Watching and Reporting on Human Rights Trials in Peru

The tattered and stained clothes on the table belonged to a young girl; the soiled garments, broken hair accessories and still-tied shoes are all that is left of her. The items were found buried in her grave, a grave she shared with a second person, most likely a relative.

The clothes are evidence of a hideous crime—perhaps a human rights violation by the ruling government—that took place in the 1980s in rural Peru. Now, decades later, the alleged killers are finally coming to trial in Lima.

Time has faded the public interest in the outcomes of the dozens of trials emerging from the internal armed conflict. But a George Mason University professor and her protégé, a Mason alumnus, fare constant presences in the courtrooms of Lima, making sure that justice is carried out correctly and transparently.

The professor, Jo-Marie Burt, teaches political science at Mason’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs and is director of Mason’s Latin American Studies program. Burt also is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, where she works on human rights and transitional justice issues.

The student is Karina Arango, a Fairfax native who graduated last December with degrees in government and international politics and global affairs. When she’s not applying for a master’s degree and a Fulbright scholarship, she can be found in a sparsely populated courtroom, ever vigilant for legal irregularities. But the courts move slowly.

“It’s a bit frustrating because I feel for the victims,” Arango says by Skype between sessions. “I know the families, and for some of these cases, I’m the only one in the audience. But it’s worth it because it’s important for the victims to have some sort of retribution, socially and legally.”

Arango, whom Burt calls “my eyes and ears on the ground,” and Burt, when she is not teaching at Mason, record whether officials are being impartial. They report on violations and seek to increase awareness about the trials, particularly in light of little local press coverage, through a blog Burt started in 2010,

Burt was Arango’s mentor for a project funded by Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) in 2013. With OSCAR funding, Arango made her first trip to Peru as a trials monitor for Burt’s project. Burt and partner organization the Due Process of Law Foundation were recently awarded a grant from the Department of State that will allow the trial monitoring activities to continue into 2016.

Arango’s duties have become personal as she comes to know the survivors (it helps that her mother is Peruvian and her father is Colombian). Similarly, Burt began her human rights work in Latin America at age 22 while a student there. She lived in Peru in the midst of the conflict and “fell in love with the place, with all its problems.”

Years later, she was invited to be an international observer at the trial of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who was convicted of human rights violations and is in jail.

“It was powerful to see a former head of state come face to face with his victims after so many years of impunity,” she says. She realized no one was collecting data on the ongoing trials, so she began monitoring them. Now, she studies them academically.

Burt gained notoriety this summer when she was depicted in a national political cartoon, insisting Peruvian president Ollanta Humala investigate a military officer named Urresti suspected of the 1988 murder of a journalist investigating military abuses. The president’s reply: “Don’t worry, I’ll put the Minister of the Interior in charge of investigating this.” (Urresti was recently named Minister of the Interior.)

Burt can’t help but bring her experience to the classroom.

“Professors who are deeply engaged in research bring the issues we encounter to the classroom,” she says. “I speak from direct experience and I think students appreciate that. And it gives credibility to the work that you’re doing.”

Write to Buzz McClain at