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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Shining Path: The Battle for Peru

Written by Olivier Guiberteau

When you think about communism, radical left-wing violence, and brutal right-wing death squads, one country that probably doesn’t immediately come to mind is Peru. The third-largest nation in South America is more often associated with its ancient cities in the clouds, staggering landscapes filled with mountains and rainforests, while its people are generally known for their warmth and friendliness – but between the 1980s and 2000s, a darkness consumed the country. 

With the country see-sawing in the immediate decades after World War II, while engaging in semi-regular wars against its neighbours, resentment in Peru over inequality, corruption and government incompetence set the stage for one of the 21st Century’s least told stories of freedom fighters or terrorists – depending on who you ask. 

When the Shining Path was formed in 1969, it included just 12 members, but in subsequent decades their number expanded rapidly along with the group’s popularity. But as tends to happen with groups attempting to impose a utopian dream by force, it all went dramatically downhill and today the Shining Path, or what is left of it at least, is considered a terrorist organization by many around the world.     

And yet, the Shining Path is only part of our story today. Peru’s government response to the uprising was equally vicious and under the heinous Plan Verde, a secretive program that sought to censor the media, sterilise a large section of the indigenous population and establish a neo-liberal economy while operating under the tight control of a military junta, it became difficult to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart.  

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Peru 

With a landmass of 1,285,216 km2 (496,225 sq mi), Peru is the 19th largest country on the planet, and as I said third-largest in South America. Like most of the continent, Peru’s history can be broken into three; pre-colonisation, colonisation and post-colonisation. 

Evidence of human settlements in Peru goes back at least 12,000 years, and the area saw a steady coming and going of civilisations over the subsequent millennia, including the Caral/Norte Chico civilization between 3,000 and 1,800 BCE, the Cupisnique culture between 1000 and 200 BC, and the Chimu which rose to power from around 900 AD. But it was the Inca that emerged as a major player in the 15th Century, whose empire was the largest in the pre-Columbian Americas. 

But their reign was short-lived and the arrival of the conquistadors in 1532 spelt doom for the Incas, with the Spanish finally stamping out resistance by 1572. What came next broadly mirrored what happened in other areas of South America after Europeans arrived; a near collapse of indigenous numbers, through war, disease and starvation. Full independence did not come until the 19th Century as nations around South America rebelled against Spanish rule and Simon Bolivar was named the country’s first president in 1824. 

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Independence    

The early years after independence went well for Peru and the country experienced relative stability. However, by the 1870s, with major exports such as guano almost completely depleted, the nation became saddled with high debts and political infighting began. 

The next 80 years or so saw a blizzard of military conflicts with its neighbours, almost always relating to disputes over territory and most of which are barely known outside of the region. This included the War of the Pacific between a coalition of Bolivia and Peru against Chile for 5 years from 1879 to 1884, the Leticia War between Peru and Colombia in 1932 and 1933 and the Ecuadorian–Peruvian War in 1941.  

The 1950s and 1960s saw Peruvian politics in constant flux and the country lurched back and forth between right and left, with two military coups to go along with it, in 1962 and 1968. Successive military lead Juntas failed to stabilise the country’s mountainous debts and its chronic inflation which saw Peru’s currency change from the sol to the Inti in mid-1985, before changing again to the nuevo sol in July 1991. 

It is in the 1980s that we’re going to begin this story, a period that saw the country’s per capita annual income fall below what it had been two decades before, with dissatisfaction and anger widespread across the country. It was the perfect storm for a revolution. 

Abimael Guzmán

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The man who would later lead the Shining Path was born in 1934 in Mollendo on the Peruvian coast. As a young man at university, he developed a keen interest in Marxist theory, while also gaining bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and law.  

In 1962, he took a position teaching philosophy at the San Cristóbal of Huamanga University in Ayacucho and this would become the centre of the earliest and most vocal support for left-leaning thought. The Peruvian Communist Party had been established back in 1928 but in 1964 it effectively splintered into two, along differing ideological views and no doubt egos. 

