Mourning Remains
State Atrocity, Exhumations, and Governing the Disappeared in Peru's Postwar Andes
Isaias Rojas-Perez



“There must have been three thousand of them,” he murmured.
“The dead,” he clarified. “It must have been all of the people who were at the station.”
The woman measured him with a pitying look. “There haven’t been any dead here,” she said.

—Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

¿Y cuándo vuelve el desaparecido?
Cada vez que lo trae el pensamiento.
¿Cómo se le habla al desaparecido?
Con la emoción apretando por dentro.

—“Desapariciones” (Disappearances), Rubén Blades1

On June 29, 2011, the foggy winter evening in southern Lima was lit up with the bright colors of a magnificent spectacle of lights and fireworks celebrating the official birth of the Cristo del Pacífico—a gigantic statue of Christ erected to look over Peru’s capital from the historic hill to the south known as Morro Solar, just as the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooks Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. From the rooftop of the building where I had rented a room in the adjacent district of Surco, some thirteen kilometers from Morro Solar, I could see the dazzling display and hear the fireworks, and even the background music, with perfect clarity. Some neighbors in contiguous buildings were also watching, as were limeños throughout the southern part of the city. It was a highly anticipated event, not only because of the direct involvement of then-President Alan García, who had donated the statue, and the controversy surrounding the project from the start, but also because many limeños thought that this imposing Cristo del Pacífico would bring their city the same esteem as Rio de Janeiro.2

Media covered the event extensively, and that night, in the intimacy of their homes, Peruvians all over the country watched on television the details of how the limeño ruling elites had inaugurated their Cristo del Pacífico. The ceremony was not an official act of state, but all the same pageantry was on display. It began with the national anthem performed by a military band and solemnly sung by President García, his ministers of government, Catholic bishops, leading businesspeople, local authorities, and a crowd of political followers. The evening’s climactic moment came after speeches by local and ecclesiastical authorities, when García declared that the Cristo del Pacífico would protect the country in its march toward future prosperity and harmony and would guide Peru in becoming a model nation in the world. He ended his speech by reading the Beatitudes and calling for unity among Peruvians. The papal nuncio then blessed the statue on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, after which the height of the ceremony—the spectacle of lights, fireworks, and music—unfolded before the enraptured gaze of those attending.

García wanted this to be the last major public act of his second term (2006–2011), which would come to an end in three weeks. He said he wanted to offer this “gift” to Lima and Peru as a gesture of thanksgiving and as praise to God for the country’s sustained economic growth in recent history, including during his second term. García had pulled off a stunning political resurrection after his populist but disastrous first tenure (1985–1990), which had brought Peru to the brink of collapse. When he returned to office in 2006, like a newly converted zealot he devotedly abided by the neoliberal consensus that had set in among Peruvian ruling elites in the early 1990s during President Alberto Fujimori’s regime (1990–2000). Since then, following severe neoliberal reforms and the defeat of two guerrilla groups (the Communist Party of Peru, also known as the Shining Path, and the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru [MRTA]), Peru’s economy had been steadily growing and seemed to be improving according to many indicators of “development.” The ruling elites thus had cause for celebration, despite ever-increasing inequality and widespread popular protest against the new economic model.

Opponents accused the president of a conflict of interest because he was funding the statue with the help of big firms that held contracts with the Peruvian state, particularly the Brazilian conglomerate Oderbrecht, which had carried out billion-dollar construction projects such as Lima’s metro system and an international highway connecting Brazil and Peru.3 In contrast, García’s friends and allies rallied behind his plans. Most notable among these allies was Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, a prominent figure of the Opus Dei in Peru, who, in a preinaugural consecration of the statue, read a letter of blessing sent by the pope and asked Peruvians to worship this new image of Christ. Cipriani scorned the critics, praised the donors, and said he was convinced that the Cristo del Pacífico would soon become a site of pilgrimage. He went on to say that he actually hoped that, on every single hill or mountain in the country, there was a Christ blessing the Peruvian population, who loves God so much.4

This incident, striking though it was, did not lead me to ask how events of this kind could still take place in a country that claims to be secular and to abide by the constitutional separation of church and state. Nor was I particularly struck by the fact that, in defending García’s project, the Catholic religious elites evoked images of the colonial evangelization of Andean peoples. As a Peruvian, I knew only too well the duplicitous political culture in which rulers allow themselves to desecularize modern liberal politics when necessary for the tasks of governance, as long as they restrict their use of religion in the public sphere to addressing the public’s “moral conscience” by means of persuasion and not institutional coercion.5 I was indeed familiar with the fact that religion in Peru is yet another “vehicular language” of the state, seeking to shape the life of the community as much as, say, bureaucratic languages.6 What intrigued me about the inauguration of the Cristo del Pacífico was that this gesture of national optimism encapsulated an act of memory, or more accurately, an act of “nonmemory.”

