The dead man who won’t die | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
On Saturday, September 11, 2021, doctor Daniela Ramos arrived early for work at the morgue in Callao, Peru.
It was supposed to be a normal day for her: she had to solve some administrative issues and other things. She sat down to breakfast with her lab mates. They chatted and had their morning coffee.
[Daniela Ramos]: And one of my colleagues says: “Hey, Abimael died.”
[Daniel]: Abimael. Perhaps that name does not mean much to those who are not Peruvian. But for us, it’s a name that doesn’t even need a last name. Abimael: that single name takes us back to the 80s and 90s, one of the darkest times in the country’s history.
[Journalist]: Two attacks with explosives were perpetrated at the tourist hotel and on the historic premises of the prefecture…
[Journalist]: Three people are wounded; a car bomb has exploded. It has affected at least 5 nearby cars, the houses are also destroyed…
[Journalist]: It’s 12 noon … 12:42, terrorists are firing bullets from different places…
[Daniel]: Abimael Guzmán. Founder and top leader of the Shining Path terrorist group. Peru is not a country characterized by consensus. It’s rather the opposite: it’s a place where divisions are historical, structural… divisions that prevent and interrupt the operation of institutions over and over again, and this has been going on for decades.
But with Abimael Guzmán, it is different. Most Peruvians consider him genocidal. Many would like to forget the murderous war that began in the 1980s, like forgetting a nightmare. For millions who suffered, in one way or another, the consequences of that violence, and for tens of thousands whose loved ones were killed or disappeared, Guzmán is perhaps the most reprehensible figure in the history of my country. Those who saw him as a god, who followed his cause and applied his methods, those who still try to justify him, have always been a minority.
Daniela Ramos, who is 43 years old, is one of the people who remember the time of the conflict well. Like when the electricity and water were cut off due to attacks by the Shining Path in her district, Chaclacayo, in the mountains of Lima.
Daniela also remembers how at the age of 10, she witnessed the assassination of a parliamentarian, Eriberto Arroyo, while he was dropping his children off at school. Nor does she forget her mother, burying books related to socialism in her garden for fear that the military would identify her with Shining Path, who recruited people at the university she attended.
And she remembers the general feeling that the capture of Guzmán produced on September 12, 1992:
[Daniela Ramos]: Like everyone else, relief. Possibly a hidden desire that they finish him off, right? Which I think was normal at the time.
[Daniel]: From 1993 until his death, Abimael Guzmán was locked up in the Callao Naval Base, in a cell, isolated from other terrorist leaders who were there serving their sentences. Isolated from everything.
So, when she heard that Guzmán had died, Daniela felt that at last some kind of justice had been done, although she didn’t give it much importance.
[Daniela]: I said, “Oh, really? Oh, good!”
[Daniel]: Daniela kept drinking her coffee until, after a while, a colleague arrived. He said there was a call out to do a removal of a body, but he was busy. Without thinking much about it, Daniela replied all right; since she was already there and didn’t have much else to do, she could attend to the body—no problem. Daniela followed the routine procedure. She called the Prosecutor’s Office to confirm that a body had to be removed.
[Daniela]: And they tell me, “Yes, doctor, it will take place at the naval base.” But at that moment, I did not fully understand that if Abimael had really died, he had died at the naval base and that was my territory. So then my brain just thinks, “Naval Base? Hold on… what?”
[Daniel]: She would be in charge of the removal of the corpse of the most hated person in all Peru. What she didn’t suspect was that she would not only have to deal with the reaction of a family, but with that of an entire country.
We’ll be back after a break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Journalist Ricardo León picks up the story.
This is Ricardo:
[Ricardo León]: Daniela went to perform the removal of the corpse at the Callao Naval Base. She was intrigued, concerned.
[Daniela]: Perhaps not aware of what was coming.
[Ricardo]: Daniela has to deal with quite a few court cases every week. Many involve homicides, but she had never attended a removal at the Callao Naval Base.
