Thirteen soldiers were ambushed and killed on April 9 in southeastern Peru by members of the Shining Path guerrilla group. The soldiers were blown off the cliff when guerrillas exploded dynamite and grenades in their path. Just hours earlier, one soldier was shot dead and several wounded in a separate attack nearby.
The government claims the roadside ambush – one of the deadliest in a spate of recent attacks – confirms the definitive resurgence of the Maoist guerrilla group known in Spanish as Sendero Luminoso. International media outlets have echoed the government's assertion, suggesting the "comeback" is being driven by the group's sustained and growing involvement in the drug trade. However, statistics on violent acts linked to the group are inconclusive and statements from the guerrillas themselves present conflicting accounts of Sendero's activities and professed goals. Still, recent events and media reports raise pressing questions about the group's current status and potential for growth.
Born out of a communist splinter group in the 1960s, Sendero Luminoso formally launched its "people's war" in 1980. The Maoist organization sought the violent communist reorganization of society and demanded absolute loyalty from its members, standing in violent opposition to most other left-leaning organizations. Its guerrillas not only attacked the state, but also campesinos, labor activists, and grassroots organizations.
In 1990, after a decade of bloody conflict and with an economy in ruins, Peruvians elected an outsider candidate: Alberto Fujimori. Once in power Fujimori reneged his populist campaign promises and instituted a neoliberal shock treatment to the economy. The new President also launched a repressive counter-offensive marked by human rights abuses and the loss of thousands of innocent lives. When Sendero's infamous leader Abimael Guzmán was captured in 1992, the government claimed victory and the violence diminished. In the ensuing years, Sendero's thousands-strong membership is estimated to have dwindled to just a few hundred.
Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that close to 70,000 Peruvians were killed or disappeared from 1980 to 2000. The Commission's report estimates Sendero was responsible for 54 percent of the deaths and disappearances, while the Peruvian security forces were responsible for 31 percent. The remainder is attributed to smaller guerrilla groups, local militias (many formed for campesino self-defense), or unknown causes.
Panic over a possible Sendero resurgence has surfaced several times since Guzmán’s capture, though the level of violence has not changed dramatically in the last decade. While the number of deaths has increased slightly, the overall number of attacks has decreased. The U.S, State Department reports that in 2008 the group was responsible for 31 deaths and 64 "terrorist acts," whereas in 2003, Sendero was blamed for nine deaths and 115 "terrorist acts."
In a recent interview, Gustavo Gorriti, author of a book on the guerrilla group, said Sendero is currently based in two coca-growing regions: the Upper Huallaga Valley (UHV) and the Apurimac and Ene River Valleys (VRAE). Gorriti explained, "They have two different leaderships that are largely hostile to each other. The UHV group has suffered several recent setbacks, while the VRAE group has been visibly strengthened in recent years."
Police interrogation transcripts of Atilio Cahuana, a captured leader a leader of the UHV Sendero column, reveal a professed political bent. He describes Sendero's attacks as a way of pressuring the government to discuss "a political solution to the problems arising from the war." But members of Peru’s anti-terrorist police claim the "political solution" sought by the UHV is nothing more than the release of Abimael Guzmán to revitalize their fight.
An article published by IPS and a separate piece by the New York Times both highlight Sendero's efforts to make inroads among isolated campesino areas, offering assistance and fulfilling some governmental roles in neglected rural communities. Both reports note Sendero's use of the drug trade to fund these activities.
Sendero has been involved in the drug trade since the 1980s, and members of the VRAE have confirmed their group's continued reliance on narcotrafficking as source of revenue. In a brief interview with Al Jazeera, a Sendero fighter near Ayacucho mentioned vague political aims and insisted, “We only offer protection to the drug dealers, that's it. We don’t work in the business and don't deal. Many people would say so but we don’t. We are not narco-terrorists.” The VRAE group also produced a 45-page document dated at the end of last year, claiming to be the true inheritors of Sendero's political legacy – even calling Guzmán a "revisionist."
Despite clear evidence of Sendero's dependence on the cocaine trade, the extent of its involvement in global narcotrafficking networks is less clear. In November 2008, Peruvian President Alan García claimed the increased Sendero violence was being caused by turf wars caused by the arrival of Mexican cartels. (Countries across Latin America have made similarly panicked claims of drug war violence wrought by the Mexican cartels.) Several media outlets have increasingly drawn parallels between Sendero and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Reports cite both rebel groups' involvement in controlling coca production for the manufacture of cocaine, though no evidence exists suggesting established ties between the two rebel groups.
Washington's ongoing escalation of the drug war in Latin America makes such comparisons highly charged. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has provided Colombia with $6.1 billion in military aid to fight guerrillas and the drug trade. And before leaving office the Bush administration pledged $1.4 billion in counter-drug aid to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean – amid hyped panic over "spillover" violence from Mexican cartels. Meanwhile, though its involvement in the drug trade has generally received far less US media attention than either Colombia or Mexico, Peru has nevertheless received $789 million in military anti-drug aid since 1996.
Although today’s Sendero Luminoso appears to be just a shell of its former self, some Peruvians are quick to point out that Sendero's impact has traditionally far outweighed its relatively small size. Reviewing Sendero's history in an article for NACLA in 1990, Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori noted, "What it lost in influence among the masses, it gained in ideological rigidity and organic cohesiveness, until it became a sort of dwarf star – the kind in which matter gets so compressed it acquires a great specific weight, disproportionate to its size."
It is unlikely the group will ever regain even its "dwarf star" political status, but its involvement in the drug trade could make it a more formidable fighting force. Meanwhile, Sendero's even marginal presence will remain a useful political tool for governments, like García's, to criminalize legitimate social protests.
Lisa Skeen is a NACLA Research Associate.