Iquitos, Peru: Black Days, Red Nights: Riot ’98

by Captain Bill

A guest post by Dag Walker

Rumours of war became the realities of battle one late afternoon in Oct. 1998 as thousands rampaged across Iquitos, fires raging, smoke and flame covering the city as bodies laid in the street amid pools of blood and broken glass.

Fury reigned for days. In these later years those who were there say, “Yes, I was there, but I can’t remember it.” The dead were buried in the acid soil, the blood was washed away by the heavy Amazon rains, and the thick grey ash blew away years ago on hot winds. Life is now, not then; and the city today is at peace. Days and nights of violence: that is memory long lost. For the locals, the riot of ’98 happened, but it was too long ago to think about, or even to recall at all. For some, though, the memories are clear and never-ending. Those memories are the black and red realities in the pale, dim mists of phantom rumours in private lives so hard to recall exactly. The Iquitos Riot of Oct. ’98. Some will never forget those days.

Political demonstrations in Peru can be ‘enthusiastic’ at the best of times, manifestations, as they’re called, and the assembly at Independence Square in Iquitos, Peru’s Plaza 28 de Julio, had from the start the basic elements of any bad situation. The point of the mass assembly on 26 Oct. 1998 was to demonstrate against Ecuador having seized a chunk of historically disputed Peruvian territory ranging from the Ecuador border near the Peruvian village of Pantoja to the tiny town at the end of the dirt road leading from Iquitos, Nauta, about 50 miles away into the jungle from the city. Wars have been fought many times over this area, and those men and women assembled that Saturday afternoon at the park were emotionally prepared for another war. By the time people found that the story of invasion by Ecuador was all nonsense it was too late: the dead were already dead, and the city of Iquitos lay under a blanket of ashes, smoke, and ruin. The ‘invasion’ was maybe someone’s idea of a joke. It might well have come to little more than an average manifestation but for one accident that changed the mood and purpose of the crowd into that of a violent mob. For three days, in spite of the lack of an actual invasion by Ecuador, the city was like a war zone. To make matters worse, it seems someone was buying and passing out free beer to the people at the plaza. People were not only angry, they were often drunk. Demagogues had been priming the people for a couple of weeks previous. The rumour of war furthered the cause of those we know not exactly of. There are rumours.

At 5:30 p.m.– and closing in on 6:00 p.m– Mike was in the living-room at his first floor apartment at #633 Prospero St. having a beer, lying in a hammock with his feet up, relaxing in his home at the back of the one story building. Not unusual, the electricity went out in Mike’s flat, so Mike got up and walked barefoot down the hall and outside to survey the extent of the outage. He stepped onto the sidewalk. He looked down toward the Plaza de Armas in the twilight and saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the city going about its business without light; and then he turned to the opposite direction, toward what would be in the distance the Plaza 28 de Julio. The Plaza is half a mile or more up Prospero with a sharp right rurn down the road even farther. In turning toward the Plaza, instead of the distant park, Mike saw a roiling tidal wave of rampaging demonstrators coming straight at him, angry people who were smashing windows, setting fire to shops, people ripping up and toppling shallow-rooted twelve foot palm trees in terracotta post which they smashed on the street as they came foward, a solid wall of screaming fury on the march– with Mike in their direct path a matter of meters away.

Of all the horrible sights to see during that three days of blood, fire, and death, one of the worst must have been seeing Mike, middle-age, vastly overweight, and barefoot, running wild-eyed and sweating down the pot-holed Prospero street in the dark toward the Iron House seeking refuge from a mob ready to kill him.

The second floor of the Iron House back in 1998 was the location of the Regal Restaurant, and it was also at the time the residence of Phil Duffy the British consul at Iquitos, Duffy’s wife, and young child. In both instances the Iron House served as a place of safety for expats in times of trouble: have a beer while you get your passport sorted out. Over the course of that long weekend the Iron House was home to 18 people wondering if they’d survive at all. Mike ran through the door and up the stairs and, in the same manner he does to this day in ordinary circumstances ordering another beer, bellowed in his broad countryside English accent, “Bolt the doors! They’re coming!”

Inside the Iron House on the second floor, looking out through the crack of the shuttered window at the now dark city, one could see smoke blowing across the red domed sky as the city burnt: houses and shops aflame, six of the city’s very rare cars on fire, while hotels and government buildings were smashed, looted, set afire and left to burn to the ground from one end of the city to another. People were killed. Mayhem ruled the city. Mike, with 17 other men and women from four nations, trapped and fearing for their lives, said later of those days and nights as he and his fellows refugees waited for savage beatings at the hands of raging mobs and death by fire inside the Iron House, “We had a helluva good time.”

