When Peru’s most wanted man was captured in 1992, a young ballerina went to jail too, for harbouring him at her studio. The story was turned into a novel and film, “The Dancer Upstairs”. This year, the author of the novel, Nicholas Shakespeare, flew to Lima to meet the dancer at last—and to ask her whether she was guilty
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
“Amigo?” The interrogator, a stout policewoman in a tight black jersey, sits behind a scuffed counter.
“Si, amigo,” I say, and sense her rolled eyes.
“Where are you from?”
“England.” Then: “Do you get many visitors from England?”
“You’re the first.”
I hand over my passport. Another young policewoman stamps “B” on my right wrist and scribbles “38” with a green felt-tip. For days afterwards, I shall avoid washing my arm.
A squint-eyed man frisks me, then unlocks a door, ushering me through it into a compound with large buildings. A policewoman in an open wooden cabin guards the access.
I tell her whom I’m visiting.
“Amigo?” she flirts.
Another policewoman points out the entrance to Pavilion B, housing the Shining Path inmates. I’m signed in a third time, and am being escorted up a staircase when a figure darts forward. Trout-brown eyes, long dark hair parted in the middle, and a muslin scarf draped over her shoulders, embroidered with small flowers. Her face is thinner, more striking than in photographs. She wears loose black trousers and blue high-heeled shoes.
She nods, smiles.
Instinctively, I embrace her.
The last time I saw Lima, it was recovering from the arrest of a Kantian philosopher who suffered from psoriasis. Abimael Guzmán, self-appointed Fourth Sword of Marx-Lenin-Mao, had initiated a ruthless guerrilla war which would last 20 years and cause 69,000 deaths. His capture—peacefully, in a room above a ballet studio—occurred in 1992 when his Shining Path organisation appeared on the brink of seizing the capital, and proved a transformative moment in Peruvian history.
Almost two decades on, Lima the horrible, as it was then known, has become Lima the stylish. Gleaming new cars everywhere. Casinos. The most praised restaurants in South America. And dominating the skyline on huge iron pillars, the blown-up face of the model Kate Moss, advertising an exhibition of society photographs by Mario Testino, who is Peruvian.
I’ve returned to Lima to interview another beautiful woman: the imprisoned dancer Maritza Garrido Lecca, in whose ballet studio Guzmán was arrested on the evening of September 12th 1992, as a result of which Maritza received a life sentence. In 1995, I published a novel about that night, “The Dancer Upstairs”, which was made into a film by John Malkovich in 2001. And while I spoke to everyone I could—from the doctor who first cradled the new-born Guzmán, to Maritza’s husband, lover, even her classical-ballet teacher—I never met Maritza. I would sometimes picture her in a cramped cell, like a candle burning down, her muscles degenerating. She was arrested at 27, the convent-educated only daughter of upper-middle-class parents who never suspected her involvement with the Shining Path. At what point would she be too old to dance again?
Then, this January, I received a copy of a book that Maritza had written in her cell. It was about dance, and on the title page was a personal inscription to me, hoping we could meet and have “a good conversation”, one which might establish the truth.
And so, after a 17-year absence, I am in Lima again. Maritza’s lawyer has arranged for me to visit her in the woman’s prison in Chorrillos on Sunday May 16th. I concentrate on reacquainting myself with Lima. My enjoyment lasts until Saturday, when I open Correo and see a headline occupying a whole page: “RED ALERT FOR SHINING PATH”.
It is 30 years since the Shining Path’s foundation on May 17th 1980, when a group of masked strangers confiscated ballot boxes in the village of Chuschi. An anniversary plot has been uncovered to assassinate the defence minister, Rafael Rey, and a state of emergency has been declared in three provinces.
The idea that the Shining Path might not be extinguished ignites a gunpowder trail of unwelcome memories. I reflect on a recent e-mail from Guzmán’s biographer, the Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo, about how he had done an interview in jail with a Shining Path “terrorist” who had followed me when I was researching Guzmán for a Granta profile. (“He was told you were a CIA man. But finally, he realised you were taking too many risks for a secret agent. He said ‘CIA people are just the ones not asking for Abimael Guzmán on each door.’ ”) The discovery that I had been shadowed was disturbing, yet it made sense. When I was living in Lima in the 1980s, the Shining Path regarded journalists with unconcealed loathing. Guzmán refused all requests for interviews, and more than 40 reporters were killed while investigating his organisation. In 1987, I managed to question the godfather of the Shining Path, the ethnologist Dr Efraín Morote Best, about this. He gave a chilling explanation: “Journalists take sides.” One story haunted me: of a journalist who was said to have visited Shining Path prisoners in Lurigancho and was released—minus his tongue.
