Peru: Shining Path After Guzmán

September 25, 2007


After the Peruvian Armed Forces incarcerated the leader of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzmán, he reversed his original policy and advocated peace talks. A faction, under Feliciano, however, has formed to reaffirm its commitment to the popular war, and is now engaged in intense grass roots lobbying to rebuild its social base.

By Jo-Marie Burt & José López Ricci

A steady increase in the scope and intensity of the armed actions of Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) throughout Peru led many observers to argue in early 1992 what until then had been unthinkable: the Maoist organization appeared to be on the verge of taking power in Peru. Washington pundits sounded the alarm. “Make no mistake, if Shining Path were to take power, we would see this century’s third genocide,” warned Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson, compairing Shining Path to Hitler and Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Not even Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s dissolution of Congress and suspension of the Constitution in April of that year seemed to detain Shining Path’s campaign. A wave of bombings in Lima in the months after the “Fujicoup” which culminated in an “armed strike” that virtually paralyzed Lima––and the government’s incapacity to respond effectively––made Shining Path seem unstoppable

Things changed suddenly and dramatically on September 12, 1992. Abimael Guzmán, the mastermind of the group, was arrested by a special police intelligence unit led by Police General Antonio Ketín Vidal. Guzmán’s companion and second-in-command, Elena Iparraguirre, was also arrested, as were two other high-ranking (and female) members of Shining Path’s Central Committee. With Guzmán’s capture, most Peruvians expressed cautious relief, hopeful that 12 years of terror might come to an end.

Two weeks after his arrest, Guzmán was presented briefly before television cameras. Wearing a black-and-white striped prison uniform, he was filmed pacing back and forth in what resembled a circus lion’s cage. Evidently, the govemment believed it could win some points by degrading the man who declared himself the “Fourth Sword of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.”

Guzmán, irritated because his captors refused to clothe him in his simple Mao-like uniform, nonetheless took full advantage of the 15 minutes the government gave him. “Here, under these circumstances, some may think that this is a great defeat,” he said defiantly. “They are dreaming. We say, keep on dreaming. It is simply––and nothing more than––a stone along the path. The path is long. We will reach our destination, we will triumph!” Guzmán then stridently ordered his organization to continue the armed struggle, which he now described as a patriotic defense of the nation against imminent imperialist intervention.

Great was the surprise when, one year later, Guzmán––shaved, thinner, and more austere-looking––appeared in a video along with Iparraguirre requesting peace talks with the government. While Fujimori sternly rejected any possibility of negotiating with Shining Path––”winners” of wars do not negotiate, according to Fujimori’s predictable authoritarian logic––the media immediately hooked onto the story. Headlines screamed: “Guzmán Capitulates!,” “Guzmán Breaks Down!”

In two letters to Fujimori in September and October, 1993, Guzmán, recognizing Fujimori as the Peruvian Head of State, requested peace talks to end the war. In his letters, Guzmán admits that Fujimori’s government has been successful in recomposing the Peruvian State and acknowledges that his capture signifies far more for the Maoist organization than just “a stone along the path.” Shortly thereafter, four of Shining Path’s principal leaders wrote yet another letter to Fujimori from the prisons, in which they backed Guzmán’s petition. While neither of Guzmán’s letters spoke of a cease-fire, this letter called on the organization’s cadre to avoid engaging in “desperate, adventurist actions ... that would undermine and impede the implementation of the proposed Peace Agreement ,” and that such actions “should be prevented and denounced firmly and immediately.”

Fujimori’s divulgence of Guzmán’s second letter and the “letter of support” just days before the October 31 referendum on a new Constitution smelled to many Peruvians of electoral manipulation. But Fujimori’s gamble––that by playing up the capitulation of Shining Path, he could assure an ample victory in the referendum––did not pay off. His hand-tailored Constitution––written by a pro-Fujimori Congress that international pressure forced upon him after the autogolpe––was approved by a slim majority, despite the president’s consistently high popularity ratings––averaging around 65%––in the polls. There was, however, virtual unanimity among analysts from all sides of the political spectrum that the letters and Guzmán’s capitulation spelled the immediate––or at least, the imminent––defeat of Shining Path. The war was over.