García’s gift was concerned with progress and the nation’s future. In his view, the path to becoming a player in the global arena had been successfully tested, and Peruvians could confidently envision individual and national prosperity as long as they did not abandon that path and instead took the risk of walking it to completion. Suppressed from this gesture of national optimism was any reference to the violence, mass death, and atrocity that had ravaged the country during the previous quarter century, in which García himself had played a major role. In 2003 the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, CVR) had concluded that the internal war from 1980 to 2000 between the Peruvian military, the Shining Path, and the MRTA was “the most intense, extensive and prolonged episode of violence in the entire history of the [Peruvian] Republic” and had resulted in the deaths of sixty-nine thousand Peruvians (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación 2004, 433). The Cristo del Pacífico was intended to announce a brilliant future of prosperity and well-being, a future that could not accommodate the memory of such brutal times. With their “gift,” the ruling elites were inviting Peruvians to become pilgrims to a future without a (particular) past in the constitution of their body politic. The Cristo del Pacífico was thus blessing a particular political temporality meant not so much to abstractly prioritize the future at the expense of the past, as to foreclose those areas of the past that did not serve the purposes of that future. As a kind of affective lighthouse in the landscape of time that would orient Peruvians toward the future as a strong and unified society, García’s “gift” embodied a careful selection of the past.

Just two weeks after the splendid inauguration of the Cristo del Pacífico in Lima, on July 16, I attended the modest inauguration of La Cruz de la Hoyada in the Andean city of Ayacucho. This was a plain cement cross, three meters high, that a group of elderly, illiterate Quechua-speaking mothers of the desaparecidos (the disappeared) had managed to erect on La Hoyada—a former training and shooting field adjacent to the military fortress of Los Cabitos, the regional headquarters of the counterinsurgency in the Peruvian central southern Andes during the 1980s and 1990s. The CVR concluded that Los Cabitos had been a major center of detention, torture, and disappearance of suspected “terrorists” during Peru’s “war on terror.” In early 2009, the Public Prosecutor’s Office completed a six-year forensic investigation at La Hoyada that uncovered dozens of clandestine mass graves containing the remains of an unknown number of the disappeared.7 The authorities also uncovered the foundations of industrial-style furnaces where the bodies of the victims presumably had been incinerated so no trace of them could ever be found.

I had been following the investigation at Los Cabitos closely since late 2005, when I started my fieldwork on postconflict exhumations in Peru, and I was familiar with the public silence that encircled the case from the start. In several respects, it resembled one of those “public secrets” that everybody knows but nobody wants to talk about.8 In fact, the opening of the trial on the case in a national court in Lima on May 26, 2011—that is, just weeks before the inauguration of both the Cristo del Pacífico and La Cruz de la Hoyada—had gone unnoticed in the national media despite the fact that it was allegedly one of the most important legal cases in modern Peruvian history. It thus was not surprising for me to see no national authority attending the inauguration ceremony at La Hoyada and no national press coverage. Only two local authorities, the mayor of the city and the regional director of the Ombudsman Office, had accepted the mothers’ invitation. Yet, the mothers did not seem concerned by the absence of national authorities. What mattered to them was that, despite the military’s opposition, they were finally inaugurating this symbol on behalf of their missing relatives, who had presumably been killed and disposed of without a trace at this site. La Cruz de la Hoyada unveiled the “public secret” of the atrocities that had occurred at Los Cabitos, and as such, a certain air of achievement circulated in the event’s atmosphere, mingling with its mournful character.

