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Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1997

Latin America Overview

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Latin America Overview


Audiences around the world watched with anxiety, then relief, on 22 April as Peruvian military forces stormed the residence of the Japanese Ambassador in Lima, bringing to an end the hostage taking by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which began in December 1996. Although there was widespread regret over the loss of life of one hostage, two Peruvian soldiers, and all 14 of the MRTA terrorists, most observers agreed that decisive action by the Peruvian Government was needed in order to resolve a prolonged and increasingly intractable standoff.

With the resolution of the MRTA crisis, terrorist activity in Peru remained at low levels compared to previous years. According to Peruvian Government statistics, terrorist incidents by the Sendero Luminoso and MRTA declined to less than a fourth of what they had been in the peak years of violence almost a decade ago. Peruvian authorities, nonetheless, remained vigilant against a possible regrouping and resurgence of the two groups.

Colombia's principal terrorist groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), stepped up their campaigns of kidnapping, extortion, and violent attacks against government, political, and private interests. Colombian authorities faced increased challenges stemming from greater FARC and ELN involvement in narcotics trafficking and tensions with neighboring countries caused by terrorist groups' incursions across Colombia's borders. The two groups carried out a campaign of murder and intimidation in an effort to disrupt the October municipal elections.

US interests continued to be affected by Colombian terrorists, with four US citizens still held hostage at the end of 1997. US companies suffered severe economic damages due to terrorist attacks against oil pipelines.

The United States was deeply disappointed with the manner in which defendants in Panama were acquitted in October of murdering US serviceman Zak Hernandez. US authorities believe that Gerardo Gonzalez, president of Panama's legislative assembly and father of one of the defendants, manipulated the outcome through threats to witnesses and intimidation of the lead investigator in the case.

In Argentina moderate progress was made in the investigation of the Buenos Aires bombings of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in 1994 and the Israeli Embassy in 1992. Several arrests were made, and additional personnel were assigned to the inquiries. In December, Argentina hosted an International Congress on Terrorism, which featured presentations given by representatives of eight countries active in the fight against terrorism.

Mercosur (the Southern Cone common market) Interior and Justice Ministers signed agreements on a number of initiatives to fight crime in the Southern Cone region, with particular emphasis being given to the need to cooperate in preventing terrorist activity.


The Argentine Government in 1997 continued its investigations into two devastating bombings against Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires: the bombing in July 1994 of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) building that killed 86 persons and injured hundreds more; and the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992, in which 29 persons died. Neither probe resulted in any breakthroughs during the course of the year, but the Argentine Government devoted additional resources to the investigations and some new information has been generated. In August the Argentine Supreme Court appointed a special investigator to oversee the 1992 bombing case, and Interior Minister Carlos Corach created a new 80-man counterterrorist unit within the Argentine Federal Police to assist in the investigations. The Iranian-backed Lebanese Hizballah remains the primary suspect in both bombings.

Argentina continued to take a leading role in promoting counterterrorism cooperation in the region in 1997. Interior Minister Corach pushed vigorously for stronger border controls and increased cooperation between local law enforcement services in the "triborder" region, where the boundaries of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet.


Chilean authorities pursued investigative leads throughout 1997 in an effort to locate and apprehend four terrorists from the dissident wing of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) who escaped from a maximum-security prison in Santiago on 30 December 1996. In September, one of the escapees, Patricio Ortiz Montenegro, was detained in Switzerland, where he remains in custody pending the outcome of a request for political asylum. Chilean investigators are exploring the possibility that the other three escapees are in Cuba, where other FPMR members have sought refuge in the past. The prosecutor responsible for the case has asked the Cuban Government to provide information on the whereabouts of the three fugitives, a request that Chilean President Eduardo Frei repeated in November during face-to-face talks with Cuban President Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American summit in Venezuela. Havana has not formally responded to Chile's request.


Continued violence in Colombia accounted for the bulk of international terrorist incidents in Latin America during 1997. There were 107 such incidents last year, mostly oil pipeline bombings. Fueled by revenues from kidnapping, extortion, and ties to narcotraffickers, the country's two major terrorist groups, the FARC and the ELN, carried out numerous armed attacks and bombings targeting both civilians and security forces. The groups' activities often spilled over into neighboring Panama and Venezuela. In an effort to disrupt municipal elections in October, the terrorists further intensified their activities by threatening, kidnapping, and murdering candidates and local officeholders. ELN terrorists also kidnapped two election observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) in October and held them hostage for nine days. Rightwing paramilitary groups responded with their own campaign of violence and committed several assassinations and massacres targeting the terrorists and their alleged sympathizers.