Or was it? The Shining Path leadership that had reorganized the party and selected a new Central Committee in December, 1992, just three months after Guzmán’s capture, did not think so. The new Central Committee’s immediate response to Guzmán’s letters was to label them a “sinister and underhanded farce” mounted by the government and the National Intelligence Service (SIN). As if to drive home the point, a series of armed attacks rocked Lima in the days after the publication of Guzman’s letters, indicating that Guzmán may not have the capacity to bring his entire organization behind his call for peace talks.

While few would disagree that with Guzmán in jail, the Armed Forces had obtained the strategic and tactical initiative––probably for the first time in the course of the war––there was no immediate sign of a general retreat following his capture. Indeed, Shining Path led an important offensive in the following months, centered around the centenary celebration of Mao’s birth in December, 1992, and municipal elections in January. While the level of armed actions has decreased significantly in 1993 and 1994 compared to previous years, Shining Path activities have picked up notably since March of this year. In September, the high-profile assassination of an important businessman and a potent carbomb against a Lima factory forced official sources to recognize that the war was not over yet.

Oscar Ramirez Durand, known as “Comrade Feliciano,” is the new Shining Path strongman outside the prisons. At the time of Guzmán and lparraguirre’s capture, he was the third member of the group’s Politburo and was in charge of military operations by all accounts, a legitimate, tested leader. While the Guzmán faction was contemplating its plan of action to bring about peace, the Feliciano group was preparing to up the ante of the war. This February, the Feliciano group reaffirmed its commitment to the popular war, and called an armed strike in Lima in May. It was evident that Feliciano was using the armed strike to test the ground and challenge his forces to prepare for the upcoming campaign to boycott the April 1995 presidential elections.

A handwritten manuscript apparently authored by Guzmán, which was leaked to the press in January, 1993, casts light on Guzmán’s about-face. The document revealed that Guzmán’s intention was not to end the war peacefully and integrate Shining Path into Peru’s political system a la the M-19 in Colombia or the FMLN in EI Salvador.

In this document, Guzmán does not renounce the armed struggle; rather, “war is the highest form of class struggle,” he says quoting Mao, and affirms that Communism is the only destiny for humanity. “It is inexorable, the principal tendency is revolution,” he argues, but instead of speaking in years, he speaks in decades. According to Guzmán, the temporary ideological and political offensive of imperialism (read capitalist restructuring and the application of neoliberal policies worldwide) is transitory, and by the year 2000 it will become clear that imperialism is in “slow agony.” Hence, he claims, the task for all revolutionaries is to “struggle for the future great wave of world revolution” which will gain force somewhere between the years 2010 and 2060.

But the underlying reason for Guzmán’s decision was not the ideological or political hegemony of imperialism. It was, rather, his conviction that the leadership of any revolutionary movement takes precedence over all other variables. Reflecting his belief in the Leninist principle of the centrality of the Party’s leadership, Guzmán laid out in his second letter the justification for his call for peace talks: “We believe that new, complex and very serious problems have arisen recently, presenting the Communist Party of Peru (Shining Path’s official name) with fundamental questions of leadership, and this is precisely where our party has received the harshest blow.... Thus, in these circumstances, the party and principally its leadership, is presented with the need to take today a new and great decision and, just as yesterday we struggled to initiate the popular war, today with equal firmness and resolution we should struggle for a Peace Agreement.

Guzmán’s handwritten document reiterates that “the principal question is [leadership], which must maintain a precise and correct political line that is capable of developing the popular war with the proper direction and leadership of the (working) Class.” With the maximum leader of Shining Path behind bars, incapable of directing his organization according to the “correct political line,” there was no possibility of developing the popular war, only “maintaining it.” Guzmán goes on to criticize Feliciano’s group. “The leadership outside [the jails] does not analyze the new problems, the new direction,” he states. “War is politics with the spilling of blood,” Guzmán coldly calculates, but now is the time for “politics [which] is way without the spilling of blood.”

