Fujimori, Arana, massacres, impunity and immunity

By Paul Goulder ~

In April ex-President Fujimori was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison and the long fight for justice by relatives of those killed at Cantuta and Barrios Altos, and who had absolutely no connection with terrorism, have seen some belated and grim reward. It has been called “un hito jurídico mundial[i]” (an international legal milestone).

Flashback to 1909

Another milestone occurred in Peru about one hundred years ago[ii] when the uncircumscribed freedom of rubber barons (not “robber barons” as one of my students had it in her essay, though she may have a point) to abuse the indigenous Amazonians was challenged by a parliamentary committee – sitting not in Lima but in London.

The image of the cauchero has become that of brigandage, of men sweeping through the Amazon basin with impunity – invading the territory of existing inhabitants, torturing, beating, forcibly transporting their “fellow citizens,” and when any of the lowland tropical groups (e.g. in the Putumayo river area, and elsewhere) resisted they had been enslaved, massacred or worse (yes, it’s possible). That, however, was not the image portrayed in the leading press of the day.

The precursor of the Peruvian Times, the West Coast Leader ran an editorial (click on image to the left to open a facsimile of page 235 of the August 1912 edition of Peru Today.) In brief, the paper supported the activities of the “rubber king” Julio César Arana. It has taken a century and more to arrive at a change of mindset and at the legal decision today that the right to life is absolute and that not even state or corporation presidents are immune from the application of this law.

In 1909 the English-speaking readership of Peru Today saw – if the editor gauged his circulation correctly – those of their entrepreneurial class working in the Amazon as near-heroic frontiersmen (the women in the main went unrecorded) forging the new nation. After all, much of the United States, Argentina and Chile had been “wrested from nature” by the legendary frontiersman and this was the period in which the frontier thesis, positivism, social Darwinism, orden y progreso, and “la mano dura” (a firm hand) held sway.

Rummaging through back copies of the Peruvian Times can be a sobering business. The monthly ancestor of the Peruvian Times a century ago was called Peru Today (the weekly was the West Coast Leader) and I wondered if its pages could shed light on whether the famed immunity of the aristocratic and political class during this period of the belle époque was even then beginning to be challenged.

A history of massacres and corporate manslaughter

To write or read a full history of a century of massacres would be mentally damaging so here are just a few cases in point. For a fuller socio-psychological slant on necrophilia, psychotic dictators and other aspects you need to go outside the pages of the Peruvian Times. With reference to the Putumayo atrocities see Taussig, Michael. [iii]

Case 1 – April 7th, 2009 the ex-President of Peru was convicted (and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment) of the “ultimate” responsibility for the murder of 25 of his fellow citizens. An estimated 70,000 other people had lost their lives in the dirty war during the administrations of Belaunde, Garcia and Fujimori. The leaders of the main terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso are already in jail or dead.

Case 2 – One hundred years ago, in 1909, the London journal Truth brought to public attention a series of horrific and extreme abuses by the British-registered, Peruvian Amazon Company in the Putumayo region of the Loreto Department, along the border with Colombia. The head of the company, Julio César Arana, seemed to have had social immunity from prosecution or at least played the system with impunity and went on to become a Peruvian Senator.

Case 3 – In 1932, several hundred members of the APRA party in Trujillo (N. Peru) were rounded up, taken to the ruins of Chan Chan (Chimu culture) and massacred by forces under orders from Sanchez Cerro, the military dictator.

Case 4 – In 1975, during the period of a military government, paramilitary forces entered the campus of a Peruvian university and shot or wounded over 30 students[iv].

Case 5 – Throughout much of these one hundred years and beyond, thousands of workers in the mining industry have lost their lives. Many more living in the wide vicinity of mines have been affected by environmental disasters. Directors of mining corporations, private and public, have seldom been prosecuted. Sometimes, of course, a formal trial could have cleared an innocent person.

A common thread to each of these cases has been that the loss of life or other atrocity was, in one way or another, claimed to be “justified” in that the victims could be classified as a “different species” as “beyond the Pale.” In Case 1 the victims of the “death squad” were branded as terrorists (they were not); in Case 2 the victims were portrayed as sub-human cannibals (they were not – the real barbarians were the agents of the rubber company); Case 3 as illegal insurgents and militants (many were rounded up indiscriminately); in Case 4 as privileged students abusing their position who needed to be taught a lesson. In Case 5 the inhabitants of the countryside and the mining areas have been seen as third class citizens.

Both the Fujimori trial, the ongoing protests by Amazonian Peruvians* and a sequence of world events remind us that we are never very far away from official policies which result in deaths and even in the effective massacre or extinction of groups of people – minorities and sometimes majorities. Often we are asked to believe that the results are dictated by the “law of unintended consequences” rather than being systematically planned. In criminal and international human rights law we are talking about the difference between corporate manslaughter and mass murder, massacre, ethnocide or genocide.

Among the supporters of Fujimori, there are those who argue he should have been neither prosecuted nor extradited, that is, that there should be immunity for some. Others ask that his conviction should be balanced by an appreciation of the efficient administration he headed in his first term and especially before his autogolpe – the internal coup and the subsequent dismantling of Peru’s institutional infrastructure. This ultimately was Fujimori’s undoing in that it facilitated the emergence of secret police chief Montesinos as the power behind the throne.