But this was decades ago. And Maritza’s lawyer is taking me to the prison to see her.
“I’m not in danger?” I’d asked him, wrestling an unexpected apprehension.
“No, come to my house for breakfast and I’ll drive you. You say ‘Pavilion B’ and ‘I’m a friend.’ You can stay till 5pm.”
Early on the appointed Sunday I catch a taxi to the address that Dr Alfredo Crespo has given: 3126 Avenida Caminos Del Inca.
It’s an overcast day, the streets empty. “IN SURCO WE LIVE WELL” in blue letters on white walls. A congregation assembling outside the Misericordia Church. The Divine Beauty Salon. Until we reach 3122, 3124. Then 3128, 3130, 3132... And the taxi driver shaking his head. “It doesn’t exist.”
I check my notebook. Definitely 3126. Plus, I have a vivid memory of Dr Crespo pointing it out, upside down, from a list of addresses in my notebook.
“Go round again...” But it crosses my mind: I’m entering a Borges story. This is like “The South”, in which a traveller goes into a bar on the pampas and moments later is invited outside to a knife-fight...My fate is to continue on to the prison. Dr Crespo’s house never was: through its non-existent door do I step to my destiny.
These are my morbid, resigned thoughts when the driver exclaims: “There it is!” And this time, as we drive past 3132, there is a low wall with a nut-brown metal door and, out of sequence, the number 3126.
I pay the fare, ring the bell, and am relieved to see Crespo’s face.
Maritza’s lawyer, who is also Guzmán’s lawyer, is a compact and restless man, polite and dapper, with still, dark, slanted eyes that give you the sense of being scrutinised upside down.
Earlier that week, in an empty restaurant off Plaza San Martín, Dr Crespo, who visits his clients in prison every Friday, described Guzmán’s living conditions for me. “He has a bathtub next to his bed, his books above a table where he sits to eat, a TV which is turned on till 8pm—although he doesn’t watch much TV, he likes reading, he would read this book you have [Antony Beevor’s ‘D-Day’] by Friday; and at 10pm he sleeps.” Over a plate of ceviche, Crespo confirmed that 18 years in prison had done nothing to shift Guzmán’s philosophy—“he still maintains his position as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist”—and that “Dr Abimael” was busy writing a history of the Communist Party of Peru.
At the end of the meal, Crespo agreed, when he saw Guzmán the following Friday, to put a question to him that I have longed to ask.
Now, over Sunday breakfast, Crespo reveals that our lunch had taken place on the fifth anniversary of his release from prison. In January 1993, he was kidnapped in the street outside by a group of armed men and tried by a military tribunal. His crime: to have been a member of the Shining Path (“which I’m not”) and to have defended Guzmán and Maritza. “I was sentenced to 12 years.” He talks about his incarceration, the close spirit that it fostered among the inmates.
Once, when in prison in Puno, he spotted Maritza standing at a high window in the adjacent women’s wing, and waved to her.
My coffee is almost cold when he discloses that he spoke to Guzmán on Friday. “I asked Dr Abimael your question: Which is the play of Shakespeare he likes best? He told me that Shakespeare is his favourite author along with Cervantes. He has his complete works beside his bed for his night-time reading.”
I observe that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day.
“I didn’t know that.”
“What was his answer?” I have waited more than 25 years for this, my first direct communication with the godhead.
“‘Richard III’, he says. Followed by ‘Macbeth’.”
It rings true. Both plays are about betrayal, usurping, the hollowness of power. Although I was half-expecting “The Tempest”. The last words Guzmán issued to his followers, apparently, before he disappeared underground exactly 30 years ago, were these: “No tongue; all eyes; be silent.”
We drive to the prison in Dr Crespo’s ancient white Toyota. He has warned against wearing black and bringing keys or a telephone. But a notebook is permitted. As is my copy of La República. It contains another article about the Shining Path, with a photograph of Guzmán taken on the night after his capture, and a quote from Crespo about how the Peruvian Communist Party—the Shining Path’s official wing—is preparing to participate in elections.
