MRTA Hostage Event
Newspaper headlines the day after
the hostage event started.
It all started on December 17, 1996, at a reception honoring the Emperor of Japan's birthday. The Japanese Ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki, gave a huge reception and I attended because of my work in USAID Peru with the Japanese on alternative development. The reception area was in the back of the residence under a huge tent striped in red in white. Very impressive, in a F. Scott Fitzgerald a la Great Gatsby kind of way. I really thought I was at a fraternity party when I first arrived -- the house is antebellum style based on Tara from "Gone With the Wind" (a young bride asked her elderly Peruvian husband to build it in the late 30's after they had seen the movie).
I got to the party at 7:00 and tried to leave at 8:00 but Ambassador Aoki was still receiving guests. I circled back into the crowd and fifteen minutes later there was a huge explosion in back of the compound and the almost immediate sound of automatic weapons fire from front and back. After the first few seconds of shock, we hit the ground. I scrambled for a low wall that surrounded the patio. I could see the top of the canopy kicking up as bullets passed through it and I could hear the MRTA shouting revolutionary slogans.
I remember hearing men and women shouting. I thought of how I had seen Lori Berenson (the American woman that was convicted in Peruvian military courts of being a terrorist with the MRTA) on Peruvian TV shouting revolutionary slogans when she was captured. These people sounded the same. The message was that this was the day and the place to die.
The firing continued. It grew louder and we heard less firing on the street but the firing in the compound on all sounds was intense, loud and point blank. I remember my ears hurt from the concussion of the shots and I involuntarily shook when the guerilla that was immediately behind me fired his weapon.
When everything started, I thought we might have a chance if the police could take the area but then I heard an MRTA guerilla behind me shouting to keep face down or be shot. I looked to my right and saw the head of our Economics Section and to my left was my boss, the AID Director. Annie had stayed at home that night. We heard the guerrillas shout "No somos assesinos, somos el MRTA.' (We are murders, we are the MRTA.)
John Riddle our Econ Officer said, "Thank God, it's the MRTA." I thought about that for a second. If it had been the Shining Path we might have been summarily executed. Don Boyd, the AID Director whispered to me, "How can this be happening? Where is the security?"
John and Don had both lost sight of their wives and I knew they were concerned. I thought "Thank God, my wife , Annie, decided not to come." I had called her twice that afternoon to ask her to come. "This is a big deal," I said. But she was feeling nausea still from her pregnancy and decided not to go.
After a few minutes of being on the ground with shouting and firing going on and lots of confusion, I heard the guerilla behind me shout for his people to stop firing to conserve their ammunition. He was El Arabe, the second in command of the MRTA group that had taken us, and he was communicating with the other guerrillas by radio -- it was strapped on to his shoulder and he talked into it. I had seen policemen with the same kind of equipment.
After El Arabe got everybody settled down, I looked over to a woman to my left and I saw her looking up at him and motioning with her head that "Yes, I should get up?" and she shook her head in the affirmative and the rest of realized that the MRTA wanted us to stand. We stood up with our hands on the back of our necks and then watched as they motioned us into the Ambassador's residence.
I remember that once I moved through the doors, I immediately began to look for a place to hide, on the floor, under something, in a closet, anywhere. I had people on all sides and I moved quickly to a hall way where no one was (there was a spilled drink on the floor with broken glass -- I imagined that someone had been surprised there in the initial attack and had dropped their drink). The guerrillas almost immediately began shouting for us to again get on the floor.
I started to get down in that hallway but couldn't force myself to lie in the wet floor. I stepped out of the hallway and into the front room immediately at the base of the stairs. I laid down with a Peruvian lady at my side and the wall against me. The guerrilla that was controlling this room started firing his AK-47 for some reason and the concussion of the shells was deafening. The lady and I both covered our ears. I could smell the gun smoke and hear the spent cartridges hit the floor. I kept my head buried in the floor and did not look at the guerrilla or try to determine what he was doing. I did think about being identified as an AID employee and the first thing I did was take off my AID lapel pin and hide it between the carpet and the floor molding.
The guerilla stopped firing after awhile and we were told to move again. The room I had been in was turned into a command post by the guerrillas with furniture piled against the windows and the hallway where I had lain with the lady on my side.
We were told to get up and move into the back room, a banquet room with two open areas, a dining table and heavy furniture. This place was packed and it was impossible to lie on the floor. We all had to sit upright on the floor. This was the first time I had seen the MRTA.