At the ceremony’s central moment Mama Angélica, the founder and leader of the organization of mothers of the disappeared (ANFASEP), spoke. Expressing herself partly in Quechua and partly in broken Spanish, she uttered the inaugural words in the name of the disappeared:

[In Quechua] This cross is in the name of so many of our dead and disappeared. It is their presence so we can respect them, so we can see them. It is the presence of the more than eight hundred people disappeared here. [Shifting to Spanish] It must be respected; we must be watchful about it, always; it cannot be left just like that, because we could never find our children. In this wasteland, many corpses, men and women, were thrown in [unmarked] pits. [. . .] This wasteland [witnessed] so much pain and sorrow, so many disappeared. This wasteland is their memory. It [the cross] must be respected; we must be watchful about it; we must not just leave it here and that’s it, we do not come back anymore; that cannot do; we must always walk here; that is respect for the Holy Cross [Señor Cruz]. Of all the disappeared, of all those killed, this cross is the glory.

Uttered in the context of the inauguration of the Cristo del Pacífico and the silencing of the violence and atrocity of the recent past, these words unravel the political temporality that the Peruvian elites attempt to fabricate.9 They bring back into the public sphere the presence of those about whom the nation does not want to speak and whose atrocious deaths at the hands of the state it wants to forget. Like a nightmarish apparition that comes out of nowhere to haunt the nation’s celebration of its wellbeing, La Cruz de la Hoyada emerges to disrupt the dream that a society can march toward a future of prosperity without facing its recent past and mourning the unmournable.

Both the Cristo del Pacífico and La Cruz de la Hoyada are entries into the public sphere; both make claims about political community in languages that secular modern politics would look at with suspicion; they share symbols, vocabulary, and even the same genealogy. But the similarities end there: each evokes a different political temporality and hence a different image of political community—a difference grounded in how this political community relates to its recent past of mass death and atrocity. While the rulers’ words gesture toward the economic health of the nation, taking for granted the political community, the mothers’ words interrogate the nature of the political community itself. These words do not just reiterate the well-known saying that a country that does not learn from its past is doomed to repeat it. Nor are they a call for recognition, reparation, and reconciliation. Rather, they articulate a critique of violence and call for a specific kind of political becoming that a postconflict society would need to prevent the repetition of atrocity in the future.

The Cristo del Pacífico and La Cruz de la Hoyada emerged into the public sphere almost at once, more than two decades after the official end of the internal war and more than a decade after the beginning of a large project of transitional justice in Peru (see Chapter 1). They present strikingly different, even contradictory, visions of political community and temporality, and their simultaneous emergence is a remarkable reflection of the fact that for Peruvians the question of how to reckon with the recent past of violence and atrocity is far from settled. This book takes the perspective of a group of elderly and illiterate Quechua-speaking mothers of the disappeared from Ayacucho—the region most heavily affected by the war—to tell the story of how this struggle over political community happens within and outside of the state’s vehicular languages. This struggle centrally revolves around what it would take for Peruvians to remake their relationships with those who were killed and disappeared by the state during the war.

Counting and Accounting for the Dead

Several years before these vastly different inaugurations, an important segment of the Peruvian Spanish-speaking elite had articulated the idea that the kind of political community that would emerge after the internal war would be largely determined by the kind of relations Peruvians were able to establish with their war dead. This was perhaps one of the most moving parts of the speech by the CVR chairman, Salomon Lerner, during the official presentation of the CVR’s final report on August 28, 2003. Following the revelation that more than sixty-nine thousand Peruvians had died as a result of the twenty-year war, Lerner emphasized that these new figures nearly doubled prior estimates of thirty-five thousand deaths and disappearances. He then asked how so many deaths could have gone unaccounted for and, much worse, unnoticed. “In effect,” he said, “we Peruvians used to say in our previous worst-case scenarios that political violence caused 35,000 casualties. What does it reveal about our political community to know now that 35,000 more people are missing, our brothers and sisters, and nobody missed them?” (Lerner 2003).10

The CVR’s epidemiology of violence offered a partial answer to Lerner’s question. Of the total number of victims reported to the commission, 79 percent lived in rural areas, 56 percent were engaged in farming or livestock activities, and 75 percent spoke Quechua or other native languages as their mother tongue. These figures are salient in the context of a national population in which only 16 percent speak these native languages and only 29 percent live in rural areas. Educational level offered another statistical marker; although more than 60 percent of Peruvians have obtained a high school degree, nearly 70 percent of the victims had only primary education. “Of every four victims of the violence,” Lerner summarized, “three were peasants whose native tongue was Quechua—that significant segment of the population that has historically been neglected, and on occasions disparaged, by both state and urban society—the [other] segment which does enjoy the benefits of the political community” (Lerner 2003).11

