Lori Berenson was born in New York City on November 13, 1969. Her parents, Rhoda and Mark Berenson, were both college professors.
In the late 1980s, Berenson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she studied archaeology and anthropology. “People [at MIT] probably looked at me as a bit of a weirdo,” she once recalled. “[Nonetheless] it’s the place where I finally learned the connection between politics and human suffering.”
During her time at MIT, Berenson participated in a three-month academic exchange program that took her to the University of El Salvador in 1989. While there, she met then-Democrat congressman Joe Moakley, who was leading a congressional initiative to end U.S. funding of El Salvador, as well as Jim McGovern (a Moakley aide who later became a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus). The three discussed issues of human rights and the fate of the Salvadoran people, causing Berenson to realize “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), which had headquarters in New York City and Washington, D.C. Vehemently opposed to U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, CISPES was founded by prominent members of the Salvadoran Communist Party and the Cuban intelligence agency 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 El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama. She first worked as an aide to Leonel González (a.k.a. Salvador Sanchez Ceren), a leader of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftwing Salvadoran guerrilla umbrella organization responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Founded in 1980 with the support of Fidel Castro‘s Cuba, FMLN was an alliance of five separate leftist groups: the Central American Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRTC), the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), Farabundo Marti Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN), and the Communist Party of El Salvador’s Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL).
Soon after having relocated to El Salvador, Berenson married her first husband. But when she subsequently moved into a home owned by Leonel González, so that she could 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 began 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, she traveled as a “journalist” to Peru with a Panamanian arms dealer named Pacifico Castrellon in November 1994. While there, she rented a house in the Lima suburb of La Molina.
Before long, Berenson and Castrellon met Miguel Rincon, second-in-command of the the Movimiento Revolucionaro Túpac Amaru (MRTA), a militant Marxist-Leninist guerrilla outfit that had been classified as a terrorist group by the Peruvian government. As National Review puts it: “The MRTA was a cousin of the Shining Path, Communist and terrorist. They did their best to overthrow Peru’s democracy, and almost succeeded. They killed and maimed a lot of people.”
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, however, the group’s modus operandi was to kidnap businessmen and hold them for ransom. And sometimes MRTA killed people; all told, the organization is believed to have been responsible for the murders of more than 200 individuals.
On November 30, 1995, Berenson was arrested in Lima while traveling on a bus with Nancy Gilvonio, the wife of MRTA leader Néstor Cerpa. Upon being taken into custody, Berenson claimed to have been unaware of Gilvonio’s identity as Cerpa’s wife, saying that she had merely hired Gilvonio to serve as a photographer for a series of articles she was planning to write about the poverty faced by Peruvian women.
For her involvement with MRTA, Berenson was charged under Peru’s anti-terrorism laws. Having made several recent visits to the Peruvian legislature, she was believed to have been gathering, for MRTA: (a) information about the floor plans of the Peruvian Congress; (b) details of the security measures that were in place inside that building; and (c) the names of Peruvian congressmen who might be targeted for future kidnappings.
A subsequent raid of Berenson’s home led to an all-night siege, during which one police officer an three MRTA guerrillas died while 14 additional guerrillas were captured. Moreover, the aforementioned floor plans of the Peruvian legislature were seized in the raid. On January 8, 1996 – a few weeks after her arrest — Berenson appeared at a staged, televised media event and, casting herself as a martyr, 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.”
On January 11, 1996, a military tribunal convicted Berenson and sentenced her to life in prison for “treason against the fatherland.” The conviction prompted Berenson’s parents to enlist the aid of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who appealed to the U.S. State Department for assistance in the matter. But when Berenson was subsequently offered a transfer to an American prison, she turned it down, stating, “I was accused of doing something in Peru. I should take the consequences in Peru.”
On December 17, 1996, Néstor Cerpa led 13 MRTA rebels in storming the Japanese ambassador’s residence, where they took 72 hostages who were subsequently held captive for 126 days. The rebels demanded the release of 20 imprisoned individuals, one of whom was Berenson. The crisis was brought to a close when a military assault killed Cerpa and the rebels while rescuing all but one of the hostages.
While incarcerated in 1997, Berenson met 34-year-old Aníbal Apari, a former Tupac Amaru/MRTA militant who was likewise in prison for terrorism-related charges. The two soon developed a personal relationship. Following his release, Apari went on to become a lawyer, and he represented Berenson in her efforts to win her freedom. The couple married in 2003, and Apari fathered a boy with Berenson in 2009, while she was still behind bars. At some point during the ensuing six years, Berenson and Apari divorced.
On August 28, 2000, Peru’s top military court announced that it had overturned Berenson’s life sentence, thereby paving a path to a new trial in civilian court. This development came largely as a result of international pressure, the legal efforts of Ramsey Clark, and the support of such members of the U.S. Congress as Carolyn Maloney, Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney, Jim Leach, Patrick Leahy, Christopher Dodd, Constance Morella, Jim Leach, Paul Wellstone, and Jim McGovern.
On June 20, 2001, a three-judge panel convicted Berenson of collaboration with terrorists, but ruled that she herself was not a terrorist. Thus, she was convicted of the lesser charge of collaboration and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with consideration given for time already served under her prior conviction.
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!”
After having served 15 years in prison, Berenson was granted a conditional release on May 25, 2010. The agreement required her to stay in Peru on parole for the five years that still remained of her sentence. After Berenson was set free and housed in an apartment in the upscale Miraflores section of Lima, protesters congregated outside her apartment building on a daily basis to demand that she be either deported from Peru or reincarcerated. In response, Berenson sent a letter to Peruvian President Alan García acknowledging her “criminal responsibility for terrorist collaboration,” stating that “I very much regret the harm I have caused Peruvian society,” and requesting “forgiveness from people who have been affected by my actions or words.” She then asked that her sentence be commuted, and that she be permitted to return to the United States.
Peru’s state attorney for counterterrorism, Julio Galindo, appealed Berenson’s parole, stating that she was not merely “a sympathizer of the MRTA,” but “an active participant” who continued to pose a threat to the Peruvian public. On August 16, 2010, Berenson appeared before the appeals court to respond to Galindo’s allegations, saying:
“I was sentenced for the crime of collaboration with terrorism, and I did collaborate with the MRTA. I have never been a leader, nor a militant. I have never participated in acts of violence nor of bloodshed, nor have I killed anyone. And what I would like to clarify here is that I know that my mere participation, even though it was secondary in one incident, if it contributed to the violence in society, I am deeply sorry and I regret it … I was in prison for almost 15 years. I have reflected a great deal over it, and I understand that violence did harm to society; I understand it and I regret that I participated in it. I believe that things, a better society, are achieved by building and not by destroying … Also, I have a different vision of life. It has been almost 15 years. I am now a 40-year-old woman. I left home when I was young. But I have a family who have sacrificed everything for me, and I would like to pay them back somehow. And more than that, I have a child, a 15-month-old son and he is a child I would like to be close to, like any mother. I would like to bring up my son to be a good man. That is now my objective.”
On August 18, 2010, the appeals court annulled Berenson’s parole and sent her back to prison while technical aspects of the parole were considered in greater depth. But in November, a Peruvian judge ordered that Berenson be released once again on parole, on the condition that she remain in Peru until her full 20-year sentence had been served.
With the exception of a three-week trip she was permitted to take to visit her family in New York City in December 2011, Berenson remained on parole until the completion of her sentence on November 29, 2015. At midnight on December 2, 2015, she left Lima on a flight to New York.
A Terrorist Returns
By Matthew Vadum