to a nearby shop.
The plaintiffs speculated that the delay was because the justices disagreed on their final verdict.
“It’s very strange that after five years, the judges cannot agree on the day of the final ruling,” said Carlos Rivera, attorney at the Legal Defense Institute, IDL. He said he considered the delay a lack of respect for the victims and the plaintiffs.
The court clerk took five hours to read the 130-page verdict and sentencing, and Justice Brousset made his final statements after 2:30 am on Sept. 1.