The Rise and Fall of Shining Path

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In the Beginning:

The Shining Path (Sendero Luminosos) Maoist guerrillas were formed by university professor Abimael Guzman in the late 1960s and were based upon Marxist ideology. At the time, Guzman was teaching philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University, while engaging in left-wing politics. He attracted many like-minded young academics to his cause of staging a radical revolution in Peru. He visited the Peoples Republic of China in the mid-1960s and his collection of inchoate ideas was profoundly influenced by Maoist theories, which became the basis of the ideological foundations of the Shining Path. In 1980, he launched his campaign to overthrow the Peruvian government.

The Shining Path’s main goal was to destroy existing Peruvian political institutions and replace them with a communist peasant revolutionary regime, while resisting any influence coming from other Latin American guerrilla groups like the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), as well as from foreign ideologies. According to researchers, Shining Path’s basic strategy was to use violence to bring down the country’s imperfect democratic institutions, prevent citizens from participating in local government, destroy Peru’s economy, and to thwart government-sponsored programs to provide aid and services to the population. As a result of a series of clandestine meetings, Shining Path officials established a military school to teach young recruits military tactics and weaponry use. At first, Shining Path was successful in many of its endeavors because the Lima authorities were beset by organizational instability, corruption, and were ill-prepared to fight the internal war that would foreshadow the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent villagers caught in the middle of the struggle.

The Revolution Begins:

Shining Path formally initiated its uprising against the Peruvian government in 1980 after decades of inequality and marginality immiserated the peasantry. Led by Guzman, the revolution based itself mainly in the rural areas of the country where it carried out the bulk of its activities; this tactic had been used by other revolutionary guerrilla groups like Colombia’s FARC, due to usual presence of a weak government, as was the case in Peru. The country’s armed forces did not have the necessary physical presence in the area to allow it to effectively deploy against the revolutionary cadres. This lack of on-site military credibility on the government’s part gave Shining Path the opportunity to deploy its forces to wage an effective guerrilla war against its enemies with near impunity. Shining Path initially based its headquarters in the mountainous region of Ayacucho and Huanta, to the remote regions around the central selva and south of Vilcabamba (the site of the last Inca resistance). Characteristically, it launched attacks on agricultural areas in the Upper Huallaga Valley and the southern part of Puno, which also helped to sever any lingering urban ties for its recruits. Guzman played the role of all-powerful military and spiritual leader of his organization; in this sense, Shining Path was organized as a hierarchical cult rather than on a cell-based model.

Buying and Selling:

Similar to the FARC in Colombia and other revolutionary insurgencies, Shining Path in part funded its operations through the process of narcotrafficking, ransoms from kidnapping and forced taxes on small businesses and individuals. Shining Path also required Colombian dealers and buyers operating locally to pay higher than prevailing prices for raw coca in return for protection and the opportunity to buy weapons from them. Today, on a much smaller scale, Shining Path is attempting to revive and re-establish such a financial relationship. It has been listed by U.S. authorities as a terrorist organization based on the tactics it has utilized which include car bombings, kidnappings, and staged political assassinations. In 2006, Shining Path ranked 41 on the U.S. list of top terrorist organizations. Initially, Shining Path targeted local authorities (mayors, governors and mid-level bureaucrats) police barracks, and local political leaders. However, experts believe that by 1983, the group gradually began to target wealthy peasants and state agency heads with violence and the threat of abduction, as well as launched comparable attacks against left-wing activists, grass-roots organizers, and left-liberal intellectuals. This change in strategy eventually proved counterproductive for the insurgents because they were not able to capture the hearts and minds of the average Peruvian by their violent tactics. Instead, villagers were subject to the unremitting brutality by Shining Path and were unprotected by the military and intelligence services. Both the first Alan Garcia administration and his successor, Alberto Fujimori, used intimidation to tromp out local citizens. The Garcia government, as did the Belaúnde government before it, used tortures and randomly assassinated citizens for their alleged backing or at least sympathy for Shining Path.