In the car, Crespo recites the names of 14 lawyers who have been killed by the government or have disappeared. They include Manuel Febres, the lawyer acting for Efraín Morote’s son Osman. In July 1988, an army squad assassinated Febres as he drove along this same road. One point unites everyone: Guzmán and Maritza would have met the same fate had the police chief responsible for their capture handed them over to the government, as specifically instructed. Instead, General Antonio Ketin Vidal immediately contacted the press, later releasing that picture of Guzmán and Maritza to prove they were still alive.
It’s 10.20am when we park on the main highway a block from the prison. A pavement no wider than a plank leads us to a grey metal door. Dr Crespo raps on it.
Presently, a face peers out through an oblong aperture: male, dark moustache, squint eyes. “It’s not lawyer’s day.”
“I’m bringing a friend.”
A key grates in a lock. The door scrapes open. I enter.
Maritza’s lawyer remains outside in the street and shakes my hand through the narrowing space.
It’s a powerful experience to meet a person you have lived with intimately in your head, whom you have had to construct from other people’s memories. I know what Maritza’s Argentine husband Saúl Mankevic thought of her; her poet-lover Rafael Davila; her director at the Ballet Naçional, where she danced Prokofiev as a Cinderella fairy. “She could have been the best ballerina in Peru,” said Vera Stastny. But what I have never been able to work out—perhaps a reason for writing a novel and screenplay about her—is the process that led Maritza one day to exchange the ballet for the bullet.
This is how a character in “The Dancer Upstairs” describes the dancer I called Yolanda: “Who knows what was going on in her mind? She’d done nothing for other people or so she felt. And then she must have met someone who talked about the creativity of the Indians, and how the only way to help them recapture their identity was to offer them salvation through revolution. A very romantic view of Indian society... it could have happened to a lot of women like that—educated, pretty, good family, religious. You start with a humanitarian idea and before you know it, you’re cutting throats.”
That was my fictional interpretation at least. But I’ve learned to respect fiction. In my first novel featuring Abimael Guzmán, “The Vision of Elena Silves”, written before his capture, I imagined that he suffered from psoriasis, smoked American cigarettes and harboured a passion for Frank Sinatra—all of which turned out to be true. So when Maritza discloses that her middle name is Yolanda, I’m not surprised as once I might have been. I’m all the more curious to discover how similar Maritza is to my creation and where she differs from it.
I follow her upstairs to a second-floor room. Seated around tables are other male visitors—friends, fathers, brothers, lovers—who talk to the prisoner they have come to see, share a bread roll, pour a glass of Inca Kola. The atmosphere is friendly, familial.
Here for the next six hours we talk.
To begin with, I give Maritza the floor. I’m expecting to be seduced and I am. Any expectation that 18 years in prison might have broken or embittered her is confounded by the attractive woman beside me, someone who is warm, feminine, naive, passionate, convinced, proud—and utterly familiar. She reminds me of my sister, another middle-class idealist, who lived in Peru with the Ashaninka Indians and who did charitable work in the jungle alongside Maritza’s first cousin—but my sister refrained from taking that crucial further step.
“I’ve read your novel,” she says once we’ve sat down.
“It’s your fiction,” pointing. “There are things you got right, but it still reflects that you don’t know us.”
“That’s why I’m here. To try and understand more.”
“What do you want to understand?”
“How an innocent, devout ballerina who grew up wishing to be a missionary can make the leap into a revolutionary who shouts with a clenched fist for the armed war.”
Her hands flutter up. “What do you say to a nun who watches all the people around her pick up weapons? What should she do?”
“Are you capable of killing someone?”
Maritza considers. “I’ve never been in that position.”
She describes her position: “If I’d lived in Gandhi’s time in India I would have behaved as Gandhi taught, but I lived in Peru in the 1980s. Sadly, the history of mankind shows that there’s always a moment when you can’t resolve social problems without violence.”
Anyway, she no longer believes in God. “I am a Marxist.”
“What does that mean?”
“A society without social classes, without states, without war.”
“Was there ever such a society?”
“Before private property.”
“How long ago was this?”
“A long time, maybe a million years. I’ve been told by social scientists, anthropologists, archaeologists that this is what it was like. Little by little we can get there again,” and cites a book by Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”.
But she reads the doubt in my face. That I think it’s absurd to row back to a primitive society, to a model that may not have existed.