They were dressed in black battle fatigues with a red and white MRTA flag draped as a bandanna across their faces. They were each armed with an automatic weapon, AK-47 or a Belgian automatic rifle, you could see grenades in hanging in their vests, each had a knife in a shoulder holster, a 9 mm pistol strapped across the front of their vest and a matching back pack filled with something (more grenades, I imagined). The flags were beautiful and they were dashing in their battle gear. The thing that impressed me most though was how young they were. They looked to be teenagers and the two girls I saw were adolescents.
By this time I had taken off my jacket because of the heat and had it draped across my legs. I was sitting in an upright position with my head down trying to avoid eye contact with the guerrillas. Things had calmed down a little and the two guerrillas that controlled our room began to talk.
One of them had found a Peruvian National Police(PNP) officials jacket. The jacket indicated that a PNP General was in the room without his uniform. The guerrilla began to talk about how the PNP had killed his cousin. He started asking out loud, "Who owns this jacket?" "Are you ashamed of the jacket?" "How would you like to meet St. Peter?" "I'm going to kill whoever this jacket belongs to." And he began walking among us through the room.
It was at this point that I realized I had taken my jacket off and I suddenly felt a rush and a chill down my back as he moved around the room. "What if he thinks it is my jacket?" I slowly tried to slip back into my jacket. He didn't notice me or if he did he didn't say anything. It was about this same time that El Arabe climbed halfway up the stairs and shouted for everybody to listen up.
He said they wanted everybody upstairs and that we should all move up there quickly. All of us that could went up the stairs and I ended up in one of Ambassador Aoki's daughters bedrooms. On the floor next to me was Minister of Agriculture Rodolfo Munante. I said hello. We had met twice in the last few weeks to discuss plans for developing high quality coffee production in the high jungle areas. I also noticed a man wedged in beside the bed and the wall who had taken off all his clothes he was a military commander and he was acting very strange.
While we were upstairs the police shot tear gas into the house. I wet my tie in the bath room next to the bedroom where we were on the floor and used that cover my nose and mouth. As the air cleared, we were sent back downstairs and the servers for the reception, dressed in white uniforms were told they could leave and they started coming down the stairs.
I noticed the military commander that had been in my room, he had stripped off his uniform and had on a white shirt. At the bottom of the stairs he started running for the front door, managed to get through and run down the driveway to the front gate. The nearest MRTA person was one of the young girls, she leveled her weapon and aimed at the man but did not fire.
He was the first person to escape. Later a second person climbed out the window of the bathroom on the first floor and got to the gate. The MRTA threatened to throw a grenade in the bathroom when the man did not come out when they called him. That was the first time I saw them get visibly flustered and that made everyone nervous.
The women were released later that night and then El Arabe got half way up the stairs and he had the guest list in his hands. He started calling out the guests and motioned for them to go upstairs. My name was on the list and I ended up in a room on the second floor with 27 other men in a 12'x15' room and the days were hot and the nights were interminably long. I remember that it was hard to get a breeze inside during the day. I made a fan from a piece of cardboard and I fanned myself and my neighbors as we laid on the floor.
I was reminded of a line from a Tennessee William's play, "A Streetcar Named Desire" in which Blanche DuBois was trying to seduce a messenger boy who had come to the door. Blanche said to the boy, "These rainy Saturday afternoons in New Orleans are as if God has dropped a little piece of eternity in your lap and you don't know what to do with it."
The story goes on. I go through a range of emotions as I remember it. I was released 5 days later with 224 hostages. I felt as if I were dead and then came alive again when I was released. That is a good thing to understand but I'm not sure if anyone goes through it without collateral losses.
A documentary video of the MRTA event is here.
U.S. Embassy staff taken hostage at Ambassador Aoki's residence
The entrance to Ambassador Aoki's residence.
The reception was held in the back of the residence under a huge canopy.
All the guests were in the back of the residence when the attack occurred.
I was placed in Room F along with other other foreign diplomats -- my USAID and US embassy colleagues were there. A future president of Peru was also in our room, Alejandro Toledo (who is currently -- May 2017 -- being sought by Interpol for his alleged receipt of $20 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht during his presidency).
The release of Alberto Yamamoto - January 1997.
A photo of Alberto Yamamoto and me after our release from the MRTA hostage event in Lima, Peru, in January 1997. Alberto was my Peruvian counterpart on the Alternative Development Program. He managed INADE (the National Development Institute). We were working hard to help Peruvian farmers grow specialty coffee instead of coca leaf in the jungle. During the time we were hostages, Alberto took this MRTA flag from one of the terrorists who had fallen asleep.
Ambassador's Aoki's Residence after the liberation of the hostages in April 1997.
The front entrance of Ambassador Aoki's residence. This photograph was taken in 1999 -- three years after the hostage event.