The first unusual thing was to get to the body itself. Entering the base was not easy.
[Daniela]: I think it took me a minimum of three hours between the time they told me that there was a removal and the time I was able to get into the room.
[Ricardo]: There were many checkpoints with tight security. In addition, people had to enter the cell by groups because of the security measures due to the pandemic. The site experts went in first, then the biology experts… She, the medical examiner, was the last to enter.
[Daniela]: When I arrive, it is a small room with no windows. A room measuring about 4 square meters square, maybe, possibly a little smaller. There was nothing inside, only the clinical bed, because the man is in one of those clinical cots used in hospitals. There were a couple of plastic garden chairs, and on top of the plastic chairs there were plastic bags with his belongings.
[Ricardo]: There was nothing else in the cell.
[Daniela]: No shelves, no books, absolutely nothing.
[Ricardo]: And on the bed was Guzmán’s body.
[Daniela]: A decrepit body, very old, and quite difficult to recognize.
[Ricardo]: For many Peruvians, the last image they had of Guzmán was from the day the authorities exhibited him in 1992. At the time, he was a 57-year-old man, locked in a cage, dressed in a striped suit, almost like the caricature of a prisoner, and shouting with his fist raised. Rebellious, furious.
[Abimael Guzmán]: Some think it is a big defeat. They’re dreaming. We tell them, “Keep on dreaming. This is just a stumble, nothing more.”
[Ricardo]: In a way, he was still intimidating, the monster of a nation.
Abimael Guzmán was born in Arequipa, in southern Peru. He graduated in philosophy with a thesis on Kant, far removed from the entire ideology that he developed with Shining Path. He taught at universities in different parts of the country, until he arrived at the San Cristóbal de Huamanga University in Ayacucho, a poor department, mostly of indigenous origin, where resentment against the rich, mestizo ruling class fromand Lima was latent.
Shining Path was a radical organization, one of many at the time. Each believed itself to be the authentic heirs of the Communist Party of Peru, but Guzmán’s group stood out for being the most violent. The call for a people’s war was, in fact, one of its central objectives.
In 1980, after 12 years of military rule, while the rest of the country celebrated the return of democracy, Shining Path burned ballot boxes in an Ayacucho town, starting a murderous war that would end the lives of almost 70,000 people. More than 30,000 of those deaths are attributed to Shining Path and the rest to state forces.
Abimael mobilized his followers with a vision of a Maoist Peru. His ideas and his rhetoric led people to commit attacks, murder and torture. There were poems and songs about Guzmán. There were murals with his face, as if he were some kind of supreme leader, not unlike the iconography of Mao in China. Some murals showed a portrait of him at the top of the Andes, shining and illuminating the land below him.
But despite these portrayals, he was a dark figure. Except for a trusted circle, for a long time not even his followers knew what he looked like in the flesh. He lived in hiding, going from one secret place to another. He was practically a mystical figure, unapproachable, and this reinforced the idea that he was invincible.
Once she was standing in front of the body, the first thing Daniela had to do was confirm that it was Abimael Guzmán, and that he was dead. She had seen only images of his arrest, but now she had him in front of her, silent and motionless. Lifeless.
[Daniela]: After looking at him for a while, his facial features did match, right? And I was surprised by the loneliness he was in, right? It is a place where I would have slowly gone crazy.
[Ricardo]: Daniela watched the curious soldiers who entered and left the place, waiting to see what would be done with Peru’s public enemy number one.
[Daniela]: The truth is that everyone is a little excited. Being able to see Abimael dead was like a matter of social justice, I think.
[Ricardo]: By order of the Prosecution, the body was taken to the morgue at Callao. Daniela also went there to receive it.
Since he was a person who had died in prison, he couldn’t have an ordinary autopsy. With Guzmán’s body, they applied the Minnesota Protocol, a very detailed manual that must be followed in the case of potential murders.
