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Mutiny in Peru's jails casts pall on progress of Garcia's first year

By Michael L. Smith

The Washington Post, July 28, 1986

President Alan Garcia will go before congress today, the first anniversary of his taking office, to lay out a political blueprint for pulling Peru back from the brink of civil war and economic collapse.

Even though Mr. Garcia and his American Popular Revolutionary Alliance can produce a long list of accomplishments at the end of their first year, pending progress on Peru's $14 billion (U.S.) foreign debt, a hamstrung economy and a six year non-conventional war with the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist group that has cost 8,000 lives.

"For a 37-year-old President and a 60-year-old party, both without experience in government, they have performed better than might have been expected, but below what was demanded by the circumstances," says independent economist Claudio Herzka.

Mr. Garcia seems to have recovered his stride after a demoralizing mid-June mutiny of prisoners who belonged to the Sendero Luminoso. That marked the low point of his first 12 months. The Datum public opinion agency's latest survey gives him a 76 per cent approval rating nation-wide. Datum's Manuel Torrado says: "Garcia still has a cushion of public support to keep on the offensive."

In his first year, Mr. Garcia has broken all the molds of traditional Peruvian politics. He asserted a new, aggressive role in international affairs backing the Contadora peace effort in Central America, a regional strategy for tackling the Latin American debt crisis and a freeze on military expenditures.

Domestically, Mr. Garcia has won his biggest points by engineering an emergency economic program that has brought down inflation, increased manufacturing and employment, and opened up the prospect of growth. To do so, he has had to thwart Peru's worried creditors by refusing to pay out more than 10 per cent of export earnings.

However, the toughest test of Garcia's authority and prestige was the Sendero Luminoso mutiny. More than 300 prisoners at three penitentiaries rebelled, grabbed hostages and firearms, and barricaded themselves in their cell blocks on June 18. On the prison island of El Fronton, they were well prepared to resist, having fortified their cell block over the past four years.

In what is general acknowledged to have been a precipitate move, the Cabinet authorized the armed forces to put down the revolt in short order. Within 36 hours, security forces had regained control, but a the cost of 158 lives, according to official accounts.

Soon afterward, reports of atrocities began to leak out. On June 24, Mr. Garcia gave the first confirmation. Three days later, he went to Lurigancho prison and spelled out the details -- 100 prisoners who had surrendered were shot in cold blood by a special police unit spearheading the operation.

Last week, a Lima judge brought charges of premeditated murder against army General Jorge Rabanal, who was in direct command of the security forces at Lurigancho prison. The accusation will also be extended to others found responsible. This could include the Cabinet and the join chiefs of staff because several constitutional norms and laws were violated.

The prison mutiny showed that in extreme circumstances the President has few options available except the strong-arm tactics endorsed by the armed forces, though he has pledged to curb abuses, as well as to implement a more sophisticated counter-insurgency policy. The problem is that fragile civilian institutions must find a way to asset authority over the military who see themselves in a no-holds-barred conflict.

Although Mr. Garcia has put on a strong performance in his first year, it may come up short if he cannot bring about reform in a whole range of institutions, from the armed forces to the township justice of the peace. "Charisma alone is not enough to bring about social change," says Carlos Rodriguez, who resigned from the Government-sponsored Peace Commission after the prison revolt.

© 1985 The Washington Post. All rights reserved