Another witness, living across town at the time, said he was sleeping at his home and dreamed that he was back in the army, and that he was ducking tracer bullets during basic training training. He awoke to find that basic training over and the war was now real. “It scared the hell out of me,” he said.

The rioting was all about nothing, originally, but in the end it left, according to newspaper reports, a minimum of three dead, with eyewitnesses saying the total was closer to 20. Papers record that 30 were seriously wounded and that over a hundred were arrested. Buildings big and small were destroyed, and property damage extensive and expensive– in the multiple millions in this less than wealthy city. And yes, surviving such a thing is often the high point of a lifetime, though at the time the only possible beneficiaries of the violence and destruction would have been the organised drug lords whose records were tossed by the armload from the Supreme Court building onto the street, and there the records were burned.

In the immediate beginning of the riot, the Soviet-style concrete block Supreme Court building, nearby to the Plaza 28 de Julio was torched when the demonstrators had finished throwing computers and fax machines and burning papers out the windows onto the street. When the crowd tired of that destruction, they crossed the street and burned down the elegant Neo-classical luxury Rio Grand Hotel. Then the mob turned and marched on the city centre itself.

The English novelist Graham Greene calls it “The Ministry of Fear,” that dark place that houses the secret police of a nation at war against its own people: The Ministry of Interiour. The Orwellian term could be “MINI-CULT,” whose agents wear black trench coats, hard men who arrive silently for the 2:00 am. wake-up call of a jackboot smashing in the door and then muted ride in a small four door black sedan to that place one never returns from because one was never really there and one never really had a name. ‘No, there is no such person in our records.’ At the Ministry of Fear, all things are known. One knows nothing.

As the crowd protested at Plaza 28 de Julio against the supposed Ecuadoran invasion of Peru back in late Oct. ’98, a general from the Ministry of Interiour was having a small, official engagement at the Rio Grande Hotel across the street from the flat and grassy plaza where one of the first of the city’s public transport train locomotives sets like a large toy on a concrete block. The crowd in the park were riled up by rumour of war, of betrayal by the generals. The crowd turned their attentions toward the hotel where Minister of Interiour was at his meeting, and he, in a state of nervousness, decided to flee by a hotel side door to discretely avoid the crowd riled to madness over the supposed give-away of their homeland to enemy Ecuador. In his haste to escape the demonstrators, the minister’s car ran over and killed Sra. Corina Coral Arana, aged 47. Her accidental death alone could likely have set off the demonstrators, but the general’s car also ran over and killed Maria Katerina Echeverria. She was two years old.

The ‘Ministry of Fear’s’ general, Jose Villanueva Rueseta, who later received a nine year prison sentence for massive theft, (convicted of crimes against the public administration,) sped away after killing the woman and child.

The Hotel Rio Grande and the Corte Superior de Justicia de Loreto remained even after the general fled, and they were burned down. With those building in flames and smoke and ashes swirling in the wind above the city the crowd turned its attentions to the rest of the city, and it was then that Mike found himself facing the surging mob coming at him on Prospero street as the sun set on the city and fire lit the night.

Mike was an insurance salesman back home, and as he was trapped in Iquitos’ Iron House and the mob outside were smashing at the iron doors to get in to kill everyone, thought of actuarial tables of insurance gave way to, not the well-known and professionally calculated odds of long term survival, but to the thought of the chances of living through the night. Was there any chance at all of living through the next assault from the mob downstairs smashing the doors downstairs?

Along with Mike, the British consul and his family, were two other Brits, two Australians, a few Peruvians, and a handful of U.S. Marines from the Riverine Support Team under the command of Marine Corp Lt. Colonel Michael Pierce, absent that period. Regardless of the skills of professional soldiers, the U.S. Marines would have been under the temporary command of the British consul. Outside, their opponents were under control of the Furies. On the corner of the block by the Malecon Tarapaca Peruvian soldiers stood in formation, nervously pointing their rifles as they faced their own people with the possibility of having to shoot them and kill them.

