Beleaguered in Lima

February 21, 1997

Paul Wilkinson examines the return of a terrorist phenomenon long thought to be in decline - the embassy siege

It is easy to see why diplomats continue to be a favourite target for terrorists. Diplomats are the most obvious symbols of the states they represent. Their work requires that they and their premises remain accessible, and hence vulnerable to attack. Last but not least, terrorists know that striking at diplomatic targets can bring huge international publicity for their cause.

But the seizure by Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) of 500 hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima last December still surprised the international community by reviving tactics of barricade and hostage in diplomatic premises in decline since the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an epidemic of embassy sieges. In 1979, there were 35 embassies and consulates seized. In 1980, 42 diplomatic premises were seized by terrorist groups or mobs. Fifty-three people were killed in the course of these incidents and hundreds were held hostage. One reason for the decline was the effectiveness of highly professional commando rescue teams like the SAS squad who ended the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London.

But kidnappings, barricades and hostage-taking have always been a particularly acute problem in Latin America. Over half the seizures of embassies and consulates in 1979 and 20 of the following year's embassy seizures, costing 45 of the 53 deaths worldwide, occurred there. Kidnapping of all types remains a scourge today, and is estimated to involve at least 6,500 incidents per year.

Under international law the person of a diplomatic agent and diplomatic premises, including an ambassador's private residence are supposed to be inviolable. What happens if they are violated by terrorist hostage takers? The Vienna Convention (1961) places a special duty on the host state "to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity". In practice the host state and its security forces are normally seen as having the prime responsibility if any intervention is required. But clearly the host state has a duty to consult closely with the sending state. And in a situation such as the Lima siege, the Peruvian authorities are very aware of the importance of maintaining good economic and diplomatic relations with Japan.

There are strong parallels between the Lima siege and the February 1980 seizure of the Dominican embassy in Bogota, Colombia by members of the Marxist April 19th Movement (M19). The terrorists mounted their attack during a social function in the embassy and among the hostages were 13 ambassadors and the papal nuncio. M19 released one ambassador and all the nondiplomatic staff. Initially M19 demanded the release of more than 300 terrorists from jail and a ransom of $50 million. The Colombian government refused these demands and the siege dragged on for two months. Negotiations ultimately led to the M19 group being allowed safe exit to Havana, where they released the remaining hostages. It is also believed that a sum of approximately $2.5 million was paid to the terrorists, but this money was not paid by the Colombian government. It was raised by private companies operating in Colombia.

It must be admitted that Latin American countries have paid a price in attempting to take a firm line. In an assault on the Palace of Justice in Bogota in November 1985 the terrorists killed the president of the Supreme Court and 11 other judges, and 100 people died when the building was stormed by the security forces and caught fire.

The Lima siege was a major shock to the Peruvian authorities. President Fujimori and his colleagues clearly believed that the MRTA, a smaller and weaker movement than Sendero Luminoso, had been virtually wiped out by the security forces' capture of key leaders. It is always dangerous to underestimate the tenacity of "old" groups and the appeal of well-tried tactics.

MRTA is a Marxist revolutionary group formed in 1983, inspired by the example of Castro's Cuba, bitterly anti-American, and aiming to destabilise and topple the Peruvian government. Unlike Sendero Luminoso, it has primarily used the methods of urban guerrilla warfare and cultivated close links with other Marxist revolutionary groups in the region. It takes its name from Tupac Amaru II, executed by the Spanish after leading the 1780 Indian revolt. In the 1980s most MRTA attacks appear to have been aimed at property. But since 1992 they have killed policemen, soldiers and civilians, including a Peruvian businessman who refused to pay a large ransom after they kidnapped him in Lima.

The Lima siege is MRTA's desperate bid to gain the release of imprisoned colleagues in order to rebuild their movement and continue their struggle. They have also demanded an improvement in prison conditions, and changes in Peru's economic policies to curtail the involvement of Japanese and other foreign business interests.

President Fujimori is adamantly opposed to giving in to MRTA's main demands. Since 1982 terrorism has cost Peru at least ,000 lives and an estimated $23 billion. Any release would undermine the president's key policy of eradicating terrorism. It would also threaten the stability and survival of the Peruvian political and economic system. Fujimori won 64 per cent of the vote in the 1995 general election, while MRTA has no democratic mandate and is a criminal organisation. He also has the backing of the G7 countries for his firm refusal to give in to the terrorists' key demand.

In a significant change of policy on terrorist hostage-taking the Japanese government is, albeit reluctantly, supporting President Fujimori's firm stance. For the first time Japan has had to come to terms with the fact that it is a key target of a foreign terrorist group. Tokyo recognises that appeasement would send dangerous signals to others who might be tempted to use terrorism to attack Japanese targets and who might damage the country's economic interests.

The present strategy of patience at Lima needs a cool nerve. It could take a very long time for the crisis to be resolved. Meanwhile, it would be wise for the Peruvian and Japanese authorities to maintain closest possible collaboration and hone their rescue plans in case the MRTA loses patience and starts killing the hostages. The MRTA has played a sophisticated propaganda game, but must surely soon realise that they are not going to achieve their main demand. Would it not be wiser for them to bargain for safe exit to a country of their choice and for an improvement in Peru's appalling prison conditions in return for the release of the hostages, rather than face probable annihilation?

Paul Wilkinson is professor of international relations, University of St Andrews.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments