By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
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."
In August, the Peruvian military launched an offensive known as Operation Excellence to target the group's jungle stronghold in the Vizcatan area of the Apurimac-Ene River Valley, down the eastern slope from Pukatoro. In addition to the 17 soldiers killed last month, 35 others have been wounded in the fighting, said navy Capt. Juan Carlos Llosa, a spokesman for Peru's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"They are trained in combat, and they know the area, which is their strength," he said of the guerrillas. "It is a force that should not be underestimated."
The military says it has killed four guerrillas.
Peruvian officials describe the remnants of the Shining Path -- Sendero Luminoso in Spanish -- as "narco-terrorists," involved in cultivating coca, a crop that has grown by 18 percent across the Andean region in the past five years, and in shipping drugs, and who are interested primarily in making money. In this, they resemble other diminished leftist rebel groups in Latin America, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which rely on cocaine rather than popular support to survive.
"Today the Shining Path is working as if it were a company," said Luis Giampetri Rojas, a former admiral and Peru's vice president. "I would say that the Shining Path of today has something of an ideology, because they have not lost it, but also they have been contaminated with the capitalism of drug trafficking. Today, if drug trafficking didn't exist, the Shining Path would not have a way to subsist."
Over the years, the Shining Path has fortified Vizcatan with a network of land mines and booby traps and built tunnels to hide and escape. Some participants in the group's first uprising received guerrilla training in China decades ago, but the modern-day fighters have trained themselves, putting in years of practice in the mountains and jungles.
"Their tactical level is better than our Special Forces'," said one Shining Path analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the Peruvian military. "They are faster, quicker, better at ambushes and capable of hiding underground."
This resurgence has worried local residents, who fear that growing military pressure could reignite bloodshed. In the center of the village of Mayhuavilca, the stone ruins of a Catholic church bombed by the Shining Path is just one reminder of this history.
"There were killings, orphans and widows -- too many problems happened here," said Alcides Limache Medina, a village official who had fought the Shining Path.
"We still have our weapons, and we're beginning to organize again," Limache said. "It's terrible that they are returning."
Another resident, 16-year-old Milser Curo Rojas, whose grandfather was killed by the Shining Path, said some of his neighbors are selling their livestock to prepare in case they need to flee the village again. "We are worried," he said. "If what happened in the past continues, we're going to leave."
The Shining Path rebels insist they "don't want war," he said. "They just want the support of the people. They say the soldiers want war. They asked the people to help them."
"My own best guess is we're looking at a strategy of renewed effort to build a base," said Boston University professor David Scott Palmer, who has studied Peru for decades. "The Shining Path folks are working right alongside the local growers, and are helping them hoe, and helping them with [community work], and would pay for what they buy. They're seen, if not as a positive force, at least as worthy of being accepted -- not embraced but at least accepted."
This attempt to win popular support is just one of several evolutions the Shining Path has undergone. After Guzmán was captured in 1992, he called on his followers to lay down their weapons. Some complied, but others, who became known as Proseguir, or Continue, insisted on armed resistance. The remaining fighters clustered in hidden camps in two main areas, the Apurimac-Ene River Valley and the Upper Huallaga Valley, which are also centers of coca cultivation.
By 2000, the debilitated and impoverished Shining Path was protecting young men who carried backpacks of cocaine on footpaths through the Andes. The guerrillas saw themselves as "defenders of coca growers," who rejected Guzmán and other early leaders as assassins and traitors of the people, said Jaime Antezana of the Institute for International Studies at Peru's Catholic University in Lima.
"The Shining Path in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were in full war, destroyed bridges, destroyed electrical towers, destroyed machinery to build roads. They assassinated technicians," Antezana said. "In this process of change, when they formed the alliance with drug traffickers, they no longer opposed development projects."
As their wealth grew, the guerrillas morphed from a security operation for drug dealers to growing coca and producing cocaine paste themselves, as well as shipping their own drugs and actively recruiting new members, according to observers.
The Shining Path has not yet become even a shadow of the national security threat for President Alan García that it was during his first term, from 1985 to 1990, when he was one of many officials accused of overseeing military massacres of rural people believed to be supporting the group. But the recent attacks and the ongoing work to excavate mass graves -- such as one in the village of Putis this year believed to contain 123 people, including children, allegedly killed by soldiers -- has raised further questions about the government's current response to the guerrillas.
Several hundred soldiers are taking part in Operation Excellence, and Carlos, the Joint Chiefs spokesman, said the military plans to establish two or three new bases in Shining Path territory.
That is not welcome news to some residents high in the Andes. Cesar Sanchez Medina, 37, the lone teacher in the 20-student elementary school in Mayhuavilca, said the schoolhouse, rebuilt with money from the state's war reparations fund, may close down again if violence returns.
"Alan García doesn't know what we are living through here," he said. "He's not foreseeing what could happen if the army gets involved. What we want is that neither side interrupts our lives."
Special correspondent Lucien Chauvin contributed to this report.