The Soldiers' Story: An Army In Chaos

A soldier's life is seldom easy, but the Peruvian troops in the Andean town of Puquio are downright pitiable. Short of food, bullets and boots, they are paid $23 a month to battle Shining Path guerrillas. Fighting spirit is also running low. When a guerrilla column attacked Puquio one night in January, not a soldier stirred. The troops sabotaged their radio so orders to fight could not reach them, according to Peruvian congressional accounts of the incident. The insurgents blew up a bank and town hall, killed three police officers and stole their guns.

The Peruvian military is so badly off it may not be able to beat terrorism even now that the generals are running the country with President Alberto Fujimori. The armed forces' support for Fujimori's coup reflects not only their anger with judicial and political corruption but also frustration and humiliation over their own institutional problems. Military analysts in Peru say Fujimori's decision to assume dictatorial powers was made partly to head off a move by underpaid officers to overthrow their own high command. At a meeting two weeks before the coup, officers jeered the army's commander, Gen. Nicolas De Bari Hermoza Rios.

Thanks to a dearth of spare parts from the former Soviet Union, only a third of Peru's 60 Soviet-made helicopters are airworthy. In the jungle garrison of Satipo, Maj. Carlos Mendez's 230 troops patrol 10,000 square miles with only one helicopter based 50 miler, away. "I don't have any vehicles," Mendez complains. "Not even a bike." Still, the military spends only 15 percent of its budget (estimated at between $400 million and $630 million this year) on counterinsurgency. The rest goes for heavy conventional weaponry to deter perceived threats from Chile and Ecuador; Peru recently contracted to buy 100 T-55 tanks from Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovak authorities disclosed.

Soldiers' salaries have been eroded by budget constraints and inflation. Until Fujimori offered an emergency pay hike, a major in a combat zone earned about $230 a month--plus $10 hazardous-duty pay. Moonlighting and corruption, much of it drug related, are endemic. Enlisted men in combat areas subsist on a thin stew that costs the army about 95 cents per day-five cents less than the government spends on jail rations. Recruits have been seen training barefoot or in rubber sandals. Desertion is rampant; 10 percent of the military's 15,000 commissioned and noncommissioned officers asked for early retirement in 1991.

When the army does fight, it often resorts to brutality. Amnesty International blames security forces for the "disappearance" or execution of 237 people between July 1990 and July 1991. A former member of an elite Peruvian antiterrorist unit told NEWSWEEK that government troops routinely used electric shock and other torture on suspected terrorists. He said soldiers were frequently ordered to carry out extrajudicial executions of suspects and were instructed to cover up the killings by burning bodies or throwing them into lakes and rivers. The army officially denies such reports. But many military men say privately that it is pointless to take prisoners, given a corrupt and intimidated judicial system that has released 85 percent of the 7,000 terror suspects arrested since 1982.

Conceivably, U.S. military aid could help. But Peruvians have been frustrated by a U.S. policy that links aid to the largely futile war against drug traffic, and by the fact that Congress, citing Peru's human-rights record, has balked at a major commitment of money. That human-rights record now seems likely to worsen, and U.S. aid has been suspended. In the short run, the loss of American support probably won't bother Peruvian officers used to "making do with what we have," as one puts it. But they may yet wonder if it was wise to alienate the international community in their war against one of the world's most ruthless insurgencies.