In his hideaway on the eastern slopes of the Andes, Feliciano was cornered--and he knew it.
The leader of a remnant band of Peru's notorious Shining Path guerrilla movement, a balding 46-year-old with thick glasses and a mean temper, Oscar Ramirez Durand--Comrade Feliciano to his followers--was reduced to masquerading as a simple farmer. Along with three female and two male bodyguards, all hungry, he fled through the nearby forest to evade Peruvian soldiers who were closing in fast.
For years, Ramirez had slyly avoided capture. No one had even photographed him in 19 years. Recently, he had reemerged near Jauja, 185 miles east of Lima, a ghost in fatigues struggling to rebuild the fractured but still dangerous guerrilla group that in the 1980s and early 1990s sowed terror through Peru with a radical Maoist doctrine and bloody attacks on the Establishment.
As the sun rose this morning, however, Ramirez was sighted by 20 Peruvian soldiers, and the struggle ended. The last major light of the Shining Path, the guerrilla chief once renowned as a military strategist surrendered without a fight.
President Alberto Fujimori hailed the capture as the "beginning of the end" of an age of guerrilla warfare that since 1980 has cost 30,000 lives in this Andean nation of 25 million. As the president exulted, Ramirez was taken to an air force base for interrogation by Fujimori's top intelligence officer, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Seizing the moment, Fujimori said in an interview that he has authorized a "final campaign" to stamp out the other 200 or so members left in the Shining Path movement, which he described as "scattered and leaderless."
Fujimori's handling of the manhunt--in its final days he personally oversaw the operation--underscored the forceful, hands-on style for which he has become internationally known. And for which, lately, he has enjoyed strong popularity in Peru, with an approval rating of more than 40 percent, his highest in 30 months.
The Ramirez arrest is "a major step in the pacification of the country," said Carlos Tapia, author of a book on the Shining Path, "and an important element in President Fujimori's reelection bid."
For his nine years in office, Fujimori has used a "zero tolerance" approach to terrorism, dissolving Congress and setting up military courts of "faceless judges" to wage a successful campaign against the guerrillas. In the process, he has been accused of tolerating human rights abuses and sidestepping due process.
In neighboring Colombia, President Andres Pastrana has followed a different course: advocating dialogue with guerrillas even as they escalate a violent anti-government campaign that has given them control of almost half the country. When asked to compare his style with that of Pastrana, Fujimori shrugged and said, "Peace talks don't work."
Fujimori took some heat today from opposition leaders who described his offensive against the guerrillas as a means of deflecting criticism of his human rights record--highlighted last week when he withdrew Peru from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Fujimori sought to avoid more such criticism today, saying that Ramirez will receive fair treatment and medical attention.
He also refrained from displaying Ramirez in a cage like those he once used to show off captured guerrillas; in fact, the government did not display its latest prisoner at all. Fujimori insisted, nevertheless, that Ramirez will be tried by a military court. "Today, that policy [of zero tolerance] let us cut off the head of the Shining Path," he said, grinning. "And this time, we are not going to let it grow back."
Fujimori referred to the landmark 1992 capture of Abimael Guzman, the Maoist ideologue who founded Shining Path, at a Lima safe house, which crippled the movement. The subsequent arrest of others in the Shining Path leadership caused many more to lay down their arms, but one faction, now called the Red Shining Path, remained intact--headed by Ramirez.
Ramirez, son of a retired Peruvian army colonel who dropped out of a Lima engineering school, was long considered the Shining Path's military strategist, and he tried to reorganize the group following Guzman's capture. In recent months, military sources said, he had traveled to Colombia to study the successful operations of the main rebel group there, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
News dispatches and Peruvian intelligence reports from around Peru have indicated increased Shining Path activity lately, chiefly in the south-central coca growing regions and the remote area where the Amazon jungle meets the Andes. That violence has included the slayings of at least two small-town mayors and an increase in propaganda distribution by guerrillas seeking to recruit Shining Path members among Peru's rural poor.
Those reports, along with strong rumors that Ramirez had resurfaced, led to a government counterterrorism campaign that included deployment of more than 2,000 troops in the region over the past 40 days. In clashes this week, two guerrillas were reported killed and nine captured. During one skirmish, an army captain came within 100 yards of Ramirez, "but he didn't target him," Fujimori said. "Because I gave specific orders. I wanted him alive. We want the information he can give us. It is of high value."
Shortly thereafter, a female guerrilla--starving because the army operation cut off the rebels' food supply--approached a town store where she provided more details about Ramirez's whereabouts. That information, along with surveillance flights and intelligence data, led to today's arrest.
CAPTION: Comrade Feliciano, as he appeared in an undated Peruvian police photo.