[Daniela]: Exhaustive, almost millimetric, incisions are made to verify that there are no hidden bruises between the muscles. To confirm and verify that he was not attacked by anyone.
[Ricardo]: At the morgue, Daniela met with other specialists.
[Daniela]: A paraphernalia of personnel, specialists, radiologists, forensic experts, fingerprint experts, DNA, forensic biology X. Everything you can imagine. And also specialist medical examiners.
[Ricardo]: The necropsy began. Each part of the body was analyzed with meticulous care. It was not in good condition. We are talking about an 86-year-old guy who had been locked up a third of that time.
[Daniela]: He had some kidney failure, liver failure, a totally worn-out stomach, possibly due to medicines and stress, which was also well deserved.
[Ricardo]: Not long after the autopsy began, with the news already spreading far and wide, the area around the morgue filled up with people.
[Daniela]: By then, there were crowds of people outside, shouting slogans.
[Protester]: We want to see the body, we want to see the body, we want to see the body, we want to see the body.
[Daniela]: Everyone wanted us to take the body out to make sure it was him. There were people who wanted to urinate on him. There were people who wanted to hang us for not leaving the corpse of their idol alone.
[Ricardo]: Daniela and her colleagues were used to dealing with the relatives of people who died in gang wars and the settling of scores between drug traffickers. But not this… she was tense, upset. Especially because of how demanding the examination was. Time passed and still the work was not over.
[Daniela]: It was around four o’clock a.m., and I had been with that man and the man’s story since nine in the morning. In addition, I had been on my feet almost the whole time, going up and down the stairs, so at some point I kind of stopped reflecting on the significance of the matter at some point. By then I was very tired.
[Ricardo]: Still, she kept working. She thought she would finish and then go home and rest, and that would be the end of the matter…
But Daniela would be caught up in the commotion of a country that didn’t quite know how to feel about the death of its public enemy number one.
[Daniel]: For heroes, there are monuments… But what about villains? What do we do with people we should not forget but whose actions we repudiate? How do we deal with the worst parts of our past?
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. On September 11, 2021, Abimael Guzmán, founder and leader of the Shining Path terrorist group, died at the age of 86 in a prison at the naval base in Callao, Peru.
Forensic doctor Daniela Ramos was in charge of carrying out the necropsy of Guzmán, of officially confirming that the body found in the Callao Naval Base was that of the terrorist leader.
Before long, it became clear that no one knew what to do with the inconvenient corpse. Peruvian law says that only the closest relatives of a person who dies in prison can receive the corpse. But Guzmán’s wife, Elena Iparraguirre, has been in prison since 1992, accused of the same crimes as her husband.
Although he was imprisoned for almost 30 years, no one had determined the steps to follow with Guzmán’s body when he finally died. It is as if it had not occurred to the authorities that a man over 86 could die.
This is typical of the Peruvian post-war period. In the 1990s, leaders and members of groups like Shining Path were imprisoned with sentences of 20 or 30 years. Sentences at that time that were celebrated by almost all Peruvians. But little was done to process what happened or plan for the reintegration of Shining Path members once they finished their sentences. And much less about how to deal with their deaths. Furthermore, Abimael Guzmán was not just any prisoner, nor was his death just another death.
Ricardo León continues the story:
[Ricardo]: The news media began to discuss what to do with the body… The families of the victims, commentators and former members of the government asked for one thing.
[Woman]: We are asking the authorities that his body be cremated and his ashes thrown into the sea or thrown in the garbage can.
[Woman]: Neither Abimael Guzmán nor any person from the terrorist leadership can be given a public burial. Because you cannot create a myth, a legend.
[Man]: And it is now in the hands of the Public Prosecutor’s Office to simply incinerate the body and throw the ashes anywhere except in the Sea of Grau, please. I believe that the Sea of Grau should not be polluted.
