Angelica Mendoza de Ascarza was a 54-year-old indigenous Peruvian mother of eight when, in the pitch-black early hours of July 3, 1983, the door of her tiny concrete-block home in the city of Ayacucho was kicked in by a group of men pointing assault rifles and wearing black hoods.
As she tried to fight them off with her bare hands, they sought out her 19-year-old student son Arquimedes, dragged him from his bed and bundled him, in his underwear and barefoot, to a waiting vehicle she recognized as a military armored personnel carrier.
“I clung to my son but they dragged me with him onto the street, punching me, kicking me and twisting my arm until I let go,” she told The Associated Press later. “Arquimedes shouted back to me: ‘Mama, don’t cry. I’m a big man now. Don’t worry. I haven’t done anything wrong.’ “
That was the last time she saw her son. He became one of Peru’s “desaparecidos” (the disappeared ones), just one victim of a 20-year “dirty war” that never got as much global media coverage as those during the military governments of Argentina and Chile. More than 69,000 Peruvians were known to have died between 1980 and 2000 and 7,000 disappeared, even though the three successive Peruvian governments of the era were not military-led like those in South America’s Southern Cone.
Mendoza, who died Aug. 28 at 88, personally campaigned for an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the disappearances, and her demand was finally met in 2001 by a caretaker government. The commission — made up mainly of academics, priests and lawyers, and before which she testified in her native Quechua language — issued its damning report in August 2003.
It said the Marxist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) group had been responsible for more than half the deaths, massacring with machetes anyone they considered government sympathizers, including indigenous peasants.
But the report also blamed the three successive ostensibly democratic governments of the era for the rest of the killings and human rights abuses, concluding that the state had given too much power to the military, which launched a “scorched earth” policy against villagers in the Peruvian highlands. Seventy-five percent of the dead were innocent indigenous Quechua speakers caught between the military and the guerrillas.
After her son was hauled away, Mendoza waited anxiously for dawn — until the end of a 12-hour curfew during the ongoing state of emergency in which anyone venturing out risked being shot. She went to the Los Cabitos military base to ask about her son.
“No sabemos nada” (we know nothing), she was told. Same at the police station, same at the paramilitary National Guard.
But she did bump into other mothers or relatives looking for their loved ones. They later formed a group they called the National Association of Families of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru, known by the Spanish acronym ANFASEP, with the motto Verdad y Justicia (Truth and Justice). She became its leader and most public face, known nationwide as Mamá Angelica.
In 1985, she organized their first march, accompanied by Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, when she and other relatives carried crosses, photos of their missing loved ones and placards saying “No matar” (Do not kill). She would participate in such marches, though increasingly frail, for the rest of her life. Her lawyer Gloria Cano confirmed her death, in Ayacucho, of complications from pneumonia.
“Mama Angelica is not only a symbol of the battle for justice in Peru, but a symbol for all the countries in the region which lived through terror situations during the same epoch,” the Peruvian branch of Amnesty International said in a statement. “Women like MamaAngelica are the ones who achieved a transformation in all our countries. She was among those who showed us the way. Now we must continue to follow her example, in her memory and for all who are still in the struggle.”
Mendoza never learned about her son but, through her efforts, other mothers and relatives did have their loved ones’ deaths confirmed.
With her strongly Inca features and her white high-crowned peasant’s hat, Mama Angelica, became a symbol of the parents or other loved ones of those who disappeared between 1980 and 2000 — her son during the presidency of Fernando Belaunde Terry, others during the term of Alan García and the rest during the near-dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori, who is now in prison for human rights abuses and corruption.
Fujimori had once accused Mama Angelica of being a Shining Path “terrorist” and threatened her with jail, forcing her to go underground in Peru for two years. On coming to power in 1990, Fujimori absolved all military or state security forces of any guilt during the previous 20 years.
Belaunde had been president of Peru from 1963 to 1968 until he was deposed by a military coup. After fleeing to the United States and teaching at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and George Washington universities, he returned home and was democratically elected president in 1980.
He preached democracy but became close to the military dictators of Latin America, supporting — vocally and with naval vessels and fighter planes — the Argentine invasion of the British-governed Falkland Islands in 1982. He also became cozy with, and learned from, the Argentine and Chilean intelligence services in their efforts to get rid of leftist dissidents. Hence the detention and disappearance in 1983 of Mendoza’s son Arquimedes, a student of business administration at the San Cristobal of Huamanga National University in Ayacucho, which the state security services considered a hotbed of Shining Path activity.
With her fellow parents or loved ones, Mendoza made frequent visits to garbage piles around Ayacucho, where rumor had it some of the desaparecidos had been dumped. She climbed over fly-infested mounds of mutilated, decomposing bodies, unrecognizable but which she believed were mostly students from the university, killed by soldiers seeking information about Shining Path.
She said she saw bodies with eyes gouged out, jaws broken, fingernails torn out, fingers cut off, at least 15 bodies without heads. She never found her son.
She later asserted that there had been more than 100 bodies in the dump and that the military had burned many dissidents’ bodies in a large oven in Los Cabitos before disposing of their bones in among the garbage.
Just two weeks before she died, Mendoza, although ailing, traveled from her home in Ayacucho to the capital, Lima, to witness a court verdict against two former military officers — in absentia — finding them guilty of more than 50 cases of arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances of civilians. The two men are believed to be still alive and free.
Angelica Mendoza Almeida de Ascarza was born in San Gabriel de Huarcas, south of Ayacucho, on Oct. 1, 1928. Her husband, Estanislao Alcarza Barron, died in 2015. She is survived by several children.
In a statement last year, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross described Mendoza as a “tireless advocate for these women who lost their loved ones.” The ICRC quoted her as saying: “We cannot forget them even as we grow old and die. How can we forget our sons, our husbands, our fathers? It’s impossible. Women came to see me from the countryside, asking if I could speak on their behalf. I told them that they wouldn’t kill us if we stood united. We were many and together we were strong.”