Fighting Prairie Fire with Fire: Sendero Luminoso

On the 17th of May 1980, the eve of the first democratic presidential election in Peru in seventeen years, four local students and their professor, their faces masked, stormed into the municipal headquarters of the remote Andean village of Chuschi. Shouting Maoist slogans, they seized the ballot boxes, burning them in the town square for the bewildered villagers to see. News of the historic election overshadowed the obscure event, but in the coming months, similarly theatrical acts of propaganda began occurring with increasing frequency. This inauspicious initiation of hostility, hardly an indication that the farthest extremes of Peru’s historically fragmented Left were no longer simply theorizing about the need for armed struggle, would eventually cascade into more than a decade of desperate hostilities, presenting an unprecedented security challenge for the Peruvian state and costing more than 50,000 Peruvians their lives.

The prolonged struggle to contain the threat of Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) illuminates several lessons on counter-insurgency, including the inefficiency of indiscriminate exemplary violence and full-scale military intervention in unfavorable geographic and ethno-linguistic contexts, the detrimental effects of legislating legal power to the military, and the inefficiency of a highly bureaucratized intelligence network. Temporally, SL sustained belligerence from 1980 well into the 21st century and continues to participate in Peru’s lucrative narcotics trade. Territorially, the guerrilla movement controlled the majority of Peru’s rural interior at the height of its campaign in the 1980s, including the key coca-growing region of the Huallaga Valley and the mineral-rich industrial zone of Lima’s hinterland, as well as portions of Lima’s vast shantytowns. These impressive temporal-spatial gains, however, failed to materialize into the Maoist state envisioned by the group’s highly mythologized founder, Abimael Guzman, better known by his nom de guerre, Comrade Gonzalo. The group’s unflinching ideological orthodoxy, inability to protect constituents from government reprisals, and unwillingness to tailor their strategy to fit traditional Andean kinship structures and modes of community organization, as well as their employment of brutal excesses throughout the conflict, isolated them from the historically oppressed indigenous citizenry who, under less contentious circumstances, may very well have flocked to the group’s ranks.

The genesis of this conflict can be situated amidst the ideological schism between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union throughout the 1960s, a geopolitical division that trickled down to fragment local and regional communist movements. Moscow’s newly adopted policy promoting “peaceful transition to socialism” was criticized by some members of the Peruvian Left as an abandonment of the traditional revolutionary strategy that had succeeded in establishing Marxist states in Russia, China, Cuba, the Congo, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Responding to these ideological debates, a Maoist faction represented largely by the party’s youth and peasant base splintered off from the Peruvian Communist Party in 1964 to create the PCP—Bandera Roja (Red Flag) (Poole, Rénique p. 31). The Bandera Roja subscribed to Mao’s class analysis, which framed Peruvian socio-economic stratification along rigidly codified class lines. Like China in the 1930s, Peru was indeed a predominately agrarian society, though the historically abusive landlord class was in fact in the process of disintegration due to a combination of agrarian redistribution legislated by the military government of Juan Velasco and a hyper-active peasant federation movement that focused on land seizures and autonomous redistribution. The party espoused the perspective that Peru was both semi-feudal and semi-colonial, indicating that conditions were favorable for armed struggle.

Guzman waited until 1970 to initiate the formation of his own party, the PCP – Sendero Luminoso. The gradual purging of perspectives that deviated from Guzman’s singular obsession with Mao Zedong Thought undoubtedly fostered conditions favorable for radicalization of action. Recent research bridging a theoretical understanding of terrorism with the social psychology concept of groupthink indicates that the adoption of strategically irrational political violence is more likely when a group is isolated, homogenous, and governed by a partial leadership (Tsintsadze-Maass, Maass p. 1). The Shining Path’s origin story indeed suggests that such circumstances promote radicalization.

