LIMA, Peru (AP) — Nearly three weeks after his police officer son disappeared during combat with Shining Path rebels, Dionisio Vilca had to hike into dense jungle and personally retrieve his son’s body. He brought it home in a somber ceremony Thursday.
The father’s agonizing odyssey triggered angry recriminations in Peru, where there was already outrage over authorities’ inability to rescue a second police officer who had gone missing in the same incident. That officer, wounded in the thigh, reappeared Sunday after making his way out of the jungle on his own.
Several congressmen angrily demanded the resignation of the interior and defense ministers, alleging incompetence.
“This is a national disgrace,” said Jaime Antezana, a top security analyst, accusing police and military commanders of abandoning the two policemen despite having a good idea of their location.
The father of the dead officer, Dionisio Vilca, said he hired a pair of local Indians to take him to where his son, Cesar, was shot April 13, a day after being flown by helicopter into the mountainous area with two colleagues as part of a search for three dozen construction workers whom the rebels had kidnapped.
In a radio interview from the region, Vilca said it took him and the Indians 10 hours to carry his son’s decomposed body out of the jungle wrapped in a blanket Wednesday.
Vilca told Canal N that a man from the town of Kiteni had seen him on television pleading for help in finding his son and led him to people who knew the territory. He said his guides didn’t know the exact location of his son’s body, but knew where there had been fighting and they were able to find the body after some searching.
Vilca said that in the mountains near where his Indian guides led him to his son’s corpse “the homes of the natives were empty, abandoned except for the animals.” He said he didn’t see a single police officer along the way.
Asked if he was disappointed the police and army did not accompany him, Vilca said the local population wouldn’t have helped him if he’d brought along security forces.
The officer who got out on his own, Patrolman Luis Astuquillca, told reporters after walking to safety to Kiteni on Sunday that he had left Cesar Vilca after his comrade insisted he go seek help.
Astuquillca’s father, Alfredo, told The Associated Press it was unfair to accuse authorities of abandoning the two police officers. He said the Shining Path had heavily mined the area with homemade explosives that the rebels controlled electrically.
“Peasants and natives are allowed to pass. Even a blind man can pass. But it’s controlled. If a soldier or police officer go by they get blown up,” he said.
Astuquillca’s son has said Cesar Vilca was wounded in the leg April 13 after another officer, Lander Tamani, was killed. Two days later, Luis Astuquillca said, he was wounded in the thigh in a rebel attack and Cesar Vilca, who had lost a lot of blood, insisted he flee.
Alfredo Astuquillca told the AP his son survived the next two weeks “eating mushrooms, water from the river, sometimes finding abandoned homes that had gardens, where there were grapefruits.”
“In one house he found an empty pot and scraped it,” the father said.
On Saturday, the 21-year-old police officer was taken in by an indigenous Machiguenga couple who accompanied him the next day to the small town of Kiteni.
In all, eight soldiers and police were killed by Shining Path insurgents in the operation to free the 26 construction workers, who the rebels kidnapped April 9 and freed five days later.
At a public event Thursday in the northern coastal city of Chimbote, President Ollanta Humala, a former army lieutenant colonel, asked for a minute of silence for Cesar Vilca.
Humala made only an oblique reference to the criticism swirling around authorities’ inability to save Cesar Vilca or recover his body.
“There are always those who speak but don’t know what it is to confront this (rebel threat),” said the president, who fought the Shining Path in the 1990s when its rural massacres and urban car-bombings threatened to bring the Peruvian state to its knees.
The Shining Path of today amounts to only about 500-600 fighters, analysts say. It is concentrated in the Apurimac and Ene river valley, which is adjacent the region where Cesar Vilca died, and finances itself by protecting the valley’s extensive coca groups, the basis for cocaine.
National police director Gen. Raul Salazar said authorities never halted their search for the two officers.
But a former interior minister, Remigio Hernani, said the incident underlines the “complete incompetence” of security forces fighting the Shining Path.
Recent media reports have chronicled the distribution of expired food rations to troops and the outfitting of security force members with flak jackets incapable of halting bullets fired by assault rifles.