Much of this split came down to whether to follow a Soviet or Chinese model of Communism. Guzman fell into the Chinese group, which became the Peruvian Communist Party – Red Flag – definitely not to be confused with the Peruvian Communist Party. 

By this point, Guzman had become hugely influential and like-minded individuals were soon drawn towards Ayacucho and whispers of change grew steadily louder.   

In 1969, after yet another falling out, the Peruvian Communist Party – Red Flag was itself divided into two, with the Communist Party of Peru – Red Fatherland and the Communist Party of Peru – Shining Path, led by Guzmán, emerging. 

It should be said that at this stage, the Shining Path was little more than a platform for left-wing ideological thought, usually constrained to academics in and around the university in Ayacucho. It was still a world away from what it would become, but over time, Guzam, who started going by the nom de guerre, Presidente or Comrade Gonzalo, began advocating for a peasant-led revolution based on the Maoist model. 

The 1970s saw the Shining Path focus its efforts on gaining control of student councils while expanding its sphere of influence in other universities. Things began well but after a series of losses in elections across Peru, Guzma and the Shining Path decided to take a step by from the academic approach and instead spark an armed struggle with the goal of a full-scale revolution. In 1979, protests for free education were brutally put down by the military, with at least 18 deaths, and reportedly many more, an event that may well have tipped the balance.  

Armed Struggle      

In March 1980, a series of meetings held by the Shining Path set out a new way forward that would be both political and military. The first combat schools were established where members were taught how to use weapons, military tactics and guerilla warfare, and as Peru’s first free election in 12 years neared, they saw their first opportunity. 

The Shining Path had chosen to boycott the 1980 election and instead levelled their anger at the election process by attacking a polling station in the town of Chuschi and burning its ballot boxes. The act may technically have been the first ‘act of war’ from the Shining Path, but it generated little interest nationally. 

At this stage, the organization had around 500 members, but its popularity grew quickly, especially among more impoverished areas, and was greatly helped by the Peruvian government’s refusal to fully acknowledge the threat posed by the Shining Path. In a society heavily dominated by men, the gender balance in the Shining Path was quite remarkable. It’s thought that around 50% of combatants and 40% of commanders were female and this continued throughout the years.  

In the first few years of the 1980s, the organisation began establishing ‘guerilla zones’ in rural areas that could be cleansed of government forces. In theory, once multiple zones had been established, they could be joined together to finally create a single liberated zone that would encompass the entire country. Well, that was the plan at least. 

Escalation  

With military and police deaths attributed to the Shining Path mounting and their inability to properly deal with them becoming more apparent, the Peruvian government finally declared a state of emergency in 1981 and ordered the army to begin fighting the organisation.  

The military established the Ayacucho Emergency Zone in which civil and human rights all but disappeared for those believed to have any ties to the Shining Path. It wasn’t long until U.S trained counter-terrorism squads were being formed and the Sinchis, as they became known, were notorious for torture, rape and indiscriminate killings.

A favourite chant by the Sinchis was,

“Terrorists! Tonight we will enter your homes, we’ll eat your guts, drink your blood, cut off your heads and gouge out your eyes!”   

The Shining Path met military action with military action and atrocity with atrocity. Their targets were not limited to the police and armed forces, and often civilians who were considered class enemies became caught up in the bitter conflict. This created a divide between the Shining Path and the people they hoped to govern and led to the establishment of Rondas Campesinas – autonomous peasant patrols guarding against cattle rustling by the Shining Path who were often supplied weapons by the government.    

The Lucanamarca massacre 

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If there was a single event that acted as a hammer blow to the organisation’s popularity, it was the bloody events of the 3rd April 1983 in the small town of Lucanamarca. 

