Monday, May 27, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Black Days, Red Nights: Riot '98

This post originally appeared at Bill Grimes' Dawn on the Amazon Captain's Blog at Iquitos, Peru.

Many thanks to Bill for publishing my work at his very successful blog.

Rumours of war became the realities of battle one late afternoon in Oct. 1998 as thousands rampaged across Iquitos, fires raging, smoke and flame covering the city as bodies laid in the street amid pools of blood and broken glass.
Fury reigned for days. In these later years those who were there say, “Yes, I was there, but I can't remember it.” The dead were buried in the acid soil, the blood was washed away by the heavy Amazon rains, and the thick grey ash blew away years ago on hot winds. Life is now, not then; and the city today is at peace. Days and nights of violence: that is memory long lost. For the locals, the riot of '98 happened, but it was too long ago to think about, or even to recall at all. For some, though, the memories are clear and never-ending. Those memories are the black and red realities in the pale, dim mists of phantom rumours in private lives so hard to recall exactly. The Iquitos Riot of Oct. '98. Some will never forget.

Political demonstrations in Peru can be 'enthusiastic' at the best of times, manifestations, as they're called, and the assembly at Independence Square in Iquitos, Peru's Plaza 28 de Julio, had from the start the basic elements of any bad situation. The point of the mass assembly on 26 Oct. 1998 was to demonstrate against Ecuador having seized a chunk of historically disputed Peruvian territory ranging from the Ecuador border near the Peruvian village of Pantoja to the tiny town at the end of the dirt road leading from Iquitos, Nauta, about 50 miles away into the jungle from the city. Wars have been fought many times over this area, and those men and women assembled that Saturday afternoon at the park were emotionally prepared for another war. By the time people found that the story of invasion by Ecuador was all nonsense it was too late: the dead were already dead, and the city of Iquitos lay under a blanket of ashes, smoke, and ruin. The 'invasion' was maybe someone's idea of a joke. It might well have come to little more than an average manifestation but for one accident that changed the mood and purpose of the crowd into that of a violent mob. For three days, in spite of the lack of an actual invasion by Ecuador, the city was like a war zone. To make matters worse, it seems someone was buying and passing out free beer to the people at the plaza. People were not only angry, they were often drunk. Demagogues had been priming the people for a couple of weeks previous. The rumour of war furthered the cause of those we know not exactly of. There are rumours.

At 5:30 p.m.-- and closing in on 6:00 p.m-- Mike was in the living-room at his first floor apartment at #633 Prospero St. having a beer, lying in a hammock with his feet up, relaxing in his home at the back of the one story building. Not unusual, the electricity went out in Mike's flat, so Mike got up and walked barefoot down the hall and outside to survey the extent of the outage. He stepped onto the sidewalk. He looked down toward the Plaza de Armas in the twilight and saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the city going about its business without light; and then he turned to the opposite direction, toward what would be in the distance the Plaza 28 de Julio. The Plaza is half a mile or more up Prospero with a sharp right rurn down the road even farther. In turning toward the Plaza, instead of the distant park, Mike saw a roiling tidal wave of rampaging demonstrators coming straight at him, angry people who were smashing windows, setting fire to shops, people ripping up and toppling shallow-rooted twelve foot palm trees in terracotta post which they smashed on the street as they came foward, a solid wall of screaming fury on the march-- with Mike in their direct path a matter of meters away.

Of all the horrible sights to see during that three days of blood, fire, and death, one of the worst must have been seeing Mike, middle-age, vastly overweight, and barefoot, running wild-eyed and sweating down the pot-holed Prospero street in the dark toward the Iron House seeking refuge from a mob ready to kill him.

The second floor of the Iron House back in 1998 was the location of the Regal Restaurant, and it was also at the time the residence of Phil Duffy the British consul at Iquitos, Duffy's wife, and young child. In both instances the Iron House served as a place of safety for expats in times of trouble: have a beer while you get your passport sorted out. Over the course of that long weekend the Iron House was home to 18 people wondering if they'd survive at all. Mike ran through the door and up the stairs and, in the same manner he does to this day in ordinary circumstances ordering another beer, bellowed in his broad countryside English accent, “Bolt the doors! They're coming!”

Inside the Iron House on the second floor, looking out through the crack of the shuttered window at the now dark city, one could see smoke blowing across the red domed sky as the city burnt: houses and shops aflame, six of the city's very rare cars on fire, while hotels and government buildings were smashed, looted, set afire and left to burn to the ground from one end of the city to another. People were killed. Mayhem ruled the city. Mike, with 17 other men and women from four nations, trapped and fearing for their lives, said later of those days and nights as he and his fellows refugees waited for savage beatings at the hands of raging mobs and death by fire inside the Iron House, “We had a helluva good time.”

