A number of our sisters lived in Chimbote, Peru during the “years of terrorism” (1980-2000), when nearly 70,000 people were reported as killed or missing. I say “reported” because the number is likely much higher, but unreported for any number of reasons. They were victims of one of the two terrorist groups or of extrajudicial government disappearances and killings. To this day, far too many families still do not know what happened to their loved-ones, and have yet to receive any type of just reparation (which was recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
During some of those same years, the government coerced doctors to perform sterilizations on an estimated 270,000 women and men without receiving their consent. Because of the terrible conditions in which some of these procedures were rendered, many continue to suffer from debilitating health side effects—not to mention the inability to have biological children.
I arrived in Peru a few years after the end of the widespread terrorism. At that time (June of 2004), Sr. Germaine Conroy had already been accompanying the families of nine disappeared campesinos from the nearby town of Santa for some years. They had disappeared in May of 1992, a little less than a year after the martyrdom of the three priests who were recently beatified (December 5, 2015). All of the sisters in the house participated nearly every year in the anniversary events: marches, cultural events, various types of celebrations of their lives, etc. This annual time of remembering, para que no se repita (so that it not be repeated), made a tremendous impression on me, making more real and concrete all the stories that I had heard over the years about the terrorism in Peru. When their remains were discovered in August of 2011 in a desolate section of the desert, 45 minutes north of here, and more than 19 years after their disappearance, the effect of the history of government corruption became very stark. The family members pitched tents at the site and stayed put for several days while the forensic experts slowly and carefully sifted through the sand to collect the remains and whatever evidence was present. The families were concerned that evidence would “disappear,” given that the government was implicated in the murders.
Corruption…. The corruption in Peru is widespread and generalized to virtually all levels of society: government, police, business, and even education. A year or so ago, Sr. Manuela Crisólogo González and I participated in a march against corruption and impunity with other members of the Diocesan Delegation of Social Ministry and with various civic groups.
The political corruption in the region of Ancash, where Chimbote is located, has reached such a level than many local elected officials are now in prison, or are in hiding because they have been sentenced to prison terms. Moreover, many of those who have replaced them in office have legal cases pending against them as well. In the midst of this, el sicariato, or contract killing, has been on the rise in recent years in Chimbote itself. This rise can be correlated, at least in part, with the illegal activities of the imprisoned mayor and imprisoned regional governor. An acquaintance of ours, who is a high-ranking anti-corruption fiscal (more or less like a district attorney), has had round-the-clock police protection for nearly two years now due to credible death threats against her. Why the death threats? Because she is an honest woman of integrity who cannot be bought.
There are numerous areas where corruption affects the lives of the people. Many police officers expect bribes to look the other way. Many students and teachers engage in the practice of buying and selling grades. Many business owners use abusive labor practices. Human trafficking is very real. Poverty is often extreme. Violence and killing is quickly becoming the norm. The destruction of the environment is visible with large portions of the Amazon rainforest sold in concession to multinational corporations; with indiscriminate mining and logging; with contamination of the air, the ocean, and other waterways; etc. Moreover, in the face of all of this, it would appear that the great majority of people feel impotent, and therefore remain a silent majority.
Nevertheless, despite all of the rampant corruption, there is a vocal and active minority who speak to these issues and who seek to be catalysts of consciousness-raising and of change. The Dominican Sisters of Peace have been, and continue to be, participants in two of those groups: the Diocesan Social Justice Commission, and the Diocesan Delegation of Social Pastoral Ministry. Though the number of people who participate in these and other groups is relatively small, the famous quote attributed to Margaret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”