Days after the death of Abimael Guzmán, the mastermind of the guerrilla movement Shining Path, Peru’s young government now faces a critical question: What to do with the remains of a man who terrorized the country for much of the 1980s and ’90s, whose organization was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people?
Under Peruvian law, authorities are supposed to turn Guzmán’s body over to designated direct relatives, the attorney general’s office said this week. In this case, that’s Elena Iparraguirre, Guzmán’s widow and second-in-command in the Maoist movement, who is herself serving a life sentence in prison. On Wednesday, a prosecutor denied her request for her husband’s remains, leaving them in the custody of the attorney general’s office.
Politicians and public officials feared that giving the remains to Iparraguirre would lead to a burial site that would become a shrine for the Shining Path, whose factions continue to inflict violence on the country.
The debate is forcing this South American country once again to confront the most brutal period in its past, one of the bloodiest internal conflicts of its time in Latin America.
“Once and for all, what is Guzmán’s place in the history of Peru?” asked Carlos Meléndez, a Peruvian political analyst and researcher at Diego Portales University in Chile. “Without statues, without tombs, without pilgrimage sites, what will be the symbolism with which we bury Guzmán in Peru’s history?”
The moment presents an opportunity for the Marxist-Leninist government of new President Pedro Castillo to distance itself from the Shining Path after a campaign in which some of his key advisers were accused of links to the group.
But so far, “the executive has simply washed his hands,” lawyer Carlos Rivera said, leaving the decision up to the nation’s prosecutors and lawmakers.
Peru’s Congress of the Republic is weighing a bill presented by the attorney general’s office to allow for the cremation of the bodies of people whose “transfer, funerals or burial could seriously jeopardize security or public order.”
The legislation, presented by Attorney General Zoraida Ávalos Rivera, is aimed at filling “the legal vacuum that currently exists in national legislation, which only contemplates the fate of unclaimed or unidentified bodies,” her office said in a statement.
If the bill is approved, it would apply to Guzmán, who died in the Callao Naval Base prison, where he had been serving a life sentence for terrorism. Officials said the cause of death was bilateral pneumonia caused by a pathological agent.
Several political parties in the country’s Congress have expressed support for cremating his remains, and analysts expect lawmakers to approve the bill. But some have asked why it has taken this long for the government to establish protocols.
“We’ve had 29 years to plan for this moment,” said political analyst Gonzalo Banda. “We’re in the middle of a controversy we could have avoided.”
Governments around the world have confronted the dilemma of where and how to bury a violent leader’s remains. The body of Osama bin Laden was buried at sea in part because U.S. officials did not want a public gravesite to become a shrine to his followers. The same occurred after the death of Islamic State leader and founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The grave of drug lord Pablo Escobar in Medellín, Colombia, has attracted thousands of tourists on “narco tours.”
Critics of Castillo, whose presidency and appointments have prompted political chaos in a country with a conservative-dominated legislature, have demanded he take a stronger position in the debate.
The day after his inauguration in July, Castillo appointed as prime minister Guido Bellido, a congressman under investigation for allegedly “defending terrorism” with social media posts sympathetic to the Shining Path. Other allies of the president have been accused of ties to the organization.
Banda argued the president has the authority to order the cremation of Guzmán’s remains, a move he said would signal a commitment to “what he’s said so much in his campaign, that he has no links to Shining Path, that Shining Path is an enemy of the people.”
In a tweet after Guzmán’s death Saturday, Castillo said he was “responsible for the loss of countless lives of our compatriots.”
“Our position condemning terrorism is firm,” Castillo said. “Only in democracy will we build a Peru of justice and development for our people.”
Also that day, opposition politicians questioned whether Guzmán really had died and demanded to see his body.
“Peruvians … suspect that it is not true that he died and that this government (made up of lying ministers who are members of [Shining Path]) has freed him,” tweeted Daniel Córdova, an economist and politician.
Castillo’s interior minister, Juan Carrasco, told a Peruvian television station that the president planned to promote a bill to allow “the incineration of the deceased terrorist Abimael Guzmán.”
A truth and reconciliation commission in 2003 determined that almost 70,000 people had been killed in the 1980s and 1990s — about half by the Shining Path and half by government security forces.
Guzmán and his followers called for a violent revolution that required crossing “a river of blood,” in the manner of Cambodia’s brutal Pol Pot regime. They advocated for a proletarian Peru without banks or money, and began by bombing polling places and taking over town halls in rural villages. The majority of those killed were from the poor, remote communities where Guzmán found most of his support.
While the movement began to fade after Guzmán was captured in 1992, some of the militants have since developed links to narcotraffickers. In May, the group was accused of a massacre of 16 people, including two children, in a remote part of Peru known for coca production.
The violence is “something that we as Peruvians have not yet collectively processed,” said Meléndez, the political analyst. “Many of the ingredients that caused the Shining Path to explode are still present.”