From 1962 onwards, Abimael Guzman, a college graduate with degrees in philosophy and law, taught at the newly reopened University of San Cristobal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, the capital city of the Huamaga Province. Ayacucho is perhaps the poorest region in Peru, with a peasantry, composing seventy per cent of the population, struggling to survive on an annual income far below the national average (Poole, Rénique p. 36). Ayacucho received only 0.3 per cent of national public investment from 1968 to 1980, and electricity, running water, and medical services were luxuries that only an isolated minority could afford (Poole, Rénique p. 36). Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Ayacucho’s population grew 4.5 per cent annually, with young peasants migrating from the provinces for education and subsequent employment (Poole, Rénique p. 34).

The university, originally founded in colonial times, was re-established in 1959 as an exemplar of the military government’s attempt to educate the predominately illiterate and impoverished indigenous population of Ayacucho and promote agricultural and rural development (Poole, Rénique, p. 36). Guzman, along with other SL militants who filled various administrative and academic positions at the university, began to indoctrinate masses of students in cerebral Maoist dialectics, and on a more terrestrial register, the ideology of the founder of Peruvian communism, Jose Carlos Mariategui, whose poignant analysis of Peruvian society in the 1920s was appropriated to explain the Peru of the 1960s. When the military government cut access to free public education in March of 1969, students and university staff took to the streets of Ayacucho, clashing with anti-riot police sent from Lima, an event that stimulated anti-Lima attitudes, further irrigating the soil in which SL’s tactical ideology would take root.

In the late 1970s, Guzman and his associates finished a comprehensive blueprint of armed struggle, and declared in 1979 in a speech to the central committee plenary that the much-anticipated armed struggle was now reality (Becker, p. 2). The next year, the sporadic propaganda events commenced, making way for increasingly brazen guerrilla actions. An all-out civil war would soon engulf the Peruvian interior provinces as well as the capital city of Lima and its surrounding shanty-towns or pueblos jovenes.

Observers of the conflict have determined a basic profile of SL recruits, one that is at odds with common depictions of the struggle outside of the country. SL recruits were originally local youth, reportedly some as young as 13, who came across the SL platform in primary and secondary schools set up by the PCP – SL and were attracted to its promise of transforming what they perceived as a backwards and un-civilized rural society that offered few opportunities for advancement (Poole, Rénique p. 63). The majority of the party’s constituency had at least some experience of urban life through the Velasco government’s education initiative, and therefore had internalized aspirations for material, social, and political success (Poole, Rénique p. 41, 61, Marks, p. 195).

However, one official at the American embassy in Lima denies the myth that the SL was a movement of landless campesino, as had been so successful in the Cuban Revolution in 1959, stating, “at least fifty percent of Shining Path columns come from the middle class whose parents were small landowners” (Marks, p. 195). In the cities, a vast network of well-educated sympathizers known as the Socorro Popular provided legal counsel, security, and housing for the group’s central command as well as organized financial assistance for the families of SL martyrs (Poole, Rénique p. 85). The movement’s recruitment efforts in the so-called “liberated territories” were severely hindered by the perception that the group had abandoned villagers during the first major wave of military intervention in the region in late 1980, and as violence spiraled out of control, many Peruvians chose to support the more predictable government forces than threw their lot in with the unpredictably violent Maoist army.

SL’s failure to recruit the constituency it claims to represent reflects a fraught relationship with Andean peoples, for whom ethnic differences, and not necessarily class distinctions, have been the cause of their immense isolation and subjugation since the colonial era. In this way, SL’s heavy-handed, authoritarian policies were irrational from an organizational perspective since they served to perpetuate the peasantry’s perception that SL was simply another form of cultural suppression by the dominating criollo class. Such policies resulted in the formation of local defense units, eventually armed by the Fujimori government, which would defend villages from SL attacks and manipulation.

