Terrorist Helper Lori Berenson, a Mere 'Outcast' Guilty of 'Youthful Outburst' and Past 'Mistakes'?

There's more sympathy from reporter Simon Romero for Lori Berenson, the American terrorist helper jailed in Peru, in a profile on Saturday's front page, "Berenson Tries to Make Amends in Peru." Romero attempted to make Berenson an object of sympathy, as he did in a profile earlier this year when she was released on parole.

Berenson was sentenced to life in prison in Peru in 1996 for being closely involved with the Marxist terrorists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Berenson's parole was greeted with public indignation, which Romero did his best to quell, calling her fiery claim at trial, that "There are no criminal terrorists in the M.R.T.A. It's a revolutionary movement!" merely a "youthful outburst." (Berenson was 26 at the time.) Instead Romero picked up on the angle of a poor, picked-on Berenson:

Emerging after more than 14 years in Peruvian prisons, Ms. Berenson, now 41, absorbs such remarks in the fifth-floor walk-up where she now lives. Thanks to a barrage of television coverage, the country knows the rented apartment is on the corner of Grau and Italia Streets. In a lengthy interview at her home in Lima, she said she spent her days cooking and reciting nursery rhymes to her 18-month-old son, Salvador. She dreads simple things like walking on the street, aware of the reactions her presence elicits in passers-by.


The tale of how Ms. Berenson, the daughter of New York college professors, became one of the most scorned people in Peru remains remarkable in all its twists and turns. Once a top student at the prestigious La Guardia High School in New York and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she surfaced here in 1994.

A letter from a magazine called Third World Viewpoint gave her press credentials and access to Peru's Congress. But the police arrested her on a bus in Lima in 1995, hours before they raided a four-story house she had rented, where they found 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 3,000 sticks of dynamite and more than a dozen members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or M.R.T.A.

She still insists that she did not know about the M.R.T.A.'s plans of violence. But a military tribunal sentenced her to life in prison for treason.
The authorities sent her to a dank cell in Yanamayo, a prison high in the Andes. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years at a new trial in 2001, at which she was found guilty of renting the house that was used in a failed plot to take the entire Peruvian Congress hostage.

Surely an MIT student like Berenson would have soon figured out that the dynamite wasn't for fireworks. Romero stuffed the MRTA terrorists down the memory hole as "a thoroughly marginalized group," implying that bygones should be bygones.

"I certainly am saddened, and I'm sorry that I have been part of something that was considered so damaging," she said, bouncing her son on her knee as she acknowledged her ties to M.R.T.A., now a thoroughly marginalized group. "My participation has been collaborating. You know, I rented a house. I shared ideological things," she continued, claiming she never had plans to participate in violence.

Still, much of Peru views her as a symbol of the turmoil that afflicted the country in the 1980s and 1990s, when almost 70,000 people were killed in that period of war and rebellion. A Maoist group, the Shining Path, was responsible for more than half of the deaths. Networks here still broadcast again and again a 1996 appearance by Ms. Berenson that is seared into the country's memory. Fists clenched, she shouted, "There are no criminal terrorists in the M.R.T.A. It's a revolutionary movement!"

"My logic was not right, and the way I said it was even worse," she now says of that youthful outburst. "It was a big mistake."

A few voices here urge Peru to move on and accept those words from a woman reflecting on the mistakes of her past. These opinions are often drowned out, though they include the country's president, who has expressed his view while allowing judges to handle her case.

Romero let the former terrorist helper Berenson refer herself as an "outcast" while comparing herself to a character in an Argentinian novel, "The Pig's Deed," about the Spanish Inquisition in colonial Peru.

"It's very vivid in the way things continue in society," said Ms. Berenson, reflecting on the fate of outcasts then and now. "I think the difference is, people who were accused of terrorism weren't burned at the stake. I wonder if we had been, maybe we would be less interesting. I think for some reason it's useful that people still be considered dangerous."

Romero was just as fawning in his May 2010 profile of Berenson, under a headline suggesting everyone should just get over it: "Over 14 Years, an American Inmate and Peru Itself Found Ways to Transform." In that story, Berenson failed to apologize for her involvement with MRTA, which she does in the more recent story.