Butcher of the Andes
A Peruvian soldier slaughters dozens, gets away with it, and heads for the subtropics.
By Janine Zeitlin Thursday,Aug. 30, 2007, VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA/MIAMI NEW TIMES
Gladys Marin, a 61-year-old in snug stonewashed jeans and a gold necklace bearing her name, chomps gum to the rumble of washers and dryers at Happy Family Coin Laundry. Her cropped sable locks flecked with gray, she describes the 15 years of neighborhood gossip she's heard while working in the tidy place on 73rd Street near Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
One regular was said to be a cokehead. Another was a thug. Then there was the murderer. "Crazy things happen around here," she says.
But the Hurtado family seemed typical for this neighborhood of Argentines, Venezuelans, and Peruvians. Every Sunday morning for about four years, Esperanza — the plump, neatly dressed, 66-year-old matriarch — hauled in the soiled clothes of her 46-year-old son, Telmo, and his brother, Samuel, age 38. She loved to chitchat. "How is everything?" she'd pleasantly ask. But she kept mum about her family. The sons — dark-haired men with slightly protruding ears — rarely showed up.
Then this past March, Marin heard something that shocked even her. Around dawn, neighbors had spotted immigration agents outside Esperanza's home half a block from the laundry. They had burst in and found Telmo holed up in the bathroom. Samuel tried to divert them, saying his brother was someone else. But the agents nevertheless hauled all of them away. She hasn't seen Esperanza or her sons since.
A few days after the raid, the periodiquitos that mingle with the tabloids at the laundry told of Telmo Ricardo Hurtado's arrest and unveiled his shady past. He was a villain, they said, a killer who had slaughtered dozens of innocents in a remote Peruvian mountain village during the 1980s. There were machine guns, a grenade, and a fire. It was all part of Peru's war against the Shining Path rebels. "Everyone was like, 'Oh that's too bad for them,'" Marin recalls, peering over black-rimmed glasses and wrinkling her brow. "They didn't seem like bad people. They seemed like good people."
He was a villian, a killer who had slaughtered dozens of innocents in a remote mountain village.
It was the manchaytimpu, a time when fear of a war that fed on peasants' blood ruled the Peruvian countryside. Soldiers saw the enemy everywhere, mistaking terror for terrorists.
As the sun dawdled in rising August 14, 1985, the air was chilly enough for a chompa, a pullover sweater. Kindling crackled in Silvestra Lizarbe Solis's two-room home in the Quebrada de Huancayoc, a deserted green valley of adobe huts and fields of corn, potatoes, beans, and wheat. Though only about 250 miles southeast of Lima, it's a rattling 14-hour trip from the capital.
Four boys and a girl, two of them only babies, curled into the mounds of sheep's wool on the dirt floor. Silvestra laced her long brown hair into a pair of practical braids for the day. Around 6:00 a.m., she sent her eldest daughter — 13-year-old Teófila — to round up the donkeys.
Soon after that, the girl burst through the door. "Mama! Mama!" she cried in Quechua, the mother tongue of the hundred or so indigenous people who farmed the lush valley.
Outside she had seen dozens of gun-toting men in fatigues, ski masks, and black boots barking orders at villagers. Dogs on leashes led some of the soldiers.
Then one of them came to their door. "Rápido! Rápido! Get to the field!" he snapped. "Now, señora. You have to go."
Instead Silvestra invited the soldier to eat some barley soup. He slurped it down.
"Gracias, señora," he said after finishing. "Get to the field."
Silvestra put on her brown hat and wrapped her one-year-old boy, Edwin, in a hand-woven wool blanket flecked with reds, yellows, and blues. Then she tied the baby to her back. Next she scooped three-year-old Celestino into her arms and clutched the tiny hands of seven-year-old Victor and six-year-old Ernestina before heading toward the door. Eight-year-old Gerardo bawled by Teófila's side.
"Don't leave me!" Teófila sobbed while clinging desperately to her mother. "Take me with you!"
Silvestra turned her dark brown eyes to her daughter and attempted to calm her. "I'll come back soon. You stay here. Take care of your brother. I love you very much. If anything ever happens to me, remember that you are strong."
