NEW YORK – An American woman sentenced to 20 years in a Peru prison for conspiring with a leftist rebel group in the 1990s returned to New York on Thursday, smiling as she walked through the doors at Kennedy Airport with her uncle.
Lori Berenson, 46, has been living quietly in Lima with her 6-year-old son since her 2010 parole because she was barred from leaving the country until her sentenced lapsed. Her son, Salvador, left the airport earlier with his grandparents.
"I'm very grateful to all the people who helped me over the years, and I'm glad to be with my family, thank you very much," Berenson said. She had no other comment.
Berenson was questioned by federal officials for hours at the New York City airport, but the U.S. ambassador to Peru, Brian Nichols, told reporters that she did not face any charges in the United States.
A daughter of college professors, Berenson dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and headed to Latin America to support leftist movements, working for rebels in El Salvador before traveling to Peru in late 1994.
She was initially convicted of treason in 1996 by a court of hooded military judges and sent for nearly three years to a frigid prison at 12,700 feet altitude, where her health suffered. She was convicted of "collaborating with terrorism" for assisting the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement as it prepared in 1995 to seize congress and take lawmakers hostage.
Berenson denies knowledge of the plot, but she rented and lived in the safe house where it was being planned and was arrested with the wife of a rebel leader.
In Peru, she faced hostility to the end.
With Salvador in her arms, the single mother sped through Lima's airport terminal ringed by police. Recognizing her, people shouted "get out of here terrorist!" In a text message to The Associated Press, Berenson called the encounter "incredibly surreal although entirely typical."
Before her departure, Berenson had harsh words for Peru's economic and political elite. In an interview with the AP, she said it was unwilling to confront the open wounds of the country's 1980-2000 internal conflict.
And she said she still believes, as she declared when arrested, that Tupac Amaru was not a terrorist group.
"It could have acted at times using terrorist tactics, but that it was a terrorist organization, I don't think the label fits," said Berenson, calling it similar to the Salvadoran rebels, who negotiated peace in 1992.
Berenson says that while she regrets any harm she may have done — Tupac Amaru robbed, kidnapped and killed but did not commit massacres like the fanatical and much larger Shining Path — she also objects to Peru's economic inequality and racism.
"It's not like feudalism went away recently," she said, recalling how rural estate holders denied peasants education well into the 20th century.
Berenson said she and her son initially plan to live in New York City with her parents. She hopes for employment in social work. Last year, she finished a bachelor's degree in sociology online from the City University of New York.
"My objective is to continue to work in social justice issues, in a different capacity obviously," she said.
While on parole in Lima, she did translations at home for clients she would not name, including a human rights group.
The view from her 6th-floor apartment in Lima's middle-class Pueblo Libre district provided comfort after years behind bars. The streets below were not very friendly.
People would shout "terruca" at her — a slang term for "terrorist." Several times people threatened Salvador's life, she said, including speaking from the street into her home's intercom.
Many Peruvians were angered when she and her son were allowed to visit her family in New York in 2011.
Today, she says most Peruvians who despise her have been misinformed by a media establishment largely controlled by the country's conservative elite.
Peruvians tend to lump the Tupac Amaru group, which a truth commission blamed for 1.5 percent of the deaths in the internal conflict, together with the Shining Path rebels, which it held responsible for 54 percent.
The conflict claimed nearly 70,000 lives, three-fourths of the victims impoverished Quechua-speaking highlanders. The truth commission found that security forces committed more than 40 percent of the slayings.
Tupac Amaru projected a Robin Hood image, stealing food and distributing it to the poor. But it also committed ransom kidnappings, killed police and soldiers and assassinated an army general.
"There is no way anyone can look at her story and conclude anything other than she knowingly, willingly and enthusiastically worked for a terrorist organization," said Dennis Jett, then the U.S. ambassador.
Asked whether she had any regrets, Berenson was typically circumspect.
"That's my life. I chose that, and I'll live with that."