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Latin America Overview

Terrorists from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took over the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, during a diplomatic reception on 17 December. More than 500 persons were taken captive, including eight US officials, numerous foreign ambassadors, prominent Peruvians including the Foreign and Agriculture Ministers, six supreme court justices, high-ranking members of the police and military, as well as members of the Peruvian and international business community. Most hostages were freed in the first several days after the attack, including all of the US officials. At the end of the year efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully were under way.

Peru hosted the Inter-American Specialized Conference on Terrorism in Lima in April. Sponsored by the Organization of American States, the conference, which reflected heightened inter-American cooperation against terrorism, adopted the Declaration and Plan of Action, which strongly endorsed the characterization of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, as common crimes rather than political offenses.

Colombian guerrillas continued in 1996 to foment violence directed at that country's infrastructure and armed forces. Efforts by the Colombian Government to negotiate a peace agreement were spurned by the guerrillas. There was a high level of domestic political violence, but international terrorist incidents declined, from 76 in 1995 to 66 in 1996. The guerrillas continued to use kidnapping for ransom as a major source of income. At year's end, guerrillas held four US citizens hostage.

In Mexico, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) carried out a series of small-scale attacks, killing 17 persons including several civilians, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) signed an agreement on indigenous peoples' rights with the government.

Investigations into three major acts of international terrorism in Latin America-the 1992 bombing attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center building in Buenos Aires, and the 1994 bombing of a commuter airliner in Panama-continued without significant progress.

The Government of Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) ended their 36-year armed conflict, the hemisphere's longest running, with a final peace accord signed 29 December.


During 1996 the Argentine Government continued its investigation into the bombing in 1994 of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in which 86 persons were killed and about 300 were injured. In July the investigating judge ordered the arrest of one former and three current police officers from Buenos Aires Province. On the basis of leads developed after the 1995 arrest of Carlos Telleldin, accused of involvement in illegally obtaining the van used in the bombing, these officers were charged with possession of that van and were accused of being part of a police extortion ring that received the van as part of a down payment on an extortion debt owed by Telleldin. The policemen, however, have not been charged with complicity in the AMIA attack. The Argentine Government throughout the year reaffirmed its commitment to resolve this case and established a special congressional commission to follow and assist the court's investigation.

The Supreme Court's investigation into the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires failed to develop new leads. Interior Minister Carlos Corach on 27 November increased from $2 million to $3 million the reward offered to develop new leads in the investigations of the 1992 and 1994 bombings.

The Interior Minister negotiated and began implementing border security measures with Brazil and Paraguay to help address the growing security concerns in the "triborder" area where the frontiers of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. Argentina adopted a machine-readable passport as part of its program to control the improper use of its passports.


Colombia continued to grapple with widespread violence in 1996, suffering numerous terrorist bombings, murders, kidnappings, and narcotics-related violence. Drug traffickers, leftist insurgents, paramilitary squads, and common criminals committed with impunity scores of violent crimes. Although most of the politically motivated violence was directed at domestic targets, Colombia recorded 66 international terrorist incidents during 1996, a drop from 76 such incidents in 1995. The most frequent targets of international terrorist attacks were the nation's oil pipelines, which are operated in partnership with foreign oil companies.

The nation's two main leftist insurgent groups-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)-showed little interest in pursuing serious peace talks with the government, preferring to press their violent agenda.

Throughout the year ECOPETROL, the national oil company, was forced to shut down production repeatedly due to ELN attacks. Foreign oil company employees were kidnapped and held for ransom as part of the guerrillas' continuing war of terror against the Colombian oil industry. ELN carried out 45 attacks against the oil pipeline, justifying its actions by claiming the government is giving away its precious oil reserves to foreigners.

The ELN and FARC staged numerous attacks against police and military installations throughout the year. In a 15 April attack on an army patrol in Narino Department, guerrillas killed 31 soldiers. In a countrywide offensive conducted in late August and early September, the ELN and FARC launched a major offensive in reprisal for the government's efforts to eradicate coca. At least 150 persons were killed in the attacks, including an unknown number of civilians. On 30 August the FARC overran a Colombian Army base in Putumayo Department, killing 27 soldiers and taking prisoner more than 60 others. By year's end the soldiers had not been released. A guerrilla attack in Guaviare Department on 6 September left 22 soldiers dead.

Narcoterrorists are suspected of placing a 173-kg car bomb on 5 November outside a Cali business owned by the family of a senator who advocated reinstating extradition of Colombians to the United States. Although the bomb did not explode, flyers found at the scene threatened US citizens and businesses as well as Colombian supporters of extraditing Colombian nationals.

Colombian guerrillas earn millions of dollars from ransom payments each year. Nearly three dozen foreigners were kidnapped by guerrillas during the year. In one major kidnapping, members of a group with possible terrorist links abducted Juan Carlos Gaviria, brother of former Colombian president and current Organization of American States General Secretary Cesar Gaviria. At the request of Cesar Gaviria and the Colombian Government, Cuba in June agreed to admit nine of the terrorists in exchange for the safe release of Juan Carlos Gaviria.

The United States issued arrest warrants against 12 members of the FARC for the murders of two New Tribes Missionaries, Steven Welsh and Timothy Van Dyke, who were killed while being held hostage by the FARC in June 1995. Four other US citizens remained hostage in Colombia at year's end: three missionaries from the New Tribes Mission who were abducted in 1993, and a US geologist who was kidnapped in early December. (The geologist was killed in February 1997.) Two other US hostages were released in May and June.