Silvestra bent to embrace Teófila, whose body trembled in whimpers. The mother kissed her daughter's wet cheek and loosened her grip to stand. Under the stern soldier's watch, the family slowly departed the cozy refuge as Teófila howled, "Don't leave!" After the door closed, the girl bolted to the window to watch them join other villagers the soldiers had rounded up. She struggled not to lose sight of her mother and siblings in the crowd of 50 that gathered in a grassy open area nearby. She wept helplessly when soldiers in combat boots kicked and beat her slight, gentle mother.
Teófila watched, terrified as soldiers forced girls not much older than she into nearby homes. There were furious screams like those of innocents being raped before soldiers swaggered out and torched the dwellings. The sound of gunshots filtered into the hut where Teófila and her brother cowered.
The girl sobbed as troops ransacked the tiny adobe and wood homes of Quebrada de Huancayoc in a fruitless search for propaganda, weapons, bombs, and ammo. She rushed to the door to watch, around 11:00 a.m., when soldiers began herding villagers from the field toward a small adobe home. It was then Silvestra looked back at the home and the children she had left behind. For a moment, the eyes of mother and daughter connected, and she waved to Teófila and Gerardo in a beckoning motion. But they recoiled inside, too scared to move.
Soldiers pushed the women and children into a kitchen and the men into another room in the small home near the field. Gunshots followed. Then the sound of a grenade. A fire ignited.
Teófila and Gerardo finally fled their hiding spots, choosing opposite paths. Soldiers pursued them like hunters following prized quarry.
She trudged uphill, dodging bullets that whizzed overhead. He scampered down and disappeared.
Her bare feet scraped rock as she ducked between boulders. Walking until the moon rose, around 4:00 a.m., she found a pepper tree and sat below its bright green leaves. What will happen to me?
Soon after, a cousin found her sobbing there, and they sought refuge in the home of a woman about 12 miles away. Her worried grandfather discovered her there three days later.
The pair trudged back to the massacre site. They entered the tiny home where Teófila's family had died. The fire still smoldered. Stepping carefully between the corpses, they saw neighbors and relatives, now just a mishmash of blackened body parts: portions of heads, disembodied hands.
Then Teófila saw them — two scorched figures clinging together. She recognized her mother by the ankle-length wool skirt she had worn that morning. A brother had died in Silvestra's arms. Teófila couldn't tell which one.
The 13-year-old girl would never again see Gerardo — or any other member of her family that disappeared that day.
"How was my mother guilty? My little brothers and sister, what did they do wrong?" she asks. "This is the pain I carry inside."
Seventy-four people died in the operation that came to be known as the "Accomarca massacre" — named for the town a two-hour hike up the hill from the valley. Among the corpses were 28 children and 21 women, including an 80-year-old and several pregnant mothers.
The 24-year-old leader of those killers would eventually flee to Miami. He easily blended in here: His five-foot-seven-inch stature, drooping mustache, deep brown eyes, and close-cut, neatly-combed dark hair parted to the right made him look like thousands of others. Even his trouble with English failed to set him apart. But Telmo Hurtado would eventually be discovered as the butcher of the Andes.
The history of Ayacucho, the province where the massacre took place, is smeared with blood. Its name, which translates to "Corner of the Dead," stems from battles beginning in the 15th Century.
For centuries families hiked from Accomarca to the valley of Quebrada de Huancayoc during the winter months because it was warmer down below. There they raised livestock and harvested corn.
The close-knit community of Quechua-speakers was either family or felt like it. Few adults knew how to read or write. The site was a "garden," lush with pacay, a large pod fruit; peaches; oranges; and the heart-shaped chirimoya. "We were poor, but we had everything," says Teófila.
It was into this pastoral setting that followers of Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, arrived — likely in the early 1980s. The rebel group, which had declared war on the Peruvian state in 1980, often killed teachers and town leaders to establish escuelas populares — people's schools — and indoctrinate children with an ideology created by Abimael Guzmán, the group's leader, a bearded former philosophy professor who believed he was the next link in the chain of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
It's difficult to exaggerate the fear this unconventional war would inspire in the Spanish-speaking soldiers.
In October 1981 the army declared most of Ayacucho, the region that included Accomarca, an emergency zone. Two years later the army stormed the village, killing 11 people. Hungry for revenge, some campesinos joined Sendero, which built a refuge of a few rickety cabins in the Quebrada de Huancayoc.