[Ricardo]: The fear was that burying the remains in a cemetery could turn his grave into a place of worship.
It may sound like an exaggeration to some, but remember that the country saw his fans idolize him in the past. They had not only been willing to die for his revolution, but for himself, for him as a figure.
There had already been another moment in which Peru had to confront precisely this fear:
[Host]: A revealing video recorded by the police shows the way the Shining Path honors its dead in a mausoleum erected in the Comas district.
[Ricardo]: In 2016, the media released a couple of videos showing dozens of people gathered in a cemetery in the middle of the arid hills north of Lima. They were there for the inauguration of a mausoleum, where they were going to bury eight people accused of being members of the Shining Path and who were murdered in 1986, during the riots in different prisons in the Peruvian capital. The bodies had been handed over very recently to their relatives, who decided to build that mausoleum and relocate the remains to the highest part of the cemetery.
Now, not all those who were murdered by the State in the prison massacre of 1986 were confirmed Shining Path members.
The groups in front of the mausoleum were diverse. And while some demanded amnesty for Guzmán and spoke of the proletariat, others were only paying tribute to their loved ones, not necessarily being apologists for terrorism.
When asked about the mausoleum, then-Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a right-wing ideologue, said:
[Pedro Pablo Kuczynski]: Evidently there was a clerical error somewhere in granting them permission to build this. I believe the corpses that are there should be respectfully removed, and then the mausoleum should disappear.
[Ricardo]: So it was. The construction of the mausoleum was the subject of debate until in 2018, the authorities declared that the mausoleum was an apology for terrorism, a crime under Peruvian law. Furthermore, it had been built without the required permits. So they tore it down. The bodies were once again exhumed and buried in another cemetery, in separate niches.
Let’s go back to Daniela. Saturday and Sunday were for body work, paperwork, bureaucratic matters. Those were exhausting days and there was still no decision about what to do with the body. Monday came and with it, more problems. A politician showed up at the morgue.
[Daniela]: He arrived very early, earlier than I did. And he wanted to come in and be allowed to see the body. So I went in but I didn’t invite him to come in.
[Ricardo]: It was José Cueto, a retired Navy officer who is now a Congressman for Renovación Popular, a Christian right-wing party.
[Daniela]: And he threatened me, he told me, “You know I’m a Congressman, right? And I can enter wherever I want.”
[Ricardo]: But Daniela knew the law, and she told him:
[Daniela]: I told him, “No, what you can do is ask for reports wherever you want. But you can’t enter wherever you want.”
[Ricardo]: Right after the incident, Cueto spoke to reporters outside the morgue.
[José Cueto]: The person in charge, who is a doctor, says that she has no order, that she cannot let people in, despite the fact that there is a law that says a Congressman can visit any state agency to verify anything, any activity. They do not want to let me in, they have closed—she says she does not have an order from the Prosecutor… This only creates suspicion.
[Ricardo]: This was just a warning that a difficult week was coming. Daniela was in a quite unpleasant position.
[Daniela Ramos]: My forensic unit and my colleagues and I were the last hostages of that man. We arrived at work and we couldn’t go out. We stayed locked up. I was an involuntary guardian.
[Ricardo]: And here I ask myself: Was there a humanitarian way out? Can a country offer dignity to its biggest enemy? And if not, what does that make us?
I think this is one of the best people to answer this question:
[José Carlos Agüero]: José Carlos Agüero Solórzano, historian and writer.
[Ricardo]: José Carlos is a son of senderistas. His mother was murdered extra-judicially and his father died in the prison massacre of 1986, the same one in which those buried in the mausoleum were murdered. However, in the case of José Carlos’s father, his body is still missing.
In 2015 he wrote the book Los Rendidos, an essay that invites us to rethink our way of remembering violence and the armed conflict in Peru, taking into account the point of view of the families of Shining Path members. An episode of Radio Ambulante also came out of this book, entitled El hijo.