Peruvian Citizens Caught in the Middle:

There is no doubt that the average Peruvian often experienced traumatic brutality from both government forces and Shining Path. The U.S. Department of State, among other sources, determined that the combined death total caused by several decades of conflict reached at least 70,000. The total death toll from the beginning of the uprising in 1980 to 1990, just before the decade-long conflict under Fujimori, can be found in a study conducted by DESCO, in which fatalities attributed to the conflict between the government and Shining Path have been carefully scrutinized. The mid-1980’s, during the Garcia administration, proved to be the years in which a surge of fatalities occurred. This includes casualties inflicted upon ordinary Peruvian citizens, government personnel and security forces, as well as Shining Path recruits. In the early years of the revolution, Shining Path was estimated to have ten to fifteen-thousand members; with its recruitment efforts targeted at the most poverty stricken areas of the country and in the Quechua-speaking part of the highlands. Harsh tactics were an integral step in the organization’s operation and its skillful propaganda efforts were employed to engage those in the general population who were experiencing the greatest degrees of injustice at the hands of Lima authorities. A key factor contributing to the large number of resulting fatalities in the uprising was that the government found it difficult to distinguish between a Shining Path member and an ordinary inhabitant of the Altiplano, because of the similar native attire. In 1983, President Belaúnde was reported to have announced a 60-day national state of emergency, in which he suspended civil liberties and gave the police broad powers to seize suspected guerrillas for up to ten days without charges. In this account, 200 people were reported as being arrested just 24 hours after the announcement was made. The country had been attempting to move towards democracy before Shining Path declared its war, but President Belaúnde’s action in declaring martial law along with several of these authoritarian initiatives, countermanded the democratic trend taking place in Peru. Ordinary citizens were forced to pay the price, as the then Peruvian leader earned the well-deserved reputation for tolerating human rights abuses.

Under Garcia and Fujimori, the country again found itself caught in the middle of mounting ideological strife and was made to suffer severe human rights abuses from both Shining Path and government forces.

Shining Path singled out the poor, indigenous populations, whose interests it disingenuously claimed to have at heart. It forced farmers to slash production to subsistence levels and to destroy whatever modern farm equipment the campesinos possessed. In addition, Shining Path imposed puritanical regulations that outlawed fiestas and prohibited drinking as part of a strategy of strong-arming local populations into submission and self-abnegation. Any person believed to be sympathetic to the government or to even slightly disagree with Shining Path’s fundamental beliefs, was a candidate to be tortured and killed. Outlandishly, Shining Path then abandoned its professedly leftist ideology and began to identify leftists as candidates to be kidnapped, tortured and/or murdered.

Not surprisingly, Shining Path failed to capture the hearts and minds of the natives due to this extremely bizarre metamorphosis. With leftist and trade union officials being specifically targeted, more and more Peruvians learned to lean more heavily in favor of government efforts to bear down on Shining Path’s revolutionary operations. In the DESCO study, leftist assassinations carried out by Shining Path began to rise a few years after the revolution was triggered—peaking in 1988 and then slowly declining. In 1992, now under Fujimori, assassinations increased drastically, and then dropped after Guzman’s capture. During the Garcia era, leftist assassinations were targeted against two main groups when ideological factors gave way to more bare-boned battles between Shining Path and the government: Garcia’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) and the more radical United Left (IU). Shining Path’s tactic to force individuals into submission was a strategy calculated to eliminate the competition. Considering its goals of ousting foreign influence and rival organizations, it was Shining Path’s sudden and unpredictable strategy to turn against its own people as well as like-minded potential allies which foredoomed its end. In the ensuing struggle, large numbers of deaths occurred, helping to transform its revolution into a stark case of conflicting interests. The question of principle was increasingly not in play.

In 1992, the Alberto Fujimori administration staged a coup against itself which led to the dissolving of Congress and the dismantling of the country’s legal system. This cynical ploy enabled his administration and the military police to carry out large numbers of murders and kidnappings of those though to be enemies of the state without having an opposition party or legal capacity capable of challenging various illegal acts.

