Peru Interior minister under investigation in 1988 journalist murder

Some of Peru’s top government officials, including President Ollanta Humala, are former army officers who spent the 1980s fighting Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Both sides committed massive human rights abuses, but now one particularly brutal episode is coming back to haunt the Humala administration.

Last week, the news broke that Humala’s interior minister, Daniel Urresti, is under investigation for the November 24, 1988 murder of a Peruvian journalist in the Ayacucho region, which used to be a Shining Path stronghold. According to press reports, prosecutors are investigating whether Urresti, a former army general and intelligence officer, led the patrol that ambushed journalist Hugo Bustíos Saavedra and then blew up his body.

Some opposition politicians as well as human rights and press freedom groups are calling for the resignation of Urresti, who was appointed interior minister in June. The Lima-based Institute for Press and Society, or IPYS, claimed that Urresti’s position as interior minister could affect the investigation.

“That a minister who is called on to defend human rights is in the position where he needs to clarify an accusation against him involving an extremely serious crime is a blatant offense against the values of a democratic state,” IPYS said in a communiqué.

Peru’s National Association of Journalists also called for Urresti to step down.

Bustíos, a reporter for the Lima newsmagazine Caretas and president of the National Association of Journalists of the city of Huanta, had been investigating abuses against the civilian population perpetrated by the Peruvian armed forces in Ayacucho. At the time, Urresti was chief of military intelligence for the region. On the day he was killed, Bustíos was trying to report on the killings of two civilians in the village of Erapata.

The military was suspicious of Bustíos. He was at first denied access to the area by army troops. Later, Bustíos met with the commander of the local military base who questioned the journalist about his possible links to a captured Shining Path leader called “Sabino,” according to a complaint filed in 1990 by CPJ, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Justice and International Law before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

After receiving permission to visit the site of the killings, Bustíos and another reporter, Eduardo Rojas Arce, were riding a motorcycle toward Erapata when they were ambushed by a Peruvian military patrol. In a hail of bullets, Rojas was injured and managed to escape but Bustíos was killed.

“After shooting at Bustíos I saw the same man throw a grenade on his body,” an eyewitness, Alejandro Ortiz, said in sworn testimony three weeks after the murder.

In 2008, two army officers, Col. Victor La Vera and Lt. Col. Amador Vidal, were convicted in the killing and sentenced to 17 and 15 years in prison. La Vera later accused Urresti of taking part in the murder and in June 2013 an Ayacucho judge opened a formal investigation.

Ideele Radio of the Lima-based Legal Defense Institute (IDL) broke the story on July 2, and also published a copy of the accusation against Urresti. Urresti has acknowledged being questioned by a prosecutor in Ayacucho, but he has denied any involvement in the murder of Bustíos.

“I am completely innocent. My hands are free of blood. I did nothing,” Urresti, 57, said at a July 2 news conference.

At a separate news conference in Lima the same day, Bustíos’s widow, Margarita Patiño, said, “Not only did they machine-gun (Bustíos), but they blew him up. When I went to collect him he was in pieces. No human deserves that.”

President Humala continues to support Urresti. “The lawyers indicate that what we have here is a strange case. We don’t see that he’s guilty,” Humala told reporters at Peru’s presidential palace last week. “We believe in the presumption of innocence.”

During the war against the Shining Path in the 1980s and 90s, about 70,000 people were killed, many of whom were innocent civilians, according to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.