The captured leader of Peru's Shining Path rebel group has calmly admitted to ordering the deaths of more than 130 people, 32 of them civilians, but continues to deny all drug trafficking charges.
Last week "Comrade Artemio" was removed from the police hospital in Lima where he had been held since his capture on February 12, and transferred to the anti-terrorism police's headquarters, and then to the same maximum security prison which holds the rebel group's founder, Abimael Guzman. Wearing a bulletproof vest, Artemio was supported by two policemen and his heavily bandaged hands appeared to be cuffed together. When he entered the hospital on a stretcher 10 days previously he had raised a fist to watching journalists and defiantly shouted “To the hunt!” but this time his face remained impassive, while from the crowd there were cries of “murderer!”
Artemio’s court hearing began while he was still receiving treatment in the hospital for bullet wounds. Prosecutor Marcos Guzman Baca read out the crimes attributed to the rebel chief between 1989 and 2011, including the murder of 131 people: 56 soldiers, 43 police and 32 civilians. La Republica published an account of the hearing, which lasted 48 hours.
On Thursday, at the end of the reading of the crimes that he is charged with, the prosecutor asked Florindo Flores how he pleaded.
“I accept everything,” he answered.
“What do you mean?” asked Guzman.
“That I take responsibility for the acts as chief of the Regional Committee of Huallaga. What you have read are acts of war,” said Artemio.
At this point, prosecutor Marcos Guzman asked him why, if he considered that he was fighting a war against the Peruvian state, he ordered the killing of civilians.
“They were not ordinary civilians. We are talking about informers, collaborators with the armed forces, traitors to the party, criminals who extorted people using the name of our organization, common criminals, and homosexuals,” said Artemio.
However, the prosecutor Guzman, who interrogated the terrorist alongside National Police Commander Jorge Flores Garcia, present on behalf of [counter-terrorism police] Dircote, pointed out that among the victims were Judge Bernardo Tarazona Carbajal, shot in Tocache on June 24, 2005, and prosecutor Arturo Campos Vicente, murdered in Yanajanca on June 15, 2007.
“Why were my colleagues Campos and Judge Tarazona eliminated? They were not combatants,” he asked.
“It was a mistake. We didn’t know that those authorities were in the official vehicles that were ambushed by the party [...] The objective was to attack the police, because they are a belligerent force,” answered Artemio.
Artemio accepted responsibility for the public execution of three police officers in 1989, following the rebels' capture of a rural police station. He again justified his actions by saying the killing took place in the context of a conflict. “Sir, it was a war. The officers were enemies of the people, representing the forces of the state.” He also admitted that his forces killed four members of a single family, who were found dead with signs of torture in their house in Pacae in 2007. “They gave information to the armed forces [...] The party could not allow this.”
This is only the beginning -- the prosecutor's list of charges against Artemio holds him responsible for 1,300 deaths in 2,800 terrorist attacks.
Strikingly, despite the fact that Artemio calmly admitted to these acts, he has continued to firmly deny all charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. He has consistently said that he has no links with drug traffickers, and that the only income his organization derives from the drug trade is by taxing coca growers. This indicates a determination to be seen as a political actor rather than as a criminal, which has persisted even after his capture.
Artemio's intransigence on the subject of organized crime suggests that ideology remains a central part of the operations of his guerrilla group. His faction of rebels has not yet converted entirely into a drug trafficking organization, as the Peruvian and US governments assert. This could change with Artemio out of the picture, as he is thought to have been the last Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) leader of his level of experience and ideological training.
Artemio's insistence, in the face of the evidence, that his group do not traffic drugs, is reminiscent of similar assertions on the part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The rebel group’s slain leader, “Alfonso Cano,” said in his last interview, published by Spanish newspaper Diario Publico in June 2011, that the FARC were not drug traffickers. He admitted, “Our struggle to keep out of the drug trade has not been easy,” but asserted that, “I want to be clear on this: No FARC unit, in accordance with the documents and decisions that guide us, can plant, process, deal in, sell or consume hallucinogens or psychotropic substances.”
In a sense, both the FARC and Artemio are telling the truth when they say they are not drug traffickers, in that neither of them is thought to actually coordinate the shipping of drugs over national boundaries. Both, however, are significantly involved in the business. Artemio has admitted to taxing coca growers, but claims that his faction does no more than this, and that they do not guard coca maceration pits or transport shipments of cocaine or coca base. The US State Department, however, accuses Artemio's group of doing all these things, and says that he invested in joint ventures with drug traffickers. With the FARC, the case is even more clear cut: some fronts tax coca growers, sell raw coca, process coca into base, process base into cocaine, and guard drug shipments.
While it remains important to both groups to continue to deny drug trafficking, the fact is that the business is too profitable for these rebel groups to stay out, especially given the FARC's recent promise to stop kidnapping civilians. Staying out of both kidnapping and drugs would leave the guerrillas with a much reduced revenue stream, relying on extortion to pay their way. But as the trial against Artemio continues, he is unlikely to admit to the rebels' involvement in the drug trade, even as he openly confesses to his more "political" crimes.