Carlos Zegarra Zamalloa: Student Perspective

Carlos Zegarra Zamalloa, a native of Peru, is a MPH Global Health candidate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Terrorism in Peru: Our Historical Memory
By Carlos Zegarra Zamalloa
April 16, 2019


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One peaceful August morning in 1991, my grandfather, Orlando Zamalloa, was getting ready to go to work in Cusco, a small city in southern Peru. He had been dividing his time between the town courts where he worked as a lawyer, and the university, where he advised law students. That day, while my grandmother was preparing breakfast, they heard a knock on the door. The visitors claimed they were his law students.

My grandfather sensed that something was not right as he approached and opened the door; he noticed that one of the students was hiding behind the wall. It was too late to react. They shot him seven times before fleeing and leaving him to bleed out and die. My grandfather was taken to the hospital to begin a painful process of recovery and severe health consequences that lasted until his death from liver cancer in 2007. The liver cancer was a result of the blood transfusion he received during his recovery from the assault. And the attackers? Terrorists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a group in force in Peru that destroyed the country, particularly during the decade of the 80s and 90s.

My grandfather represents in a certain way all that which the terrorists wanted to destroy: justice, that my grandfather sought every day in his work as a lawyer, and the peace of our families and society. This is why I object to this tumultuous time being called “a civil war,” whether in the name of a university conference or in the media. Let me explain further.

Nowadays, I feel that some segments of the population and especially the new generations have forgotten how difficult that time was. Along with this, there is a growing discussion in Peru about whether that part of our history should be called "terrorism," "internal armed conflict" or "civil war."

We should have things clear; the only goal of terrorism was to get power in any way and at any cost. Proof of this is that even though at one point they declared having an ideology, nowadays they seek to obtain it through an evil alliance with drug trafficking.

In the case of terrorism in Peru, to a large extent, its strategy was based on causing the most significant harm to the population outside of the power structures, to produce fear and anxiety in the country, with the assassination of innocent people. The destruction of infrastructure, the killing of leaders, politicians, military, and police officers, as well as their desire to cause a psychological impact that undermines a country's self-esteem were their primary weapons.

Massacres in places like Lucanamarca, Uchuraccay or Tarata bear witness to the legacy of destruction and death that these two terrorist organizations left during those years, with an estimated number of 69,280 people, between civilians and terrorists, as a result of the fight of the army and police against terrorists in different regions of Peru.

Those of us who lived through that time cannot forget the ever-present dangers and threats that made us all hesitate to open our front doors to welcome others in; the kidnappings of prominent businesspeople, village massacres of peasants, military assassinations, car bombs and power outages were in the news every day. We lived with the post-traumatic fear of uncertainty: in a state of constant unrest over who or what is next?

In areas such as public health, the presence of these groups in rural areas was a barrier to the implementation of health activities such as vaccination and eradication of diseases. Peru was the last country in America to eradicate polio—the last case occurred in 1991 in Junin (Central Sierra). Terrorist violence generated fear among volunteers in charge of vaccinations, and the destruction of health posts limited the action of doctors and nurses committed to vaccination campaigns. They attacked the volunteers and charged fees to the doctors in charge of the vaccinations.

In addition, the massive migrations from the countryside to the city, as a product of fear and violence, resulted in the creation of large areas in the peril of the cities, leading to precarious living conditions. The lack of water, electricity and health services caused the indexes of morbidity (presence of disease in the population) and mortality in areas of low resources to be unusually high.

We see how terrorism destroyed our country in many aspects, not only politically and economically, but also prevented the improvement of health conditions in the population. Is it appropriate to call this time "civil war"? Trying to equate these groups in terms of values and purposes with the Peruvian state seems wrong to me. There is nothing civil in killing or kidnapping people, preventing access to health for the poorest, and using fear to reach power by all means. Let's be clear, what happened in Peru was terrorism.