Plotting Fear: The Uses of Terror in Peru

September 25, 2007

In July 2000, I was invited by a colleague to attend a conference at San Marcos University in Lima at which he had been asked to speak. “It will be a unique experience,” he promised me. “It is being organized by Shining Path people.”

The large classroom was filled with students and older adults who, in Peru’s racialized hierarchy of identities, would be called cholos—people of indigenous descent who now live in the city. A few participants, like my colleague, were critical of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Peruvian Maoist guerrilla group, but it was clear that this was an event organized by and for the party faithful. Banners decorated the classroom with slogans that I recognized as the Shining Path’s current political line: “For an Authentic Truth Commission!” “For a Solution to the Political Problems Derived from the Internal Conflict!” And when the lawyer for the group’s imprisoned leader, Abimael Guzmán, spoke, the deference in the room spoke volumes about the sway still held by Shining Path’s mastermind, at least within what remained of his organization.

Afterward, a thirty-something woman with dark, penetrating eyes invited me to visit her organization in a lower-middle class district of Lima. She handed me her card, modestly cut out from notebook paper with a stamp on it bearing the name of her organization: Association of Family Members of Political Prisoners, a group generally believed to be a Shining Path front-group. Government intelligence would characterize such a group as vital to the reorganization of the Shining Path, using its visits to the prisons that house the organization’s top leadership to transmit word to followers outside about what to do next. Presumably, this is how Guzmán, from prison, restructured the organization under his firm, and now virtually uncontested, leadership.

In 2000, one could have easily assumed that the organization, or the conference itself, were little more than expressions of the defeat of the Shining Path guerrillas after the 1992 arrest of Guzmán and other top leaders. And yet, the determined look on the faces of the young people in the room that day suggested something else: a belief, perhaps, that the struggle was not over. Guzmán’s words a few days after his having been taken prisoner, that his arrest was merely “a stone in the path,” was a deeply held truth for them. Even with the terrible defeats of the 1990s, they clearly believed there was more to come.

Since the 1992 arrest of guzmán, there have been occasional bombings and military attacks attributed to Shining Path. Each time, the local and international press sounds the warning of a Shining Path “outbreak” or “resurgence.” But such a characterization is misleading. As the Lima weekly Caretas noted in a 2003 report, “It is as if Shining Path has become a skin irritation. Each year, chronic ‘outbreaks’ put it back in the grapeshot of the daily headlines.”1 Indeed, “resurgence” implies that at some previous point, the movement had been defeated, eliminated, destroyed. Guzmán’s 1992 arrest and the severe debilitation of the movement that followed were widely hailed as signaling the “strategic defeat” of Shining Path. And yet, because the government of President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) manipulated these circumstances for its own political purposes—whether to win immediate electoral gains or to justify its continued authoritarian practices by instilling fear of a Shining Path “resurgence”—the guerrilla group was never finally defeated. As the intensity of the conflict declined, the Fujimori regime was more concerned with maintaining its own political power rather than any genuine rebuilding of Peruvian democracy, much less addressing the root causes of the insurgency. This provided an opportunity for Guzmán, who since his arrest has sought to find ways to prevent his organization from being completely obliterated. In essence, the Fujimori regime allowed Shining Path to regroup and, over time, rebuild itself.

Most analysts believe Shining Path is split into two factions. On the one hand, there is the “pro-peace” faction that follows Guzmán’s 1994 call to end violent actions and to work “politically” until conditions are again ripe for revolution, which he said would likely take several decades. On the other hand, is the “Proseguir” (“continue the struggle”) or Sendero Rojo (Red Path) faction, which continues to follow the doctrine of popular revolutionary warfare. The latter group funds itself with money from the drug trade, taxing traffickers and offering protection to cocaleros in the country’s remote jungle regions. While there is discrepancy over the degree to which these factions form separate organizations, there is little doubt that their actions mutually reinforce each other.

