Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April offers a gripping and insightful look into the terrors in Peru in 2000, especially towards Indigenous peoples.
Like Canada, Peru has a long and troubled colonial relationship with its Indigenous peoples. Today, Canada is making strides in the vital process of reconciliation with all our Indigenous citizens. One important part of that quest is passing legislation to enshrine the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP) in federal law. The UNDRIP Act (Bill C -15) received Royal Assent on June 21, 2021 and provides a framework for implementing UNDRIP into Canadian law.
UNDRIP creates a universal framework of standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world. It should act as an essential ethical benchmark in Canada’s foreign business practices and relations with Latin American countries like Peru, which also have large Indigenous populations.
Peru’s New Government
The new government of Peru, led by President Pablo Castillo, pledges to completely review and rewrite the country’s constitution. Adequate protection of Indigenous rights will inevitably be a critical part of this proposed transformation. Such a review is vital given the disastrous legacy of President Alberto Fujimori, who ruled in a highly authoritarian manner from 1990 to 2000. Fujimori was responsible for a series of human rights violations, including crimes against humanity committed as part of a violent, unconstrained counter-insurgency against Shining Path guerillas. Fujimori also allegedly associated with the Grupo Colina death squads.
The Fujimori government also oversaw a massive forced sterilization campaign. Over 215,000 Indigenous people – mostly women – were forced or threatened into sterilization. Despite being convicted of these crimes, a right-wing president initially granted him a pardon. In 2019, the Peruvian Supreme Court (Special Criminal Chamber) overturned the pardon, concluding that crimes against humanity established under the law cannot go unpunished. The Court held that the country’s international obligations take precedence over a pardon granted for purely political reasons. The Executive Director of Amnesty International Peru stated in February 2019:
We have witnessed the courage and determination of the victims and their families in their tireless struggle to reclaim their rights to justice, truth and reparation. They have inspired us to speak out against impunity.
The many legal decisions confirming the ex-President’s guilt are landmark findings with global implications.
In his crime thriller Red April, Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo offers a gripping and insightful look into the terror and culture of impunity on the part of both radical insurgents and the state itself. They showed contempt for the rule of law and for the safety and fundamental rights of ordinary citizens (mostly poor mountain villagers, many Indigenous). The tale is set in Ayacucho during Holy Week 2000, as presidential elections are underway. Tourists mingle with locals in this Andean town – a focal point of both guerilla operations and fierce counter-insurgency efforts that terrorized the townsfolk.
The protagonist is Felix Chacaltana Saldivar. He is a by-the-book, rather unimaginative and occasionally plodding prosecutor. We first detect his qualities in the opening chapter – a prosecutorial report he prepared on a grisly murder. Someone has been burned beyond recognition. The pathologist soon tells us that a severed arm happened before the victim met his sorry fate.
Filing his report leads our rather officious prosecutor on a quest to gather evidence about the macabre death – ludicrously suggested at one point by a police officer to be an accident – as well as a whole series of murders. Up to this point in his career, Chacaltana had an undistinguished record. He is clearly out of his depth as the investigation veers quickly into a mess of what appears to be acts of terror by the Fujimori government, with little regard for the vulnerable civilian population caught in the crossfire.
An element of grim humour unfolds in an early scene as Chacaltana returns to his hometown of Lima. There, loud speakers bombard the town square with patriotic tales of heroes from Peru’s past. Chacaltana secretly yearns to accomplish something noteworthy and dreams of one day joining the procession of heroes. (The narrative includes periodic bursts of “news” in the form of broadcast announcements in the public squares, part of a campaign to mobilize public opinion in favour of government forces.) But his prospects for success appear slim given his naivety.
Chacaltana is bookish, prone to quoting fine Peruvian and other Latin American authors. And he genuinely believes that all – including the powerful, such as the flagrantly macho police officers – will respect the laws in the Constitution. The deeper realities of society, camouflaged by official government announcements, continuously baffle him.
While interviewing a hardened revolutionary at a scary maximum-security prison, he is taken aback by the uncomfortable truths he hears. The Peruvian justice system has ruthlessly denied the prisoner a future. Yet the prisoner recounts the legend of the Indigenous peasant’s dream, by the brilliant writer Jose Maria Arguedas. This is a central part of Arguedas’ parable-like story. It is about an Indian forced to accept work on a plantation as a menial servant. His dream reflects the deep yearning for a transformation of a society that has so cruelly dispossessed and exploited the Indigenous masses.
The story is one of several that underscore the deeper currents of the thriller. The novel not only descends into a dangerous world of politically-inspired murders and torture, but also sharply critiques the vast inequalities and exploitative relationships of contemporary Peruvian society. What strikes me at this time particularly are the scenes that touch on the marginalized status of the Indigenous population of the country, who have received harsh treatment in Peru’s troubled history.
On a welcoming note, readers today can reflect on Peru’s opportunity to end both the era of the Shining Path and the extreme violence and lawlessness. President Pedro Castillo, elected this past summer, is a campesino, rural school teacher, and union organizer from the Andes. However, the bad faith attempt by the losing candidate, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Fujimoro, to overturn the election results provided a partial sense of the dark days the novel depicts.
President Castillo has close ties to and the support of Peru’s largely impoverished and oppressed Indigenous population. He promises to majorly transform this divided society. Castillo has called for the creation of a constitutional assembly to recommend major constitutional changes, to affirm Indigenous rights, and to enshrine principles of social and economic justice. Best of all, he is working with moderate progressive forces who may offer balance and badly needed experience. The many marginalized characters in Red April may finally glimpse a better future. The rule of law, continuously mocked in the world of Red April, may once more stand firm and shake off the dust from its many collapses. May Castillo and his “popular alliance” succeed and overcome the roadblocks that the right-wing forces vow to place in his way!
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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