Operation Chavín de Huantar (1997)

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on December 17, 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. Although strictly speaking the crisis took place at the Ambassadorial residence in the upscale district of San Isidro rather than at the embassy proper, the media and others referred to it as the “Japanese embassy” hostage crisis, and that is how it is conventionally known.

Most of the hostages were soon released. After being held hostage for 126 days, the remaining dignitaries were freed on 22 April 1997, in a raid by Peruvian Armed Forces commandos, during which one hostage, two commandos, and all the MRTA militants died. The operation was perceived by most Peruvians to be a great success, and it gained worldwide media attention. President Alberto Fujimori initially received much credit for saving the lives of the hostages.

Reports have since emerged suggesting that a number of the insurgents had been summarily executed after surrendering. These findings have prompted civil suits against military officers by relatives of dead militants. In 2005, the Attorney General’s office in Peru allowed the charges and hearings were ordered.

The Siege

The surprise ambush and seizure of the Japanese ambassador’s residency was the highest profile operation of the MRTA in its 15-year history. The attack propelled Peru in general, and the MRTA in particular, into the world spotlight for the duration of the crisis. Guests reported that the guerrillas blasted a hole in the garden wall of the ambassador’s residence at around 8:20 p.m. the night of the 17 of December. The complex had been guarded by over 300 heavily armed police officers and bodyguards.

The Japanese ambassador’s residence had been converted into a fortress by the Japanese government. It was surrounded by a 12-foot wall, and had grates on all windows, bullet-proof glass in many windows, and doors built to withstand the impact of a grenade. It was, therefore, an easy site to defend from the inside.

ChavindeHuantarThe news of the MRTA’s daring assault on the ambassador’s residence caused the Lima Stock Exchange to close three hours early, as domestic stocks plummeted. One newspaper political columnist commented, “It is a setback of at least four years. We’ve returned to being a country subject to terror.” The news came during a period of low popularity for President Fujimori (down to 40% from a 1996 high of 75%), who had until then been credited with restoring peace to the country after terrorist activity largely ceased through the country during his first presidential term.

Preparations

In preparation for the raid, one of the hostages, Peruvian Navy Admiral Luis Giampietri (later elected Vice President of Peru for the term 2006-2011), who was an expert on intelligence and command operations, was secretly provided with a miniature two-way radio set and given encrypted instructions instructing him to warn the hostages ten minutes before the military operation began, telling them to stay as far away as possible from the MRTA members.

Light-colored clothes were systematically ferried in to the hostages, so that they could be distinguished easily from the dark-clad insurgents during the planned raid. Cerpa himself unwittingly helped with this part of the project when, hearing noise that made him suspect that a tunnel was being dug, he ordered all the hostages placed on the second floor.

In addition, sophisticated miniature microphones and video cameras had been smuggled into the residence, concealed in books, water bottles, and table games. Giampetri and other military officers among the hostages were given the responsibility for placing these devices in secure locations around the house. Eavesdropping on the MRTA commandos with the help of these high-tech devices, military planners observed that the insurgents had organized their security carefully, and were particularly alert during the night hours. However, early every afternoon, eight of the MRTA members, including the four leaders, played indoor football for about one hour.

Fujimori later unveiled a scale model of the building that was especially built to prepare for the rescue operation, which included the tunnels from adjacent houses used by commandos to enter the building.

Special Forces Raid

On 22 April 1997, more than four months after the beginning of the siege, a team of 140 Peruvian commandos, assembled into a secret ad-hoc unit given the name Chavín de Huantar (in reference to a Peruvian archeological site famous for its underground passageways), mounted a dramatic raid on the residence. At 15:23 that afternoon, Operation Chavín de Huántar began.

Three explosive charges exploded almost simultaneously in three different rooms on the first floor. The first explosion hit in the middle of the room where the soccer game was taking place, killing three of the hostage-takers immediately — two of the men involved in the game, and one of the women watching from the sidelines. Through the hole created by that blast and the other two explosions, 30 commandos stormed into the building, chasing the surviving MRTA members in order to stop them before they could reach the second floor.

Two other moves were made simultaneously with the explosions. In the first, 20 commandos launched a direct assault at the front door in order to join their comrades inside the waiting room, where the main staircase to the second floor was located. On their way in, they found the two other female MRTA militants guarding the front door. Behind the first wave of commandos storming the door came another group of soldiers carrying ladders, which they placed against the rear walls of the building.

In the final prong of the coordinated attack, another group of commandos emerged from two tunnels that had reached the back yard of the residence. These soldiers quickly scaled the ladders that had been placed for them. Their tasks were to blow out a grenade-proof door on the second floor, through which the hostages would be evacuated, and to make two openings in the roof so that they could kill the MRTA members upstairs before they had time to execute the hostages.

At the end, all 14 MRTA guerrillas, one hostage (Dr. Carlos Giusti Acuña, member of the Supreme Court, who had pre-existing heart health problems) and two soldiers (Lieutenant Colonel Juan Valer Sandoval and Lieutenant Raúl Jiménez Chávez) died in the assault.

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), MRTA member Roli Rojas was discovered attempting to walk out of the residency mixed with the hostages. A commando spotted him, took him to the back of the house, and executed him with a burst that blew off Rojas’ head. The DIA cable says that the commando’s intent had been to shoot just a single round into Rojas’ head, and due to the mistake the commando had to partially hide Roja’s body under that of Nestor Cerpa. The cable also says that another (female) MRTA member was executed after the raid.

Military and Judicial System

On 7 June, at a ceremony organized by the army to commemorate loyalty to the national flag, the commandos were honored and decorated, including those whom the judicial branch had under investigation for alleged involvement in the extrajudicial executions. On 29 July, the Chavín de Huántar commando squad was selected to lead the independence day military parade. This appeared to have been done to exert more pressure on the Supreme Court justices who had to decide the jurisdiction question raised by the military court, in order to make certain that it would be the military court that investigated the extrajudicial executions.

On 16 August, the Supreme Court convened to hear the oral arguments of the parties to the jurisdictional challenge brought by the military tribunal. The military prosecutor heading up the parallel inquiry being conducted in the military court, who had to bring the charges and prove them, was the person arguing the military’s challenge. However, in his arguments he made a defense for the commandos, stating that “heroes must not be treated like villains.” The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the military court system had jurisdiction over the 19 officers, thus declining jurisdiction in favor of the military tribunal. It held that the events had occurred in a district that at the time was under a state of emergency, and were part of a military operation conducted on orders from above. It further held that any crimes that the 19 officers may have committed were the jurisdiction of the military courts. It also ruled that the civilian criminal courts should retain jurisdiction over anyone other than the commandos who may have violated civilian laws.

Chronology

  • December 17, 1996: MRTA members take the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru with more than 600 hostages. They soon release about half of the hostages.
  • December 20 (day 3): Another 38 hostages are released.
  • December 21 (day 4): Fujimori declares that there will be no talks.
  • December 22 (day 5): 255 hostages are released.
  • December 26 (day 9): An explosion is heard in the residence. Police say that an animal detonated a mine.
  • December 28 (day 11): 20 hostages released.
  • December 31 (day 14): A group of reporters are allowed into the mansion.
  • January 21 (day 35): Police and MRTA members exchange shots.
  • March 2 (day 75): MRTA members refused asylum to Cuba and Dominican Republic
  • April 22 (day 126): Peruvian special forces storm the residence. One hostage, two commandos and all 14 MRTA members died.

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