In addition to distributing victimhood, this epidemiology of violence also allowed the CVR to distribute moral and political responsibilities. The commission concluded that the Shining Path was responsible for about 54 percent of the deaths and accused the Maoists of having committed crimes against humanity and of attempting to incite genocide by provoking the state. The CVR also accused the MRTA of criminal acts, although to a much lesser extent. Finally, the commission concluded that at “some places and moments in the conflict,” the response of the armed forces to the insurgency entailed not only individual excesses, but also “generalized and/or systematic practices of human rights violations” that constituted crimes against humanity as well as transgressions of international humanitarian law (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación 2004, 442).

For the CVR, however, responsibility lay not only with the direct perpetrators of atrocity, but ultimately with Peruvian society at large. That tens of thousands of Peruvians were killed without anyone in mainstream society becoming concerned demonstrated a deep malaise in Peruvian society—namely, that exclusion in Peru was still “absolute,” as Lerner put it. This picture of “absolute exclusion,” as illustrated in the idea of mainstream Peruvians failing to take note of what was happening to their less fortunate compatriots, led the CVR to draw one major conclusion: in a broad historical context, the worst episode of violence in modern Peru had to be understood not just as the result of the political will of terrorist groups, but ultimately as a product of persisting unjust structural conditions in Peruvian society as a whole. The racism, economic inequality, and social and cultural discrimination that continue to structure Peru’s social order made some Peruvians more “killable” than others. This conclusion suggests, in other words, that violence expanded lethally because it operated within a broader “biopolitics of neglect.”12

The CVR was the most visible component of a broad project of transitional justice initiated by the interim government of Valentín Paniagua in 2001 after the dramatic collapse of Fujimori’s regime in late 2000. In addition to the establishment of the CVR, this project included the forensic exhumation and reburial of victims of the internal war, whose bodies lied hidden in mass graves scattered in former war-torn areas in rural Peru, and the prosecution of human rights crimes carried out during the internal war—both initiatives animated by Peruvian legal institutions. The CVR’s specific task was to write a report casting light on the process, facts, and responsibilities for political violence and human rights crimes imputable to both terrorist organizations and state officials between 1980 and 2000.

But the CVR did not stop at being just a commission of inquiry whose work would document violence and supplement the work of the law. Rather, modeling itself after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the CVR became an active agent of postconflict nation-making and embodied the project of transitional justice that it heralded.13 The history books on Peru were full of episodes of violence in which the events of mass death were rarely if ever problematized in their aftermath at the state level, but this time the story would be different. Mass death was made an object of both inquiry and intervention. It was counted, dissected, categorized, measured, totaled, historicized, moralized, and linked to chains of causality connecting individual agency, institutional failure, and historical patterns in terms of preventing its repetition in the future. Moreover, while the dead in the episodes of violence recounted in history books were always unknown and unaccounted for—except for leaders and historical protagonists—this time the dead would be identified and accounted for as much as possible.14

To this end, the CVR went so far as to encounter the material reality of dead bodies and remnants of atrocity by inserting itself into the project of excavating mass graves in former war-torn areas that the legal institutions initiated in 2001 (see Chapter 1). The commission drafted an initial list of forty-six hundred burial sites, conducted preliminary investigations at twenty-two hundred of them; developed a long-term exhumation plan; and participated in three excavations. Furthermore, perhaps uniquely among similar bodies of inquiry in the world, the CVR performed high-profile ceremonies of reburial to officially dignify and present the recovered victims to that larger and less attentive sector of the nation for whom the war had imposed less tragic and immediate consequences. In doing this, the CVR sought to elicit compassion and recognition for the forgotten Quechua-speaking victims of violence as fallen fellow nationals and to bring them back into mainstream society as legal subjects (victims), cultural subjects (people to be properly buried and mourned), and moral subjects (people to be properly recognized as fellow human beings).