Terrorists frequently directed attacks against foreign oil and mining companies operating in the Colombian countryside, both to disrupt the country's economy and to protest what they see as foreign exploitation of Colombia's resources. The violence hit the oil sector the hardest. Terrorists sabotaged oil pipelines owned jointly by the Colombian Government and Western companies some 90 times in 1997, causing extensive ecological damage and forcing Occidental Petroleum to suspend production temporarily in August.

Colombian terrorists continued to rely on ransoms from the kidnapping of foreigners and wealthy Colombians as a major source of funds for their insurgent activities, resulting in a heightened threat to US citizens. Since 1980 at least 85 US citizens have been kidnapped in Colombia, most by the country's terrorist groups. The terrorists were still holding four US citizens hostage at yearend: three missionaries abducted by the FARC in 1993 and a geologist kidnapped by the ELN in February 1997. Two other US citizens kidnapped earlier in the year obtained their release in November. Frank Pescatore, a US geologist and mining consultant, was kidnapped by the FARC in December 1996 and later killed by his captors; his body was discovered 23 February 1997.

Opponents of extradition legislation that was before the Colombian congress in 1997 repeatedly turned to terrorist tactics to generate pressure for their cause. Individuals identifying themselves as members of the "Extraditables," a narcotrafficker-sponsored group whose terrorist attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s forced Bogota to ban the extradition of Colombians to the United States, sent written death threats to several Colombian newspapers and foreign journalists in April. In September police defused a 550-pound car bomb outside the offices of a newspaper in Medellin, an incident that was later claimed on behalf of the Extraditables. Police have been unable to verify the authenticity of the claims.


The trial in October of three Panamanians charged with the 1992 murder of US serviceman Zak Hernandez ended with the acquittal of all of the defendants, including Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, whose father is the head of Panama's ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party and president of the country's legislature. The United States expressed its deep disappointment with the results of the trial, citing reports of judicial manipulation, threats to prosecution witnesses, and judicial retaliation against the lead investigator in the case, who was convicted of evidence tampering in a trial also rife with irregularities. The US cases against Gonzalez and one other suspect remain open.

Panamanian authorities have made no arrests in connection with the bombing in July 1994 of a commuter airline that killed all 21 persons aboard, including three US citizens. Panamanian officials continue to cooperate closely with the United States in the ongoing investigation.


The first four months of 1997 were marred by the hostage situation at the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima. Fourteen terrorists from the MRTA, including the group's top operational leader, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, seized the residence on 17 December 1996, taking hundreds of hostages, including foreign ambassadors, Peruvian cabinet ministers and security chiefs, and eight US officials. At the beginning of the year, the terrorists still held 81 hostages, most of whom were prominent Peruvian or Japanese citizens.

In February, Peruvian officials and MRTA leaders initiated talks to resolve the crisis, but the terrorists' insistence that the Peruvian Government release imprisoned MRTA members blocked the way to a peaceful outcome. On 22 April, after weeks of stalled talks and a MRTA refusal to allow medical personnel to visit the hostages, Peruvian military forces stormed the residence and successfully rescued all but one of the 72 remaining hostages. Two Peruvian soldiers and all 14 of the MRTA terrorists died in the assault.

The MRTA's activity dropped off dramatically after the rescue operation, but its larger and more violent counterpart, Sendero Luminoso, remained active in Lima and in some parts of the countryside. Sendero still has not recovered from the arrest of its founder, Abimael Guzman, in 1992, however, and its recent attacks have been less ambitious than those it mounted in the early 1990s. In August, Sendero kidnapped 30 employees of a French oil company in Junin Department and released them after two days in exchange for food, clothing, and other supplies. The group also car-bombed a police station in Lima in May, injuring eight policemen and more than a dozen civilians; later in the year, it set off several smaller bombs in Lima, which caused no injuries. Peruvian authorities continue to pursue aggressively members of both of the country's terrorist groups and have tightened security measures in Lima substantially since the hostage crisis.

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