Some individual fronts of the FARC, and to a lesser extent the ELN, have symbiotic links with narcotraffickers, especially to the east of the Cordillera Oriental. In some instances, guerrillas have been known to provide security for coca fields, processing facilities, and clandestine shipping facilities. Drug-related activities-along with kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and robbing banks-help generate needed revenues to finance the groups' terrorist activities.


Guatemala's 36-year insurgency, the oldest in the hemisphere, formally came to an end 29 December with the signing of a final peace accord between the Guatemalan Government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas. The URNG is an umbrella organization formed in 1982 when four separate guerrilla/terrorist groups joined together: the Revolutionary Organization of the Armed People (ORPA), the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and factions of the Guatemalan Labor (Communist) Party (PGT).

President Alvaro Arzu, who took office in January, assigned top priority to achieving a final peace accord in 1996. Negotiations resumed in an atmosphere of mutual confidence, and both sides suspended offensive military actions in March. Major agreements on economic and military issues were signed in May and September, although negotiations were temporarily suspended in October following the URNG's kidnapping of the 86-year-old handicapped wife of a prominent businessman. The victim was released unharmed in exchange for the release of a high-ranking guerrilla commander. The commander of ORPA accepted responsibility for the kidnapping and resigned from the URNG leadership, enabling negotiations to resume.

Despite the ongoing negotiations and the March suspension of hostilities, which held for the remainder of the year, isolated incidents by renegade URNG elements, or by common criminals claiming to be URNG, were reported. Several terrorist bombings by unknown perpetrators occurred; at least two persons died, and several were injured in the bombings. Several explosive devices were accompanied by URNG leaflets.

As part of the peace accords, URNG guerrillas will demobilize in the first half of 1997, under verification of UN military observers. Ex-URNG members will then form a legal political party.


The self-proclaimed Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) unveiled itself in the southwestern Guerrero State on 28 June during a ceremony marking the anniversary of a state police massacre of local peasants. The EPR has conducted small-scale attacks in several states, mostly against Mexican military and police outposts, public buildings, and power stations. The group has killed at least 17 persons, including several civilians. The Zedillo government has characterized the EPR as a terrorist group.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched no violent attacks in 1996. On 16 February EZLN representatives signed an agreement in southeastern Chiapas with the Mexican Government on the rights of indigenous people and made a commitment to negotiate a political settlement.

During 1996 Mexico moved to facilitate the extradition of suspected ETA terrorists by implementing its amended extradition treaty with Spain.


Panamanian authorities have made no arrests in connection with the bombing in July 1994 of a commuter airliner that killed all 21 persons aboard, including three US citizens. Panamanian officials continue to cooperate closely with the United States in the ongoing investigation.

In the 1992 murder case of US Army Corp. Zak Hernandez, suspect Pedro Miguel Gonzalez remains in custody. The case has been before a Panamanian Magistrate for over a year, awaiting a decision on whether to proceed to trial. The two other suspects remain at large.

Elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) maintain a presence along the Panama-Colombia border and often cross over to Panama's Darien Province to hide from the Colombian Army and to obtain supplies.


The Peruvian Government's largely successful campaign against terrorism suffered a setback with the takeover of the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima on 17 December. In this attack, Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) terrorists captured more than 500 hostages, including eight US officials, numerous foreign ambassadors, prominent Peruvians, including the Foreign and Agriculture Ministers, six supreme court justices, and high-ranking members of the police and military, as well as members of the Peruvian and international business community. The heavily armed terrorists boobytrapped and mined the Japanese Ambassador's residence. Most hostages were freed in the first several days after the attack, including all of the US officials. At the end of the year, 81 hostages were still being held.

Interior of Japanese Ambassador's residence
Interior of Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, where MRTA rebels were holding hostages. (Copyrighted Reuters)

The MRTA's main demand was the release by the Peruvian Government of imprisoned MRTA members in Peru, a demand that stalled attempts to resolve the hostage situation. The crisis was exacerbated when an Uruguayan court denied extradition requests from Peru and Bolivia and released two MRTA members detained in Uruguay. The MRTA hostage takers in Lima released, almost simultaneously, the Uruguayan Ambassador from captivity. At year's end, efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully were under way.

The Government of Peru hosted the Inter-American Specialized Conference on Terrorism, sponsored by the Organization of American States, in Lima in April. This conference adopted the Declaration and Plan of Action, which strongly endorsed the characterization of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, as common crimes rather than political offenses.

Sendero Luminoso was significantly weakened when its founder Abimael Guzman was arrested in 1992, but it continued to carry out bombings and assassinations in 1996 against domestic targets. As in the previous year, in 1996 most terrorist violence took place in the Upper Huallaga and Apurimac Valleys, but even there Army-sponsored self-defense militias helped counter the terrorists. There were two international terrorist incidents in Peru in 1996: a car bombing of a Shell oil warehouse on 16 May and the MRTA hostage seizure in December.

Throughout 1996 Peruvian security forces captured several important terrorist suspects, including Elizabeth Cardenas, a.k.a. Comrade Aurora, a senior Sendero Luminoso leader who was arrested in December. In another blow against international terrorism, the Peruvian police in May arrested Yoshimura Kazue, a leading member of the Japanese Red Army wanted for her role in the 1974 seizure of the French Embassy in The Hague. She was subsequently deported to Japan. On 11 January Miguel Rincon, MRTA's second-highest ranking leader, was sentenced to life imprisonment.


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