Thus, for the first time in a history marked by bloody chapters of political violence since colonial times, the dead in these episodes of mass killing in Peru were not simply to be counted but also accounted for and recognized as deceased members of the political community. In direct opposition to a politics of impunity and oblivion characteristic of the previous two decades of internal war, in the democratic transition happening at the dawn of the new century, the Peruvian liberal elites adopted a broad project of memory, accountability, justice, recognition, reparation, and institutional reform in which the specific project of governing dead bodies had a central role.15 If Peruvians abided by this project, they would eventually be able to bridge the lethal gulf that had historically separated the elites from the neglected communities and to realize the promise of Peru’s birth as a liberal republic—to become, in Lerner’s words, “a political community of human beings equal in dignity, in which the death of each citizen counts as our own misfortune; and in which every human casualty resulting from either arbitrariness, or crime or abuse of power, sets into motion the wheels of justice to compensate for the loss and to punish the perpetrators” (Lerner 2003; emphasis added).16

Desecularizing Transitional Justice

The CVR’s intervention in exhumations and reburials has been largely ignored in academic studies of violence, memory, and transitional justice in Peru. In one example among many, Hayner (2011), in her oft-cited work on truth commissions, lists the CVR as one of the five strongest commissions in history, and yet her account only briefly mentions the commission’s work on exhumations and says nothing about the ceremonies of reburial it performed.17 This absence reflects a tendency in mainstream transitional justice theories to focus primarily on the problem of how to prevent the repetition of mass violence in the future rather than the problem of how to properly dispatch the dead. These theories study the viability and impact of technologies such as prosecution, truth-telling, reconciliation, institutional reform, and/or reparation in terms of “breaking the cycles of violence,” as Minow (1998) put it, but rarely examine what societies do with the dead and their bodies in terms of rebuilding political communities in the aftermath of the killing.18

The absence also reflects the privileging of secular languages of modern politics in the discussion of how societies reckon with recent mass atrocity. The assumption is that languages of numbers, evidence, rights, the rule of law, exclusion, recognition, trauma, and other related notions have a privileged grasp of reality compared with, say, the language of ritual. Moreover, because these languages are intelligible in the always already constituted public sphere, they are seen as de facto vehicles for eliciting a response to questions concerning the protection of the life and personal integrity of individuals as well as the viability of the body politic. The implication is that questions of funerary rites or forms of mourning belong to the private sphere, or to the realm of cultural or religious beliefs, whose political efficacy, if any, is largely symbolic.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this secularist impulse is the centrality of the CVR’s final report in much of this literature. Despite the fact that the report was one element among others in a broader official project of reckoning with past atrocity, as mentioned previously, it has over time become the most ambitious, comprehensive, and lasting legacy of this project because, no doubt, it is seen as a document that sets the terms of the rational debate concerning the most tragic episode of violence in Peru’s modern history. No academic publication on violence, human rights, or contemporary history or politics in Peru fails to mention it.19 I contend that this focus on the written text and its ability or inability to shape the rational discussion of the violence of the past eludes the central question of how survivors and relatives of victims reckon with the material remnants of atrocity.

It also misses the extent to which the CVR’s exhumations and reburials reveal a novel and subtle articulation of power that, by means of governing dead bodies in contexts of mass violence, seeks to shape postconflict worlds. This form of power operates through material practices that go beyond the text and seeks to address that which exceeds the usual frames and languages of modern secular politics: the sheer excess of suffering and terror that the event of atrocity leaves behind. The event can be read in inscriptions and signs such as bodies shattered beyond recognition, chronic uncertainty, pervasive injustice, forgetting and denial, but there is always an excess that escapes those inscriptions and signs.20 The CVR’s rituals of reburial were meant to symbolically capture and dissipate such excess. The exhumations were not just about recovering the victims’ bodies, but also about helping their souls to leave the “misty passage between life and death” where they were thrown, allowing the relatives to finally begin their suspended processes of mourning (Robben 2009, 142). I see the CVR’s rituals of reburial as a gesture of desecularizing transitional justice.