The majority of us, I suggest, are not interested in politics, any more than we were in Bolivar’s time; the Great Liberator, on a visit to Lima in 1823, believed most of the unarmed masses of Peru had “no commitment at all”.
“If no one believes in popular war, how do you explain what happened in the countryside?” Her eyes blaze and glaze, and I have the impression I am talking to two people. There is the unreflective suddenness of her smile, the birdlike movements of her hands, like sparrows. Then the sparrow-hawk opposite; the face inert, the eyes still, as if a transparent guillotine has descended.
Abruptly she says: “Do you realise the equivalent of four twin towers of children die [of hunger] every day?”
And later: “We now buy potatoes from abroad. Potatoes! For Kentucky Fried Chicken!”
And later still: “I think socialism is better than capitalism. That’s why I defend Russia in the time of Lenin, China in the time of Mao.”
They feel like the shadows of a speech composed by another.
As an impressionable teenager living in Buenos Aires, I met Jorge Luis Borges, who told me: “Five minutes of anyone’s life is worth more than all of Shakespeare.” At the same age, Maritza must have met someone who was able to persuade her that the opposite was true—who made her life subservient to a text, and so the lives of thousands of others. Guzmán’s 1985 mantra was “inducing genocide”, replaced in 1988 by “the triumph of the revolution will cost a million deaths”.
Still, today, Maritza is unable to acknowledge where her ideals have led—which is to the deaths of 69,000 mostly innocent people. She has paid a big price for her idealism, passing her youth and adulthood in captivity, but prison has also enabled her to remain calcified, even to bloom. Astonishingly, I realise, the realities of social change in Peru, and indeed the world, have not interfered with the flame; her candle, instead of burning down, has remained unnaturally bright.
If that is so, why has she agreed to see me? I’m a novelist, a natural enemy of inflexible doctrines. I deal in ambiguity, contradiction, doubt.
We are talking—about the IRA, or maybe it’s an ice festival near Cuzco we both attended, or her admiration for the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, or her love of Frank Sinatra, modern dance (“You know what is most difficult to dance? Reggaetón”, and she moves her hips) when Maritza leans forward, holds me with her eyes. “Do you believe me? Do you believe I am telling the truth?” My answer seems important.
I say, “I believe almost everything you have told me except that you didn’t know he was upstairs.”
The Shining Path made Peru ungovernable. There were assassinations and the army fought violence with violence. On the night of June 18th 1986, soldiers acting on the orders of President García stormed three prisons and massacred more than 200 Shining Path inmates. A paramilitary army squad calling itself Commando Rodrigo Franco attacked journalists and lawyers who showed sympathy for Guzman’s ideals. By 1986, terror had sunk its fangs into the capital. Not a day passed without a car exploding, until on July 16th there was the largest explosion of all, a 1,700lb bomb which rent apart the Miraflores district of Lima, killing another 23 people and reducing the hotel Maria Angola, where I had been staying but three days earlier, to rubble. A Shining Path spokesman declared, “We are on the point of taking power.”
Then on the evening of September 12th, the police general, Antonio Ketin Vidal, announced to the press that Abimael Guzmán had been captured above a ballet studio in the middle-class suburb of Los Sauces.
Vidal had been surveying No. 459 following a tip-off from the Shining Path’s third-in-command. This was Luis Alberto Arana Franco (“Comrade Manuel”), who had been captured by Vidal’s men in July. He was in charge of the organisation’s finances—and a professor at the César Vallejo academy. In exchange for a new identity abroad, he revealed Maritza’s address.
Every day for the next two months, Vidal sent agents disguised as courting couples up and down the street. He planted gardeners on the corners to water the African tulips—it was now the best-kept neighbourhood in Lima. In the rubbish he found empty packets of Kenacort-E cream, for psoriasis, as well as Winston cigarette stubs. And Maritza was buying food for several more people than the two who occupied the house. She also bought clothes for an outsized man, yet her new boyfriend, an architect, was thin. It suggested someone else was living on the second floor where the curtains never parted. But who?
At 8pm, a young woman accompanied by a much older man stepped from an orange VW Beetle and entered the studio: they were Maritza’s best friend, the choreographer Patricia Awapara, and Maritza’s uncle, also Patricia’s lover, Celso Garrido Lecca, a distinguished composer. For the next half hour, the three discussed a dance based on Euripides’s “Antigone” which Maritza was going to perform.