Another witness, Leon Jones, living across town at the time, said he was sleeping at his home and dreamed that he was back in the army, and that he was ducking tracer bullets during basic training training. He awoke to find that basic training over and the war was now real. “It scared the hell out of me,” he said.

The rioting was all about nothing, originally, but in the end it left, according to newspaper reports, a minimum of three dead, with eyewitnesses saying the total was closer to 20. Papers record that 30 were seriously wounded and that over a hundred were arrested. Buildings big and small were destroyed, and property damage extensive and expensive-- in the multiple millions in this less than wealthy city. And yes, surviving such a thing is often the high point of a lifetime, though at the time the only possible beneficiaries of the violence and destruction would have been the organised drug lords whose records were tossed by the armload from the Supreme Court building onto the street, and there the records were burned.

In the immediate beginning of the riot, the Soviet-style concrete block Supreme Court building, nearby to the Plaza 28 de Julio was torched when the demonstrators had finished throwing computers and fax machines and burning papers out the windows onto the street. When the crowd tired of that destruction, they crossed the street and burned down the elegant Neo-classical luxury Rio Grand Hotel. Then the mob turned and marched on the city centre itself.

The English novelist Graham Greene calls it “The Ministry of Fear,” that dark place that houses the secret police of a nation at war against its own people: The Ministry of Interiour. The Orwellian term could be “MINI-CULT,” whose agents wear black trench coats, hard men who arrive silently for the 2:00 am. wake-up call of a jackboot smashing in the door and then muted ride in a small four door black sedan to that place one never returns from because one was never really there and one never really had a name. 'No, there is no such person in our records.' At the Ministry of Fear, all things are known. One knows nothing.

As the crowd protested at Plaza 28 de Julio against the supposed Ecuadoran invasion of Peru back in late Oct. '98, a general from the Ministry of Interiour was having a small, official engagement at the Rio Grande Hotel across the street from the flat and grassy plaza where one of the first of the city's public transport train locomotives sets like a large toy on a concrete block. The crowd in the park were riled up by rumour of war, of betrayal by the generals. The crowd turned their attentions toward the hotel where Minister of Interiour was at his meeting, and he, in a state of nervousness, decided to flee by a hotel side door to discretely avoid the crowd riled to madness over the supposed give-away of their homeland to enemy Ecuador. In his haste to escape the demonstrators, the minister's car ran over and killed Sra. Corina Coral Arana, aged 47. Her accidental death alone could likely have set off the demonstrators, but the general's car also ran over and killed Maria Katerina Echeverria. She was two years old.

The 'Ministry of Fear's' general, Jose Villanueva Rueseta, who later received a nine year prison sentence for massive theft, (convicted of crimes against the public administration,) sped away after killing the woman and child.

The Hotel Rio Grande and the Corte Superior de Justicia de Loreto remained even after the general fled, and they were burned down. With those building in flames and smoke and ashes swirling in the wind above the city the crowd turned its attentions to the rest of the city, and it was then that Mike found himself facing the surging mob coming at him on Prospero street as the sun set on the city and fire lit the night.

Mike was an insurance salesman back home, and as he was trapped in Iquitos' Iron House and the mob outside were smashing at the iron doors to get in to kill everyone, thought of actuarial tables of insurance gave way to, not the well-known and professionally calculated odds of long term survival, but to the thought of the chances of living through the night. Was there any chance at all of living through the next assault from the mob downstairs smashing the doors downstairs?

Along with Mike, the British consul and his family, were two other Brits, two Australians, a few Peruvians, and a handful of U.S. Marines from the Riverine Support Team under the command of Marine Corp Lt. Colonel Michael Pierce, absent that period. Regardless of the skills of professional soldiers, the U.S. Marines would have been under the temporary command of the British consul. Outside, their opponents were under control of the Furies. On the corner of the block by the Malecon Tarapaca Peruvian soldiers stood in formation, nervously pointing their rifles as they faced their own people with the possibility of having to shoot them and kill them.