In the case of the 2009 “strike” throughout the Peruvian Amazon “the protagonists are ethnic groups in the tropical Amazon forest area of Eastern Peru – communities originarias (indigenous people) – who have maintained traditional ways of life. They have been relentlessly assaulted by a succession of colonization projects – mainly foreign, exploiting natural resources for export. . . .

Historically, rubber was the most important case. It established a pattern that has been repeated up to the current time. The schemes involved could be called “predators of the forest” and an aggression against the peoples who have been living there since ancient times. National governments proceed as if the Amazon forest contained no people, as if it were a blank space and an inexhaustible resource that simply has to be commercialized …. Yesterday it was rubber (the rubber boom was approx.1882-1910). Now there are three main products: petroleum, timber and minerals.” (A. Zapata, La República 15 April 2009 – see full text, reference link below)

Time line of Peru Today articles

Please click on reference in the “From the Peruvian Times archives” section below, for the full text and photos.

August 1912. Peru Today (Lima English language monthly) appears with the headline “Read opinions on Putumayo atrocities” and reprints the editorial on the subject from the West Coast Leader (Lima English language weekly) which itself quotes a “wireless” from the Lima correspondent of the New York Herald which supports the “Colombia thesis” (that Colombia fabricated the story / committed the massacres in order to ruin the Peruvian company and claim the territory). Also that British employees who had been recruited from Barbados were to blame. And quotes Casement “The responsibility for these horrors falls exclusively on Britain.”  President Leguia absolved.

August 1912. Peru Today reprints the Antonio Menacho letter. This is to be read only by those with cast iron stomachs or by specialists in the behaviour of the anthropophagus.

August 1912. Peru Today reprints the Romulo Paredes report. This is (one of) the official Peruvian report(s) into the Putumayo atrocities and compares with the British diplomatic (Foreign Office) report compiled by Roger Casement in 1910. Note the interesting use of the word “interesting” (used in headlines) where today the press would use perhaps “horrific” or something perhaps – well – more interesting. If Lima thought Paredes was going to be a white-settler whitewash they were going to think again. To its credit Peru Today translated and published the report. Paredes demonstrates a sensitivity, albeit patrimonially patronising, towards the much-abused indigenous and near-decimated groups along the Putumayo. There is a naive belief that things will change simply because “he is there”. But he is very clear about the immorality of the atrocities. The Paredes Report is one of the more positive documents amongst the Putumayo literature. Others feel that it was produced for the international audience or even that it was faked.

In January 1913 there is also reference to Putumayo. A letter from the Peruvian Consulate in London is an early example of twentieth century public relations “spin”.  Note that some Peruvians feared that Britain was attempting to obtain a toehold in the then no-mans land between Colombia and Peru “owned” (so the shareholders were informed – incorrectly) by Arana and the (British) shareholders of the Peruvian Amazon Company. By the April 1913 edition, the “Rubber King” of the Peruvian Amazon, Julio César Arana, is appearing in London before a special committee of the House of Commons (Parliament).

In later editions we learn that wild Amazon rubber production is declining as the more efficient plantation rubber from Malaya comes on line. Space is also given to those accused (e.g. Normand) to reply to the accusations in the Casement and Paredes Reports.


From the Peruvian Times archives

Peru Today: page 235 of the August 1912 edition of

1.       Cover August 1912 PeruToday1912-08-000

2.       Editorial Comment: Rubber district cruelties PeruToday1912-08-233

3.       Atrocities in the heart of South America PeruToday1912-08-235, PeruToday1912-08-236

4.       Statement from a partisan of the rubber gatherers PeruToday1912-08-239, PeruToday1912-08-240

5.       The Romulo Paredes (for the Government) Report – second visit PeruToday1912-08-241, PeruToday1912-08-242 and all pages to PeruToday1912-08-251

6.       The Putumayo question PeruToday1913-01-530

7.       Iquitos and the tributary region PeruToday1913-01-537 and all pages to PeruToday1913-01-543

8.       British parliamentary debates on the Putumayo

*Other articles in the Peruvian Times regarding the current political protests in the Amazon:

9.       Protests and state of emergency in Amazon region continue, negotiations have so far failed to find solution.

10.   Peru’s Amazon leaders retreat insurgency call, agree to pursue claims within the law

11.   Strike in the Amazon (translation of article by Antonio Zapata).

12.   Taussig, Michael. Culture of Terror — Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture Michael Taussig Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 467-497 (article consists of 31 pages) Published by: Cambridge University Press


[i] A global juridical or legal milestone. Nelson Manrique in La República – amongst others – used this term.

[ii] The first published reference was exactly 100 years ago in 1909 in the London review “Truth”. The atrocities had been committed from the onset of the rubber boom.

[iii] Culture of Terror — Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture Michael Taussig Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 467-497
(article consists of 31 pages) Published by: Cambridge University Press.

[iv] At the time (Arequipa, 1975) the press was controlled directly by the Government. The daily rumors circulating may or may not have been true. And that’s the point.

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