Then, as they said goodbye, Vidal issued the order.
Maritza says: “I open the door to let them leave and it’s kicked open by plain-clothes men who burst in and push my head down on the dance floor.”
Vidal’s men didn’t know if they would find men with guns, or an escape tunnel. Instead, they found Guzmán seated in a room on the second floor, watching the boxing on Channel 13.
Maritza confirms: “They didn’t know who was inside. They were surprised. I remember hearing their shouts from upstairs, ‘Vengo, vengo! El Cacheton!’ [Fat-face—the police nickname for Guzmán.] They didn’t know.”
Any more than she did?
Maritza’s problem—the reason she is inside—is that she held the keys to the house where Guzmán was captured.
She sighs: “I rented a house for two months, for which I have been sentenced to 25 years in prison. I sublet the second-floor flat to Doña Elena [Yparraguirre, Guzmán’s companion and second-in-command]. I was giving lessons downstairs to girls aged 7 to 11—45 minutes with cassette music, a combination of contemporary and modern. I was also giving lessons outside to other students. I was away a lot.”
I invite her to draw a plan of the house in my notebook. What surprises me is the common entrance—leading to a staircase that ascends to a second-floor landing, and then to a third floor where Maritza and her architect boyfriend, Carlos Inchaustegui, slept. Yparraguirre had to walk through the studio and up those stairs to reach the flat she shared with Guzmán.
“So when”, I ask Maritza, “did you first see Abimael Guzmán?”
But her gaze is direct, unflinching, and I feel a stab of disappointment that I’m not the one who can crack her. “When we were presented the following night at DINCOTE [the police headquarters]. I was between him and Celso.”
Celso, Patricia and Maritza had spent the night with hoods over their heads. Celso told me that when the hoods came off he saw that he was standing next to the most wanted man in the southern hemisphere. The two of them were surrounded by women ferociously punching the air, screaming “Viva Abimael!”
Celso looked around for his niece, the soft-spoken, lovely Maritza who never mouthed a bad word in her life, who never had an enemy. He saw her face among the screaming women, contorted with rage and defiance. “Viva Abimael!”
Celso told me: “It was pure Kafka.”
Maritza points at the famous image reproduced in my copy of La República: Guzmán in black loose clothes, a white placard hanging from his neck—the first picture seen of him since 1980. “I am standing there—they’ve cut out my photo in the last two years.” Her finger traces her absent image, down a column in which the interior minister reassures his colleague in defence that there’s no possibility the Shining Path will assassinate him; a column that now occupies the place where Maritza had punched the air.
“Why did you shout,” I ask Maritza, “if you were innocent?”
“I thought we were going to die.”
Because this is the rub. Maritza’s passion and training is dance: a medium in which the body expresses itself, but in silence. And if she had remained silent like her uncle Celso, like her best friend Patricia...“If she hadn’t lifted her hand,” says an old professor I bump into as I’m leaving Chorrillos, another visitor, who sometimes dances the tango with Maritza, “she might be free like the others.” But in this moment on the evening of September 13th 1992, Maritza raises her fist and screams her support for Abimael Guzmán, his genocidal revolution.
“I didn’t shout anything I didn’t believe,” she says. “I thought it was going to be my last shout. So I thought I’d tell the world what I thought.”
“Do you regret that?”
“Yes. Because it’s completed the image of me in the public mind.”
But how inaccurate is that image? I look again at her sketch of the ballet studio. Surely she would have overheard Guzmán’s conversations on the second floor. Surely she would have known there was a man up there?
Something stirs in her eyes. “What do you think?”
“I find it incredible that you can be innocent, that you didn’t see him.”
“I leave that to you.”
What she leaves me is baffled. The Yolanda of my novel admits to protecting her leader. And yet here is Maritza, maintaining the fiction that she never knew Abimael Guzmán, never knew he was there, only met him after the police stormed her studio. Why? What’s in it for her?
I ask myself: is she protecting someone? Is she in danger? Is her lawyer advising her to say this? Or could it be—from the moment she told her first Peter-like lie—she created a position she had to maintain? Could it be that her denial, aside from preserving a proud face, gave her a role?
