Letter from Peru

by Philip Reiser


I listen to Javier’s story as I sit in the back of his taxi while he snakes his way through the thick morning traffic in San Isidro, Lima’s business district. Shiny new buildings dot both sides of the road and multitudes of suited men and women enter them in a hurried march, like the soldiers of Peru’s rather recently embraced corporate capitalism.

“Back when we were out fighting the terrucos, we would often walk across the country for months at a time. One of the few diversions we had were the women we encountered along the way. More than once, I ended up in bed with one, knowing she was a terrorist. Of course, I would always keep one hand on my gun during sex, since I had already lost several comrades to deceitful women. She would tell me that if she saw me out in the field, she would kill me.”

Worries of attacks by the Maoist terrorist group “Shining Path,” known in Peru as terrucos, are but a distant memory, persisting only in the stories of people like Javier. As incredible as it sounds, I am convinced of his honesty by the sureness of his words, spoken as someone who has seen more than most can even imagine.

Lima is a monster, a chaotic agglomeration of millions pulled here by poverty, lulled by inopportunity. Having grown from 2 million inhabitants in 1960 to the 8.5 million that populate the dusty, grey metropolis today, Lima has become a vibrant collage of citizens from all over the country and the world. This flood of immigration coupled with many decades of ineffective governments and economic stagnation has shaped the city in its own, anarchic way. Thus, resourcefulness is not an uncommon attribute of Lima’s inhabitants, as best proven by the city’s hordes of neighborhood recyclers, self-assigned car security men, vendors, street entertainers, cab drivers—the list is long.

I left for the U.S. to attend the University of Tulsa a bit over four years ago, and recently returned to Peru with a new set of ideas, eager to rediscover the country without a student’s preoccupations. I have spent much of my time back road-tripping around the country, beach-hopping along the deserted Pacific Coast, crossing the majestic Andes into the natural sacred ground of the Amazon rainforest, and eventually returning to the barren landscape that surrounds the capital.

Now back in Lima, I sold the car and am a happy pedestrian. But, in a city of 8 million, you can’t walk everywhere. So I rely on the Lima taxis and their network of drivers who will take you almost anywhere for the equivalent of $2- $5. All you need to qualify as a cab driver in Lima is access to a vehicle and a colorful taxi sticker, generally attached to the windshield. The taxis, which come in every shape, form, and condition—from modern, Japanese mini-cars to antique Volkswagen Beetles—reflect the informal solutions found by people who no longer fit into the formal economy, or choose not to participate in it. Many of them are educated—chemical engineers, army sergeants, teachers, lawyers—and unemployed. So, they drive cabs and tell stories.

This is how I met Javier, an ex-officer in the Peruvian army who spent over 15 years fighting against terrorist groups in the internal struggle of the 1980s and early ’90s. Javier led a battalion through some of Peru’s most remote areas, spending months at a time patrolling known terrorist cells. These are usually dense forests nested in hilly terrain on the east side of the Andes, perfect for hiding and ambushing intruders.

In truth, Javier recalls, the negative memories far outweigh those worthy of anecdote. He confesses having lost count of the amount of people he and his troops shot, terrorist or not. I ask for a ballpark estimate, “Maybe 100, maybe 500. It is better not to remember.” Considering a death toll estimated at 70,000 during these years, these numbers are not unlikely.

Thinking I can in some way help him, Javier tells me that he and some of his army colleagues have an unresolved trial against the government to claim the unpaid army pension they were promised. After they served the country for over a decade, they were dishonorably discharged in the early ’90s by the new leadership instated by intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, now in jail for murder, corruption, and arms and drug dealing. The reason for their discharge? His battalion had intercepted a sizeable shipment of cocaine in a small village on the east side of the Andes. Normally the procedure would have been to turn the drugs over to the police, but the new orders were to inform the superiors and let them handle it. “We all knew they would just turn around and sell it. They were all getting rich.”

Javier disregarded the orders and called in the police. One week later he found himself an unemployed civilian in Lima. He admits that after a few rough years he is now doing quite well with his little taxi company, but adds, “after all that we did for this country, we deserve some recognition.” I nod as I pay and descend from the old, clattering Toyota, filled with a mix of awe and disgust.

* * *

There is a gentleman whose name I forget, but whose words will stay with me for some time. returning from a nightly excursion through the numerous bars of Lima, I found myself in a typical Lima cab when I noticed a flyer claiming the new mayor was trying to impose a homosexual culture on Lima’s citizens. This was news to me, as I had perceived Peruvian society as rather conservative, so I asked my driver for his interpretation.

In Lima, this is how a discussion of local politics turns into a sermon about the evils of society and the true path to salvation. The man is an evangelical Christian, something I am not entirely a stranger to from my time in Oklahoma, but was until recently rather rare in mostly Catholic Peru. While I encountered some outlandish beliefs in the U.S., I had never been confronted with such a wild amalgam of religious, political and philosophical assertions as this man was spewing. “Jesus’ return is imminent,” he asserted, “and global warming will kill those who have not embraced him.” Further, he adds, “The U.S. is the only country that knows; that is why they are not fighting it. It is their strategy to dominate the world again. Since they are all Christians, they will survive.”

I listened to his web of conspiracy theories politely and only asked questions, knowing that any of my arguments will only run into the circular logic that characterizes religious dogma. Besides, I didn’t want to spoil the moment, as this man laid out a completely new understanding of the world to my ears. He had answers for everything, almost as if he were making up reality as he went. When I asked how he came about his beliefs, he told me about “Father Jerry,” an American missionary who had assembled a considerable congregation in one of the poorer areas of Lima and whose “truths” had revolutionized his life. “Many things make sense now,” he admitted.

I reached my destination—a rather colorful side of town popular with tourists— and stepped onto the cracked pavement, bewildered. I made my way towards one of the many new pubs that now line the Larco Avenue and am greeted outside by children and mothers selling tiny packets of gum or simply hoping for a few coins. I had only been standing there for a few moments, but a handful of taxis were already standing by, all of different model and color. I wondered what their stories were.