Lori Berenson is a U.S. citizen currently serving a 20-year prison term in Peru on terrorism charges.
Born in New York City in 1969, Berenson in the late 1980s attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she studied anthropology. “People [at MIT] probably looked at me as a bit of a weirdo,” she once said. “[Nonetheless] it’s the place where I finally learned the connection between politics and human suffering.”
During her time at MIT, Berenson signed up for a three-month exchange program at the University of El Salvador. While there, she met with then-Democrat congressman Joe Moakley, who was leading a congressional campaign to end U.S. funding of El Salvador, as well as Jim McGovern (who is currently a Massachusetts congressman and a Progressive Caucus member). The three discussed issues of human rights and the fate of the Salvadoran people, causing Berenson to reflect “that the world was much bigger and the suffering was much worse than I had thought.”
With the Iran-Contra affair making headlines in the press, and with a desire to permanently join the “social justice” movement in Central and South America, Berenson dropped out of MIT in 1989 and began working for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in New York City and Washington. CISPES, a leftist group that opposed U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, was founded by prominent members of the Salvadoran Communist Party and Cuban intelligence in order to support El Salvador’s militant guerrillas. CISPES was also part of the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council, which sought to manipulate the opinions of Americans through protests and disinformation campaigns.
In 1991 Berenson moved to Central America, where she lived variously in Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador. She began working as an aide to Leonel González, a leader of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftwing Salvadoran guerrilla group that has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people since its founding in 1981. It was reported that Berenson moved into González’s second home to be “on call” for him 24 hours a day; her marriage disintegrated within a matter of months. Berenson contends that while working for González, she focused her efforts exclusively on political issues and had no involvement with FMLN’s military wing.
Sometime in 1993, Berenson is believed to have begun collaborating with Peruvian militants through connections she had made while working for González. Having obtained press credentials from the leftist magazines Third World Viewpoint and Modern Times, Berenson traveled as a “journalist” to Peru with a Panamanian arms dealer named Pacifico Castrellon. While there, she rented a house in the Lima suburb of La Molina.
Peruvian Police report that after arriving, Berenson and Castrellon met Miguel Rincon, second-in-command of the the Movimiento Revolucionaro Túpac Amaru (MRTA), a militant outfit which had been classified as a terrorist group by the Peruvian government; and that Rincon subsequently turned the third floor of Berenson’s home into a meeting house, arms supply depot, and shooting range for the MRTA.
Fueled on Marxist philosophy, the MRTA has been described as a “group of Robin Hood revolutionaries” that would steal from the rich and give to the poor.” In reality, the group’s modus operandi was to kidnap businessmen and hold them for ransom. All told, the organization is believed to be responsible for the murders of more than 200 individuals. Its most infamous action took place in 1996, when it killed a hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima in a failed kidnapping attempt.
Notably, the photographer accompanying Berenson during her “journalism” research was Nancy Gilvonio, wife of MRTA head Néstor Cerpa.
On November 30, 1995, Berenson was arrested in Lima. She was charged under Peru’s anti-terrorism laws after she had made several visits to the Peruvian legislature, where she was believed to be gathering, for MRTA, information about the floor plans of the Peruvian Congress, details of the security measures that were in place inside that building, and the names of the congressmen who might be targeted for future kidnappings. A subsequent raid of Berenson’s home led to an all-night siege, during which 14 guerrillas and one police officer were killed.
After her arrest, Berenson appeared on television and defiantly asserted, in Spanish:
“I am to be condemned for my concern for the conditions of hunger and misery that exist in this country. Here nobody can deny that in Peru there is much injustice. There is an institutionalized violence that has killed the people’s finest sons and has condemned children to die of hunger. If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman condition in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment. But this is not a love of violence. This is not to be a criminal terrorist, because in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement. I love this people and although this love is going to cost me years in prison, I will never stop loving, and never lose the hope and confidence that there will be a new day of justice in Peru.”
In 1996 Berenson was sentenced to life imprisonment for “treason against the fatherland.” Her parents enlisted the aide of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who appealed to the State Department for help in the matter. Berenson was offered a transfer to an American prison, which she turned down, stating, “I was accused of doing something in Peru. I should take the consequences in Peru.”
Four-and-a half years after her initial sentencing, Berenson had her sentence vacated and she was retried by a civilian court — thanks to international pressure, the legal efforts of Ramsey Clark, and the support of such members of the U.S. Congress as Carolyn Maloney, Maxine Waters, and Jim McGovern. She was convicted of collaboration and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In March 2003, from her jail cell in Cajamarca, Peru, Berenson condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq, denouncing America and its allies for what she described as their injustices against the Iraqi people and the world at large. By contrast, she chose to condemn neither the tyranny of Saddam Hussein nor the murderous campaigns of her own group, the MRTA. “The great hope of these days,” Berenson stated, “is to listen to so many voices — the numbers are growing every day — that are against the war. From our prison, we add our voices to those voices; and probably it will be from our graves as well. We repudiate so much infamy, so much death, so much injustice in the name of egoism. The time has come to say ‘enough!’ No more abuse, no more complicit silence, no more greed, no more of these ominous crimes. This world belongs to all of us and we have the right to determine its future. No more impunity!”