Just as surprising as Guzmán’s turnabout was the role of the Fujimori government in facilitating Guzmán’s access to the press (even if it was through carefully edited videos and selected documents) and in allowing Shining Path’s top leadership to meet, flying them from prison to prison to hold meetings, discuss plans, and decide the correct political line. There were even surprising gestures of “friendship,” such as Fujimori’s gift of a birthday cake to Elena lparraguirre. The government’s strategy was simple: Guzmán’s “capitulation” would generate division within the organization’s once-monolithic ranks, which in turn would demoralize middle-and lower-level cadres and lead them to abandon the armed struggle. Given the intense personality cult surrounding the figure of Guzmán, government strategists reasoned that this would deal the fatal blow they needed to fulfill Fujimori’s promise of liquidating Shining Path by 1995. The Fujimori government was playing a risky game of chess, but the odds seemed to be in its favor.

Fujimori’s lack of interest in holding peace talks was evident from the beginning. He was seeking instead a declaration of unconditional surrender, a call by Guzmán to cease hostilities, and a decisive victory for his government. Guzmán may have been willing to call for peace talks, and even contemplate a cease-fire, but he imposed one condition the govemment refused to accept: that as a corollary of a cease-fire, the govemment would do likewise, and refrain from taking any reprisals. These conditions were revealed when pro-Guzmán elements in Shining Path filtered a third Guzmán letter to the press, which Fujimori apparently decided not to publicize because it did not meet his terms. Guzmán was playing his own game of chess, seeking to use the opportunity provided by the government to lead an orderly general retreat of his forces, and to prepare a regrouping sometime in the future.

But he seemed on the verge of being checkmated. Part of the problem was Guzmán’s inability to deliver his side of the bargain: he was unable to control the Feliciano-led faction, which continned carrying out armed actions, and had shunned Guzmán’s attempt to dislodge Feliciano’s leadership. The government stopped talking about peace negotiations, and Guzmán was left without an official interlocutor with whom to negotiate.

The entire epistolary episode seems to have strengthened the position of the Feliciano group within Shining Path. Prior to Guzmán’s letters, the organization was virtually paralyzed by the fact that the government had in Guzmán a powerful hostage. This caused them to refrain from any major actions, and move to a notably defensive position “in defense of the life and health of President Gonzalo (Guzmán’s nom de guerre).” Now, Feliciano could rid himself of Guzmán’s ghost by separating Guzmán the man––imprisoned, defeated and respectfully asking the government to hold peace talks––from Guzmán’s ideas, the enshrined “Gonzalo Thought” that made Guzmán a myth worth dying for. Guzmán had become fallible. His requests for peace talks were diametrically opposed to his position prior to his capture, in which he repeatedly maintained that “dialogue is a sinister trafficking of the popular war.” As renowned Shining Path specialist Gustavo Gorriti notes, Guzmán’s letters “freed Shining Path from its dilemma and removed them from the checkmate that had paralyzed them.... Shining Path could subordinate the war to the defense of Gonzalo the myth, but not to Guzmán the submissive. The letters freed them from their trance and solved their problem.”

According, to Gorriti, the government’s mishandling of the letters and the issue of peace negotiations helped revive the nearly moribund organization. Under Feliciano, Shining Path has reaffirmed its ideological commitment to the popular war, and has picked up its military actions over the past several months. In a recent document reported in the press, even the SIN recognizes that Shining Path has effectively regrouped under Feliciano’s leadership and presents a new danger.

