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La Boca del Lobo (1988) tells the story of Vitin Luna, a young, idealistic soldier who is deployed to a remote Peruvian village that the Sendero Luminoso has recently taken over. When their commander Basulto is killed a new, more ruthless one, Roca, comes and makes Luna question his beliefs.
The Sendero Luminoso & Civil War
For many years, Peru lagged behind other Latin American countries with populist governments that had implemented industrialization substitution policies and agrarian reform projects. When General Juan Velasco Alvarado became president in 1968 he wanted to catch up with history by engaging in long-overdue reforms: a radical agrarian reform; a reform of Peru’s enterprises by which he meant to turn over 50% of firm shares to its workers: the nationalization of mining, fishing, and banking; education reform; designation of Quechua as Peru’s second official language. Internationally, Velasco aligned with Allende and Castro, and trade with the Soviet Union increased. About 40% of the economically active population was directly or indirectly affected by the agrarian reform.
In no other country in Latin America was land distribution so far-reaching, not even Cuba or Chile. Part of his plan stated that if the state recognized a debt toward former owners, it was often repaid with state bonds at very low-interest rates. The government expected these bonds to be invested in industrial ventures by former landowners but it never happened and debts grew. The flaws of the agrarian reform and the rural discontent it brought about led to the emergence of the radical Maoist Sendero Luminoso terrorists.
In February 1975, amid a strike of the capital’s police forces, Lima was ransacked. A few months later Velasco was replaced by General Francisco Morales Bermudez. Sendero Luminoso leaders were the children of highland landowners who had lost their land in the wake of agrarian reform in the early 1970s. Most of them were university students and teachers in provincial universities. Between 1980 and 1984, they operated only in the Department of Ayacucho. After 1984 it extended its activity to Lima with bombings and blackouts. In 1983, the military launched serious anti-terrorist warfare against the group. In Ayacucho alone, it has been estimated that 10,561 people died between 1980 and 1993 and more than 20,000 in the country overall. Two events stand out. The Peruvian prison massacres occurred on June 18–19, 1986, after a series of riots in the San Pedro, Santa Monica, and El Frontón prisons in Lima and Callao. The military repression of these riots resulted in the loss of at least 224 lives. Another massacre perpetrated by the government occurred in Soccos where police and soldiers killed more than 1,000 peasants in the mountainous Andean region surrounding Ayacucho between 1982 and 1985 in their attempts to crush the rebel movement.
However, the Sendero Luminoso lost support from peasants as well in an array of efforts: when it tried to forbid commercial activities in order to “starve the city” when it attempted to expel the church from the countryside, and when it began to execute local authorities and to confront international aid organizations. Later they lost support among urban shantytown dwellers when its terrorists publicly dynamited a beloved leader, Elena Moyano. The military reacted with increasing violence. Since 1985, thousands of peasants had been killed simply because the day before a couple of terrorists had stopped in a community to extort food.
Under president Alan Garcia, privatization grew and Peru’s poor economic performance, the uncontrolled inflation, the issuance of inorganic money in domestic currency, and the foreign exchange policy made the International Monetary Fund declare Peru ineligible to borrow in 1986. By the early 1990s, staple foods started to be scarce and terrorism was not coming to an end.
The Campesino in Peru
One of the most striking images in the film happens at the beginning of the army’s occupation. As the soldiers put up the Peruvian flag and make their presence known, the peasants look on but don’t seem to be at all impressed. The director, Francisco Lombardi, emphasizes the outsider status that most native people in Peru feel they have. From the onset of the Spanish empire, they have been left out of the national identity of Peru. The subjugation does not end in the movie. The soldiers may believe that they are there to help the Campesinos at the beginning but they slowly start to see them as the enemy. The fact that the soldiers never actually see the Sendero Luminoso fighters and only catch glimpses of their acts of aggression in the wilderness begins to cement the mountains as synonymous with the enemy. The fact that Campesinos are also commonly viewed as synonymous with the mountainous regions of Peru means that Campesinos also gain that moniker. Time and again their difference is viewed as a symbol of the enemy. When the soldiers get ahold of one Campesino, they torture him more and more and his mutterings in Quechua only anger them more. These acts of aggression culminate in the rape of a young girl, Julia, and the massacre of many in the village. These acts are rooted in the suspected threat that Native culture has on the mestizo/white Peruvian identity. Julia’s rape is justified by the soldier’s ideology of subjugation and the massacre is rooted in the fear that the Campesinos will reveal to the world what horrors the soldiers have committed. From the moment they didn’t salute the flag, the peasants reminded the soldier how ashamed they should be of their ideology and left them feeling threatened.
At the beginning of the film, the soldiers are led by Commander Basulto who prizes integrity and morality above everything. It is Basulto who stops his men from torturing a Campesino who is clearly bewildered due to his only knowing Quechua. He provides a sense of duty and unity to the group of soldiers that goes away the second he is killed by Sendero Luminoso soldiers. His replacement is the polar opposite. For Roca, being a good man means being the toughest and meanest person who looks down on the altruistic efforts of others. Though initially, our protagonist, Luna, likes him. He previously worked with his uncle and so Luna sees Roca as the continuation of an honorable military lineage. This honor is connected to a glorious sense of national identity. His initial speech to the men calls for an anti-solidarity stance. He declares that the manatee is an endangered animal because when one is caught, the others try to save it. Everyone under his control should simply look out for themselves. Luna becomes less and less enamored with him and when Roca finally orders him to take part in the massacre of the peasants, Luna blatantly refuses. He then challenges Roca to a game of Russian Roulette, a game Roca is famous for playing. But unlike Roca, Luna decides to end the game before anyone is killed. He looks at Roca and declares he is already dead. Luna does not need to assert his masculinity through a violent and futile game. He has hoisted a mirror up to Roca and shown him the kind of pathetic man he is. Luna leaves into the mountains where he has accepted his possibly dark fate. He rejects his personal and state identity which is rooted in violence. He will break the chain.