Guerrillas return as threat in a deal with coca traders
BY TYLER BRIDGES
SAN FRANCISCO, Peru - Darkness had descended outside, and a bare light bulb illuminated Mayor Teófilo Torres in his office here as he explained the danger posed by the reemergence of the Shining Path guerrillas deep in the Peruvian jungle.
''Shining Path could enter San Francisco at any time and shoot me,'' Torres said. ``They look for the mayors first.''
A decade after the Shining Path was believed to have been vanquished,
the guerrillas -- known in Peru by their Spanish name, Sendero Luminoso
-- are making a
comeback in a potentially dangerous alliance with traffickers of coca paste, the basic ingredient of cocaine, in a remote mountainous region with little civil authority.
The guerrillas help drug traffickers ship coca paste out of the
region and in exchange are paid dollars that they use to obtain weapons,
buy supplies and pay recruits,
Raúl González, who analyzes the Shining Path as a consultant for private companies, said he fears that the Shining Path and the drug traffickers could grow in strength and carve out a ''liberated'' zone in Peru, much as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and drug traffickers have done in Colombia.
''We're following the same path as Colombia,'' González said.
The guerrillas' forces remain small, numbering several hundred
men and women, Peru's army says. But with deep-rooted memories of the Shining
rampage during the 1980s and 1990s, local mayors like Torres are afraid, farm laborers are reorganizing themselves in self-defense groups, and the military is beefing up its presence in the region.
''They're starting over again,'' Torres said. ``The violence could begin anew.''
EXTENT OF THREAT
However, few think that the guerrillas threaten the stability of Peru's government, and no tourist areas have been targeted. But the Shining Path was so violent, killing mayors and farm laborers alike, that it doesn't take much to sow fear.
A July 10 guerrilla ambush killed five soldiers and two farm-worker guides near this jungle outpost 230 miles southeast of Lima. In June, the Shining Path held 71 oil pipeline workers hostage for a day before releasing them unharmed.
The guerrillas' reemergence does not alarm all Peruvians.
Juan Camborda, a spokesman for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is documenting the human rights abuses by both the guerrillas and government troops, said he believes that the farm workers are playing on public fears by exaggerating the threat of the Shining Path to get more government assistance.
''There is still so much fear that it doesn't take much to ignite it,'' Camborda said.
Isabel Coral, who heads a state agency that assists farm laborers where the Shining Path was active, said she believes the guerrillas deliberately lay low in recent years to reconstitute themselves.
Coral said they have attracted recruits among teenagers who were lured by the promise of pay and adventure and who are too young to remember the suffering inflicted by the guerrillas.
The guerrillas operate in a jungle known as the Valley of the Rivers Apurimac and Ene, home to about 100,000 people.
They are assisted by the region's isolation and poverty. San Francisco is a seven-hour drive from Ayacucho on a rutted dirt road that follows a mountain precipice. About 30 crosses along the route serve as reminders that not all of the travelers arrived safely.
Peru's government has responded both forcefully and cautiously to the recent developments here.
On Aug. 5, Defense Minister Aurelio Loret de Mola announced on a visit to the town of Sivia -- an hour deeper into the jungle from San Francisco -- that the government would rebuild military bases that were abandoned after the Shining Path's apparent defeat a decade ago.
Loret de Mola also said the government would not implement, at least for now, a U.S.-backed program to eradicate hundreds of acres of coca plants.
This decision will likely displease U.S. policymakers who have been insisting that Peru destroy coca plants to help discourage cocaine consumption in the United States. Officials at the U.S. Embassy did not respond to interview requests.
Peruvian government officials recognize that since prices for coffee and cacao are low, farm laborers depend on the region's other major crop -- coca -- for what little income they receive.
''We're not going to accept the eradication of coca,'' said Alberto Coronado, a 41-year-old farm laborer in Sivia. ``If they try to eradicate coca, the people will move toward Sendero.''
Coronado had just returned from an eight-day jungle patrol with 60 other farm laborers in a newly reactivated self-defense group known as a rondero.
With their knowledge of the jungle terrain, the ronderos had played a key role in defeating the Shining Path during the 1980s and 1990s. Afterward, the farm workers went on with their lives in a region with no paved roads and no industry.
The farm workers began growing nervous recently upon hearing reports that the guerrillas had been passing through nearby hamlets. The Shining Path professed to have peaceful intentions now and seemed to be making some inroads among the farm workers who had previously rejected them.
The July 10 ambush sent shock waves through the region.
''They are saying now that they don't kill anymore, that they don't rob, that they want to protect coca,'' said Lizardo Barbosa, another farm laborer back from the patrol. "But they killed two of our people. The loss of our friends has motivated us to reorganize.''
The ronderos want weapons, vehicles and pay -- $4 a day -- to combat the guerrillas.
Like the others, Coronado and Barbosa had shotguns slung over their shoulders and carried their meager belongings in a small backpack. After eight days of braving the elements, their clothes were dirty and they were hungry.
''We haven't eaten since breakfast yesterday,'' Coronado said, reaching into a pocket and pulling out green coca leaves that he chewed on to stave off the hunger.
PROBLEM OF COCA
Coca complicates the government's plans, since nearly all of the members of the self-defense groups grow the crop.
Raúl González said that arming the ronderos could prove disastrous if the government eventually decided to begin destroying their coca plants, as the ronderos would then turn their weapons against the government.
Coronado, Barbosa and the other ronderos had returned from their patrol for a special ceremony that day in Sivia with Defense Minister Loret de Mola, who arrived by helicopter and acknowledged that it would take improved roads, new bridges and better prices for noncoca crops to defeat the Shining Path.
''Their principal advantage is that they know the difficult geography,''
Loret de Mola told The Herald afterward. ``But I am absolutely convinced
that we will defeat Sendero Luminoso.''