Feliciano retains control over the group’s principal organizational apparatus, including the Regional Committees and the Popular Guerrilla Army, now called the Popular Liberation Army. Even in the prisons, where Guzmán was believed to have the vast majority of support, a SIN survey revealed that Feliciano has more support amongst the 2,651 imprisoned Shining Path cadres than previously believed: nearly half of Shining Path prisoners have cast their lot with Feliciano.

Still, there is no doubt that Shining Path led by Feliciano remains in a vulnerable position. In he past few months, two important members of the Central Committee were arrested, and important documents were captured as a result that could set Shining Path back at least temporarily. The demoralization caused by Guzmán’s capture, the letters, and the effects of the division have also taken a toll on the organization. In parts of the central and southern sierra, civil defense patrols made up of highland campesinos have, in many cases, willingly collaborated with the military to rid their communities of Shining Path. Clearly. the government has the strategic offensive in the war.

However, Shining Path’s current presence and level of activities cannot be perceived merely by examining the war statistics, which reveal a steady but much lower level of military activity in 1993 and 1994 in comparison with previous years. Shining Path appears to be engaged in a new dynamic, which is not exclusively or even predominantly military. While the organization continues to carry out military attacks, sabotage and agit-prop activities, it seems to be reorienting its efforts to less noticeable political work. Reports from Lima’s shantytowns suggest that Shining
Path is attempting to move toward a closer, more quiet relationship with the “masses,” seeking to patch up its tattered social legitimacy and rebuild its social base. This grassroots organizing is comparable to the intense political work the organization carried cut in the countryside in 1978 and 1979 prior to launching its “popular war.”

Moreover, the conditions which favored Shining Path’s growth–– especially in poor, marginal areas in Peru’s swelling cities and in vast parts of the countryside where state presence is minimal––remain virtually unchanged. Fujimori’s “economic miracle”–– inflation is down from 40% to 1% monthly, and GDP growth has been surprisingly high––so touted in international circles, has had little impact on most people’s daily lives. More than 85% of Peruvians are un- or under-employed, and the government’s own figures show that two of every three Peruvians live in critical poverty.

Just as serious is the institutional and political void that has favored Shining Path’s growth in the past. The continued inability of key institutional actors, such as the police and the judicial system, to respond effectively to growing crime rates, drug addiction, and a generalized climate of public insecurity deepens the institutional void that fed Shining Path at the local level. Many poor Peruvians came to see the organization as harsh but effective administrators of justice and guardians of local order. In some areas, there are reports suggesting that the local population may feel a kind of nostalgia for Shining Path, which was often very effective in sanctioning corrupt local leaders and physically eliminating social “deviants.” “At least when Shining Path wag around, there was no crime, there were no drug addicts running around,” says one grassroots activist.

The institutional and political void––fed by a decade of democratic mismanagement and exacerbated by Fujimori’s deliberate anti-institutional and anti-politics campaign that culminated in the “Fujimorazo”––provides ample opportunities for Shining Path to act at the grassroots level, picking up on local problems and offering concrete “solutions” that win local approval. In many areas, the organization has a wide-open playing field with no real opponents. With the government’s snubbing of Guzmán’s peaceful overtures, the two factions of Shining Path may also once again find common ground.

As long as the government maintains the strategic initiative, though, it has room to maneuver to prevent Shining Path’s forces from gaining ground. It is unlikely that Shining Path will be able to accumulate sufficient strength to shake the very foundation of the Peruvian State as it did in 1992. It does, however, have the capacity to dig in at the local level and carry out armed actions of varying intensities, akin to Colombia’s “chronic insurgency.” If Shining Path is not to become an example of “chronic insurgency”––a term coined by Colombian sociologist Eduardo Pizarro––the government will need more than a military strategy; it must also offer meaningful solutions to people’s daily problems––unemployment, hunger, and insecurity. The precedents make that very unlikely.

Jo-Marie Burt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University doing dissertaton research on political violence in Peru. José López Ricci is a Peruvian sociologist who is currently doing research on Shining Path.

Tags: Peru, shining path, Abimael Guzman, armed struggle, Fujimori

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