Inside the Iron House’s second story Regal Restaurant and British Consulate, the Marines were far from their suburban base at Moronacocha where they had moved from expensive hotels to be lodged instead in luxury 20 room mansions rented from local drug lords. In a city that to this day has only a few actual cars, the Marines drove around the city in giant SUVS, and sometimes the soldiers were drunk, sometimes causing accidents that required the injured to be flown to Lima to receive the best medical treatment available in the nation. The Marines might well have been party to other accidents, in part because they were given $39.00 per diems for food allowances in a city where to this day one can find a good meal for a dollar. Unsurprisingly, for every Marine there were ten local girls vying for his attention. Perhaps as part of the $47 million per year the U.S. Government put directly into the local economy at least some of that was danger pay for the soldiers, well-earned no doubt when confronting drug smugglers, if not furious local boys who couldn’t get a date anymore. To the local lads, seeing the Marines fighting off local girls at the Iron House’s Regal nightly, Marines in danger didn’t look so dangerous at all. As the local hang-out for Marines, the locals found in the Iron House a fair target to set alight once they’d smashed in the door and made their way partly up the staircase to the second floor. They were intent on burning down the Iron House, its floors and walls and ceilings covered in wood.

Mike and some of the others had watched the crowd on the street below by peeking from the second story windows, but in doing so the inside light gave them away, alerted the crowd to their presence and drew their attention toward the Iron House. Those inside had assembled heavy wooden chairs to hurl down at those coming up to greet them, and Anthony Taggart, an Australian, had ordered a Peruvian waiter to boil water in the kitchen to pour on the mob like a scene from a Medieval siege. The Consul said that such a move would only antagonise the mob who had just burned down television station Chanel Seven. So too, they had burned out Discotecas Caimito y Karaoke bar and had burnt down an old school house before proceeding to burn down la Libereria Marisabel and Foto Aspinwell. The mob was at the Iron House, pounding on the metal doors, shouting.

After repeated ramming, the Iron House doors broke open. As the mob made their way up the stairs, Consul Duffy, a man who had at one time unceremoniously snubbed two homesick tourist ladies from his hometown of Wiggan, acted in what could well have been a Charlton Heston scene of Lord Gordon of Khartoum facing down the Madhi army in Sudan. Consul Duffy appeared in front of the mob ascending the Iron House stairs and, dressed in a teeshirt and shorts, shouted at them in imperious consular English, “Get. The. Fuck. OUT!”

Stunned, the crowd turned around and quietly went down the stairs and docilely left the building. But outside the crowd kept on burning Iquitos: la Direccion Regional de Agricultura de Pevas not only going up in flames, but the mob also smashed computers, fax machines, and even tossed a refrigerator out of an Agriculture building window, thereby smashing a gaping hole in the concrete sidewalk. The building housing the Department of Mines was burnt, and so too the Department of Fishing. At least 14 building were burnt during the rioting.

Peruvian president Fujimori ordered five Hercules transport planes filled with 300 black-clad troops, the Aguilar Negra special forces, flown in from Lima and gave them orders to shoot to kill. Luck was with them, as they did not have to wait their turn to land at Iquitos, which in later years would have been the case because planes weren’t the only airborne craft with landing rights in local airspace: some years later the garbage dump was next to the aeroport, and thus the skies were filled with vultures from dawn till dusk, each vulture being big enough to bring down a plane if it were sucked into a jet engine. As it was that day, the skies were clear. The Black Eagles had landed. At least one man, 21 year old Jorge Valles Sinarahua, was shot to death on the street.

Sunday was quiet, and by Monday the incident was over. Years and years later Mike recalls it as a fine time. “There were plenty of sofas inside the second floor of the Iron House, and there was no shortage of beer and food.” For almost everyone in the city today the episode of the riot over nothing is either forgotten or not even known of. People have moved on long since, and this story is but a minor footnote in the history of Prospero St. and the Iron House.

Mike’s girlfriend, by the way, waited for the mob to pass by the open door of the apartment building on Prospero St. before she fled to safety in the opposite direction.

City life resumed, and today, as people move purposively along the sidewalk, there is, as well as a pharmacy on the main story of the Iron House, a trinket shop selling snake skins and postcards and piles of brightly coloured Amazon Indian-style clothing fit for the most fashion-conscious hippies on earth. Upstairs, closed and abandoned, the Iron House restaurant, the setting of more than a hundred years of dramas large and small, sits in silent stillness and gloom, abandoned for now, some memories perhaps collecting dust in the darkness.

