On April 22, Peruvian Defence Minister Jakke Valakivi led a ceremony to commemorate the 19th anniversary of Operation Chavín de Huántar at the Chorrillos military school in Lima. Operation de Huantar is often billed as one of the most successful military rescue operations in history, perhaps in the same league as Operation Thunderbolt, in which 102 hostages were rescued by the Israeli Defense Forces in Entebbe, Uganda, in June 1976.
As terrorist have turned increasingly audacious in the manner in which they conduct strikes and take hostages – as was seen in the Dubrovka Theatre hostage crisis in October 2002, the Beslan school siege in September 2004, the Peshawar school attack in December 2014 and most recently in the Bataclan Theatre massacre during the Paris terror attack in November 2015 – there are lessons to be learnt from Operation Chavín de Huántar, which involved months of planning, subterfuge and the minimum loss of hostage lives.
On April 22, 1997, Peruvian commandos stormed the residence of the Japanese Ambassador, Morihisa Aoki, to rescue hostages who had been held by the left wing Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement or MRTA) since December 17 the previous year. It is said that Alberto Fujimori, the president of Peru at the time, chose to name the operation after the famous Chavín de Huántar archaeological site in the Andes Highlands, renowned for its underground passageways, given that many tunnels had to be dug under the Japanese ambassador’s residence as part of the rescue effort. Two commandos, one hostage and all the fourteen hostage takers were killed during the operation, with 71 hostages rescued unhurt.
Elaborate planning and subterfuge
Fourteen MRTA rebels, led by Néstor Cerpa Cartolini, heavily armed with sophisticated weapons, including rocket launchers, entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence on the night of December 17, 1997 during a reception to commemorate the birthday of Emperor Hirohito. Initially almost 500 persons, including parliamentarians, business persons and ambassadors, were taken hostage. Some 80 women and elderly persons were released within hours, but the MRTA retained what can be called high value hostages. The then Indian ambassador to Peru, Nirupama Rao, miraculously escaped being taken hostage as she had left the reception minutes before.
The next day the rebels announced their demand for the release of 450 MRTA prisoners. On December 19, four ambassadors were released so that they could serve as a channel of communication between the government and the hostage takers. On December 24, the Uruguayan ambassador was set free after Uruguay released two MRTA prisoners in their jail. On December 28, then Minister of Education Domingo Palermo entered the residence to negotiate with the rebels. The ambassadors of Honduras and Argentina were released on December 31. On January 15, the rebels accepted the government’s offer to set up a guarantee commission.
Slowly, many hostages were released until only 72 were left.
Fujimori also involved the president of Cuba, Fidel Castro, and the president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in a bid to resolve the standoff. On February 1, Fujimori and Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto issued a communiqué in favour of an agreement with the rebels to secure the release of the hostages. On February 3, Fujimori met with US President Bill Clinton. On March 3, Fujimori traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet President Leonel Fernandez to discuss providing asylum to the rebels. By March 12, the rebels and the government had held 10 rounds of talks. On April 17, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina met with Hashimoto in Tokyo and assured his country´s cooperation in resolving the situation.
Key to the success of the rescue operations was the elaborate planning and use of subterfuge by conducting ‘negotiations’ with the hostage takers. Several people I have spoken to in Lima have vivid memories of the day and vouch that the prolonged negotiations helped in reducing the number of hostages and gave the armed forces time to prepare.
Peru, a mining nation, used this expertise to construct elaborate tunnels under the ambassador’s residence to give the armed forces a way in. To mask the sound of the tunnels being dug, the air force held several daily sorties over the residence and the police played loud music directed to the house.
While the government went through the elaborate process of ‘negotiating’ with the rebels and involved Cuba, Bolivia, Dominican Republic and Japan, the armed forces were preparing for the rescue operation using an exact replica of the ambassador’s residence in the Chorrillos academy. Bugs and transmitters were smuggled into the house in water bottles and food, and intelligence operatives were disguised as journalists were sent in too.
The armed forces were aware, thanks to intelligence reports, that on the day of the operation the rebels would be playing football in the drawing room at around 3 pm. At 3:22 pm when the game was at its peak, the attack was launched and the rebels were caught by surprise. Already word had been sneaked in to hostages to expect a rescue effort.
Three teams launched the assault. One entered through the tunnel and blasted the floor of the main hall where the football match was on. Another team went through the tunnels and used a ladder to reach the second floor to enter the rooms where the hostages held. Once the two teams were in the residence, a third team made its way in through the main gate to escort the hostages to safety. With the success of Operation Chavín de Huántar, the back of the last remaining left-wing insurgency in Peru was effectively broken.
Sandeep Chakravorty is Ambassador of India to Peru and Bolivia. Views and opinion, if any, are entirely personal.