Much of the domestic and international hand-wringing over Shining Path has been about the military attacks carried out primarily by the Proseguir faction in the past few years, particularly since the onset of the U.S.-led “War on Terror”: the car bombings of the María Angola Hotel in 1997, and the El Polo Shopping Center in 2002, just days before President George W. Bush’s visit to Peru; ambushes against military personnel in Satipo in 1999, Aucayacu in 2000, Mazamiri in 2001 and Huanta in 2003; the mass kidnapping of workers from the Techint mining company in Ayacucho in 2003. This string of military attacks represents not a resurgence of Shining Path, but the persistence of a low-intensity insurgency in Peru that has not been adequately addressed by government authorities. At the same time, however, the number of Shining Path attacks is relatively small compared to the group’s firepower in the 1980s and 1990s, revealing a greatly diminished military capacity. Indeed, many analysts have noted that compared to the 1980s and early 1990s, when Shining Path’s acts of violence dominated the news and shaped public perceptions about the state of the nation, the attacks carried out by the Proseguir faction have had little political resonance.

The “pro-peace” faction, meanwhile, has grown over the past decade and now encompasses most of the organization, including several important members who previously formed part of the Proseguir faction. Heeding Guzmán’s call to engage not in war, which he defined as “politics with the spilling of blood,” but in politics, which he stated was “war without the spilling of blood,” members of the pro-peace faction engage in silent political work in rural areas, shantytowns, factory floors, union halls and universities.2 This has been compared to the underground political work in the late 1970s that made Shining Path such a potent force in impoverished rural communities the following decade—that is, until their authoritarian practices, dogmatism and extreme use of violence led many campesinos to turn against them.3 Some campesinos formed civilian self-defense patrols, or rondas as they were known, while others collaborated with the Armed Forces to expel the Shining Path from their communities. (While the rondas have been hailed as the true heroes of the counterinsurgency war, many who were active in the rondas now feel abandoned by the state. The growing firepower of Shining Path’s Proseguir faction has prompted some of them to publicly announce their refusal to fight the better-armed guerrillas.)4

Evidence that Shining Path has been attempting to quietly rebuild itself as the champion of the interests of the poor and marginalized is unnerving to those who recall the gruesome tactics of the Shining Path, including their brutal attacks against trade unionists, community organizers and peasant leaders. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Shining Path’s drive to establish itself as the sole representative of the urban and rural poor collided with the non-violent organizational efforts of Peru’s vibrant social movements and the United Left coalition, which rejected the Maoists’ methods and dogmatism. While the “pro-peace” faction of Shining Path may not be engaged in violence now, its members continue to justify attacks on civilian targets. One Shining Path leader I interviewed in 2002 at Chorrillos Women’s Prison in Lima, noted that while their militants may have committed “excesses in the heat of the battle”—as she characterized the use of dynamite to obliterate the body of left-wing community activist María Elena Moyano after she was shot dead by a Shining Path hit squad—such killings, she said, were justified in the context of their revolutionary war.

While social protests in today’s Peru are abundant, there is not a solid social movement, and the political left is virtually non-existent. In this context, the playing field is wide open for groups like Shining Path that seek to play off the misery and marginalization of the poorest sectors of society. Ever mindful of the dialectical nature of history, Shining Path supposes that its endorsement of social movement protests, such as the cocaleros’ efforts to end forced eradication and preserve their livelihood in the face of the U.S-sponsored War on Drugs, will invite government repression, which in turn will favor its organizing efforts. Rather than recognizing the legitimacy of social demands of such groups and seeking to isolate Shining Path efforts, government authorities too frequently point to Shining Path’s clandestine organizing efforts to discredit oppositional protest. As one might imagine, accusing militant cocaleros, or striking trade unionists and schoolteachers, of affiliation with Shining Path has a sharply chilling effect in a place like Peru, where such accusations have landed people in jail for 20 years.