The previous month had seen the brutal murder of Olegario Curitomay, a Shining Path commander, by a group of Rondas. Dragged into the town square, Curitomay was first stoned, then stabbed, then set on fire, before finally being shot. The news of the grizzly murder enraged the Shining Path and their retribution was savage. On 3rd April, members of the organization entered towns in Huancasancos province, including Yanaccollpa, Ataccara, Llacchua, Muylacruz, and Lucanamarca where they set upon the local population with axes and machetes. 

A total of 69 people died in the first Shining Path massacre against the civilian population, including 18 children. But instead of teaching the peasantry a lesson, as Guzman would later tell a newspaper, it galvanised support against the Shining Path, who in turn reacted with yet more attacks on civilians over the following few years. 

The Bloody 90s

The 1990s saw an escalation of violence from both sides. With its popularity among the rural population sagging, the Shining Path turned its attention to the cities, with targeted assassinations against politicians, activists and those in the media.  

The murder of the hugely popular activist María Elena Moyano on 15th February 1992 is often seen as the beginning of the end for the Shining Path. Moyano, who had been critical of both the government and the Shining Path, was first shot, then blown up by members of the organization in front of her own children. Her funeral attracted over 300,000 mourners and fury directed towards the Shining Path was mounting.   

On 16th July 1992, a car loaded with 400—500 kilograms (880-1100 lbs) of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil mixed with dynamite was left outside the Banco de Crédito del Perú in Lima’s Miraflores district. At 9.15 pm, the car bomb detonated killing 25 people and injuring 155, in what was the largest attack by the Shining Path across its entire history. 

Revenge and Plan Verde

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Even before the recent spate of violence, the Peruvian government, under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, had taken quite extraordinary steps to limit rights in Peru, while greenlighting atrocities aimed at flushing out the Shining Path.

The widespread use of intelligence agencies led to vicious retribution, especially after the bombing in Lima. Death squads stepped up their activities and the early years of the 1990s saw widespread atrocities carried out against those believed to be connected to the Shining Path. In a single 8 month period that straddled 1991 and 1992, 34 people were killed, often after being abducted and tortured first.

It was clear that the Fujimori government was willing to go to the very extremes to defeat the Shining Path, which was thought to have numbered around 3,000 members in 1990. But it was a plan that was concocted by the military but initiated by the government that has long cast a dark shadow. 

In 1989, an operation known as Plan Verde was secretly prepared by the military, at a time when frustrations were growing over the government’s inability to deal with the Shining Path and a planned coup was in the pipeline. 

It involved a three-pronged approach that would be used to finally subdue the Shining Path while launching Peru into the 21st Century. This included; a sterilisation plan that would target the impoverished indigenous communities as a way of limiting population growth, severe censorship of the media and a new neoliberal economy that could still be tightly controlled by a military government. This all came as part of the rather expansive plan called Driving Peru into the XXI century, in which those at the top sought to reshape the nation’s society and cement control. 

While the planned coup never happened, Plan Verde very much remained and was said to have been taken up enthusiastically by the Fujimori government when it came to power in 1990. Two years later, the government performed a quite impressive self-coup d’etat, in which Fujimori dissolved the Congress of Peru as well as the judiciary of Peru and assumed full legislative and judicial powers.   

For the next forty hours, the military kept a vice-like grip over the media and words such as coup were non-existent. Major changes were seen in the economy over the coming years, that saw massive tax increases, as well as exorbitant price increases that disproportionately affected the very poor.    

However, it was the sterilisation that was certainly the most macabre feature of Plan Verde. There’s not really any other way to look at it than to say that the Peruvian government actively participated in a planned genocide of the indigenous communities. As one chilling line from Plan Verde documents read, 

“the general use of sterilization processes for culturally backward and economically impoverished groups is convenient, given their incorrigible character and lack of resources, there is only their total extermination”

Under the Programa Nacional de Población, a staggering 300,000 Peruvians were sterilised during the 1990s, as well as 16,547 men who were forced to undergo vasectomies. It’s long been assumed that USAID, which was funding projects across the country at the time, must have known full-well what was going on, and if you want to go even higher, many will swear blind that the United Nations also knew about this program.  