Telmo Hurtado entered this charged atmosphere around 1983. He was born into a military family July 12, 1961, in Bellavista, a middle-class industrial city of about 85,000 people on Peru's Pacific coast.
Not much is known about his youth, but on his later U.S. visa request, Hurtado said he entered the Peruvian army in March 1979, four months shy of his 18th birthday. He must have been a good soldier and reasonably well connected, because in October 1982, he was chosen to attend a month-long cadet training course at U.S.-backed School of the Americas in Panama.
The facility dubbed "School of the Assassins" by its critics is known for training war villains, notably a pair of dictators during Argentina's Dirty War and Panama's Manuel Noriega.
Three years later, on April 25, 1985, Hurtado led a mission called "Pan de Azúcar," in which he freed 40 captives, making a decision "diametrically opposite" to the one he would make in Accomarca, according to a 2006 report, "The Truth About Accomarca," written by a Peruvian army general. The report claims Hurtado acted independently, leaving his superiors unaware.
Hurtado would later recall he and officers hatched plans for what would become the Accomarca massacre in a meeting shortly before the August 14 operation. The stated mission: "Capture and/or destroy existing terrorist elements in Quebrada de Huancayoc." At the officers' gathering, a participant asked the operation leader, Army Infantry Capt. Helber Gálvez Fernández: "Should we assume anyone we see in the Quebrada de Huancayoc is a terrorist communist?"
Silvestra turned her dark brown eyes to he daughter and said, " If anything ever happens to me, remember that you are strong."
Yes, Gálvez responded.
So soldiers like Hurtado stitched together a cockeyed worldview in which Sendero flashed in every indigenous person's face: A pretty girl, a bumbling toddler, or an illiterate grandmother could be loaded with explosives. "One cannot trust in a woman, an old person, or a child in these times in which we are living, especially in what we are living out there.... They start to indoctrinate them at two or three years old...," Hurtado would say later. (Rebels did in fact recruit children they called peoneros — foot soldiers — and use them to shuttle bombs.)
On August 13, around noon, a helicopter landed far outside Accomarca, carrying Hurtado and his troops to catch villagers by surprise. They hiked several miles and, around 5:30 p.m., stealthily entered Accomarca, where they settled in for the night. The next day troops headed out early and, around 6:30, descended upon Quebrada de Huancayoc and rounded up about 50 campesinos. The soldiers soon herded their prey into two rooms in a house where, survivors would later testify, Telmo Hurtado ordered them to "open fire." Then he tossed a grenade and ordered his command to collect the used ammo so it would seem like a terrorist attack.
Around 3:00 p.m., as the sun weakened and smoke billowed from fires stoked by lives extinguished, Hurtado and other soldiers gathered in a home in the valley to celebrate killing the "terrorists," eyewitnesses would later testify. The bash got so rowdy that one frolicking soldier slipped on a skirt and danced. The troops slaughtered a villager's pig, sizzled up some chicharrones, and swilled Cartavio rum. They stole money, clothes, and blankets before ditching their smoky fatigues for civilian duds and heading back to Accomarca.
Two days later, patrol leaders Hurtado and Juan Rivera Rondón, whose troops were charged with blocking escape routes from the Quebrada de Huancayoc, sent a written report back to army command. It stated, "mission completed ... without incident" and omitted mention of the killings or any interaction with the villagers. (Hurtado would later say Maj. José Daniel Williams Zapata, the company's commander, ordered them to leave out the killings in order to escape complaints from victims' families.)
Quebrada de Huancayoc became a ghost town. Then, in early September 1985, two Quechua-speaking eyewitnesses told a government human rights panel their stories, and Peruvian President Alan García (whom voters recently returned to office) ordered an investigation.
Despite the scrutiny — or more likely because of it — troops returned to Accomarca September 8 and 13 and slaughtered seven witnesses who might have implicated Hurtado and the others.
By the next month, the Peruvian senate human rights commission declared Hurtado and his troops responsible for murdering as many as 69 people. In 1987 military courts found him guilty of abuse of authority and sentenced him to four years in military jail, and later increased it to six. But it's unclear whether Hurtado spent any time behind bars.
Several years later, Guzmán would be captured, and the new president, Alberto Fujimori, would declare an amnesty for soldiers like Hurtado. Indeed he was promoted three times until he retired as a major in 1999, soon after an irate human rights group discovered he was still in the army.
