In Peru, a Rebellion Reborn
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
PUKATORO, Peru -- After years in relative obscurity, the Shining Path, one of Latin America's most notorious guerrilla groups, is fighting the Peruvian military with renewed vigor, feeding on the profits of the cocaine trade and trying to win support from the Andean villagers it once terrorized, according to residents and Peruvian officials.
The Shining Path's reemergence has stirred chilling memories of its blood-soaked forays of decades past. In October, Shining Path guerrillas killed more people -- 17 soldiers and five civilians -- than they have in any month since the 1990s. This rising death toll is largely attributed to a fresh offensive by the Peruvian military, launched under the same president who battled them in the 1980s, to try to destroy the remnants of the once almost forgotten communist rebel group.
But those who live among them, as well as those who study the secretive group, also describe other reasons for their resurgence. The Shining Path, which has its bases in two coca-producing regions of central Peru, is now heavily involved in drug trafficking and is paying for new recruits.
Experts said the guerrillas have renounced the brutal tactics espoused by their original leader, Abimael Guzmán, who was captured in 1992. Unlike Guzmán, who said 10 percent of the Peruvian population had to be assassinated for the Shining Path to take power, the new leaders tell their followers they must protect the villagers and instead target the military and anti-drug authorities.
In numbers, the guerrillas' ranks remain a fraction of their former size: 400 to 700 full-time fighters in the branch that insists on armed struggle, according to various estimates; in the low thousands if offshoots that call for more-peaceful political revolution are included. In ideology, they appear to have abandoned the strict Maoism that Guzmán preached and to have adopted a muddled form of communism that welcomes foreign investment and large international mining companies, among others, provided they treat their workers well.
Before dawn on Oct. 20, a column of Shining Path fighters walked single-file out of a cold mist into an American-owned mining camp in Pukatoro, in the Ayacucho region of southern Peru. They wore all black, with bulletproof vests, and carried assault rifles. The guards at the camp, who were unarmed, surrendered their radios and joined the miners on a patchy grass plateau to listen to the guerrillas.
"We are not going to hurt you," one of the guerrillas said, according to an account confirmed by five workers present at the encounter. Instead, the guerrillas told the workers that the mine's owner, St. Louis-based Doe Run, should be paying health benefits and higher salaries. Before leaving with supplies of canned tuna, rice, sugar and gasoline, the guerrillas wanted the miners to know that "they were not going to commit the same acts of violence like they did in the past," one witness said.
The road to Pukatoro is a single-lane dirt path that ascends in precipitous switchbacks through fields of prickly pear cactus up the Andes' mist-shrouded slopes. The Shining Path revealed its brand of brutality to the world in 1980 by stringing dead dogs from lampposts in the coastal capital, Lima, but it was here among the impoverished Quechua-speaking indigenous people of Ayacucho that the Maoist movement started and gained strength.
Guzmán, a philosopher and university professor who remains imprisoned, aspired to emulate the rural uprising Mao Zedong led in China, and he was prepared to cross a "river of blood" to do so. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated in 2003 that 69,000 people died from 1980 to 2000 during fighting between the Shining Path and the military -- a legacy still emerging from mass graves throughout the countryside. More than half those deaths have been attributed to the guerrillas.
"The ghosts are waking up once again," said Gustavo Gorriti, an author and expert on the Shining Path.
After the Shining Path visit to Pukatoro, the copper prospectors in this small mining camp nearly 14,000 feet above sea level packed up and departed, temporarily shutting down the operation, according to the guards who remain at the site protecting machinery. A spokesman for the company declined to comment about the situation.
"The Shining Path is not finished," said one of the guards, who refused to give his name. "They are still killing people."