Operation Chavin de Huantar is considered one of the most important operations of the Peruvian military. On April 22, 1997, commandos from the Peruvian Special Forces were able to conduct a rescue operation of 72 hostages held by the terrorist group Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence.
The operation was named Chavin de Huantar from the pre-Incan civilization Chavin. The area of Peru where they lived was called Huantar. The Chavin were known to hide from their enemies in deep tunnels built under their temples. The reason would come to light later.
What made this operation even more fulfilling for the Peruvian commandos was the fact that this mission was considered too difficult for them to conduct. They proved the naysayers wrong and were able to take down the target. Two commandos and one hostage were killed in the assault. All 14 terrorists were killed and the remainder of the hostages were freed.
The Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement was a Marxist terror group that was founded in the 1980s. The terror group was initially led by Víctor Polay Campos until he was captured and sentenced to 32 years’ in prison in 1992, and then by Néstor Cerpa Cartolini (“Comrade Evaristo”) until his death in this operation in 1997.
The MRTA took its name from Túpac Amaru II, an 18th-century rebel leader who was himself named after his claimed ancestor Túpac Amaru, the last indigenous leader of the Inca people
Like many Marxist organizations, there was tremendous in-fighting amongst the membership. The Peruvian military took a toll on their numbers as well as several clashes with their Maoist rivals the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). As a result, their numbers never went higher than several hundred.
On the night of December 17, 1996, 14 members of the group gained entrance to the Japanese ambassador’s residence by blasting a huge hole in the garden wall to gain entrance to the residence. The Japanese government had fortified the building to defend it from within. Many of the windows were made of bulletproof glass, heavy steel grates were placed on windows and the wall was 12-feet high to discourage any scaling attempts. The doors were constructed to withstand a grenade blast.
Peruvian President Fujimori called the MRTA assault and hostage-taking as “repugnant” in his first aired statement on the takeover, but not until December 22. He stated that Peru needed no outside assistance. He hoped to settle the matter peacefully.
MRTA leader Néstor Cerpa Cartolini announced that he would gradually release any hostages who were not connected to the Peruvian government. During the long drawn out siege that followed, the terrorists released all of the female hostages (including Fujimori’s mother) and all but 72 of the men.
MRTA made a series of demands:
- The release of their members from prisons around Peru (including recently convicted US activist Lori Berenson as well as Cerpa’s wife).
- A revision of the government’s neoliberal free market reforms.
- They called for the end of Japan’s foreign assistance program in Peru, arguing that this program benefited only a narrow segment of society.
- They protested against the cruel and inhumane conditions in Peru’s jails.
Reportedly, from one of the socialist hostages…that had been released, the terrorists were heavily armed and had anti-tank weapons at their disposal. They also were reportedly wearing explosive backpacks and had the rooms wired for detonation.
Preparations By the Peruvians:
Despite President Fujimori’s negotiations which dragged on for months, the President couldn’t find a European nation which would give the terrorists asylum. However, the military began planning for an eventual hostage rescue just four days after the takeover in December.
The Peruvians put together a 140-man joint task force—comprising 70 National Police members and 70 personnel from army, navy, and air force special operations units. The Peruvians were breaking the fourth of the SOF Truths, Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur. However, this unit would eventually have the time to train and prepare to conduct a very successful operation.
This joint special operations task force was charged with the planning and eventual conduct of the operation. While the task force prepared for the rescue, the National Intelligence Service, SIN (Servicio Nacional de Inteligencia) set up a headquarters next door to the ambassador’s residence, in the same house the terrorists had used to launch their attack.
The Peruvians began to tunnel deep under the ambassador’s residence. To cover up the sound and the vibration, they began blasting loud music into the residence as well as having tanks rumble around in the streets to throw off the terrorists. But MRTA did hear the tunneling efforts and ceased negotiations. A small two-way radio was furnished secretly to Navy Admiral Luis Giampietri. Also, the hostages were gradually furnished lightly colored clothes which contrasted very well with the dark clothing the MRTA terrorists were wearing.
In addition, the planning for the joint task force was made easier when the terrorists decided to move all of the hostages to the second floor. The Peruvians also over the period of time were able to smuggle in several hidden microphones and cameras which the hostages were able to hide around the residence.
The task force learned that security of MRTA was at its highest every night, but that each afternoon, eight of them, including four of their leaders would take an hour to relax and play football inside.
The task force built a scale model of the ambassador’s residence which the leaders of the rescue operation based their training. This included the tunnels from the adjacent buildings that the commandos would use to gain entry into the residence.
The Assault and Rescue Operation:
The night before the operation, half of the task force began to assemble in their assault positions. The police began to assemble around the residence while snipers took positions on top of the surrounding buildings. Everything was ready, they were just waiting for the green light.
At 15:17 local time, President Fujimori gave the commandos the go-ahead. The assault element was divided into three different groups. Six minutes later at 15:23, the Peruvians knew that the terrorists would be playing their indoor football game. It was precisely then when they blew explosive charges beneath the dining room and kitchen.
The first, exploded directly under the middle of the room where the football game was being played, killing three of the terrorists immediately – two men involved in the game, and one of the women, who was watching from the sideline.
The first assault group emerged from the tunnels on the side of the residence and assaulted the service area and moved to the second floor. The second assault team with 20 commandos breached the front door of the residence. They neutralized the other two female terrorists who were guarding the door. Behind this initial group was another wave of commandos carrying ladders.
The third prong of the assault consisted of commandos who entered via another tunnel. They scaled the ladders that were in place and with charges, they blew out the grenade proof doors on the second floor to evacuate the hostages. The also cut holes in the roof so that the MRTA could be neutralized before they had an opportunity to kill the hostages.
The entire operation took 28 minutes. All but one of the 72 hostages were saved. Two commandos were killed in the assault. All of the terrorists were dead. One of the terrorists, Roli Rojas attempted to mix with the hostages to sneak out. He was recognized by a commando who took him to the rear of the residence and blew his head off with a burst from his weapon. The MRTA flag that flew during the standoff was burned.
President Fujimori arrived soon after the raid was completed. He was photographed on the staircase with the body of Cerpa and the headless body of Rojas close nearby. Television cameras captured him riding with the freed hostages thru the streets of Lima.
Fujimori enjoyed a huge jump in popularity over what was seen as Peru standing up to terrorists and standing on their own. His popularity rating nearly doubled to 70 percent. To Peruvians, it gave them a huge boost of morale as they saw their military plan and conduct a vital operation as a First World Nation would.
But there would be controversy over the deaths of the terrorists. Specifically, the execution of prisoners, after forensic investigators said that several of the terrorists were shot in the back of the neck in a defenseless position. Eleven army officers were arrested but eventually, three senior officers were charged with ordering the extra-judicial killings of the MRTA terrorists. They were exonerated at a trial in 2012.
Photos: Wikipedia, Peru armed forces