Operation Chavin de Huantar (Lima, Peru)

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On 22 April 1997, a composite force of Peruvian elite forces surprised the world by performing an operation that everyone thought Peru was incapable of. These troops stormed the Japanese ambassador’s residence (see figure 1) where, for more than 4 months, 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru—MRTA) had been holding 72 hostages. The MRTA had conducted a daring assault on the ambassador’s residence on 17 December 1996, during a celebration of the Japanese Emperor’s birthday. Initially, the MRTA had taken more than 500 hostages, but had released all but 72 during the period leading up to the assault by Peruvian forces.

The rescue operation lasted only 22 minutes. The Peruvian forces sustained only 12 casualties: one hostage and two soldiers dead, and nine wounded. All 14 MRTA members lost their lives. Internationally, the operation was hailed as daring but inevitable. Terrorism had to be crushed, and President Alberto Fujimori’s wager in risking so many high-profile lives paid off. Peru’s determination to end the crisis without giving in to the terrorists’ demands elevated its reputation around the world to unprecedented levels. In the end, however, the success was due more to the terrorists’ own mistakes and boredom than to any unusual capabilities of the Peruvian counterterrorist forces.

The day after the rescue, President Fujimori explained that the operation was named after a pre-Incan civilization called the Chavin, which flourished in what was then (pre-1400s) considered Huantar. Huantar was located in what is now the Ancash Department of Peru. When attacked, the Chavin hid from their enemies in tunnels underneath their temples. Thus, when the concept of this assault was formulated in late December 1996, President Fujimori thought that the example of this group would be an appropriate name for the operation.

Peruvian Counterterrorist Capabilities

Although Peruvian armed forces had been fighting insurgents and terrorists for over a decade, the special forces (SF) required more than 3 months to prepare for the assault. Four days after the MRTA successfully entered the Ambassador’s residence, the armed forces began developing plans to rescue the hostages should peaceful negotiations fail.

A 140-man joint task force—comprising 70 National Police members and 70 personnel from army, navy, and air force special operations units—was charged with the planning and eventual conduct of the operation. While the task force prepared for the actual rescue, the National Intelligence Service (Servicio Nacional de Inteligencia—SIN) set up an intelligence headquarters next door to the ambassador’s residence, in the same house the terrorists had used to launch their attack. Additionally, the SIN was tasked with coordinating all operations against the MRTA.

From the outset, the Peruvian government refused the terrorists’ demands and adopted a standoff strategy. While the Government led the terrorists into protracted negotiations and the task force prepared and trained, policemen guarding the residence conducted a series of harassing activities. The residence’s water and electricity were cut off; in addition, heavily armed policemen marched in front of the residence, threw stones into the compound, played loud music, occasionally fired shots into the air, and may have had a television reporter enter the residence, ostensibly for an interview but primarily to collect intelligence on the positions of hostages and weapons.

The harassing activities and the protracted negotiations relaxed the terrorists and caused them to grow confident that world opinion would prevent Peru from launching an armed attack. Consequently, the 14 MRTA members entered into a daily routine. As early as the 9th of January, a Lima radio station announced that a task force directed to conduct contingency operations against the ambassador’s residence was undergoing intensive training. In early March, the issue of tunnels being dug into the compound was also reported in the press, but this did not seem to have much effect on the terrorists. Even the daily rumblings of trucks carrying heavy loads (which should have confirmed the tunneling operation) did not seem to disturb the terrorists; their response was simply to move the hostages to the second floor of the building. This move eventually reduced the danger of injury to the hostages from the initial blast through the floor of the residence.

The Final Assault

The night before the final assault, half of the task force assembled close to the residence and slowly began to take their positions. Seventy policemen stationed themselves around the perimeter of the house. Eight sharpshooters took positions on the surrounding rooftops. The remaining personnel of the assault force had been divided into three groups.

At 1517 (Lima time) President Fujimori issued the order for the task force to assault the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Six minutes later, the residence’s main living room and kitchen floors exploded, killing several terrorists who were playing soccer in the living room. The explosions were caused by charges that had been carefully placed in a series of tunnels dug under the house and grounds. At the same time, the three assault groups converged on the house (see figure 2), conducting what can only be described as a rapid, violent assault against the MRTA members.

One group emerged from the underground tunnel into the side of the residence, attacked the service areas, and climbed to the second floor. A second group, which had breached the western gate of the compound, assaulted the residence’s main door, and the north and south sides of the building. The third group scaled the northern outer perimeter wall. Breaching charges were used to open up the residence and rescue the hostages. At 1524, 1 minute after the first explosion, commandos were already entering the residence itself. Rescue of all 72 hostages took only 28 minutes, and by 1600 even the MRTA flag, which had flown in defiance on the roof of the residence, had been burned.

The assault force employed a variety of light automatic weapons—AK-47‘s, AKMs, P-90’s, UZIs, mini-UZIs, and MP-5’s—as well as various handguns. Sniper teams were equipped with FN-FAL rifles with optical scopes. All assault task force members wore the army’s SF uniform: olive utilities uniform, olive armored vest, and combat boots. The 70 members of the National Police, which secured the perimeter of the facility, were dressed in berets, black or olive armored vests, dark T-shirts, utilities trousers, and combat boots. Armed primarily with AK-47‘s and AKMs, the force also included several armored vehicles with machineguns used in the cordon.

Valuable Lessons

Operation “CHAVIN DE HUANTAR” provides valuable lessons in conducting this type of operation. First is the necessity for detailed planning. The Peruvians began planning this operation within several days of the taking of the hostages. Media reports following the rescue have provided details showing the depth and thoroughness of the planning for this mission. Secondly, while hints of a planned rescue circulated in the media, details of the plan itself, as well as the preparation and rehearsals, were closely held. This was just good operational security! Thirdly, the operation achieved a level of tactical and strategic surprise that can only be termed as classic: The entire world, not just the MRTA terrorists, was caught off guard.

There are several other important points to be made. Peruvian special units, both military and police, had generally been considered incapable of conducting a rescue operation. Peruvian leaders surprised everyone by selecting their best people from different military and police units and forming a single force for this mission. Another important point is the skillful negotiation process the government of Peru used to its advantage. By drawing out the time of the negotiations, the government provided the rescue force with time to train and prepare for the operation. This long timeframe is also credited with causing the MRTA to lose its focus and intensity, which ultimately degraded its security posture. Another key aspect is the efforts by the Peruvians to gather information and process it into useful intelligence. Information gleaned from media reporting following the rescue have provided some indication of the detailed information gathered about the facility and the MRTA personnel, from shortly after the initial taking of hostages until just prior to the actual assault.

Conclusions

Although Peru’s counter-terrorist capabilities may be rated as high, it is important to remember that several factors worked in the task force’s favor. The strategy used in dealing with the terrorists may have been the most important factor. Protracted negotiations and the skillful use of the media reporting the world’s rejection of an armed assault on the residence certainly contributed to the terrorists’ relaxed mode and their ultimate downfall. Furthermore, it took more than 4 months to resolve the crisis, primarily because the task force needed time for planning and intense training.

Additionally, the task force may have considered the underground tunnel an absolute necessity for a successful operation. Weeks after the assault, there were reports that miners experienced in digging through sandy soil had been brought from southern Peru to build the tunnel. The SF carried light armament into the residence, and a five-to-one ratio in manpower gave the SF an overwhelming advantage. The surprise effect of the explosion coming from inside the residence contributed to stunning the terrorists and may have saved the lives of many hostages. While the operation had a certain degree of risk (both tactical and political), it was planned and conducted in a very professional manner that contributed to the success of the mission.

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