Reflections on the Experiences of Truth and Reconciliation, with Salomón Lerner

Thursday we met with Salomón Lerner Febres of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Salomón Lerner was the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following Peru’s war with the Shining Path, an insurgency that has had a presence in the country since 1980.

I could present an extensive run-down on Peru’s conflict with the Shining Path, but previous generations of UMD students going to Peru have already done that task. You can find their reports here and here. In short, the insurgency took hold in the country’s interior, sweeping along with it vulnerable populations already under-served by the state. Eventually the conflict made its way to Lima. The government’s response was a military one. After 20 years, 70,000 people were killed or disappeared and 600,000 people were displaced.

At this point, a more beneficial use of this blog would be an explanation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate. Secondly, I will provide a review of the take-aways from Salomón Lerner’s talk, especially regarding the features of the conflict.

The Commission

The commission was informed by the experiences of other similar commissions in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and South Africa. Its mandate had six components, namely to determine the following:

  1.      Facts about the violence that had occurred over the last 20 years
  2.      Underlying causes that motivated the conflict
  3.      Who the victims were
  4.      Who were the parties responsible for perpetrating violence
  5.      Fair reparations for the victims
  6.      Institutional reforms that could be proposed.

The Commission began work in September 2001, and with the help of regional offices collected 16,000 testimonies. Aside from its fact-finding responsibilities, another goal of the Commission’s work was to provide an outlet for grieving. Organized vigils and public forums gave voice to those who had been affected by the conflict.

Determinants of Conflict

Among the findings of the commission were some of the determinants of the conflict. First, there were two main historical factors that directly fed into the successful development of the Shining Path: natural divisions within Peruvian society and ideological extremism. Secondly, the Peruvian government’s response handled the conflict on a military level but failed to address underlying development issues.

The first catalyst for conflict had long predated the Shining Path and continues to this day.  Divisions between Peruvians fall along ethnic, class-based, and geographic lines. Furthermore, social divisions often manifest themselves in the form of outright discrimination. Andean communities in the highlands and Amazonian communities on the frontier are far removed from the centers of power in Lima, and Lima has been known to neglect the interior by giving more policy attention to macro-level issues in the capital. Governance in Lima is largely directed by a privileged “white” class of elite Peruvians, as opposed to purely indigenous descendants. Even domestic migrants from the countryside to informal housing areas in Lima’s periphery find themselves utterly underserved by the state, which fails to provide desperately needed public services.

The second catalyst for conflict traces back to the already-existing fragmentation of the Peruvian left at the time of the Shining Path’s formation. This environment was fertile ground for an ideologically fundamentalist group to take root. The Shining Path’s amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought thrived. As is common with other fundamentalist groups worldwide (jihadists, for example) the group argued that their ideology was an alternative to Peruvian state failures, and that human collateral was necessary for the success of the overall mission. They also imagined for themselves a larger role for the success of the global communist movement at large. The Shining Path’s success in Peru can be at least partially explained by the lack of better political alternatives.

In terms of government response which aggravated the conflict, the state foremost considered the Shining Path a security issue rather than a development issue. As such, they responded with military force. In cases where the Peruvian army encountered villages aligned with the Shining Path, atrocities were committed. In villages that were sympathetic to the state, the army armed supporters, giving rise to a phenomenon of paramilitaries. In some sense this was successful. But although they managed to confront the Shining Path in the interior, the policy had the adverse effect of driving Peru’s war to the capital.

In large part, politicians in Lima had remained unaware of what was happening in the country’s interior until violence was brought to their doorstep. Unlike his predecessors, Fujimori acted swiftly against the Shining Path. This also had adverse effects. Fujimori’s anti-terror laws were wielded indiscriminately at best, and targeted his political dissidents at worst.


There are two main conclusions that I took away from Salomón Lerner’s insights. I focus on these because they echo quite closely the dynamics at play in other conflict areas that I study in the Middle East. Foremost is the necessity for comprehensive development inclusive of vulnerable populations. The second is the role of the military in driving politics.

One element of the inclusion of vulnerable populations is economic, and this aspect has long been propagated by economist Hernando de Soto. In El Otro Sendero, de Soto advocates property rights for the poor and the incorporation of vulnerable populations into the formal economy.  The economic side of inclusion is what directly matters to poor Peruvian families trying to make a living. The other side of inclusion is inherently political. People certainly develop a strong sense of political exclusion but on the scale of day-to-day subsistence, it is not nearly as obvious as economic exclusion. It still remains an issue, as our class has seen in Madre de Dios. Much of the reason for why the native community of Infierno sought to engage in a development partnership with a business entity is because they felt fundamentally neglected by the state. To this day, the Peruvian government withholds transfers to the Community because they are relatively much better off than surrounding areas. The Community has learned that it cannot count on the national government. Their success is because of their own efforts.

The second thing that really struck me was the military’s historically consistent involvement in politics. For starters, the current President is of a military background, and over the last century in particular Peru has had more military presidents than civilian presidents. Salomón Lerner also pointed out that military and civilian leadership in Peru are not always walking in step. He himself had some questions regarding to what extent the military was informed about the problems in the interior and refrained from communicating that to the civilian political center. It is this institutionally self-concerned navigation of politics that can breed distrust toward the government and civilian dependence upon military force to contain conflict or even for the polity’s ability to digest civil discord.

– Nadine Rada

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s