Iquitos, Peru: Black Days, Red Nights: Riot ’98

A guest post by Dag Walker

This piece is an excerpt from my up-coming book, “Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close,” a popular account of Iquitos, its history and people.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

http://www.amazon.com/Occasional-Walker-D-W/dp/0987761501/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331063095&sr=1-1

If you would like to read more about Iquitos Peru, click this link to my blog, No Dhimmitude;

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Loren Whisenhunt April 2, 2013 at 10:02 am

What a story! I had no idea of this history of my favorite jungle city. Thanks for this great and informational post.

2 Dag Walker April 2, 2013 at 11:31 am

I’m happy that others find this piece interesting, and I hope further that some of those witnesses of the events above will contribute more to this story by relating their personal experiences here.

I’d like to thank Mike Collis for relating this story to me, and also Leon Jones who added some colorful detail.

Loren, thank for your comment.

3 Eduardo Rios April 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I was in IQT during that riot… just two days before teh riot, new in the jungle and witnessing all that madness… It was shocking

4 Dag Walker April 2, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I’m sure your experience was shocking, as it must have been even for those who reflected on their own behaviour in later days. I’d be pleased to get further details from you about this event.

But the story isn’t exactly about the shock of a riot: I hope to convey the sense people in Iquitos have of tomorrow rather than memory-obsessed grievance. I like that people have moved on and mostly can’t recall the event even though they were there. Living for the moment has its drawbacks, but it is interesting to see optimism as the usual mode in a whole culture. The riot happened, and it is over and life goes on. It’s an incident in the history of the Iron House. There is much, much more.

And there is the rest of the history of Iquitos. I love getting up in the morning to find out and write about the city, its people, the culture, old times and new. In all, I love it here. Perhaps, in spite of the shock you experienced, you might have witnessed some act of bravery or kindness as well. I’m sure many such acts occured. Let me know if you (and other readers) recall anything such.

I’ve had a lot of help putting this part of the story together, and I wish to thank Maria Isabel Perez Reatagui of La Region for her assistance in close details.

It goes without saying, of course, that I am delighted to see this work at Bill Grimes’s blog.

5 Mike Collis April 3, 2013 at 8:36 am

Great work Dag.

A couple of minute errors though and one BIG ONE!

In those days I weighed in at a petite 12 stones 6 lbs ( about 180 lbs).

6 Dag Walker April 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Mike, I’m sure you’ll be back to that fighting trim soon enough.

Cheers,
Dag.

7 adrian walker April 4, 2013 at 11:20 am

Nice piece of wri(o)ting Dag. I missed the event by 12 years or so and of course also missed out on the sight of a trim Mike Collis. Maybe it was the 60 a day he used to smoke in those days that kept the weight down? Good thing Mike was so slim or he would’ve been an easy target!

8 Dag Walker April 4, 2013 at 11:38 am

Nice thing about history is that it gives one a clearer sense of why life is as is today. Looking at Mike on a diet tells us that historically he was in fine shape and has a desire to reclaim that condition today. It’s one of those epiphanic, “AHA!” moments in which life makes better sense.

The story of the riot is interesting as well in that it tells us something about the nature of people in general and people specific to Iquitos, though I’m not sure yet just what it tells us.

Thus, as I work on the final pieces of my book about the city I look toward that day when I have my own epiphany about the city and its people. If I “get it” I can pass it on to the world at large. If I don’t, then others will see what is plain in the text and will go from there to a better awareness of life in Iquitos. Everyone wins, regardless.

9 Robert Burnaby April 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Dag Walker,

I’ve been reading your book, An Occasional Walker, and it’s a pleasure to see you now writing about Iquitos, Peru, which I might have thought was a more serene if not civilized place to travel. However, I guess there’s a convergence of themes inasmuch as your interest lies in mob behaviour, savage killing, unthinking group belonging and redeeming individual responsibility. Yours is a mind moved by the need to see and feel our episodes of violence, if only to transcend it in the world of language and memory.

Perhaps one of the differences between the leftists and Islamics you previously write about, and this riot, is that in Iquitos they eventually knew when to stop. It wasn’t a lifestyle. It sounds like this riot was kind of a carnival, a temporary inversion of the normal order, not a life-long committment to destroy a supposedly “fallen” world and rebuild it with special Gnostic knowledge of some imaginary Utopia.