And well, as you can imagine, the book was not very well received by a large part of the Peruvian general public.
[José Carlos]: The book was received as an apology for terrorism, basically verbal violence.
[Ricardo]: I thought it was important to talk to José Carlos because he is one of the few Peruvians who have written from that perspective, as someone who inherits a Shining Path family history. From there, José Carlos questions whether it is enough for us to just know what happened in order for it to not happen again, and wonders whether forgiveness might not be a better path. He highlights the very act of asking for forgiveness without necessarily expecting to receive it in return.
As the days passed, one of the possibilities was gaining ground. We have already heard versions of this idea: cremate the body and dispose of it, some said in the sea, others in a secret place. This, for José Carlos, was problematic.
[José Carlos]: Disposing of bodies is not a role of the State. Managing the bodies according to pre-established protocols—that is the role of the State. Organizing them according to an existing policy on the handling of funeral matters.
[Ricardo]: For him, a democratic society that really knows how to deal with its demons would not consider cremating and hiding the ashes of a body, no matter whose they were.
[José Carlos]: I think that is very violent. And it is not something that we should allow states to take on as an attribution. Because then it will always be possible for them to wield some justification for exceptional situations in the future.
[Ricardo]: In other words, if Guzmán is allowed to become an exception to how the bodies should be handled, how can we ensure that it is not done arbitrarily in the future? José Carlos says that it is not the role of a state with procedures and protocols to decide which corpses are acceptable for burial and which are not.
Apart from a tweet from President Castillo, there was no official statement during the first days. But Health Minister Hernando Cevallos made some statements that angered much of the country.
[Hernando Cevallos]: No one wishes the death of anyone. No matter how many crimes he has committed, right?
[Ricardo]: Many were outraged at the attempt to humanize Guzmán. And there was still no answer to the question: What to do with the corpse of the most hated terrorist in Peru? In the streets there was a heated debate, and meanwhile, the body remained in the morgue.
It was not until the fifth day that the Peruvian Congress approved a law that allows the judicial system to cremate the bodies of people convicted of terrorism who die in prison while serving a sentence. This, in the event that they may affect security and the public order.
Now the question was when Guzmán’s body would be cremated.
On September 23, that is, almost two weeks after the death of Abimael Guzmán, I received a call at four in the afternoon. It was a person who works in the press for the Ministry of the Interior, whom I did not know. He told me that the matter of the remains of Abimael Guzmán was going to end, but he didn’t go into details. Honestly I felt intrigued, doubtful. This government is not exactly transparent, as evidenced by the more than 20 alerts of actions against the press issued by the two most important journalists’ unions in Peru. Why did they want us journalists to see what was going to happen? What message were they trying to send? What did they want to use me for? Without further explanation, I was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior at nine o’clock at night, with only one condition: that we not publish anything until it was all over.
That night, I waited at the reception until the same official who had called me in the afternoon appeared, and we got into a van. In front of us was an ambulance, and behind, other official vehicles with sirens. They didn’t tell us where we were going.
First, they transferred us to the Anti-Terrorism Directorate, in downtown Lima. Once again we waited in the entrance area, and there we were asked to hand over our cell phones and tape recorders. I kept only a notebook and a pencil.
We got into the same vehicle, going this time to the Callao morgue. One of the people who were there with me was Jimena de la Quintana, CNN correspondent in Peru.
[Jimena de la Quintana]: I remember that the atmosphere was very messy, very disorganized, and that there were more people than I expected at the time.
[Ricardo]: There were two Ministers of State, each with their bodyguards, as well as police officers, a prosecutor, forensic specialists… and journalists. It was there that I saw Daniela, the forensic doctor, for the first time. She was annoyed, uneasy; maybe she didn’t expect to have so many people around her. I kept wondering what they wanted from us. After a while, we entered a long, dark passageway.
[Jimena]: And there was a very strong smell. And I remember, walking down that passageway, I felt that it never ended. So many ideas come to your mind that at that moment… Well, I imagine you lose your perception of time a little, right?
