Peruvian Military Personnel Honored for Historic 1997 Rescue Mission

By Dialogo
June 13, 2016

The Council for Peace recently honored 140 Peruvian Army, Navy, and Air Force Officers for rescuing 71 hostages held by the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) inside the residency of the Japanese ambassador on April 22, 1997. The officers, who have all since retired, received the Medal of Peace from the Council for Peace, an institution that is dedicated to defending human rights.

The awards honored the important role the Military plays in fighting terrorism, a battle that is shared by the Armed Forces and civil authorities, according to Council for Peace President Francisco Diez-Canseco. “The value found in [the commanders’] actions is greater than any problem. The unity they demonstrated in order to come out unscathed is an example for the country and represents Peru’s success over terrorism."

The terrorist attack

The crisis began on December 17, 1996, when 14 MRTA terrorists led by Néstor Cerpa Cartolini stormed the Japanese Embassy and took hundreds of diplomats, civilians, and Military officials hostage. The officials were attending a birthday celebration at the Japanese Embassy for Emperor Akihito.

The terrorists, who were armed with AKM rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, explosives, and dynamite, demanded the release of 465 of their incarcerated counterparts, the abolition of what they alleged were cruel and inhumane conditions in Peruvian prisons, and a revision of the government's free market reforms. The terrorists released most of the hostages soon after the attack but kept 72.

Shortly after the takeover, the International Committee of the Red Cross began acting as an intermediary between the Peruvian government and the terrorists. The hostages included several high-ranking Peruvian Military officials, including Máximo Rivera, the chief of the Peruvian Police's Counter-Terrorism Office, and former chief Carlos Domínguez. Other hostages included Alejandro Toledo, a future president of Peru. The 24 Japanese hostages included President Fujimori's mother and younger brother.

After he was freed, Toledo said what the MRTA really wanted was an amnesty that would allow its members to participate in public life. He said that any attempt to rescue the hostages by force would be dangerous because the terrorists were heavily armed and had wired several rooms with explosives.

A daring rescue

The standoff continued for four months. On April 22, 1997, a team of 140 Peruvian Commandos assembled into a secret ad-hoc unit under the name Chavín de Huantar
(in reference to a Peruvian archeological site known for its underground passageways) and mounted a dramatic raid on the residence that afternoon.

The Commandos used explosives simultaneously in three rooms on the first floor. The first explosion killed three hostage-takers. Through the hole created by that blast and the other two explosions, 30 Commandos stormed into the building, chasing the surviving MRTA members to stop them before they could reach the second floor.

The Commandos made two other bold moves during the explosions: 20 Commandos launched a direct assault on the front door to access the waiting room, where the main staircase to the second floor was located. On their way in, they encountered two female MRTA militants guarding the front door. Behind the first wave of Commandos storming the door came another group of Soldiers carrying ladders, which they placed against the building's rear walls.

In the final phase of the coordinated assault, another group of Commandos emerged from two tunnels that led to the residence's backyard, where Soldiers quickly scaled the ladders that had been placed for them. They blew out a grenade-proof door on the second floor so hostages could be evacuated through it. They also made two openings in the roof to allow Commandos to kill the MRTA terrorists upstairs before they could execute the hostages.

Commandos killed all 14 MRTA terrorists during the assault, during which 71 of 72 hostages were rescued. Carlos Giusti Acuña, a member of the Supreme Court, was the lone hostage who died, along with two Commandos.

Importance of teamwork

Retired Army General José Williams Zapata, who was in charge of the Military operation, remembers that teamwork was crucial for the operation’s success. “We know exactly what we had to do to successfully work as a team. We were a team from the Armed Forces with the best specialists, and we had to spring into action in order to achieve our objectives."

César Astudillo – then-Inspector General of the Army and the eldest of the officers who participated in Operation Chavín de Huántar
– emphasized that rescuing the hostages was the primary goal to prevent the terrorists from reaching their goal of bringing "a nation to its knees". The rescue operation’s success turned the Commandos into an example of leadership and decisiveness for the country’s future Military generations, he added.

Astudillo highlighted the efforts of the Chavín de Huántar
Commandos, who trained day and night for the mission. They even practiced storming a replica of the Japanese Embassy while blindfolded.

“The planning that they did was detailed and meticulous, leaving nothing to chance, with joint training and multiple rehearsals," he explained. "It was pretty well rehearsed and planned out. We dedicated ourselves solely to that. [At the time], we weren’t doing anything else.”

MRTA no longer a threat

The MRTA reached prominence during the 1980s, when it had as many as 1,000 combatants. According to Retired Army General Eduardo Fournier, the MRTA’s activities were concentrated in the Amazonian regions and the Andean departments of Pasco, Junín, Cusco, and Puno.

The MRTA conducted attacks on law enforcement, kidnappings, bank robberies, and car bombings. “Currently, the MRTA – in contrast with Shining Path – has not shown any activity in the cities where they were operating,” said Retired Gen. Fournier, emphasizing the importance of intelligence gathering in the fight against terrorism.

The MRTA no longer constitutes a serious public safety threat, according to security analyst Andrés Gómez de la Torre. “The Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement was eliminated in 2000, but that doesn’t mean that there are no sympathizers. The current presence of the MRTA has been reduced to a few websites whose objective is to maintain the financial backing of their sympathizers. However, one must not lower ones guard in the fight against terrorism."