High on a hilltop overooking the town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca sits the notorious, maximum security Yanamayo prison. Sitting at over 12,000 feet in altitude, Yanamoyo's prisoners are kept under lock and key in frigid cells with only bars for windows. The frozen ground makes it impossible to dig a tunnel. Escape from here is even harder than from the infamous Alcatraz.
What do you have to do to get sent here?
N O T H I N G !
The majority of Yanamayo's 600 prisoners were never given a fair trial.
Learn more about Yanamayo at Revolutionary Prisoners in Peru
I had heard of Yanamayo from friends I have met on my travels in Peru, but seeing the foreboding pink-colored building, on a vast, stark mesa surrounded by yards of barbed wire fence and guards patrolling with automatic weapons, brought those stories to reality.
The government built this prison in 1991 in response to problems of insurgencies occurring in the prisons in Lima. The people imprisoned here were prosecuted after President Fujimori's dictatorial restructuring of the judicial system in 1992. To combat the rising guerrilla problems at the time, Fujimori created a series of anti-terrorist laws. Under these laws, anyone accused of being a terrorist is immediately tried by a military court on charges of treason, without any due process. In military trials, defendants are usually not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, challenge evidence, or call witnesses in their own defense. Up until 1997, the judges were "faceless," that is, hidden behind a partition, and are usually senior military officers who lack training in the law.
There are now thousands of Peruvians and non-Peruvians who have been detained under the system. The police are allowed to arrest anyone for terrorism on the basis of pure suspicion and without any factual evidence.
A friend here in Puno, told me the story of her boyfriend's brother who is in the Yanamayo prison. We are the same age and she and her friend attended a university in Lima at the same time I began the University of Maryland in 1992. "He was taken and accused of conspiring with the Sendero Luminoso (a guerrilla group). My boyfriend had to drop out of school afterwards, he was too afraid to continue there." Unfortunately she did not want me to take her picture or even to write down her name. Even years after leaving the University and after guerrilla activity has died down all over the country, the human rights violations of Fujimori's anti-terrorist laws still stand as a constant threat.
What these young people went through escapes me. I cannot imagine dealing with such terrifying issues all during my freshman year at the University! While I worried about what to wear to a fraternity party, my peers in Lima worried about the government or a guerrilla group judging their every move.
According to a released inmate of Yanamayo, prisoners spend almost every hour of every day in a cell that's 6 1/2 feet by 10 feet. They have a toilet, a faucet with ice cold water, a concrete bench for a bed, and barred windows with no glass, allowing the frigid Altiplano air to blow in.
I shiver at the thought of how the inmates can survive such cold, as I sit here typing in my hotel room with closed windows in Puno, a good 600 feet in elevation below Yanamayo, under three thick wool blankets. Prisoners' fingers often turn purple from trying to wash their clothes in the ice cold water. They are only allowed one-half hour out of their small cells each day to feel the sunlight in the courtyards.
It was the conditions of political prisoners in Peru's high security prisons (12 in total), and the unfair judicial system that brought them there that prompted the hostage take over the Japanese Ambassador's residence by the guerrilla group the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in December, 1996. For most people in the states, the Tupac Amaru Movement is an unknown name; the only images that come to mind when we hear the name are of the late rapper and actor, Tupac Shakur, who was also named after the anti-colonial Incan rebel Tupac Amaru.
This smaller of Peru's two main guerrilla groups hoped to bring international attention to the human rights violations under Fujimori's anti-terrorist laws, and thus took hostages in the Japanese ambassador's house in exchange for the release of some of the thousands of political prisoners who had never received a fair trial. Whether you agree with this tactic or not, it is interesting that they never physically injured or threatened any of the hostages and even allowed the hostages to receive Christmas presents from the Red Cross.
The hostage situation was ended by a military raid that left all 14 of the guerrillas (including two teenage girls), two soldiers, and one hostage dead. It is reported that some of the guerillas had tried to surrender but were shot anyway. The members of Tupac Amaru claim that this proves that there is no basis for peaceful dialogue with the Fujimori government.
The inhumane conditions which the political prisoners endure and the poverty and hunger which the entire nation endures can't be solved through military intervention only perpetuated.
As I leave Peru on to Bolivia and then to Africa, I continue to hope that international pressure can help the Peruvian people as they struggle to overcome their government's human rights abuses.
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Kavitha- An American in the Alcatraz of Peru
Making a Difference - Helping Political Prisoners in Peru
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