Hostage stalemate drags on in Peru

Although it has dropped from international headlines, the hostage crisis in Peru has now dragged on for more than 100 days. Despite a brief ray of hope last week when mediators appeared to make headway, there is still no end in sight. This is a tragedy for the 72 hostages and their families, especially because a workable proposal to end the crisis has been presented.
A rebel commando team representing the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist guerrilla group, seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence on Dec. 17, capturing 500 hostages. Most were freed soon after, but the 72 who remain are high-profile people: Japanese diplomats and businessmen, two Peruvian cabinet members, the Bolivian ambassador and Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s brother.
Since initial negotiations held early in the crisis broke down, there has been little progress and no direct talks between the commandos and the government. The rebels demand the release of 440 jailed MRTA members, something that Fujimori, who built his reputation on being tough on insurgents, refuses to do. The United States, which officially still endorses a “no deals for hostages” policy, supports Peru’s government, but there are rumors that Japan is pressuring Fujimori to compromise.
The Institute for Legal Defense, however, has offered a new proposal that gives the government and the MRTA a chance to save face and resolve the situation peacefully. For the rebels, the proposal offers some tangible results: selective amnesty and sentence reduction for imprisoned MRTA members convicted of non-violent crimes, improved prison conditions for the others and asylum for the hostage takers. In return, the government gets the crisis resolved peacefully and the hostages released without freeing any violent revolutionaries.
No one wants to accept this compromise, however, and both sides have exacerbated the crisis during the past two weeks. Peruvian and foreign journalists who have criticized Fujimori’s handling of the crisis have been threatened and, in one case, kidnapped at gunpoint. Meanwhile, an opposition congressman and Peru’s former economy minister, who were originally hostages before being released, have been shot at after openly criticizing the government. Whether these acts were ordered or were undertaken by renegade paramilitary groups, they ultimately send a threatening, non-constructive message to the MRTA. Meanwhile, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, leader of the rebel group holding the hostages, has signaled that he expects a violent ending to the crisis by sending a farewell message to his wife.
As the days drag by, both sides must struggle to be patient and keep hope for a peaceful resolution alive. So far, Fujimori has shown great restraint and has not provoked the rebels into harming the hostages. And he should not be expected to cave in to unreasonable demands. But both sides would do well to listen to mediators and their proposals for compromise. No one will win if the crisis ends violently. Keeping the hostages safe must be the paramount concern. If the two sides succeed in negotiating, Peru will win international acclaim, and the MRTA’s claim that it wants to give up armed insurgency will gain credence.