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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 150-163

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Reflections and Reports

Terror and the Privatized State:
A Peruvian Parable

Deborah Poole and Gerardo Rénique

On March 20, 2002, nine months after the inauguration of Peru's newly elected president, Alejandro Toledo, and two days before George W. Bush's much anticipated trip to Peru, two simultaneous car bombs shattered the tranquility of an upper-class neighborhood a few blocks from the U.S. embassy in Lima. Nine people were killed and forty injured in the blasts, for which no one claimed responsibility. Rumors immediately began to circulate in Lima. Some speculated that perhaps the moribund forces of Abimael Guzmán's once-strong Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) party had gathered a new and unnoticed strength. Others cast a nervous glance backwards toward the still very real threat of the National Intelligence Services formerly headed by the now infamous criminal—and once-favored U.S. ally—Vladimiro Montesinos. Still others read the bombs as warnings from the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and their Peruvian "narco" allies about the dangers of any further concessions to Bush's "Colombia Plan." Along with such rumors, however, Peruvians quickly relapsed into old habits. Security measures were increased, parties canceled, fear revived, and public life curtailed. The bombs had brought with them another unsuspecting victim: the illusion of a time without terrorism.

What remained curiously hidden from most Peruvians' sensibilities, however, was the odd coincidence between these new coche-bombas and the March 23 visit of George W. Bush, a visit in which he hoped to reach consensus on an expanded Latin American base for his international war against terrorism. While the allegedly new [End Page 150] FARC incursions across the Colombia-Peru border served as the immediate, local pretext for the trip, the broader international context was, of course, Bush's push to isolate Cuba and to solidify his own political standing as self-appointed leader of an international crusade against terrorism and evil. As if to signal the true extent to which optimism had taken hold of Peru's political elites, Bush's visit was widely viewed as an expression of the U.S. president's sincere concern for Peru and his desire to establish the beneficial bilateral economic agreements that would help this country—a country that no U.S. president had previously bothered to visit—to recover from terrorism. To guarantee that such agreements could be reached, the Peruvian government passed special emergency laws to ensure that the various demonstrations, planned to coincide with Bush's visit, did not lapse into violence. What Bush was to see was a country where violence had given way to progress and growth. In this context of expectancy, then, the bombs—like other anonymous acts of terror—were less remarkable for whatever special "political" message they were intended to convey than for the instantaneous effect they had on Peruvians' newfound complacency. As if conjuring ghosts of the not quite yet dead, the car bombs drove home the fact that the fear and uncertainty that had pervaded Peruvians' lives during the 1980s and 1990s were not yet a thing of the past.

How are we to read this moment, in which the memories of terrorism in Peru come alive in the new context of a U.S.-led international war on terrorism? How should we think about the different spatial and temporal registers in which a highly localized terrorism—a terrorism that many described as the last Maoist guerrilla war—comes face-to-face with a new international terrorist "network"—which some believe has changed the way in which we need to think about the world? For many people in the world, however, the terrorist acts of September 11, although shocking for their magnitude, did not constitute a paradigm-shattering event. Many Peruvians, Colombians, Guatemalans, and Argentineans, for example, reacted to the disaster with a muted sense of irony. "At last," they reflected, "Americans will understand what we've been through." Seen from their perspective, fear and uncertainty were...


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pp. 150-163
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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