I am sympathetic to this gesture of desecularization because it implicitly acknowledges that questions concerning sovereignty, belonging, legitimate violence, and even the sacred (in the sense of limits), which are crucial for the constitution of political communities, are implicated with questions concerning the proper dispatching of the dead in episodes of mass violence. In this sense, this gesture invites us to consider the problem of the political in the aftermath of atrocity in terms of not only the usual languages of modern politics—say, rights or the rule of law—but also the languages, practices, and technologies of truth and self that exceed the constraining frames of those secular languages. Here, death and its ritualization become a field of engagement with the excess of atrocity and with the question regarding the possibility of people living together again in political community in the aftermath of atrocity, through means that modern politics eyes with skepticism and even suspicion.21

However, the CVR’s gesture of desecularizing transitional justice simply opened the door to the ritual practices of mainstream Catholicism, which, functioning as another vehicular language of the state, operated as another component of what I below conceptualize as the necro-governmentality of postconflict. In contrast, I consider this gesture of desecularization from a different angle. I look at the ways that Quechua-speaking relatives of victims engage the material remnants of atrocity and mobilize ordinary practices, languages, and technologies of truth and self in an attempt to cope with and domesticate the excess of events of atrocity that have gone beyond the limits within which Andean peoples test what a human form of life is. These are practices, languages, and technologies that modern politics, and even a rationalized religion such as Catholicism, would see as premodern relics and vestiges of “magical” practices and beliefs.

I look at the survivors’ mobilization of the ordinary in response to atrocity in the context of the project of forensic excavation of mass graves in former war-torn areas that began in mid-2001. This project has focused mainly, though not exclusively, on the highland department of Ayacucho, the Quechua-speaking region of the Peruvian Andes that was most heavily affected by the internal war. By the CVR’s estimates, more than 40 percent of the more than sixty-nine thousand victims lived in this region.22 In addition to the massive loss of lives, the war was experienced as a “form of cultural revolution,” in Theidon’s (2006) felicitous expression. In a context of widespread terror waged by both the military and the Shining Path, relatives buried most victims hastily wherever they had fallen. Others did not receive even a hasty burial, as they were thrown into clandestine mass graves or incinerated. By mid-2015, more than eighteen thousand Peruvians remained “disappeared,” according to the estimates of the Legal Medicine Institute (Instituto de Medicina Legal, IML).23

More than a decade after its launch, the project has not been able to fully realize the promise of bringing the unknown dead and disappeared back to the care of their families. As of August 2015, the legal institutions had recovered the bodies of at least 3,100 victims, identified 1,715 of those victims, and returned 1,599 bodies to their relatives.24 This means that, after more than a decade, state institutions had recovered only one-fifth (and identified only one-tenth) of the estimated eighteen thousand disappeared. These results indicate the complexity of the problem. Recovering human remains scattered throughout the formidable Andean landscape is a daunting task. But one of the main reasons for the failure is that in many cases the victims’ bodies were shattered beyond recognition, making their postmortem individualization and identification impossible.

Such was the case at Los Cabitos. In the legal search for the disappeared, the forensic investigation at the military site uncovered evidence demonstrating that some practices of state terror resulted in something resembling what Hannah Arendt called the “fabrication of corpses,” referring to the factory-like production of mass death in Nazi concentration camps.25 The resemblance lies not just in the fact that mass killing took place on a bureaucratic site, or in the methods used to eliminate human lives. Rather, the primary resemblance lies in the kind of death that the Peruvian military inflicted upon perceived transgressors of the sovereign’s rule. At Los Cabitos, as in the Nazi death camps, not only were individuals’ lives taken away anonymously, but their deaths and the memory of their deaths were also eliminated. The victims were subjected to forms of asocial death—death without mourning, rituals of remembrance, and even grief—death “robbed of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life,” as Arendt put it.26

But, as Presner (2007, 223) notes, Arendt did not limit her reflections on what occurred at the camps to the destruction of the meaning of death; she also asked whether the actions of the perpetrators could be understood and judged within the conventional grids of intelligibility. She asked, “What meaning has the concept of murder when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses?” (Arendt, 1968, 441). The illiterate Quechua-speaking mothers of the disappeared, participating as plaintiffs in the forensic procedures at Los Cabitos, implicitly ask a similar question when they refer to what happened at Los Cabitos as something unnamable—as practices that do not have a name in language and human experience: “no tiene nombre” (that which does not have name for it).

