Arrests Shine Light on Peru Terror Group’s Endurance

The involvement of Maoist insurgents in Peru’s drug trade brings back memories of a long counterinsurgency.

“War on terror” has been a convenient turn of phrase for some opportunistic politicians since the turn of the century. However, the news last week that twenty four Shining Path members were seized in connection with Peru’s flourishing cocaine trade is a timely reminder of the country’s arduous struggle against terrorism. This has left an unyielding stain on Peruvian society for over thirty years and has not yet been completely wiped out.

Shining Path, or El Sendero Luminoso, is a Maoist guerrilla movement that led what it called a “people’s war” against Peru’s “bourgeois” democracy in the 1980s in an attempt to achieve a pure communist state.

What started with the burning of ballot boxes, during the first election after twelve years of military rule, grew into a brutal and unshakable conflict that claimed nearly 70,000 victims.

Shining Path was led by a university professor, Abimael Guzmán, who preyed on the uneducated, poor and discontent in great swathes of rural Peru to expand his following. His organization thrived in the Andean highlands of Ayacucho and spread into the Upper Huallaga Valley, as they sought, like Mao, to build up from the countryside before choking, from the outside, the cities — the capital Lima in particular.

In 1990, at their height, Shining Path controlled a quarter of Peru’s municipalities and had close to 25,000 members. They contributed to bringing an already bleak economy closer to ruin, with inflation reaching 7,649 percent in 1990. In the same year, the population living beneath the poverty line amounted to 55 percent, thereby representing an increase of 13 percent over a five year period. Shining Path was a movement that very much monopolized and defined three whole presidencies from 1980 to 2000.

It was with the arrival of Alberto Fujimori as president in 1990 that a more hardline approach was adopted. He purged and took tighter control of military actions and carried out a presidential coup, thereby giving himself greater authority than any leader since the military regime of 1968-1980. Rondas Campesinas, or peasant patrols, and a lax police force were now to be supplemented by Comités de Autodefensa, self-defense units authorized and trained by the government.

This crackdown, though effective, also led to a mirroring of some of Shining Path’s activities — human rights atrocities, the indiscriminate killing of civilians and destruction of villages through the abuse of their newly extended powers. The Andean peasants suffered the most. Threatened on both sides, one described it as “a plague on both your houses.” A Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that government forces were responsible for a third of the deaths and disappearances in the conflict.

The climax of Fujimori’s counterinsurgency policy came when Shining Path’s demagogic leader, Guzmán, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. Once arrested, he is believed to have suggested a ceasefire and in this way divided and splintered what was left of his organization. By 1994, 6,000guerrilla fighters had surrendered in return for amnesty.

For all intents and purposes, this was a success and brought relief to a long suffering population. Subsequent arrests of note followed in 1999 and 2004, among a smattering of smaller attacks. But Shining Path, lacking leadership, was no longer the force it once was.

While Fujimori’s anti-terrorist measures brought a much needed reprieve and the chance of economic recovery for the country, it also led to his own life conviction for human rights abuses in 2008.

Fast forward to modern day Peru. President Ollanta Humala, suffering the lowest approval ratings since he took office three years ago, has seen political capital in a renewed hard line on terrorism. Following the 24 arrests — one of the suspects being the president’s cousin, Walter Humala — he reiterated that “nobody wears a crown, anyone connected with these crimes shall be arrested.” The arrests were made after two years of investigation.

Peru is an economically prosperous country today where the terrorist threat has been severely diminished. Lessons have been learned. Abimael Guzmán and Alberto Fujimori are both in prison. But it is unclear whether the War on Terror had any winners.

What is clear is that Shining Path’s remnants should not be ignored. Humala has said that his government will not “negotiate with terrorists.” But as long as small terror cells remain intertwined with the drug economy, the Peruvian government must tread with both purpose and care to avoid a terrorist resurrection fueled by cocaine.