Inside the Iron House's second story Regal Restaurant and British Consulate, the Marines were far from their suburban base at Moronacocha where they had moved from expensive hotels to be lodged instead in luxury 20 room mansions rented from local drug lords. In a city that to this day has only a few actual cars, the Marines drove around the city in giant SUVS, and sometimes the soldiers were drunk, sometimes causing accidents that required the injured to be flown to Lima to receive the best medical treatment available in the nation. The Marines might well have been party to other accidents, in part because they were given $39.00 per diems for food allowances in a city where to this day one can find a good meal for a dollar. Unsurprisingly, for every Marine there were ten local girls vying for his attention. Perhaps as part of the $47 million per year the U.S. Government put directly into the local economy at least some of that was danger pay for the soldiers, well-earned no doubt when confronting drug smugglers, if not furious local boys who couldn't get a date anymore. To the local lads, seeing the Marines fighting off local girls at the Iron House's Regal nightly, Marines in danger didn't look so dangerous at all. As the local hang-out for Marines, the locals found in the Iron House a fair target to set alight once they'd smashed in the door and made their way partly up the staircase to the second floor. They were intent on burning down the Iron House, its floors and walls and ceilings covered in wood.

Mike and some of the others had watched the crowd on the street below by peeking from the second story windows, but in doing so the inside light gave them away, alerted the crowd to their presence and drew their attention toward the Iron House. Those inside had assembled heavy wooden chairs to hurl down at those coming up to greet them, and Anthony Taggart, an Australian, had ordered a Peruvian waiter to boil water in the kitchen to pour on the mob like a scene from a Medieval siege. The Consul said that such a move would only antagonise the mob who had just burned down television station Chanel Seven. So too, they had burned out Discotecas Caimito y Karaoke bar, whose Korean owners were financially devastated by the fire that destroyed their investment and livelihood, and had burnt down an old school house before proceeding to burn down la Libereria Marisabel and Foto Aspinwell. The mob was at the Iron House, pounding on the metal doors, shouting.

After repeated ramming, the Iron House doors broke open. As the mob made their way up the stairs, Consul Duffy, a man who had at one time unceremoniously snubbed two homesick tourist ladies from his hometown of Wiggan, acted in what could well have been a Charlton Heston scene of Lord Gordon of Khartoum facing down the Madhi army in Sudan. Consul Duffy, dressed in a tee-shirt and short pants, appeared in front of the mob ascending the Iron House stairs and shouted down at them in imperious consular English, “Get. The. Fuck. OUT!”

Stunned, the crowd turned around and quietly went down the stairs and docilely left the building. But outside the crowd kept on burning Iquitos: la Direccion Regional de Agricultura de Pevas not only going up in flames, but the mob also smashed computers, fax machines, and even tossed a refrigerator out of an Agriculture building window, thereby smashing a gaping hole in the concrete sidewalk. The building housing the Department of Mines was burnt, and so too the Department of Fishing. At least 14 building were burnt during the rioting.

Peruvian president Fujimori ordered in five Hercules transport planes filled with black-clad troops, the Aguilar Negra special forces, flown in from Lima and gave them orders to shoot to kill. Luck was with them, as they did not have to wait their turn to land at Iquitos, which in later years would have been the case because planes weren't the only airborne craft with landing rights in local airspace: some years later the garbage dump was next to the aeroport, and thus the skys were filled with vultures from dawn till dusk, each one being enough to bring down a plane if it were sucked into a jet engine. As it was that day, the skys were clear. The Black Eagles had landed. At least one man, 21 year old Jorge Valles Sinarahua, was shot to death on the street.

Sunday was quiet, and by Monday the incident was over. Years and years later Mike recalls it as a fine time. “There were plenty of sofas inside the second floor of the Iron House, and there was no shortage of beer.” For almost everyone in the city today the episode of the riot over nothing is either forgotten or not even known of. People have moved on long since, and this story is but a minor footnote in the history of Prospero St. and the Iron House.

Mike's girlfriend, by the way, waited for the mob to pass by the open door of the apartment building on Prospero St. before she fled to safety in the opposite direction. She got a "Four Flags" tee-shirt, representing people from Peru, Great Britain, Australia, and the United States, saying: "I Survived the Iron House Siege, Iquitos, Peru, Oct. 26-28, 1998." The tee-shirts are now lost to time, as well.

City life resumed, and today, as people move purposively along the sidewalk, there is, as well as a pharmacy on the main story of the Iron House, a trinket shop selling snake skins and postcards and piles of brightly coloured Amazon Indian-style clothing fit for the most fashion-conscious hippies on earth. Upstairs, closed and abandoned, the Iron House restaurant, the setting of more than a hundred years of dramas large and small, sits in silent stillness and gloom, abandoned for now, some memories perhaps collecting dust in the darkness.
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