In this book I show how these mothers reclaim death as a human experience in response to the state’s practices of the “fabrication of corpses” and how they restore the victims to the human community by weaving together materiality, biography, and nonhuman agency. I explore the implications for political community of this gesture of redrawing the ontological boundaries between life and death, in the context of the official project that seeks to bring the forgotten and neglected victims of atrocity back into the fold of the nation’s citizenry as legal subjects, cultural subjects, and moral subjects—but not as political subjects because the nation presumes most of them to be “terrorists.” These implications emerge more clearly when, as in the case of Los Cabitos, the promise of official restitution fails because of its inability to produce the missing body. By looking at how, in the face of this failure, the mothers rearrange senses of community, belonging, authority, and the human through ordinary practices and technologies of self and truth, I consider the ways this subaltern response to the long-standing legacy of state terror evokes the figure of the people reemerging from the remnants of atrocity to (re)establish the possibility of political community. A conceptual detour will help us to cast light upon how practices and technologies that modern politics tends to dismiss as “irrational” interrogate the nature of sovereignty itself and encapsulate a political response to both the power that kills and the power that cares.


1. “And when do the disappeared return? / Every time a thought summons them. / How do we speak to the disappeared? / With our emotions seizing us from inside.” Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Quechua, French, and Spanish in this book are the author’s.

2. “Lima tendrá su propio Cristo del Corcovado.” El Comercio, June 10, 2011. The statue is thirty-seven meters high, and according to Wrobel (2014, 78), is four meters taller than Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.

3. Some in the opposition argued that García’s Cristo del Pacífico, which they had renamed Cristo del Neoliberalismo, was an integral part of the broad efforts deployed by the ruling elites, since the runoff election period in the fall, to ensure that Ollanta Humala, the nationalist incoming president, keep the neoliberal economic model intact.

4. “Declaraciones del Cardenal Cipriani luego de bendecir ‘Cristo del Pacífico,’” Arzobispado de Lima, (accessed February 28, 2015).

5. Needless to say, it is Catholicism that claims for itself the de facto right to be an integral part of modern politics in Peru. This “right” has its roots in the Spanish colonial project, which materialized the brutal subjection of colonial subjects in the so-called New World by means of the joint work of both the colonial church and the colonial state. This has usually been illustrated as the joint work of the cross and the sword. As Nelson suggests in her work on postwar Guatemala, in several respects, this logic of power lives on in Latin America: the sword works through physical force, while the cross works more subtly on “hearts and minds” (2009, 34). For a critique of liberal understandings of the place of religion in modern secular societies, see Asad (2003).

6. Here, I follow the notion of “vehicular language” of Deleuze and Guattari (1986). They ask us to think of language not as a transparent means for exchange of information, but as a hierarchic system structured by and structuring power relations. Following Henri Gobard, they speak of four kinds of language: a vernacular, maternal, or territorial language; a vehicular, urban, governmental, worldwide language (of business, commercial exchange, and bureaucratic transmission); a referential language (of sense and culture); and a mythic language (on the horizon of cultures). “The spatiotemporal categories of these languages differ sharply: vernacular language is here; vehicular language is everywhere; referential language is over there; mythic language is beyond” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 23).

7. A former director of the Instituto de Medicina Legal (IML, Legal Medical Institute) said that probably more than one thousand people had been disappeared at the site. Luis Bromley, “Cerca de mil personas fueron recluidas en Los Cabitos, y no salieron nunca.” La República, April 27, 2008. The IML is the state institution that provides forensic science expertise and services to legal and other state institutions and agencies.

8. For the notion of “public secret,” see Taussig (1999). See also Tate (2007) and Gonzales (2011).

9. In Chapter 8 I return to these words to elaborate on what is meant by the “glory” of the disappeared and how they condense a history of suffering and struggle into a single moment of instruction that, in reclaiming the past, makes a claim about the possibility of political community in the aftermath of state atrocity.

10. Translation modified by the author.

11. Translation modified by the author. The CVR’s epidemiology of violence was based on seventeen thousand oral testimonies that the commission collected during its two-year mandate (June 2001–August 2003).

12. I use the notion here to refer to the logic of “letting die” as distinct from the logic of “taking life” that Foucault conceptualizes in his work on biopower (1978). The notion of the “biopolitics of neglect” also appears in de la Cadena (2015, xviii).

