In May of 1980, Peru returned to civilian, popular government after 12 long and disastrous years of military rule. Within a month of his election, President Fernando Belaunde Terry was faced with an annoying terrorist movement centered in the southern Andes mountains. Over the last three years, the terrorist campaign has experienced ups and downs but sustained itself.

Continuing terrorist activities include the assassination of government officials, arson at schools and municipal buildings, and the bombing of embassies in Lima. By dynamiting power pylons, the terrorists have more than once been able to blacken substantial sections of the capital. They were also successful in severely damaging the Bayer industrial works, Peru's largest single exporter of non-traditional goods. More recently, they have attacked urban police installations and the Lima headquarters of Peru's ruling political party.

In an interview, Belaunde dismissed the terrorists as "a group of criminals." But there is more to the movement than that. The Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path takes its name from the writings of a famous Peruvian revolutionary who termed the road to a new economic and political order "the shining path."

Its nucleus is a group of former teachers and students at the national university of Ayacucho, one of Peru's most isolated and impoverished regions.

Much of the movement's limited popular support is drawn from the sons and daughters of campesinos, youth with minimal upward mobility in the existing socioeconomic system. Experiencing a very real sense of frustration and impotence, a few of them have concluded that change justifies murder. While the rise of the Sendero Luminoso is thus symptomatic of some deep problems in Peruvian society, its methods have been rejected by almost all Peruvians. Estimates of the number of active terrorists vary from 500 to 2,000, with a similar number of sympathizers. The Sendero Luminoso has no national support. Even the multitude of factions making up the Peruvian left have rejected it as a radical fringe movement.

The ideology of the Sendero Luminoso remains unclear. It describes itself as a new type of Marxist-Leninist- Maoist party, but its conduct belies conventional ideological labels. As Julio Cotler, a member of the prestigious Institute of Peruvian Studies, emphasized, "The Sendero Luminoso is anti-Western, anti-industrial, and anti-modern, and the contradictions between its policies and those of Mao are considerable." It is an ideology that offers nothing in the way of solutions to Peru's major problems--a large external debt, a heavy dependence on primary exports and a growing population to feed and house.

On the surface, selected policies of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea are the closest recent parallel to the Sendero Luminoso. Captured documents indicate its strategy is to seize control of Peru by encircling the cities from the fields in a prolonged revolutionary war. It promises a government of "workers and peasants" when it succeeds in overthrowing Belaunde's democratically elected administration. The organization of the Sendero Luminoso consists of independent, parallel commands with a cellular base similar to that perfected by the Marxist-Leninists in South Vietnam.

Belaunde has frequently intimated that the Sendero Luminoso is supported by outside forces, often leaving the impression he is talking about international Marxists or the Cubans. But he has avoided specific accusations and never produced any concrete proof. When I questioned him on this point, he said the terrorists were supported by cocaine dealers in the Andes interested in fomenting disorder to distract local police forces. As evidence, he said over half the approximately 200 men freed when the Sendero Luminoso blew up the Ayacucho prison last year had been jailed on drug-related charges.

There seems to be nothing to suggest the terrorists are aligned with or supported by a regional or international communist movement.

While the violence in Peru is Latin America's major armed conflict south of El Salvador, the Sendero Luminoso does not now pose a serious military or political threat to democratic government in Peru. In late 1982, the armed forces joined the national police in their efforts to crush the terrorists; and in early 1983, Belaunde appointed military men to all defense-related posts. Belaunde should be able to retain the support of the armed forces as long as he continues to straddle the narrow line separating popular pressures for social and economic improvement and the military's desire for stability.

The Sendero Luminoso is significant today only because it demonstrates how a small, well-organized, and determined terrorist movement can destabilize a nascent democracy. As the president himself lamented, "One terrorist bomb makes headlines in the world's press, but a ton of dynamite detonated to build a road or divert a river receives no notice." Belaunde's approach to the problem has generated a chorus of criticism from well-meaning religious and human rights groups seeking ideal solutions to real problems. While this has tarnished his image as a supporter of democratic values, it has not diminished his belief in democracy or his resolve to strengthen democratic institutions. As we left his office, he commented that the United States is far away and doesn't know what it means to have a democracy in Peru.