In fact, the government of President Alejandro Toledo has sought to have it both ways. When it wants to be seen as having the upper hand over social unrest and political violence, it accuses its opponents of whipping up alarmist concern over the supposed Shining Path “resurgence.” In the aftermath of the Techint kidnapping, Toledo accused the opposition of engaging in “psycho-social operations” designed to magnify the Shining Path threat and undermine his government. But just as often, the government accuses social protestors of all ideological stripes of being infiltrated by Shining Path (or of “terrorism” more generically speaking) as a way of discrediting their cause and gaining the upper hand in negotiations and public opinion.5 Indeed, Toledo has on occasion defined “terrorism” as one of the main challenges facing his Administration.6 Perhaps this is just the way a weak government stays afloat in an extremely difficult context, when multiple social demands, pent up after a decade of authoritarian neoliberal rule under Fujimori, explode daily in the streets of Peruvian cities.

Lumping all forms of social protest into the “terrorism” bag serves several useful political purposes today, just as it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. During the conflict, government counterinsurgency forces frequently failed to distinguish between guerrillas and legitimate social and political organizations, leading to widespread repression of legal organizations that had nothing to do with Shining Path but whose oppositional politics were not appreciated by those in power. In fact, the guerrillas also frequently targeted these organizations, which they considered to be guilty of “revisionism,” killing scores of trade unionists, community activists and peasant leaders. Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has published its final report, and recommended that some 43 cases of human rights violations by members of the state security forces be tried in the courts—implicating some 150 military and police officers—it is not surprising that many of those now publicly warning of a “resurgence” of terrorism in Peru are retired military officers.

While Shining Path was devastated in 1992 with the arrest of its top leader, it was not destroyed as an organization, nor was there any attempt to find creative, sustainable ways of encouraging guerrilla fighters and their supporters to abandon the armed struggle and peacefully rejoin society. The government’s approach to Shining Path was imbued with the same polarizing logic that dominated public discourse since the early period of the insurgency: Shining Path “terrorists” were pitted against the Peruvian nation and democracy and they had to be destroyed. Under Fujimori, this polarizing logic served the regime well. It kept the opposition off balance, while it justified authoritarian measures to presumably keep the Maoist rebels in check. A terrified civil society acquiesced, as often occurs in such extreme situations.

The peruvian truth and reconciliation commission (CVR), created by the post-Fujimori interim government and supported by the government of President Alejandro Toledo, elected in 2001, offered an opportunity for the country to abandon this dichotomous logic and seek reconciliation based on a full accounting of the horrors of the past. The CVR worked over the course of two years, presenting an impressive nine-volume report that pulls no punches. It clearly states that the armed forces engaged in systematic violations of human rights “in some places and in some times,” and it also documents the massive abuses by Shining Path against state officials and civilians alike, which amounted to more than half of the cases heard by the CVR.7 The work of the Commission presented a chance for the country to revisit the past, rethink its approach to the internal conflict and acknowledge the errors committed by successive governments in handling the insurgency. It called for Peru to rebuild society based on the reaffirmation of the rule of law, including at least some prosecutions of human rights offenders, a series of reparations to victims, and an ambitious and wholly necessary reform agenda.

But the Peruvian political class wasted no time in attacking the CVR and its final report. Rather than embodying a spirit of reconciliation, the same polarizing dynamic of the past continued to shape public discourse. It did not help that Toledo waited a full three months after the CVR released its final report to publicly respond to its findings and showed little skill in bringing the country together and healing past divisions. He once lamented that it was unfair that he had to “pay the bills” for the sins of previous governments.