The Capture of Abimael Guzmán

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In the early 1990s, government forces and intelligence agencies began monitoring properties in Lima and around the country that they believed was being used by the Shining Path. One apartment, a property above a dance studio in the Surco neighbourhood of the capital, looked promising, and when police began shifting through the apartment’s rubbish, it became clear that it was being used by many more people than the single woman who was reported to live there. 

Police also found discarded tubes of cream for the treatment of psoriasis, a skin disease that Guzman was known to have – it all seemed too much of a coincidence. On 12th September 1992, an elite squad stormed the apartment and found Guzman, along with eight others inside. 

The leader of the Shining Path experienced legal proceedings that bring new meaning to the term ‘fast tracked’. He was found guilty of treason and terrorism charges during a trial that lasted just three days, and which was presided over by three hooded judges – an attempt to keep their identity secret. 

As we’ll be getting to shortly, there were dramatic events within the government itself that led to a widespread reevaluation of many of the legal proceedings that had been carried out in its name. Guzman’s initial trial was ruled unconstitutional and in 2004 he was retried, a trial that ended in farce after two judges recused themselves. A third trial was finally concluded in 2006 and Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison on charges of aggravated terrorism and murder. 

The Downfall of Alberto Fujimori

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But this was a conflict that few escaped from cleanly, and while the arrest and conviction of Abimael Guzman were devastating for the Shining Path, it was the downfall of President Alberto Fujimori that was arguably even more dramatic. 

His policies unquestionably helped to smash the Shining Path but they frequently came with a level of carnage that eventually caught up with him. There were the numerous death squads, the arming of the Rondas and, of course, the implementation of the frankly Nazi-esque Plan Verde. 

In November 2000, then into his third term as president, but aware of several investigations into his administration’s actions, Fujimori left Peru, first for Brunei, then on to Japan. He then attempted to fax a letter of resignation to the Peruvian Congress, which was refused, because impeachment proceedings were already underway and Fujimoro was removed as President on 19th November 2000. 

Japan turned down an extradition request from Peru and Fujimori remained in the country until 2005 when he made the odds decision to visit Chile, where he was seized by the local authorities and extradited to Peru in 2006. Over the next few years, the former President was found guilty of a slew of crimes from illegal search and seizure to embezzlement and widespread human rights violations. In 2009, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in kidnappings and murders by the death squads. 

Ongoing      

While any mention of the Shining Path seems to have completely disappeared from global news, the organisation, which now usually goes by the name Militarized Communist Party of Peru (MPCP), is far from dead and buried. As recently as May 2021, a mass shooting claimed by the group left 18 people dead in San Miguel del Ene and there have been countless attacks over the last 15 years. While their actions are often still shrouded in mystery, they have long been labelled as ‘narco-terrorists’ – which might well be true but as we’ve seen we should perhaps sometimes question the official narrative emerging from governments.    

In 2021, Abimael Guzman died and his ashes were spread secretively to not provide a shrine for his supporters. On Christmas Eve 2017, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski pardoned Alberto Fujimori on health grounds, but the move was later overturned by the Supreme Court. At age 83 he remains behind bars, and it’s unlikely he will ever be a free man again. 

Its thought that the conflict between 1980 and 2000 killed between 50,000 and 70,000 people. A commission set up in 2003 stated that 45% of deaths had been down to the Shining Path, with a third blamed on death squads, and a significant portion of unknowns. This was a conflict that disproportionally targeted the poor and indigenous populations of Peru and it’s believed that 75% of the people who were either killed or disappeared spoke Quechua as their native language, despite only 20% of the population being able to speak it. 

Today, the topic of the Shining Path and the government’s brutal response is one that many swerve at all costs. It remains a deeply divisive subject, and with murders still being committed all too frequently, one that many are wary of delving too far into. Now into its 4th decade, the battle for Peru is far from over.   

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