Maritza was taken to the air-force prison in Arequipa. Four women, separate cells, not allowed to speak. “If we spoke, they turned the light off—total darkness.” Her trial was more or less as in the novel. “I was led into a room. In the centre was a chair set in concrete. My arms were chained to it.” She mimics her constraint. “I am facing a wall of glass in which I can see myself. I hear a male voice and the sound of a typewriter. Next to me stands a man with a gun, on the other side an air-force lawyer who is supposed to defend me. From 10pm to 5am I am interrogated.”
“What did you feel?”
“Furious. Impotent. I am accused of having the potential to be a leader in future. I say: ‘Then why aren’t you incarcerating all the poor people who have the potential to be leaders?’
“On October 15th, I am brought back to the room. This time my lawyer is beside me. I am sentenced to life imprisonment [commuted later to 25 years].”
She is sent to Puno, an old prison. “It’s 4,000 metres [up] and cold, cold, cold—a spectacular cold. My skin cracks open. At night the water freezes in the yard and in the morning we break the ice so we can wash. In the first year, I received one visit—from my brother.” Half an hour, no touching, facing each other through bars. “I was allowed no pencil, no paper, no book, no newspapers, nothing. Only the clothes I brought with me in a small suitcase.”
“Is it true that you sent a message to your mother: ‘Tell her I am dead. I live only for the revolution’?”
“No! I could never say such a thing. What is true is that I didn’t see my parents for seven and a half years. My father is 84 and has had four by-pass operations. Because of the altitude he couldn’t come to Puno. He flew with my mother to see me when I was transferred to Arequipa in 2000. We were given two hours for a special visit and allowed to embrace for the first time. I cried a lot. They cried a lot.”
“Your father, could he understand?”
“No, he is like you. He believes the world must change, but not with violence.”
A characteristic of revolutionaries is their childlessness. Maritza is 45. Had she wanted children?
“For a ballerina, it’s hard to have children. You have to choose the moment carefully. In my head, I hoped to have them when I was 30. But that is life. I don’t want a child to be born in here.”
What about relationships? Rafael Davila, currently teaching in Boston, told me: “She was a born seductress.”
Maritza rocks back, laughing. “I can’t live without love.”
Since 1998 her boyfriend has been a 57-year-old Shining Path prisoner. They met in Puno. “The guards would turn a blind eye if you wanted to have intimate moments.” Now, she is permitted to visit him every four months for two hours. But she doesn’t want to marry, as Abimael Guzmán and Elena Yparraguirre have arranged to do. “I’ve been married once. Never again.”
And those reports that she slept with Guzmán?
“Please!” groaning. “That was a horrible lie to denigrate us as women, that we all slept with him.”
“My hero never believed that.”
“Happily.” Then: “I have respect for my body. I give it to who I wish.”
In prison, Maritza must have missed countless things. Was there anything it surprised her to miss?
“The sea,” without a beat. After she was moved to Chorrillos in 2001, Maritza made a clay sculpture of a girl on a rock, head tilted back, balancing on one thin leg. “I had the idea she was smelling the sea air.”
Maritza called the sculpture “Libertad de Danzar”. It broke after a month, but its photograph is in a book she had sent me, written in Chorrillos. Also titled “Libertad de Danzar”, it is a dance manual for those who find themselves in confined circumstances.
She makes a sketch in my notebook: a cell in Puno two metres by two and a half—her home and stage for seven years. Woken at 6am, after melting the ice she was allowed to exercise for an hour.
“I created that book in my head. I thought: How can I conserve my instrument, my body, to be a dancer in future? I could do développés, pliés, yes”—at the words, her body animates itself—“but I couldn’t leap.” She stands and her arm reaches up to touch invisible bars.
Maritza’s identity as a ballerina has remained inviolate, to a degree that I wonder if it wasn’t ballet which provided the discipline to maintain her political stance. Since coming to Chorrillos she has formed a group called Huellas (footprints), and in 2003 she choreographed a ten-minute dance inspired by the government’s 1986 massacre of 200 Shining Path prisoners. She gives me a DVD: “It’s not Margot Fonteyn.”
“Which dancer has influenced you most?”
She hesitates. “The Cuban National Ballet with Alicia Alonso. I saw her in Lima 25 year ago. I admired her vision.”
“What’s the first thing you will do on gaining your freedom?”