[Ricardo]: After that endless walk, we stopped at the entrance to a large room.
[Jimena]: It was cold. It had white lights. It didn’t look like a necropsy room; it looked like a garage.
[Ricardo]: Daniela felt suffocated in the crowd.
[Daniela]: The morgue is not designed for so many people. It seemed more like a bullfight with everyone inside.
[Ricardo]: The body was removed from a cold room and placed on a metal table. There, some final blood tests were done for DNA, and tissue samples were taken by order of the Prosecutor’s Office. In any case, we could not record video or audio. We could only take notes. We were at the entrance to the room, about ten meters from the body. I sketched the space, I pointed out where the forensic experts were located, where I was, I wrote down what was happening. On one of the pages I wrote: “You can’t see his face.” Jimena didn’t see it either.
[Jimena]: And I thought, “How do I know that it’s Abimael Guzmán?” Then I also remember asking someone to ask the doctors who were there, to lift the body.
Daniela says that she never felt so watched in her life.
[Daniela]: The objective was to demonstrate that what we were handing over to be cremated was the one we had necropsied and that it was indeed the corpse that was sealed there, you know? And we exhibited it so that everyone could verify that it was him. It was an awkward moment… awkward, because it was a show. Which I think was unnecessary. I think there was no need for so many people.
[Ricardo]: Those officials were not Daniela’s bosses, but she had to explain each procedure to them step by step. She now felt that she was a hostage not only of that corpse, but also of the ministers, and of us, the journalists.
Finally, they lifted the body. I wrote down in my notebook: 1:10 a.m. The scene was surreal. Forensic experts laid the body down and, for a few seconds, we could see Guzman’s face. We all fell silent: there was a shock, we froze in front of our biggest trauma, as if it could still hurt us. This time, unlike that scene in the cage, where, although humiliated, he shouted and warned that the war was not over, Guzmán was just a body. Still. Now finally harmless.
In the early hours of that day, an ambulance transferred Guzmán’s remains to the Naval Hospital. We followed in police cars, all of us who had been in the morgue, except Daniela. She had stayed behind putting papers in order, signing documents, cleaning her instruments, and going back to her routine, trying to leave everything behind.
Once there, we watched as Guzmán was put into an oven that reached 1,200 degrees, and his body turned to ashes. It was 3:20 in the morning.
Like Daniela, Peru has made an effort to turn the page. It has tried to forget or remain silent, as it has done in all these post-conflict years.
But as time passes, it has become clear that with Abimael Guzmán’s body there are no easy answers.
[José Carlos]: Abimael Guzmán’s body was a difficult body to deal with. I think we should start by assuming that the task was not easy for whoever was in charge of managing the problem.
[Ricardo]: I asked José Carlos whether he thinks the right decision was made by hiding Guzmán’s remains.
[José Carlos]: The dead man had us kidnapped for a while. We were not mature enough to resolve what for some should really have been a procedural matter. For others, it was a political issue. For others, a cultural issue. A symbolic matter. No one was up to it. Some fell into hysteria. Others fell into evasion. And the State fell into the self-attribution of its ability to discard bodies as things.
[Ricardo]: But in a sense, the easiest, most popular, least controversial decision was made. And for a government like Castillo’s, hiding the body was perhaps the only option they could consider.
Still, removing Abimael Guzmán from Peru requires a much greater effort than removing his ashes.
[Daniel]: Ricardo León is a journalist and editor of El Comercio. He lives in Lima. This story was produced by Ricardo and our editor Luis Fernando Vargas. Luis Fernando lives in San José, Costa Rica.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with original music by Rémy Lozano.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, José Díaz, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Selene Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is edited on Hindenburg PRO. If you are a podcast creator interested in Hindenburg PRO, go to hindenburg.com/radioambulante and get a free 90-day trial.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.