You can’t rationalize this too much, I guess. Rioting and destroying your own city in support of national pide doesn’t make a lot of logical sense, unless maybe you’re thinking the wealthy and the official class are letting the nation down, kind of how many of us in the developed West feel today about our elites, though we don’t need drug dealers to tell us. But whereas in your book you evince a desire to avenge the slaughter of the innocents, here it seems there is no such feeling – because there were victims on both sides? It is as if you are almost neutral, identifying with the expatriates who felt targets, and yet not entirely against the mob who revenged the Minister’s road victims. I wonder if you see a redemptive possibility for the West from the kind of people who would still riot on behalf of their nation’s honour, even if they are largely unaware of their possibility.

I’ve read about the culture down there in Amazonia being rather matriarchal, in that women rule the families and the men shift about, vaguely polygamous, never settling down. And so the riot, presumably male dominated, might then be some attempt of marginal men to assert a rough idea of manhood. Here again, maybe there is some comparison with modern leftists and Muslims (if not also the world traveller) who spend time bowing down to some all-powerful yet unknowable god, no loving father. And yet, reading what you are writing about Iquitos, you don’t seem to feel the people are at all like the incipient death-squad members that are growing up in Obama’s increasingly female-educated America, in the feminized Canada you love to hate, or in the hysterical dens of Allah so obsessed with the honour of their women, all of which you write about so much.

Best wishes for your ongoing journeys, and keep on writing them up.

10 adrian walker April 5, 2013 at 11:48 am

Dag,
Epiphanies are of course dependent entirely on perspective and a thin Mike Collis perspective may well differ considerably from a “grossly overweight” Mike Collis point of view. Overall though I suspect Mike wished he was back in the insurance business selling “riot prevention” policies. He’d have done well. Insurance salesmen don’t need epiphanies, just writers.

11 Dag Walker April 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I wonder, now that you bring it up, if Bill Grimes named his cafe Dawn on the Amazon because Epiphany on the Amazon would sound too arty. I’m thinking that’s pretty likely.

12 Dag Walker April 5, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Robert, the first thing I notice in you comment is that you not only read my book, An Occasional Walker, but that you are rereading it. A few more comments like that and I’ll be able to pay you all for advertising. Thanks.

About writing Iquitos, I am within reach of concluding a large volume of history of the city as an historical setting of institutions; and I am also writing of people, now and then, as Iquitos allows for expressions in ways I don’t find often elsewhere. Thre is an unguardedness in the city that allows for expression one finds stifled in the Modern world today. There is something like an innocence here that one doesn’t find elsewhere. There is big city sophistication, indeed, but there isn’t what you refer to as Gnostic Utopianism. I think that is why the riot flared up and died out in a matter of hours and is long since forgotten.

I’ll come back to your comment.

13 Dag Walker April 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm

What makes Iquitos so attractive to me as an expat from America is that Iquitos, and the Amazon in general, is in its way an American frontier I can understand in home terms, foreign like the western territories would have been to my ancestors. Iquitos is in some ways very much the 19th century open range, a place for cowboys.

Iquitos is, therefore, totally unlike the Puritan Utopianist New England of America. There is no history of Protestant Utopianism here. Nor is there much trace, outside of the ubitquitous ayahuasca drug tourism, much influence of the German Revolution of Bizmarck or the ideologies stemming from Rousseau, both of which infect America today to the point it is almost unlivalbe back home.

In short, we do not in Iquitos have to deal much with state socialism as the Bizmarckean German immigrants implanted in New England and Chicago; nor do we have the rotten roots of the German Revolution’s corruption of Protestant Chirstianity as implanted by Walter Rauschenbusch. i.e. the Hilary Clinton style Social gospel of post-Christianity of today’s America.

It’s the lack of these fundamental U.S. influenences that is so striking to me as an outside observer. In this Amazonian Indian/Catholic culture with a superficial overlay of Modernity, i.e. market capitalism, one finds a wholely different experience of living from that of the Social Gospel Utopianism back home and the State as informed by the German Revolution.

Things are not efficient here, for the most part, but in that lays the beauty for the average cowboy: There is little effective interference in daily living at a personal level from an ineffectual State. The culture is one of benign neglect as opposed to the Puritan meddling and the Social Gospel social engineering of the Left today in lock step with the Bizmarckean State.

People here got sick and tired of bullying from Lima, and they went mustang for a day or so and let it be known that the Amazon is a hands-off region, which it has been from the beginning of Colombian settlment here.

The beauty of it here is that the locals are basically nice people with little influence from Europe. This is a jungle setting where life and death are too immediate to give in to arcane concerns about Utopian schemes of intellectuals from the city. This is not the Andes. this is not a place for Incan authoritarian control. It’s the Amazon. Many of the Indians here are cowboys.

My kind of place.

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