Hurtado, who admitted to killing 25, would later testify he was obeying orders. A military diagnosis said he had "psychopathic" tendencies. He said he was even offered hush money to be the scapegoat, "the crazy one" to protect those above him. "It is true that out of loyalty to the army, I was ordered not to provide information on what really happened, to prevent the case from taking on a greater dimension," Hurtado testified in documents obtained by Inter Press Service.
By the war's end in 2000, an estimated 70,000 people had died or disappeared; three-fourths were peasants who spoke Quechua. In 2001 a mostly civilian group created by the Peruvian government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began investigating atrocities. Two years and 17,000 testimonies later, the commission's 8000-page report blamed the Peruvian military for almost one-third of the deaths — more than 20,000. It called the shielding of Hurtado and others "perverse ... a situation of unacceptable and offensive impunity."
A knock on 7340 Harding Ave., apartment 14, sets off the snapping miniature schnauzer inside. Samuel Hurtado partially cracks the door to the second-floor, one-bedroom apartment on a Wednesday afternoon in late July. His gray dog bounds out into the shabby hall. Inside, white cloth curtains facing Harding Avenue are pulled snug, a flat-screen TV set blares, and an AC wall unit churns. There's no sign of his mother, Esperanza, who was likely sent back to Peru, or his brother, Telmo, who's now in federal detention.
Thinning brown hair combed over, Samuel sports a gray Champion T-shirt, blue surf shorts, and a diamond stud in his left ear. It seems a quiet rebellion against his past as a Peruvian army captain. He resembles Telmo, with his slightly protruding ears and deep brown eyes. Shuffling out in black flip-flops to fetch his dog, the 38-year-old says his family pays about $600 a month for the place.
He politely offers a visitor an iced tea and then says he and his brother were fighting an unconventional war against unlikely terrorists in the country they love so Peruvians could sleep peacefully. He likened the action to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he says he would gladly fight if asked. He refuses to comment about or defend his brother. "It's a closed case. There's nothing more to say."
The soldiers soon herded their prey into two rooms in a house where ... Telmo Hurtado ordered them to "open Fire."
The doors to the United States are not open to [foreign torture suspects.]
Pressed further, he responds in the gentle, slow tone of a kindergarten teacher: "My family is tired of all this. For many years we have lived with this persecution ... always. Luckily the justice of the United States was fair to my brother.... We came to this country for a reason."
He declines to elaborate and squats down to pick up the dog, which licks his lips. He kindly thanks the visitor and says goodbye before turning to re-enter the apartment and closing the door.
Public records indicate Esperanza Hurtado was here long before Samuel and Telmo. She left Peru to escape death threats made on the family, but lost an asylum bid and ignored a deportation order, the Miami Herald reported. Her Florida driver's license was issued in April 1996. Four months later, police busted her for stuffing $164 worth of clothing into a shopping bag and fleeing the JC Penney store at Aventura Mall.
She applied for a public defender, claiming no income or savings, but then didn't show up for a court date. Authorities issued a warrant for her arrest but never followed up.
By 1999 Samuel had settled here and obtained a driver's license. A few years later, he moved into a building at 7445 Harding Ave. and lived quietly. His brother would join him. Despite his gory — and confirmed — record as a murderer, Telmo was granted a visa to the United States and entered the country three days after Christmas 2002.
Not long after Telmo arrived, the landlord sued Samuel for eviction when he didn't pay the $750 rent. But Samuel left before law enforcement could boot him. Telmo acquired a Florida driver's license about the same time as the eviction, and the brothers shared a silver 2000 Isuzu Rodeo. It's unclear exactly when the family moved to 7340 Harding Ave., but records link Telmo to the spot in 2004. The building sits less than a block from a bank of 12 tennis courts at North Shore Park, two blocks from the beach, and a walk from two bakeries, a Venezuelan bar with busty barmaids, and even a Peruvian restaurant with an ample seafood menu. Telmo liked to jog and sometimes hit the gym.
Not only did the U.S. government allow Telmo Hurtado to enjoy this lifestyle of leisure — apparently without learning of his past — but also, even after authorities were told of the atrocities, they did nothing. In March 2006, a Peruvian judge ordered Telmo detained after Interpol located him in the United States. The Peruvians demanded the butcher back. Seven months later, John Beasley, an attorney with the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice sent a fax requesting more information. (Beasley couldn't be reached for comment on why he didn't act more quickly.) More faxes followed, but Telmo continued to walk free in Miami Beach.