13. In his well-known analysis of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Richard Wilson (2001) offers the most systematic critique of the ways in which these commissions deploy a variety of metanarratives, such as “reconciliation,” for reconstructing the nation-state and its hegemony in a top-down direction. The gap between national and local processes of reckoning with the legacy of the apartheid regime was notable, and the TRC did not attempt to bridge it.

14. History books in Peru are full of references to thousands of people killed in episodes of mass violence. But typically only the names of the major protagonists are known. For the most part, the dead in these episodes are anonymous people who enter history as statistics. For a sample of the most recent books about the history of political violence in Peru, see Walker (2014), Mendez (2005), Heilman (2010), and La Serna (2012).

15. The notion of “governing dead bodies” comes from Stepputat’s notion of “governing the dead” (2014). See discussion below.

16. Translation modified by the author.

17. Rebecca K. Root (2012) offers more insights into the CVR’s involvement with exhumations in her comprehensive case study of the Peruvian CVR. She conceptualizes such interventions as being part of “symbolic reparations.” However, like Hayner, she does not mention the ceremonies of reburial that the CVR performed during its tenure. On the CVR and transitional justice in Peru, see also Milton (2014), Saona (2014), Bueno-Hansen (2015), Boesten (2014), and del Pino and Yezer (2013).

18. From the time legal scholars such as Martha Minow (1998) and Ruti Teitel (2000) published their seminal books, transitional justice has become a field of inquiry. There are even specialized journals. In this vast literature the question of governing the dead is barely present. This is the case even in anthropological literature on transitional justice. For instance, in two otherwise excellent edited volumes on the topic, there is no allusion to questions of burial, funerary rites, or, more generally, how to properly dispatch the dead during violent conflict. See Hinton (2010) and Shaw and Waldorf (2010).

19. The CVR’s final report (or sections of it) is also customarily offered as evidence in the project of accountability for past state atrocity. It figures prominently as evidence in most of the trials on human rights violations (Carlos Rivera, personal communication; Rivera is a well-known Peruvian human rights attorney representing the plaintiffs in several trials on human rights). Interestingly, every year groups of Peruvians in Lima and other regions gather on August 28 to celebrate one more anniversary of the release of the CVR’s final report. Furthermore, every year, panels of academics in Peru and elsewhere are convened to evaluate the progress on justice, reparation, and institutional reform that the CVR recommended in its final report to prevent the repetition of violence in Peru.

20. Taussig (1984) argues that rational languages are insufficient to understand excessive violence and that we need to approach this through consideration of symbolic imaginary, mythic, and emotive aspects.

21. An example of this skepticism is philosopher Richard Rorty’s (1991, 29) candid acknowledgment that the rational public debate entails the exclusion of what cannot be taken seriously: “We Western liberal intellectuals should accept the fact that we have to start from where we are, and that this means that there are lots of views, which we simply cannot take seriously.” Cited in de la Cadena (2015, 91). For a fascinating account of what desecularizing modern politics entails in the Andean context, see de la Cadena (2015).

22. To emphasize how devastating the violence in this region was, the CVR projected the number of fatalities on a national scale in the following terms: “If the ratio of victims reported to the CVR with respect to Ayacucho were similar countrywide, the violence would have caused 1,200,000 deaths and disappearances. Of that number, 340,000 would have occurred in the city of Lima.” Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación 2004, 433.

23. Citing official sources, Gloria Cano, executive director of the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH), a prestigious and well-known human rights NGO in Peru, said that by mid-2015 around eighteen thousand Peruvians remain “disappeared.” “Aprodeh: De Acuerdo a las cifras del Ministerio Público hay 18 mil desaparecidos en el Perú,” ideele-RADIO, June 11, 2015, (accessed July 11, 2016).

24. “Desaparecidos en Perú: “Encontraré a mi hermano aunque me tome toda la vida,” BBC-Mundo, August 28, 2015, (accessed November 6, 2015).

25. Recounting her reaction when she first came to know about Auschwitz, Arendt (2000, 13–14) said: “It was really as if an abyss had opened. Because we had the idea that amends could somehow be made for everything else, as amends can be made just for about everything at some point in politics. But not for this. This ought not to have happened. And I do not mean just the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on—I do not need to go into that. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can” (emphasis in the original).

26. Arendt (1968, 452) writes: “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and that he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed.”