A brutal military conflict scourged the land in the 1980s and early ’90s, with guerrilla fighters based out in the countryside seeing themselves as freedom fighters rather than terrorists, and a central government often resorting to dubiously legitimate means to combat the insurgents. The scenario straightaway sounds depressingly familiar. Then again, it must be said that a lot about the history of Peru is depressing, as the country this year marks the bicentenary of its declaration of independence. The death in prison two days ago of the founder of one of the most ruthless paramilitary organizations in South American history will doubtless have come as a huge relief to millions of Peruvians, but also a stark reminder of a uniquely dark period in the country’s history.
Just about every country in Latin America faced essentially the same fundamental problem as they grappled with their newly won independence two centuries ago: how best peacefully to manage diametrically opposed visions from the country, between liberals among mercantile and working types in the towns and cities on the one side, and conservatives among landowners and the Church in the countryside on the other. In many states this could not be managed peacefully, and civil wars broke out in places like Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia. Industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries led to significant economic growth, but, as has tended to happen all too often, the proceeds of capitalist expansion were not equally shared out, and poverty levels were high. Attempts by workers in the different countries to organize and unionize were often violently suppressed. The First World War, and the European combatant countries’ high demand for South American raw materials, led to a brief boom and improved living standards, but once the war was over such demand dropped, and there was a recession – compounded yet further by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which hit not just the United States hard but every country that traded with it hard, particularly south of the Rio Grande.
Into this world of turmoil was born the Peruvian academic (and wannabe Maoist dictator) Abimael Guzman, on December 3, 1934.
The seventh son of a wealthy merchant based near the country’s second city of Arequipa, Guzman had a somewhat charmed upbringing, going first to a private Catholic school and then Arequipa university, where he studied history and philosophy, and got interested in Marxism. In 1962 he began work as a professor of philosophy at San Cristobal University in the Andean town of Ayacucho, where he also developed an interest in Peru’s indigenous population, even learning their language, Quechua. A visit to China in 1965 convinced him that Chairman Mao’s policies, or ones like them, were essential to improve the lives of Peru’s peasantry, and he joined Peru’s Communist Party. Four years later he founded a new organization called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) – naming it after the words of the Peruvian communist Jose Carlos Mariategui: Marxismo-Leninismo es el sendero luminoso del futuro (‘Marxism-Leninism is the shining path of the future’). The group based themselves up in the Andes around Guzman’s adopted home town of Ayacucho, and became increasingly militant under the direction of their fanatical leader – who became known as Presidente Gonzalo (“Chairman Gonzalo”). During the 1970s Guzman was arrested twice for taking part in riots in Arequipa, but before the decade was out he would leave academia for good, and go underground.
Sendero’s guerrilla war began on 17 May 1980, when, in Peru’s first democratic elections for sixteen years, Sendero members set fire to ballot boxes in Chuschi, near Ayacucho. Through the use of car bombs and shootings, their aim was to goad the government in Lima into overreacting and so radicalizing the peasantry and workers whom they aimed to recruit to their Armed Struggle (Sendero’s words). It’s reckoned that at their peak Sendero reached a membership of around 10,000. As the 1980s progressed, Sendero’s campaign spiralled, and they didn’t confine their attacks solely to government ministers and employees. Villagers suspected of supporting the government were abducted and murdered, and show trials and executions served to promote an atmosphere of fear in the countryside. The multi-award-winning Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti explains Guzman’s initial success:
He implanted the ideas, and was successful in the face of a completely surprised country that didn’t understand what was going on, who it was fighting, and how – because the insurrection was completely different from any other in Latin America. Many killed others without knowing why they were killing, and many died without knowing why they were dying.
It was Peruvians’ bad luck that their leaders at this time were among the most controversial in the nation’s history – first, Alan Garcia (President in 1985-90) and Alberto Fujimori (President in 1990-2000). Setting up a state of emergency in the Andes, the Lima authorities fought back by recruiting local militias (called rondas), though the atrocities they committed served as something of a recruiting sergeant for Sendero, at least in the early years. Gradually, though, Sendero’s increasing ruthlessness turned many in the countryside away from Sendero, and the tide eventually turned. The crunch point came in 1992, when Fujimori, assisted by his equally controversial intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, launched a coup against his own government on April 5, suspending all civil liberties. Then, on 12 September Guzman was finally captured by intelligence agents in a plush Lima apartment, after reports of a surprisingly large amount of waste being put out for a home supposedly occupied by one ballerina. When the agents came for him, Guzman, the supposed leader and helmsman of Peru’s downtrodden peasantry and working class, appeared quite content to live a bourgeois existence in a comfortable home while watching a boxing match on cable television.
Guzman’s arrest marked the beginning of the end for Sendero Luminoso. His melodramatic act for the TV cameras inside his metal cage, angrily berating his audience and critics, made little difference to his ultimate fate, and he was convicted of terrorism and treason, and sentenced to a life term in prison, after a three-day trial in which judges wore hoods to protect their identities. A year later, after negotiations with Montesinos, Guzman appeared on television, urging his followers to ‘fight for peace’, thus splitting Sendero right down the middle (as was the idea). Around 6,000 Senderistas later voluntarily surrendered to the government under an amnesty programme, while more senior members of Sendero were also arrested and convicted of various charges. While the group has not completely disappeared, its membership is a fraction of its 1980s height, and activities are largely confined to the drugs trade. So much for their revolution…
Since the fall of Guzman and his cronies, there have been further developments in Peru. Among other matters, the presidency has changed hands nine times, and it’s a particularly depressing statistic that every single head of state Peru has had since 1985 has faced criminal charges of one kind or another. Fujimori and Montesinos are serving time in prison, having been convicted of a number of offences linked to abuses of their power. Garcia is dead: he shot himself two years ago before police could arrest him in relation to a bribery scandal. Guzman’s demise at 86 was a much more comfortable and dignified end than he and his followers allowed their victims: it’s estimated that nearly 70,000 people were killed in the 1980-93 insurgency, with Sendero bearing responsibility for around half of the victims. At least Peru seems determined to keep giving democracy a chance – remember that the insurgency originated in a period of military dictatorship – and the recent robust responses to corruption scandals suggest that the authorities are serious about maintaining the rule of law. All it takes, after all, is a remote establishment, a polarized society, growing poverty levels, and a charismatic rebel to turn everything upside down…
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor