Maximum security

International | Falsely accused as Shining Path terrorists, Christians in Peruvian prison look to a just God

Issue: "Remember Los Alamos," March 27, 1999

in Lima, Peru - Juan Mallea's gray Toyota kicks up a cloud of dust as it trundles across dips in an unpaved street. Scrap-heap tenements, one stuck to the next, flank the passage through Lima's fringe community of Canto Grande. No sunlight penetrates the pall of clouds. Not even weeds sprout without help from a leaky spigot. Tucked between the seat and parking brake is a chartreuse window placard: "TAXI." Today Mr. Mallea is off duty. Today he keeps a promise. The Toyota heaves to crest an incline, as though dreading what lies on the other side: a high-walled concrete complex at the foot of naked mountains, rising from acres of desolate ground. Tangled spirals of razor wire hem a chain-link fence ringing the unit. The only hint of color is the red skirt and jacket of a lawyer waiting at the entrance. This is the gateway to hell: Miguel Castro Castro maximum security prison. As part of President Alberto Fujimori's battle to squash the Shining Path terrorist movement, tribunals sentenced some 1,400 alleged terrorist collaborators to serve terms here ranging from 20 years to life. This is where Mr. Mallea served almost a year for 10 murders that he did not commit. Mr. Fujimori's reputation for being tough on terrorists gained worldwide attention after he successfully ambushed Tupac Amaru guerrillas holding 75 hostages in the Japanese embassy in 1997. Strict sentencing requirements left a toll of innocents, however: The evangelical human rights organization Peace and Hope Association, based in Lima, reports hundreds were unfairly prosecuted, and at least 100 evangelical Christians were wrongfully convicted. Many of those convictions have been overturned since a 1996 law created a pardon review commission, but that does not erase a criminal record or prison memories. "It was total lockup, three people in a two-by-three-meter cell, 23 1/2 hours a day," Mr. Mallea recalled. In prison, the toilet is a hole in the floor. Water runs 20 minutes a day, if at all. Tuberculosis thrives. Prisoners are fed only two meals daily. "At first, the guards wouldn't even let us have Bibles." Violence, even murder, is a daily reality. Monthly family visits occur through two wire-mesh screens spaced three feet apart in a dark room; prisoners and their families may not physically touch. Monotony and loneliness drive some to insanity. Many pass the empty hours collectively chanting odes to the Shining Path, which since 1980 has killed some 30,000 Peruvians and inflicted $25 billion in damage to Peru's infrastructure. Yet Castro Castro's imprisoned Christians kept their faith. They bonded during their daily half-hour outside their cells. Church groups formed. They told others of their hope in God. And Mr. Mallea's ministry began. "I shared Christ in the prison. Before I was incarcerated, I didn't." Mr. Mallea waits in a fenced courtyard for permission to enter cellblocks 1-B and 6-B. Nearby, five men in grubby blue scrubs clean a concrete slab behind a spike-topped fence. One waves broadly, leaves his broom, and slips through an open gate. Carlos Jorge's sparse mustache suggests his age is under 21. Mr. Mallea greets him with a firm handshake and slap on the shoulder. Jorge checks the faces of those arriving with Mr. Mallea. His spirits visibly wane when he realizes the friend he longs to see is not present. "Please tell me, how's Saul?" Mr. Mallea recounts his time with Saul Tito several weeks ago. Neither Jorge nor Mr. Mallea fault Tito for his absence. For Tito, a beloved Bible teacher and evangelist while imprisoned here, returning to encourage his friends is simply too painful. Police arrested Tito because the academy where he taught trigonometry allegedly harbored a cell of Shining Path collaborators. Like all trials under 1992's anti-terrorism laws designed to crush Shining Path, the state presented no evidence against Tito and allowed him no defense. The judge sentenced Tito to 20 years. Terrorism tribunals acquit only three percent of defendants. The 1992 law made no provision for appeal, pardon, or parole. But Tito's case did not provoke a national outrage, unlike that of Mr. Mallea. On July 10, 1993, antiterrorist police stopped Mr. Mallea's cab and arrested him and his customer, who remains imprisoned. Police held Mr. Mallea incommunicado during a 15-day investigation and tried to torture him into