A final feature of SL’s constituency worth mentioning is the centrality of female cadres in the group’s bureaucratic and military hierarchy, which some researchers feel has propelled forward the importance of women in Peruvian history (Tarazona-Sevillan, p. 76). Women have served as secretary of the Metropolitan Regional Committee as well as operatives in some of the group’s most vicious terrorist and military actions. According to one researcher, “The analysis of almost any major assassination usually reveals that a woman has been charged with delivering the lethal shot” (Tarazona-Sevillan, p. 77). It is in the realm of gender politics, it seems, that SL fulfilled some of its more radical promises. 

On the rural front, SL depended on a network of local sympathizers and pro-party elements to provide military support such as the hiding of arms and ammunition, the dissemination of party policy, as well as the gathering of intelligence regarding the movements and numbers of government forces. These local foot soldiers were also employed for armed activities such as assassinations, sabotage, and the expropriations of necessary supplies. The group received arms through the killing of police officers and the expropriation of what few arms were possessed by the peasantry.

SL moved into the pueblos jovenes, or shanty-towns that ring Lima, in 1988, initiating a series of armed strikes, establishing a network of People’s Schools and party-generated subcommittees, and beginning an aggressive bombing and assassination campaign. The lack of government or police presence, as well as the scarcity of healthcare, running water, and electricity in the “Iron Ring,” as the pueblos jovenes are called, made these communities hotbeds of SL support.  

Particularly after the SL offensive in the Huallaga River Valley in 1986-7, infiltration of the coca trade became central to the movement’s financial support structure, and indeed, it is this facet of the SL’s strategy which has had the most longevity, a feature that the insurgency shares with its continental brethren, the FARC, in their protracted war against the Colombian state. Peru produces some 65 per cent of the world’s cocaine, fed by the cultivation of 150,000 to 300,000 hectares of illegal coca plots (Gonzales, p. 120).

SL established a presence in Huallaga, the epicenter of Peruvian coca agriculture, as early as 1980, with numerous party members settling as coca growers and later founding a series of People’s Schools to educate and indoctrinate local youth and the children of those involved in the production, refinement, and circulation of cocaine. After the 1986 plenary of the central committee, Abimael Guzman sent armed forces to the region to systematically destroy roads and bridges leading into the valley, thwarting initial efforts at counter-insurgency. It is in this region that SL was able to establish its most coherent “liberated zone,” establishing a successful quasi-state within Peru with its own standardized justice system, export economy, and an extensive system of supporters among coca growing communities that have historically suffered under the repression of successive Peruvian governments (Tarazona-Sevillano, p. 124-126). Through coca production and distribution, SL was able to generate tens of millions of dollars to finance the armed struggle, with estimates ranging from 20 million dollars to 100 million dollars per year (Gonzales, p. 120-121).

A study by Billie Jean Isbell on the micro-dynamics of the conflict suggests that early success in recruitment, propaganda, and administration faltered due to the guerrilla’s abandonment of villages during the first wave of counter-insurgency (Isbell, p. 69-71). SL’s establishment of People’s Schools, punishment of abusive landowners, execution of cattle thieves, elimination of corruption, and enforcement of a strict moral code initially impressed peasants, who offered a great deal of sympathy for the movement. This sympathy, or “passive support” as David Scott Palmer has labeled it, failed to evolve into active support on a wide scale. In addition to the abandonment of villages to the advancing Peruvian military, who committed indiscriminate public killings and massacres and depended on peasants for food, housing, and other necessities, Lewis Taylor identifies three main points of conflict between the rural population and the guerrilla army, including “the demand that agriculturalists…move toward self-sufficiency,” “the outbreak of inter-community clashes” over recently expropriated land, and “growing tension between PCP – SL-imposed ‘authorities’” and the rightful community leaders they displaced (Taylor, p. 30). All of these factors served to limit support for SL in the regions most topographically favorable to guerrilla warfare.

