Shining Path Rebels Are Spreading Terror Again in Peru
By JUAN FORERO
LIMA, Peru, July 20 — The scene could have been from the 1980's, when
civil conflict killed thousands here: two flag-covered coffins lowered
into the ground as
mothers wailed and soldiers in dress uniforms dabbed tears.
Peruvians thought they had seen an end to funerals like this one for two young infantrymen killed by Shining Path guerrillas on July 10.
But the Shining Path, a fanatical rebel group believed to have been
all but eradicated in the mid-1990's, is again launching attacks, reviving
memories of the terror
bombings, massacres and weekly body counts that nearly crippled Peru more than a decade ago.
"We had thought Shining Path was completely gone," said Raúl
Chamorro, 30, a cousin of one of the slain infantrymen, Julio García,
as the funeral came to a close.
"No one imagined this could happen."
Shining Path is reappearing in new graffiti, proselytizing in Peru's outback and launching attacks that have shaken the country and created fresh problems for President Alejandro Toledo, whose government is increasingly unpopular.
Defense Minister Aurelio Loret de Mola emphasized in an interview that attacks on the military by Shining Path have actually dropped, from 20 clashes in 2001 to just 6 this year.
But the ambush this month on a patrol of marines and army special forces, which killed three other soldiers and two civilian guides, is being called the biggest strike by Shining Path in four years.
It came just a month after the group kidnapped 71 people working on
a gas pipeline. They were released unharmed a day later, but the assault
showed Shining Path
was capable of organization and coordination.
Shining Path fighters, who operate in the largely inaccessible forests and mountains of south-central Peru, are also reported to have occupied rural communities briefly, to be moving in heavily armed columns and keeping company with drug traffickers, government officials said.
"This is the so-called professional army of Shining Path," said Carlos
Tapia, a sociologist who has studied the rebel group for years. "Now, they
have the capacity for
military action. Before, they did not."
Aside from Mr. Toledo's most acerbic critics, no one believes that Shining
Path is an immediate, direct threat to the government. The group has no
more than 200
armed followers and, at most, only a few hundred more militants involved in political work in the cities, government officials say. In its heyday in the early 1990's,
Shining Path had nearly 10,000 members.
Then, under the leadership of Abimael Guzmán, a former university
professor who was captured in 1992, the group set out to destroy the social
order. It terrorized
and killed peasants and small-town leaders, and began a car-bomb campaign in Lima.
A truth commission set up to investigate the human rights abuses of
both the government and the rebels during nearly 20 years of conflict said
recently that 40,000 to
60,000 Peruvians died, far more than initially thought.
After Mr. Guzmán's capture, however, the group is believed to have split into two.
One faction, allied with Mr. Guzmán, is still hoping to negotiate a settlement that could lead to a general amnesty, a proposal rejected by the government.
The other, led by Leonardo Huamán and Víctor Quispe Palomino, has opted for armed struggle.
Although much remains unknown about the ultimate aim of that faction, government officials and terrorism experts say it has hitched its future to coca growers and the drug trade, including Colombian dealers.
This alliance has already translated into more money to buy modern combat
weaponry like Galil and Uzi rifles and crisp new uniforms, experts and
officials said. A group that even at its height stole provisions is today paying recruits up to $200 a month to join, they added.
Once avowedly Maoist, Shining Path now appears to be less ideological
and to promise villagers that the killing of civilians is a thing of the
past, said Ana Isabel
Coral, who runs a government agency that works in conflict areas.
But Ms. Coral, a colleague of Mr. Guzmán when he was a university
professor, said she believed that the group was simply repeating the tactics
of a generation ago
— ensuring a measure of civilian support before embarking on a more violent campaign. "They do not want to appear as the Shining Path of before, but to present
themselves as populists," Ms. Coral said. "The people out there know this. They have seen this movie before."
Opponents of the Toledo government charge that it has been slow to react to a mounting threat.
Now, though, the government has announced several new measures to deal
with the rebels, said Mr. Loret de Mola, including doubling the number
of soldiers in the
region to 1,200 since the start of the year.
Meanwhile, officials are organizing civilian self-defense patrols like
those that helped bring Shining Path to heel a decade ago. Government agencies
are also funneling
development aid to isolated communities, the defense minister said.
On July 5, a high-ranking rebel leader, Florentino Cerrón Cardoso,
was captured in the city of Huancayo. In another clash in the Apurímac
Valley, one rebel was
killed and five were captured.
"If Sendero leaves the zone, they will not survive," Mr. Loret de Mola
said, referring to the group by part of its Spanish name. "The plan is
to finish off with the threat."