This article originally appeared in
Story of woman's torture by army officers:
latest embarrassment to Peru
Special to the Chronicle
LIMA, Peru -- The tearful account of the counterintelligence agent sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, but most Peruvians wish it
were only fiction.

According to Sgt. Leonor La Rosa, 36, army interrogators in a sound-proofed room at the Defense Ministry used a blowtorch, hammer
and electrodes to torture her for more than a week. The blows to her body left her partially paralyzed, she said, and her captors'
psychological abuse rendered her unable to sleep and uneasy at the slightest unexpected sounds.

At the heart of those events are charges that La Rosa threatened to tell the public about evidence of clandestine army plans to spy on
opponents of the president. The players involved in the drama range from enlisted military personnel such as La Rosa all the way to
leading members of Congress and even to the presidential palace. The resulting damage control has left so many accusations that it
may take Peruvians months to sort it out.

La Rosa's story was played out on national television before a stunned country, already tired of an international spotlight shining on the
four-month hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador's residence. La Rosa detailed graphic charges of torture that have so far
resulted in four arrests, a congressional investigation and finger pointing from the highest levels of government.

"This is just not the kind of thing Peru needs at this point," said political commentator Mirko Lauer. "I think most people find it
embarrassing because they would like to think this sort of thing happens only in other places, not in Peru."

Indeed, Peru has tried to cultivate an image as one of the more enlightened and peaceful countries in Latin America, an image that fell
by the wayside when leftist rebels from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed a diplomatic reception on Dec. 17, taking
scores of hostages. Now, 120 days later, 72 hostages are still being held.

Those incidents are just the most visible in a series of embarrassing events that have shown the totalitarian flavor of Peru in recent

Just before the start of the hostage crisis, an often vocal critic of the government, retired Gen. Rodolfo Robles, was abducted by secret
police agents and released only after an international outcry.

More recently, the tortured and decapitated body of a female army intelligence officer with reported ties to anti-corruption efforts was
found late last month, and newspapers reported Monday that a journalist was abducted and beaten in the Andean city of Huancayo,
apparent retaliation for a series of articles critical of the government. Both cases are suspected to be tied to the military.

"The most disturbing aspect of all this is that it appears to be part of a trend," said Jorge Gomes, a former Cabinet minister. "One or two
incidents can be written off as a few crazies. But when you have a series, it points to something else."

La Rosa's case touched a part of the nation's psyche in a way the other recent crisis hadn't. The television cameras showed her bruised
arms and back as La Rosa, a former teen-age beauty contestant, recounted her story, stopping several times to dry her tears.

The local papers ran stories on her testimony, and the weekly news magazine Caretas, in many ways the periodical of record in Peru,
ran La Rosa's account on the cover in a story titled "Atrocity!"

Gomez said, "This just adds another layer of suspicion and distrust (of the government)."

These events have many Peruvians wondering what went wrong since President Alberto Fujimori won a landslide re-election victory in
1995. Two years ago, the economy was one of the fastest growing in the world, Peru's leftist insurgencies were left for dead and the
army, long known for corruption, seemed to be cleaning up its act.

Now, most of that has changed, and Fujimori's popularity has fallen in pace, from a high of more than 75 percent in early 1996 to 42.5
percent a year later, though it has rebounded to the high 40s as a result of solidarity from the hostage crisis.

"The phrase that comes to mind is, `The honeymoon is over,' " said Afredo Torres, director of the polling firm Apoyo. "People increasingly
want action, not just hope."

One way Fujimori has traditionally been able to limit the damage from potentially embarrassing events is to act quickly. That was clearly
in evidence in the case of La Rosa.

Within 48 hours, four mid-level officers implicated by La Rosa were arrested with television cameras watching, later being charged with
abuse of power, a serious charge in the Peruvian military.

La Rosa still faces charges of insubordination for allegedly attempting to make public the secret army plans -- she denies the charges.

"In the court of public opinion, the details almost don't matter," says Lauer, the political commentator. "She won people's hearts on the
television, and that means that the government lost."

Eric J. Lyman is a free-lance journalist based in Lima.  
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April 15, 1997