The various degrees of power under the administrations Belaúnde, Garcia and Fujimori worked to subvert law and order more than to uphold it. Under these governments, Lima’s security forces exponentially increased the murders of ordinary Peruvians, who were suspected of being part of the Shining Path. In addition to the unrestricted power of the government, the Fujimori administration did little to solve the country’s stressful economic situation. Research reports at the time found that 4.5 million people in Peru were living in extreme poverty (lack of sanitation, water, electricity, and gas). Fujimori then sought to enlarge the death squads that carried out orders to kidnap, torture and murder those suspected of being part of the Shining Path or known to harbor anti-Fujimori sentiments. For example, in 1997, the gruesome discovery of anti-Fujimori activist Mariella Barreto Fiofano’s body was found with her hands cut off and spine broken in half. This demonstrated how far the regime was prepared to go in order to suppress and silence those it saw as its foes.

The Decline of Shining Path:

After his 1992 auto-coup, Fujimori took control of the press and almost all of the country’s other institutions, promising a return to democracy within a year. This formula enabled him to rule Peru by decree, with a massive number of killings taking place during this period as the result of fierce fighting between Shining Path and Lima’s security forces. On September 12, 1992, Abimael Guzman was captured by local authorities without a drop of blood spilled. This resulted in a major decrease of fatalities and the shrinking of the Shining Path’s armed effectiveness. One of Guzman’s top lieutenants had been interrogated after being detained and eventually was induced to reveal some of Guzman’s hiding places. By the local authorities rummaging through trash cans looking for any signs of his presence, the security forces were able to close in on him, finally locating him and placing him under arrest. Subsequently, Fujimori displayed him in an outdoor cage so the press could witness this act of public humiliation—simultaneously boasting of his success. Since capturing Guzman meant the destruction of Shining Path’s hierarchy, the group began to disintegrate due to organizational issues and opposition in the ranks. Research by DESCO demonstrates this decline in political assassinations of moderate leftist figures as part of the general trend after Guzman was captured. Looking back on the process, the government was able to bring down Shining Path, but only at the cost of suppressing civil rights and by carrying out a barrage of human rights violations against Peru’s general population. A few years after his capture, Guzman called for a supposed peace deal which caused the Shining Path to split into two groups: those who insisted on continuing to fight and those who wanted to put down their arms. Since then, the Shining Path has not come near having the success that it achieved as a guerrilla group in the mid-1980s. It has remained relatively quiet in comparison to the past, racking up relatively few kidnappings and murders.

The Return of Shining Path:

Recent reports show that Shining Path may be making something of a comeback, reorganizing its cadres and military capabilities to combat the Peruvian state. Over the past decade a number of Shining Path leaders have been peacefully apprehended. For example, news articles reported in 1999 that Ramirez Durand, who goes by the nom de guerre “Comrade Feliciano,” had been cornered, along with three women rebels, after being pursued for two weeks by a force of more than 1,500 commandos. Durand was captured without a shot being fired.

On March 25, 2008 Shining Path rebel members working with drug traffickers killed a police officer and wounded 11 on anti-drug patrols. The unit is said to have been led by one of Shining Path’s last remaining leaders—Comrade Artemio. Comrade Mono—who eventually was caught in March of this year was, in fact, part of another branch of the Shining Path hierarchy. Their apprehension demonstrated that police efforts have been achieving some success in dismantling the organization. Along with these efforts, Peruvian authorities currently hold ex-President Fujimori. Fujimori now faces trial for corruption, fleeing his presidential office, and the ordering of death squads. Others are to be tried for a range of human rights and law violations. This shows that Peruvians may finally be witnessing some sort of justice, rather than the past neglect of democratic standards and the exercise of privilege in the country. Peruvians are responding to this movement toward justice. “Human rights groups in Peru and family members of the victims killed in a 1992 massacre are celebrating now that four members of a paramilitary group will spend between 15 and 35 years in prison” (

In recent months, there have been accounts of political kidnappings and murders which could be an indication of the recrudescence of the Shining Path. Other reports have told of police forces closing in on them. Shining Path is rumored to be financing their reviving terrorist activities by charging for protecting drug-traffickers and intertwining the organization with coca production and distribution networks. Consequently, Peruvians may soon find themselves dealing with an increase in drug violence, a growing insurgency and an increase in government repression.