The fact remains that despite the work of the CVR and its lucid recommendations to help Peru address the root causes of political violence in the 1980s and 1990s, including deep-seated poverty and racism, continued neglect of the rural and urban poor, and a weak, corrupt state, these dreadful conditions remain as stark as ever. Corruption, common during the 1980s and flourishing in the 1990s, remains a daunting problem, with top government officials, as well as Toledo and members of his family, not exempt from accusations. The political elite seems as myopic as it was in the 1980s, when politicians would debate arcane points even as the country was drowning in economic chaos and political violence, leading Peruvians to support the “anti-politics” of Fujimori. And, as Peruvian economist Humberto Campodónico notes, while Peru is doing well—growth rates above 4%, increasing exports, low inflation rates, a minimal fiscal deficit—Peruvians are not: salaries are stagnant, unemployment has not decreased, poverty continues to afflict 52% of the population and inequality has increased.8

Meanwhile, government officials continue to brandish the terrorism label to refer to just about any type of protest. It is certainly true that the Toledo government has faced an enormously difficult situation. It inherited a state completely gutted by the rapaciously corrupt duo of Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos, his security chief. And civil society is desperate for economic improvement and anxious to have its voice heard after years of repression and self-censorship. Still, Toledo is, with good reason, widely seen as a do-nothing President, and scandal after scandal has weakened his government’s credibility and its capacity to govern effectively.

The added context of the Bush Administration’s global War on Terror has all the makings of a recipe for disaster in Peru. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his hemispheric counterparts last November that drug traffickers, along with terrorists, hostage takers and criminal gangs “form an anti-social combination” aimed at destabilizing civil societies in the region, and he called for a greater role for the armed forces in combating these scourges.9 Such broad definitions of terrorism, particularly in the Andean region, where the “narco-terrorism” label was revived after 9/11, has allowed governing authorities throughout Latin America to place all sorts of “threats” under the label of terrorism, often leading to the criminalization of political opposition. In neighboring Bolivia, for example, Evo Morales, the cocalero leader who heads the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, has frequently been denounced as a “narco-terrorist.” His critics frequently accuse the MAS and allied groups of having links to the Shining Path, Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).10 The fact that his movement seeks change within the democratic system through elections and popular protest—not armed revolution—seems lost on those making such charges.11 In Peru, with the recent past of political violence still fresh in many people’s minds, and the reality of ongoing Shining Path activity, brandishing about such labels is a sure-fire way of putting the chill on social protest and opposition activity.

About the Author
Jo-Marie Burt is assistant professor of politics at George Mason University. She is co-editor, with Philip Mauceri, of Politics in the Andes: Identity, Conflict, Reform (2004). She also worked as a consultant for the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

1. Enrique Chávez, “El Enigma de Sendero Rojo,” Caretas, No. 1780, July 10, 2003.
2. As quoted in: Jo-Marie Burt and José López Ricci, “Shining Path After Guzmán,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 1994), p. 8.
3. On the peasant rondas, see Carlos Iván Degregori, “Harvesting Storms: Peasant Rondas and the Defeat of Sendero Luminoso in Ayacucho,” Steven Stern, Ed., Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995 .
4. La República, July 10, 2003.
5. The Toledo government has launched some dynamic initiatives; the local-level Peace Commissions, created under the watch of former Interior Ministers Fernando Rospigliosi and Gino Costa, were promising in their effort to create a more democratic, inclusive effort at countering violence and promoting public security in a rarified context. But the ousting of these ministers, and the rudderless march of the Toledo government since, has left such initiatives in the air.
6. Enrique Chávez, “El Enigma de Sendero Rojo,” Caretas, No. 1780, July 10, 2003.
7. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is on-line,
8. Humberto Campódonico, La República, January 5, 2005.
9. Donald H. Rumsfeld, Department of Defense Press Release, Quito, November 19, 2004.
10. Ricardo Andrade, “Analysis: The psychosis of terrorism,” UPI, May 26, 2004.
11. Martin Arostegui, “Bolivian leftist denies ties to terror,” UPI, May 10, 2004.

Tags: Peru, terror, Alberto Fujimori, Shining Path, TRC, peace process

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