SL employed a combination of terroristic actions and guerrilla warfare to sustain the armed struggle against the Peruvian government and elements within society that criticize or even moderately deviate from the party line. They attempted to provoke repression by government forces so as to “sharpen the contradictions” between citizen and state, the central strategy of Maoist guerrilla warfare. The non-state targets of SL killings have ranged from leaders of miners unions, to agronomists, development specialists, NGO workers, businessmen, factory managers, members of the United Left coalition, peasant leaders, and significantly, peasants and slum-dwellers, who made up more than 65 per cent of SL’s recorded victims in 1990 (Poole, Rénique, p. 29). Only 5 per cent of the movement’s victims were representatives of the government or military, a figure that significantly differentiates the group from most guerrilla groups, who traditionally focus on attacking state representatives (Poole, Rénique, p. 29). The group passionately denies any moderate reform movements, and has engaged in substantial fighting with those on the Left labeled “revisionist.” In Puno, a region of key strategic importance to the group due to its location on the border with Bolivia, SL assassinated enough mayors that by the end of their campaign 195 of 298 mayors submitted resignations (Poole, Rénique, p. 81).

The group committed an extensive campaign of bombing against banks, public offices, the headquarters of rival groups and parliamentary parties, municipal buildings, railways, right wing think-tanks, and even a primary school for children of soldiers which was hit with dynamite during school hours (Poole, Rénique, p. 98). The group also on numerous occasions coordinated prison breaks to free jailed comrades, the first of which occurred in 1981 at the Ayacucho prison. The Castro Castro prison in Lima, a center of SL militarization, coordination, recruitment and training, was claimed as an autonomous zone by SL prisoners, and was only taken back by the military after a three-day siege that left 50 prisoners dead (Strong, p. 144-146). The event was key for reigniting the group’s recruitment efforts in the city.

The structure of the group was as follows: At the top, General Secretary Abimael Guzman and his closest advisors form the Central Committee, which dictates policy and commands military and propaganda actions. Below, regional committees disseminate the party line to the five strategic zones, and coordinate the small cells that define the movements of Sendero’s vast network of militants. This compartmentalized military command survived both infiltration and the detention of numerous high-ranking cadres, though the capture of Abimael Guzman in 1992 did in fact lead to the eventual disintegration of the movement, indicating that groups based around cults of personality are prone to failure without the keystone figure. Louisa Richardson cites the defeat of the Japanese millenarian group, Aum Shinrikyo, after the capture of its leader Shoko Asahara, as evidence of this structural vulnerability (Richardson, p. 45).

SL pursued the maximalist goal of radically restructuring every aspect of Peruvian society based on Marxist-Leninist-Maoist principles, from interactions between citizens, to modes of economic interaction and land-use, to the institutions governing the Peruvian state. Some observers have suggested that Abimael Guzman’s efforts were fueled by a desire to create “a militarized society engaged in permanent people’s war,” a point supported by Guzman’s unwillingness or inability to articulate society after the cessation of hostilities (Poole, Rénique, p. 40, Richardson, p. 86). Secondary goals, including recruitment, territorial expansion, support, press attention, and financial stability, were undoubtedly achieved to varying degrees throughout the SL’s long and eventful career, though recruitment proved extremely difficult in key strategic regions where government forces offered a viable, stable alternative to SL’s erratic and orthodox authority.

The case of the Shining Path contains numerous features that contextualize the movement in a wider continuum of terroristic political violence throughout the 20th and 21st century. First of all, we see here a case where early successes, such as the support SL received for killing much despised police officers in Ayacucho, led to long-term failures once the group became isolated from its intended demographic. Many groups, such as the Revolutionary Organization 17 November in Greece, the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, have experienced this decline in popular support once the rationale for attacks becomes less and less clear. Second of all, we see the risk involved in structuring a group around a cult of personality, which has led to easy dismantlement by state apparatuses on numerous occasions. Finally, we see the dangers of an overblown military response to terrorism, which, apart from the fact that it is strategically inefficient and expensive, serves to radicalize disaffected citizenry and confirm the ideological position of anti-state groups. Such a response has aided groups employing terrorist methods in Colombia, Turkish Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and elsewhere.



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