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Death squad shares secrets in Fujimori trial

Former members of a military death squad formed to kill subversives are coming forward with shocking testimony at the trial of former President Alberto Fujimori.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former members of a military death squad formed to kill subversives are coming forward with shocking testimony at the trial of former President Alberto Fujimori.

The latest to take the stand described Wednesday how they partied through the night after storming the wrong barbecue and killing 15 people, including a little boy. Others said they were "baptized" into the squad through killings and were told their only way out would be to commit ritual suicide.

Their chilling descriptions, delivered to the court in nearly emotionless monotones, describe the secret workings of the Colina group, an army squadron formed in the early years of Fujimori's autocratic regime with the objective of killing subversives and making their bodies disappear.

"For us it was a job, like any other job. We just had to do it and do it as well as we could," testified Jose Alarcon, one of eight former squad members to describe their operations as Fujimori's trial drags on.

Fujimori, 69, faces up to 30 years in prison for allegedly authorizing two massacres committed by the Colina group: a November 1991 attack on a barbecue in a Lima tenement and the slayings of a group of college students and their professor in 1992.

At the time, Fujimori had mobilized Peru's army and police to crack down hard on the Maoist Shining Path, and his effort proved successful, all but ending an insurgency that claimed nearly 70,000 lives.

Fujimori says he did not know Colina existed, and most of the evidence presented so far in this months long trial is circumstantial and based on secondhand testimony. No witness has linked Fujimori directly to the death squad.

But prosecutors argue that he showed complicity by promoting and decorating some Colina group soldiers for their fight against the Shining Path shortly before the tenement massacre, and that direct evidence is not necessary to establish guilt. They say Fujimori could have stopped the killings, and that top officials in a state criminal organization are as guilty as the gunmen.

Storming the tenement
The squad members testified they were just following orders when they sprayed the barbecue party with bullets from silenced submachine guns, killing 15 people. It was the first of a series of massacres and assassinations that squad members came to see as almost routine.

Ex-Colina member Julio Chuqui testified that when their leader, army Maj. Santiago Martin Rivas, led them into the tenement courtyard, one of the partygoers asked, "What's going on?"

Martin Rivas, "without answering, fired a shot and took him down," Chuqui testified.

Martin Rivas, who once said he was only following orders but since his capture has denied any responsibility for the killings, is one of 33 former Colina members facing charges in a separate trial. He is listed as one of the witnesses in Fujimori's case, but it is not clear if he'll testify. Other former squad members have signed confessions in hopes of receiving lighter sentences.

Chuqui said Wilmer Yarleque, another operative awaiting trial, stayed inside and finished off the wounded and anyone else who could finger them — including an 8-year-old boy.

"I was pulling on him to leave," Chuqui testified. "At that moment the boy came out, and he eliminated him."

"'That boy was going to grow up, and when he was big, he would have taken revenge,'" Chuqui recalled Yarleque as saying.

'A simple get-together'
The squad left the bodies strewn around the tenement and returned to an army training base where they toasted Martin Rivas' birthday and gorged themselves on cake and beer, drinking well into the afternoon of the next day, Pedro Supo testified.

"We chatted as if it were a simple get-together, but we didn't talk about what had happened. You tried not to think about it," Fernando Lecca, the first Colina agent to admit actually killing people, testified Wednesday.

While horrendous massacres had been taking place for more than a decade in the highlands, news of the massacre in downtown Lima shocked the capital. And when other squad members learned of the boy's death, some said they tried to leave the group.

"A lot of the guys complained to Martin Rivas. A lot of us wanted to leave the unit," Supo said. His response: "'No one gets out of here alive,' and that was the end of the discussion,'" Supo said.

Jose Tena also wanted out. He had infiltrated La Cantuta University, posing as a student. His job was to identify alleged Shining Path subversives to operatives who kidnapped nine students and a professor from the campus one night in July 1992. Their incinerated bodies were found buried in a barren hillside a year later.

Tena testified that when he asked about getting out, he was told: "Have you seen the movie 'Showdown in Little Tokyo?'" The 1991 film depicts gang members whose only way out is ritual suicide. Tena took it as a threat.

Martin Rivas had already seen to it that squad members were "baptized" into the group by killing suspects. He promised them recommendations for prestige positions as military attaches overseas, former members said.

Alarcon said that after the tenement massacre, squad members learned to bring picks, shovels and lime to every operation so that any "traces of the people would disappear."

As Supo put it, it was all in a day's work: "You dig a hole, put the victim in, throw in some lime, throw in some rocks and then the dirt."