confessing. Mr. Mallea, the state alleged, had drawn a map of the mass grave where nine university students and a professor were buried clandestinely in 1992. Mr. Mallea, then 34, a long-time member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance church, maintained his innocence. Denounced as a Shining Path kingpin, Mr. Mallea was shipped to Castro Castro to await sentencing. Coinciding with release of the police investigation's findings, Peru's Sí newsmagazine identified special army forces as the actual murderers of the 10. Yet, Mr. Mallea remained imprisoned. "Even the president accused me of crimes I didn't commit. How could I defend myself?" Presumed guilty, he couldn't. The 1992 law specified that without exception, terrorism convicts could not be freed before completing their sentences. Still, lawyer Jose Regalado of the Peace and Hope Association argued for Mr. Mallea's exoneration. Even with a lack of evidence and eventual government admission that Mr. Mallea had nothing to do with the murders, legal wheels dragged 10 months before he was freed. In August, 1996, Congress created a commission to review cases of convicted terrorists. Tito had served three years of his sentence when, in October 1996, the commission considered his case and released him. He has since returned to engineering studies at the national university. By and large, those freed from Castro Castro don't return voluntarily. Mr. Mallea's ministry of encouragement, advocacy, and prayer began with a promise never to forget Tito, his own spiritual son. Once freed, he vowed to push for more humane treatment of all prisoners and for release of those falsely accused of terrorism, perhaps a quarter of those convicted. "I remain with this burden," Mr. Mallea says, blinking back tears. "I left Castro Castro but my spirit remained. I want the world to know there are still innocent people in jail, and I don't want these brothers to feel forgotten. It's so important for them to keep hope." Since his early days of incarceration, he's prayed and seen God answer. Life in Castro Castro began to change after officials allowed clergy to visit: first nuns, then priests, then pastors. Guards later opened cells to let religious inmates attend mass. Prison officials heard Christians pray aloud and sing hymns while their insurrectionist cellmates shouted praises to communism. Today, some 280 Christians occupy minimum-security cellblocks 1-B and 6-B in a pilot "rehabilitation" program. Lawyers and clergy may enter these cellblocks to counsel prisoners, who are allowed tools and materials to craft everything from cow-bone vases to wool rugs. Cells stay unlocked, freeing inmates to move about the three-story unit. Jorge slips back through the fence gate and returns to work. "That brother is a fruit of the ministry," Mr. Mallea said of Jorge, yet another inmate drawn to Christ through the church of Castro Castro and discipled by Tito. A guard unlocks a metal door to the inner complex. Mr. Mallea's group enters an outdoor corridor swarming with flies. A thousand angry, shouting voices are amplified by the acoustics of 12 mustard-tan cellblocks: "Long live Presidente Gonzalo, leader of the party and revolution, guarantor of the triumph of Communism ... continuer of Marx, Lenin and Mao...." They are chanting the Lema Revolucionario, credo of the Shining Path. The guard leads Mr. Mallea's group to cellblock 1-B, then disappears. Men in T-shirts and cotton trousers thrill to receive visitors. Mr. Mallea greets all he can with handshakes and manly hugs, many by name. Someone asks for Tito. Inmates in 1-B worship in the same hall where the pardon commission hears prisoner appeals. A barred window overlooks the courtyard's tan brick walls and the top of a barren mountain. The bleak view outside provides stark contrast to the vibrant joy and hope in cellblock 1-B. Fifty Christians gather in a circle. Inmates milling around the courtyard for their outdoor half-hour approach the window to watch and listen. Worship begins with a chorus accompanied by clapping hands, a guitar, and tambourine: "I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back." "Freedom is precious," Mr. Mallea says, weeping openly at the miracle of his own release. "I've been through a lot of battles, but God doesn't permit things in vain. I'm convinced we have a just God. He was very good to me. Now I'm privileged to help other people."
-Deann Alford is a journalist living in Austin, Texas.

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