Finally, this past March, immigration agents discovered Telmo had lied on a visa application. Asked whether he'd ever been arrested or convicted, he answered no. On March 30, immigration agents backed by a SWAT team and Miami Beach Police rushed the second-floor apartment.
Reports and anonymous sources give this account: Authorities entered the place based on the 11-year-old warrant for Esperanza's arrest. Samuel initially lied, telling agents Telmo lived elsewhere. When they discovered the killer hiding in the bathroom, Samuel claimed it wasn't his brother. Then he attempted to block the search for Telmo's passport and was handcuffed. Soon they were all in custody.
On May 24, Telmo, his head shaved, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the U.S. government and visa fraud. He was sentenced June 29 to six months in prison. Commented U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard: "The doors to the United States are not open to [foreign torture suspects]."
Cirila Pulido Baldeón was 12 years old the day of the Accomarca massacre. Her family lived apart from the home where the killings took place. But Cirila recalls seeing her 29-year-old mother, Fortuna Baldeón Gutiérrez, wrap eight-month-old Edgar in a blanket, much like Teófila's mother, Silvestra, had swaddled her baby. Then they set off to visit family in the valley. Cirila's father was there too. He would, however, escape the bullets and fire by playing dead, says Cirila, who is now 34 years old and lives near Teófila Ochoa, now age 35, in Lima's outskirts. (The women are friends and work as maids.)
Cirila, Teófila, and her grandfather were among 20 survivors who returned to the scene after the killings to bury the victims. They sorted through the remains of loved ones and neighbors that were unidentifiable. "Their faces were gone," Cirila says. "There was nothing left to recognize them." Campesinos dug two big holes, buried the remains, and scurried back to their hiding places.
Last month a San Francisco human rights group, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), sued Telmo Hurtado on behalf of Cirila and Teófila. The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami accuses him of torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It seeks monetary damages for suffering. (CJA also sued the other Accomarca patrol leader, Rivera Rondón, who was recently picked up in Maryland.)
The truth can take awhile, but eventually it will come out.
Almudena Bernabeu is a 35-year-old, dark-haired, Spanish-born attorney for CJA who stands a head taller than her indigenous clients. She hopes to win some sort of reparations for the survivors. Bernabeu began investigating the Accomarca case in mid-2006 on a tip from a retired U.S. government employee whom she declined to name. The employee knew Hurtado was in Florida and that he was a "bad guy," she says.
Bernabeu's allegiance to war survivors is steeped in family history. Her grandfathers were held by government troops during the Spanish Civil War — one spent three decades in and out of custody. She believes neither the United States nor Peru has much interest in pursuing Telmo Hurtado. Why? First, the massacre came to light during Peruvian President Alan García's first term. Unearthing the mess could harm him politically.
Second, the U.S. government supported Peru during its civil war. Our government's payments to the Peruvian military ballooned from $8.7 million in 1989 to $168.8 million in 1992, according to an analysis by journalist Roger Atwood. Prosecuting Hurtado could tarnish relations with an old friend. "The U.S. is not going to be picky after these conflicts because, for the most part, it supported the action," Bernabeu says.
Like Bernabeu, Peruvian lawyer Karim Ninaquispe Gil wants Hurtado to pay for his crimes. A lawyer for the Peruvian human rights group ADEHR, the 30-year-old represents survivors of Accomarca. She has been threatened with death for trying to enforce an extradition order issued by a Peruvian court in 2006. "One of the ways to ensure that this never happens again [is to force] Telmo Hurtado and the others that participated in this massacre to pay their debt to Peruvian justice," Ninaquispe says. "I can't live with the injustice or be a silent accomplice in a society that turns the page like nothing ever happened."
Dr. Salomón Lerner Febres chaired Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now heads the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. He wants to see Hurtado in Peru "to face a penalty that conforms to the magnitude of the crime, the number of victims, and the cruelty they faced.... This was a person who, instead of killing people, should have been taking care of them."
Teófila and Cirila — the survivors who have sued in U.S. court — vow to never give up fighting for justice for their families. From the home where she lives with her husband and three sons, Teófila says, "The truth can take awhile, but eventually it will come out."