An American in Peru, out of prison after 14 years and living with regret

LIMA, Peru — In the words of Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, archbishop of Lima, granting parole to Lori Berenson has made a “mockery” of the nation. Julio Galindo, Peru’s top anti-terrorism prosecutor, says Berenson, a New Yorker convicted of collaborating with a Marxist rebel group, remains an “irascible” threat to society.

Vice President Luis Giampietri had two words when he learned of her release this year: “What indignation!”

Emerging after more than 14 years in Peruvian prisons, 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.

“People were on the street screaming that I was a child killer and things like that,” she said in an interview one morning this month, describing how she was greeted by neighbors when she was released from prison in May.

Since then, a mixture of hope and tumult has defined her existence. She began using the Internet for the first time, taking online classes with a plan to piece together a profession as a translator. Then a Peruvian court abruptly ordered her to return to prison in August, basing its ruling on a technicality (the police had apparently failed to inspect her apartment.)

A judge then reinstated her parole this month, restoring a semblance of freedom, or what amounts to it. She slipped out a side door of the prison where she and her son were being held and back to the wrath of her neighbors. She cringed at the recollection of one recent incident as she walked down the street, holding her son’s hand.

“The other day someone came up to me and said, ‘You are damned, and he is doomed. You’re going to suffer your entire life, and he’ll make you suffer more.’” she said. “I totally understand that people feel a strong rejection to someone who represents terrorism. The problem is, I may not be the person they paint me to be, and they’ll never know that.”

The tale of how Berenson, the daughter of New York college professors, became one of the most scorned individuals in this nation remains remarkable in all its twists and turns. Once a top student at a prestigious New York high school 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 downtown 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 Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

She still insists she did not know about the MRTA’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 frigid 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, but not of participating in the caper.

Behind prison walls, life went on. In 2003, she married Anibal Apari, an MRTA militant whom she met while both were incarcerated. She was allowed conjugal visits with Apari, now released and acting as her lawyer, even though they are getting divorced. She gave birth in 2009 to their son, Salvador, a citizen of Peru and the United States who has spent most of his life in prison with his mother.

Several things make Berenson stand out from other Americans one might encounter in this city’s Miraflores District. One is her impressive fluency in Spanish, which she speaks with a distinct Peruvian accent. Another is her hands, weathered and chapped from their exposure to the elements in the prisons where she was held.

But many Peruvians say they still wonder whether she is truly sorry for her actions, or just doing her best to stay out of jail.

“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 MRTA, 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 a violent act.

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 Berenson that is seared into the country’s memory. Fists clenched, she shouted, “There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. 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 Berenson’s case.

“All this fear over a little woman who already spent 15 years in jail?” President Alan Garcia said in a recent interview.“It is a right to make a mistake in life, and it is a right to be punished and released when that punishment is finished.”

It is still not clear when Berenson’s punishment will end, when she will be free to return to the United States, as she would like to do. Galindo, the anti-terrorism prosecutor, is appealing her parole. A tribunal expects to rule soon, potentially returning her to prison for the remainder of her sentence, until 2015.

Reflecting on the challenges that await her, she said she often remembers a book she read in prison, “The Pig’s Deed,” a novel by the Argentine writer Marcos Aguinis. It is about the Spanish Inquisition as it unfolded in colonial Peru, focusing on the persecution of a prominent doctor who acknowledged his Jewish origins.

“It’s very vivid in the way things continue in society,” said 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.”

Andrea Zarate contributed reporting to this article.