This poor Andean town stoically endured a major attack by the Shining Path guerrillas two years ago. Last July, the people watched quietly as Army patrols dragged 14 persons from their homes and summarily executed them on a nearby ridge.
This month, when the military and its allies in nearby communities began pressuring residents to organize an irregular vigilante force, La Quinua decided it had had enough.
For several days, the mayor, the community governor, and other town leaders worked on a long petition to President Fernando Belaunde Terry. Then 5,000 soles -- or about 75 cents -- was collected from every local resident to finance an 20-hour bus trip by the local officials to the presidential palace in Lima.
La Quinua, its residents say, has a simple and yet slightly subversive request: that it be excused from the rapidly escalating militarization of rural communities in the Peruvian sierra, the consequence of a war initiated by the leftist guerrillas.
"We don't want to form a defense force," said Daniel Palomino Atayano, the town judge and president of the local parents' association. "We don't want the Army here. We just want a guarantee that we will be left alone."
The unusual campaign, considered quixotic or even provocative by other towns of the region, offers an insight into the violence afflicting Peru's Andean provinces, even if it was not known what response it would receive.
Since 1980, remote and impoverished communities have faced a threat from both the eccentric Maoists of the Shining Path and their adversaries in the Peruvian police and armed forces.
Now, through much of the region, a third force is increasingly being blamed for atrocities: the vigilante irregulars, or rondas campesinas, of the communities themselves. Encouraged and sometimes ordered by the armed forces, dozens of small towns have organized their adult men and some women and children into squads who roam the countryside with machetes, spears and stones, challenging all outsiders and hunting down suspected guerrillas.
Government and military leaders say these "civil defense forces" are impeding the Shining Path's ruthless attacks on civilians and forcing the insurgents out of the mountains. But local residents and legal officials say that untrained and often illiterate vigilantes have also ransacked rival villages, murdered innocent civilians, and contributed to human rights abuses by security forces.
The civilian role in the warfare has now reached such a scale that any able-bodied man -- or any community like La Quinua -- that does not take up arms is likely to be accused of sympathy for the guerrillas and subject to attack, residents and officials say.
"Everybody has their force. But La Quinua is a place that's not organized," said Jorge Palomino Quispe, who joined a military-backed civil defense force from the town of Acosvincos that recently traveled to La Quinua to demand that residents form patrols. "So we have the suspicion that there could be terrorists mixed in there. If anything happens around here, La Quinua is going to be in trouble."
Civilian government officials concede that community forces have been using the climate of violence and their semiofficial status to attack enemies and settle community rivalries over property or prestige that date back generations. "The violence is feeding on itself," said Simon Palomino, the prosecutor for the provincial capital of Huanta.
"These forces go to another community and start looting and committing abuses. So the other community will organize just to protect itself in these local rivalries. Then the Shining Path will attack both places just for organizing themselves. Then the Army comes looking for the Path. It goes on and on."
The setting for this anarchic conflict is a region of high, arid mountain plateaus and narrow valleys populated by some of the poorest and most culturally isolated people in the Western Hemisphere.
Neglected by governments in Lima since the Spanish conquest, La Quinua, Acosvincos, and dozens of other small towns are populated mostly by Quechua-speaking Indians who survive on rudimentary agriculture and traditional craftwork.
Impervious to the penetration of outsiders, some of the small towns still follow Inca methods of community organization and farming, and many women still dress in the long skirts, ponchos, and bowler-style hats seen in the region since the 17th century.
La Quinua, perched on a spectacular mountain outlook near an independence war battlefield some 30 miles northeast of the departmental capital of Ayacucho, is served by a decaying paved road installed for tourists a decade ago.
However, Acosvincos, like most communities, can be reached only by a narrow, rutted dirt track through the mountains.
These tight-knit community groups have been notoriously connected to the violence in the Andes since early 1983, when eight Peruvian journalists were massacred in the remote village of Uchuruccay.
A government commission subsequently reported they had been killed by residents encouraged to attack outsiders by police forces.
However, residents, local journalists and prosecutors and other sources said the civilian violence began to escalate early last year, when Army forces controlling the nine-province emergency zone in the departments of Ayacucho, Apurimac and Huancavelica began systematically organizing dozens of the local defense forces.
The military has refused to arm the local vigilantes but has encouraged the peasants to conduct nightly and sometimes 24-hour patrols around their areas with spears and machetes. The vigilantes also act as military guides and informers. While on patrol, some peasants cover their faces with hoods or daub their bodies with streaks of paint.
"Before, the communities were often passive, and the Shining Path took advantage of this to come in and obligate them to do one thing or another," said Mario Cavalcanti, the dean of the Ayacucho lawyers' association. "But now these people have been given the powers of forces of order. And that's a crime -- you can't just allow people to go out and kill."
Some towns, like La Quinua, have been strongly pressured by the military and other villages to establish defense forces. Others, however, have voluntarily organized vigilante squads. In Acosvincos, a place of dirt streets and crude stone and adobe houses, Jorge Palomino said local leaders decided to form a force shortly after the guerrillas attacked the town last July.
An Army post was set up in the town shortly afterward, and in August, several persons were abducted from their homes, killed, and left in nearby fields by the military, according to local residents. "When we were not organized, we had terror from both sides -- from the Shining Path and from the military," said Palomino, whose cousin was among those found dead in the fields. "Now that we are organized, we don't have to be afraid."
Palomino said Acosvincos' 1,500 residents had been divided into two paramilitary groups, then subdivided into companies and patrols that man eight guard posts and conduct nightly rounds in the countryside. He said they were often accompanied by Army troops, and sometimes had served as guides for the military, but had not yet had a fight with the guerrillas.
"We have found a few bodies when we go out," said Palomino. "I don't know what the people were guilty of -- but you know the soldiers have orders to shoot."
Other civilian forces have been directly connected to killings or to arrests by troops of suspects who subsequently disappear. One recent morning, for example, two peasant women appeared in the prosecutor's office in Huanta to report that a force from the village of Huancayocc, north of Huanta, had come to their area, Soccoscocha, to demand that residents join a vigilante group.
After men in the area refused, the women said, a force of Marines returned to the area during the night and arrested three persons, including Jorge Huayta Leiva, their relative. Marine forces in Huanta later denied they were holding him. The women, reporting him as disappeared, blamed the incident on longstanding enmity between the two villages.
Such reports abound in the records of courts and human rights groups here, and official sources say incidents involving dozens of deaths are not uncommon.
"The civil defense forces were a good idea," said Carlos Valdez, an Ayacucho government official. "But in practice the military has not been able to control them, and so every kind of abuse is happening."
It is for that reason, say residents of La Quinua, that they decided on their petition. "We are a town where people work and want to be quiet," said Felix Cordoba, a shopkeeper. "Other communities have done this and have gotten involved in all this violence. We don't want to suffer as they have."