“My father says: ‘I’m going to take you to the best restaurant and feed you steak and give you everything you haven’t been able to eat. Red wine, pisco, suspiro de limeña.’ My mother says: ‘I’m going to take you for a walk along the beach.’ I told my mother: ‘You know me better.’ But first I’d like to have a hot shower. I haven’t had one in 18 years.”
Upon her release in seven years, Maritza plans to create her own dance and theatre company, helping young people.
“For how much longer will you be able to dance?”
“Until my body allows me. I have problems with my joints.”
“What about theatre?”
“Until I die.”
“Are you a good actress?”
She looks at me and we both know what the answer is. In the pool of her eyes, a tail has tucked back behind a rock. “No. But I can learn.”
Shortly before 5pm, the visitors stand up to leave. We embrace and I invite Maritza to come and stay when she gets out. I reveal that I’m hoping to speak with the policeman who arrested her. Has she any message?
“Tell him I have respect for him. Tell him I hope he realises I’m innocent.”
My emotions over the next 24 hours are rawer than the ceviche I eat that night, in a restaurant overlooking the sea. I find myself ordering a steak, savouring each mouthful as though after a long interval. I order a pisco sour, then red wine. As I drink, I hear her words: “That’s why I’ve got to get out.” I finish with the suspiro de limeña, a sickly flan—“I like the sweet, the sweetest of the sweet,” she had said. And still I can’t puzzle out why she agreed to see me. Unless she wanted to meet a person who had presented her with a romantic version of herself, and to test it.
The man likeliest to have an answer is the same man largely responsible for Lima’s new-found prosperity and stability: Antonio Ketin Vidal. Maritza, Guzmán and Yparraguirre are alive today because of this former police general, who disobeyed orders to hand them over to President Fujimori’s security adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos.
When I meet Vidal again, on the evening of the Shining Path’s 30th anniversary, I tell him of my admiration for his action: the conviction, widely shared, that it was a transformative moment in his country’s history. His courage, his determination to uphold the law, didn’t merely save Maritza, it saved Peru from an ever-deepening abyss of violence.
Modest as he is, Vidal can’t help nodding. “It was a sublime moment.” He adds: “Dr Guzmán may be a criminal, but he has to be treated as a human being. He still has his rights.”
Vidal sits hunched, arms forward, hands clasped between knees, speaking in a low, slow husky voice, his features creased into a painful expression. He is taken aback to hear there is a film in which he is played, triumphantly, by Javier Bardem (“I didn’t know”).
The news from the countryside doesn’t surprise him. “It’s an incendiary situation. These are residuary groups, formed by people who have been released from prison, but we don’t really know. Our intelligence is not very good.” He sees the possibility of other subversive movements being born. “Nothing has improved. There’s still poverty, injustice, lack of education, lack of health, food. In the midst of impotence, people turn to violence.”
We talk about Maritza, her ambitions for a fairer society. Vidal reflects: “Maritza and I are on the same path, but our means of getting there are different. The state can’t use the same methods as terrorists. You must use other methods.”
He enquires how she is. It’s impossible for him to visit her in Chorrillos. All eyes are on him wherever he goes.
I convey her respect for him, plus her awareness that he saved her life.
He nods. “I did save her life, because if I had handed her over”—he makes a throat-cutting gesture. “Montesinos wanted it. Fujimori too.” By exquisite irony, both men are now in prison for human-rights abuses; Montesinos arrested by the slight figure who sits opposite, nursing a Coke, without ice.
“What was your impression of Maritza?”
“My impression is that she was from a good home, white, educated, attractive, lovely clear eyes—in criollo slang, a pituca. But her fight for the poor was a contradiction. It resulted in her becoming one of the strongest characters in the movement.”
I give him Maritza’s last message. Even now, part of me wants to believe she’s innocent.
“Is it possible she never knew Guzmán was up there?”
He shakes his head emphatically. “When I spoke to Guzmán in my office, I asked for Maritza to be brought in, to observe her reaction. She entered the room and emotionally she was not able to control herself. She ran forward and embraced him, ‘Presidente’.”
I look at Vidal, waiting for him to go on. In my novel, I wrote: “Here was a man who had fought not against one system but two. What he represented was better than either.”
“She was a puppet,” he says. “It’s a human tragedy.”
Nicholas Shakespeare is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph and the author of "Secrets of the Sea". His latest novel "Inheritance", was published in July by Harvill Secker. Picture Credit: Corbis.