A smoldering conflict between the Peruvian army and remnants of the Shining Path guerrilla group has escalated with the government's launch of an all-out coordinated offensive. The government claims it has the violent group in its last throes, but human rights groups worry that innocent campesinos are bearing the brunt of the military's questionable tactics.
The military began its offensive in August 2008, launching "Operación Excelencia 777" aimed at dislodging the Shining Path from its stronghold in the Vizcatán region of the Ene and Apurímac River Valley. Since then, the military has established five small bases in the region, the largest housing 100 soldiers.
Despite a drastic decrease in membership and violent attacks after its leader was captured in 1992, the Shining Path, known as Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, has retained a presence in at least two regions of Peru. For years the Peruvian government responded to Sendero attacks by declaring states of emergency in far-flung pockets of the country.
But the new military operations are the first full-scale attack against the guerrillas since the early 1990s. The government has put a renewed focus on fighting the group after increasingly deadly rebel attacks last year and speculation about the growing strength of the group derived from the drug trade.
The "Excelencia 777" offensive has been fraught with controversy since its inception. Army officials complain that their efforts have been hindered by human rights lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of army violence. Peru's top general dismissed the lawsuits as "pathetic." And it is not even clear that the government's tactics have put Sendero on the run. Fernando Rospigliosi, a former Interior Minister told Reuters, “The plan has not produced results and the government keeps insisting on the wrong strategy.”
Critics also draw attention to tactics that are hauntingly reminiscent of the human rights abuses that took place during the 20-year conflict between Sendero and state security forces that left 70,000 dead. In April, Peru’s Coordinadora Nacional de Radio (CNR) reported on a disturbing trend of the army recruiting minors for military service – some as young as 14. Government human rights officials have documented hundreds such cases over the years, but many of the minors have yet to be returned to their families. Some of these illegal recruits have been spotted in the Ene and Apurímac River Valley.
The CNR also reported in March that more than 300 families had been forced to leave their homes in Vizcatán as the military carried out "Excelencia 777" missions. Nolberto Lamilla, director of Asociación Paz y Esperanza in Ayacucho, said that families spent several nights hiding in scattered camps in the mountains before returning fearfully to their homes. Lamilla claims that in spite of several filed complaints, the armed forces have repeatedly denied the displacements in official statements.
The refusal of many government officials to draw a distinction between campesino communities and guerrillas or drug traffickers has been a recurrent feature of Peru's decades-long conflict. In September 2008, after human rights group accused the military of assassinating five farmers who had been mistaken for guerillas, Defense Minister Antero Florez-Araoz said, “It is no secret to anyone that Vizcatán is a complicated, conflict zone. All the people who were in Vizcatán were terrorists, narco-terrorists or collaborators.”
The Peruvian government's long-standing practice of labeling dissidents "terrorists" remains a potent political tool to delegitimize popular grivances. President Alan García blamed indigenous activists for the recent violence in the Amazonian province of Bagua, issuing a statement claiming that protesters had “carefully planned an attack against Peru” and used “methods identical to those of the Shining Path.”
It is clear that economic considerations are a major motivation of the government offensive. When Sendero violence reached a fever pitch in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Peruvian economy suffered as investors fled the country's instability. In recent years, however, Peru has become a top recipient of foreign investment in Latin America. The government depends on these investments to facilitate its free market plan of developing the country's natural resources, despite widespread opposition. The conflict in the Amazon showed the willingness of the García administration to impose this development strategy at any costs. International headlines about Sendero's resurgence have jeopardized these plans.
In recent months, Vice President Luis Giampietri and Defense Minister Antero Flores have tried to generate congressional support for more military spending to allay investors’ fears about Sendero. The increased military spending is also aimed at satisfying military leaders who have been grumbling that past administrations have allowed Sendero to regain a foothold by limiting funding for the military and intelligence collection.
But according to Carlos Tapia, an expert on Sendero, the government has "misdiagnosed the problem, which has resulted in a flawed strategy." Tapia explained that rather than launching a military offensive, the government should address the social and economic needs of the poor areas where Sendero operates.
In the Ene and Apurímac River Valley, running water is rare and road access to most towns is non-existent. Coca, the raw ingredient used in cocaine, grows well in these areas and drug producers pay a high price for the crop. Campesinos who have flocked to the region hoping to earn a decent income often rely on Sendero, rather than the government, for support in setting up farms and for basic social services and infrastructure.
Though the government has recently claimed it will make good on its promises to increase social spending in the region, improvements have been slow and many of the communities already consider Sendero a more reliable source of assistance despite its often threatening tactics.
Lisa Skeen is a NACLA Research Associate.