Peru's Shining Path starting to show signs of new life
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Herald World Staff
LIMA, Peru -- The leadership of Shining Path is behind bars and public sympathy for the rebel group near zero, but there are troubling signs the guerrilla movement that terrorized Peru for decades may be regaining strength in the interior of this struggling Andean nation.
At its height in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Shining Path was
one of the most violent rebel movements in Latin America. More than 30,000
soldiers, guerrillas and
civilians died in Peru's guerrilla wars, many in brutal massacres of peasants and deadly car bombings in Lima, the capital.
The Maoist guerrilla group was thought defanged when founder and supreme leader Abimael Guzmán, a chubby one-time philosophy professor calling himself Chairman Gonzalo, was captured on Sept. 12, 1992. Within a week nearly his entire ``politburo'' and his lover, now cellmate, Elena Iparraguirre were also captured.
But the Shining Path never completely disappeared and may be rebounding.
In late May, two technicians of the nongovernment organization Prisma, which runs economic development programs under contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development, were briefly kidnapped by Shining Path members in the Upper Huallaga Valley.
``They were taken as a message, to tell the regional leaders they want to have a meeting,'' confirmed Luis Gayoso Reusens, who heads a Prisma program trying to get Peruvian farmers to stop growing coca, the plant from which cocaine is made.
Like guerrilla groups in Colombia, the Shining Path cooperates with drug traffickers, providing armed protection in exchange for guns and money.
An armed Shining Path column killed two people in the Upper Huallaga Valley on June 1, leaving a note behind saying, ``this is how snitches die'' -- a traditional Shining Path notice. In another unreported incident, the Shining Path detained representatives of the World Food Program and painted their vehicle with guerrilla propaganda.
On June 6, Shining Path members entered the town of San Francisco, in the coca region outside Ayacucho, preaching destruction of the Peruvian government and armed peasant revolution. Guerrillas promised to control farm prices to ensure poor farmers get a fair deal from buyers.
The incursion happened blocks from police barracks and in a town where the U.S. government has promoted alternative development programs to coca.
On June 1, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans to stay clear of the posh Larcomar shopping center in Lima, which houses a Hard Rock Cafe and other trendy U.S.-style shops and restaurants. E-mail had been circulating in Lima, warning of an election-day attack on the mall.
Although the attack never occurred, the threat was taken seriously
because a bomb hidden in a backpack exploded on May 16 outside the offices
of Peru's national
The small bomb injured six and detonated almost 21 years to the day after the Shining Path began its war against the Peruvian government. The conflict began outside Ayacucho with the burning of ballot boxes in the hamlet of Chuschi.
``The Shining Path continues to be a threat, but the government does not want to talk about it,'' says Congresswoman Martha Chávez, who headed committees in the 1990s that oversaw the armed forces' fight against terrorism. At least 19 soldiers and police officers have been killed this year by the guerrilla group, she said, although those totals could not be confirmed.
Chávez was a supporter of President Alberto Fujimori, who ran Peru from 1990 until escaping corruption charges by fleeing to exile last November. He broke the back of the Shining Path, but is believed to have covered up continued guerrilla activity to create the appearance of greater success.
Experts differ over how strong the Shining Path is, or can become again in the future.
``What is true is there is a reactivation and we must take this into account. But it is not really a military threat,'' insists Carlos Tapia, a political analyst and one of Peru's foremost experts on the Shining Path.
``People are getting killed and this is not something to take lightly,'' says a U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports on Shining Path activity. ``It is still a problem in the interior of the country, but a sharp increase in Shining Path activity has not been evident.''
The CIA helped Peru capture Guzmán and is believed to continuously monitor the terrorist group.
An ex-policeman who fought guerrillas in Ayacucho said guerrillas are returning to the intimidation tactics of the 1980s.
In Andean highland towns where everyone knows each other, guerrillas are beginning to make appearances.
``When my family tells me 'unknown people are here and they're meeting,' what else I am supposed to think?'' said José, who uses a pseudonym because threats to his family forced him to quit the police and flee to Lima.
Cautioning ``there are different realities now'' that prevent the Shining Path from threatening to overthrow the government, he still warned that Peru's severe poverty makes conditions right for winning converts in rural regions and slums outside Lima.
``We are entering dangerous new territory. The social indicators in many parts of the country have never been worse,'' says Elmer Cuba, an analyst with Macroconsulta Lima.
Despite a decade of free-market reforms in Peru, more than half of Peruvians meet U.N. definitions for poverty and at least 15 percent live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1 a day.
Special correspondent Lucien Chauvin contributed to this report.