issue 197 - July 1989
A shining path of blood
Sendero Luminoso - Shining Path - is a guerilla organization determined
to obliterate the Peruvian State. Victor Smith explains where these South
American Maoists came from and looks at their chances of success.
April 1985. A chance encounter on a muddy country lane 10,000 feet up in the Andes was the last time I saw Roberto. During our conversation he casually informed me that he had enrolled in Sendero Luminoso and now spent most of his time roaming from village to village in search of recruits, a task punctuated by short spells spent with the main guerilla column hidden high in the mountains.
What induced this fresh-faced peasant in his early thirties to take such a risky path? Hunger and deprivation were rife in Roberto's village. Land was scarce, there were no clinics or schools. Infant mortality was astronomical, life expectancy a mere 45 years. Indeed peasant conditions in Peru as a whole have deteriorated over the last 25 years.
Roberto's community took matters into their own hands in the 1970s and seized land from neighbouring haciendas (estates). The invasions were successful but the land hunger did not disappear. And Roberto's emergence as a dynamic leader in these struggles earned him a vicious beating when detained in the local jail. Such treatment helped raise Roberto's political awareness and militancy.
By 1983 Roberto felt that the appalling socio-economic situation confronting Peru's rural and urban poor needed drastic redress. He told me that attempts at reform had pro-vided no solution. A fundamental change was needed. 'Why cut off the branch when the trunk is rotten?' he said.
The one political organization seriously pursuing this option was Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Its full title - the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path - indicates its origins: the end result of a series of factional splinterings of Peruvian communist groups. It was originally centred on Ayacucho, a poverty-stricken department in the southern Andes. During the first half of the 1970s it dominated the local university, San Cristobal de Huamanga, where its followers - the senderistas - occupied many key posts.
Abimael Guzman, the head of Sendero, is an ex-philosophy teacher at the University. Like all senderistas he also has a combat name, a nom de guerre, which in his case is Presidente Gonzalo. He is modestly regarded by his followers as the 'fourth sword of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought'.
Cadres of Sendero Luminoso, like those of the Chinese Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s, are grouped in small cells of five to seven members. Contacts between cells are limited and selection procedures are rigorous. Over the last nine years the tightly-knit structure has proved remarkably resilient to infiltration by the security services.
The strategy is to establish 'liberated zones' in the rural areas of the Andes. These are to be gradually expanded to encircle the towns, which are then expected to collapse.
'Sendero Luminoso,' says one of its leaders, 'works among the peasant masses who constitute the principal force of the revolution. We are a semi-feudal country and therefore the popular army will be forged in the countryside.' The peasant cadres, led by a highly-disciplined party, are then to form alliances with other groups: the working class; the petit bourgeoisie (such as artisans and street traders); and small- and medium-scale Peruvian capitalists. This class alliance, they argue, will eventually destroy the Peruvian State, even if it takes decades to bring the 'protracted people's war' to a successful conclusion.
Sendero might have adopted a rigid Maoist strategy but it is highly critical of the current Chinese leadership - as it is of the Soviet Union and Cuba. It has no links with any government and it has adopted a style of low-tech self-sufficiency which has undoubtedly contributed to its success.
The peasant base
Roberto was particularly attracted by Sendero ideas on development which were firmly based on the needs of the poorest peasants. Sendero ideologues, such as agronomist Antonio Diaz Martinez, argue that development is necessary and beneficial for Peru but that so far it has been badly conceived, poorly implemented and racked with corruption - and worked to the advantage of the wealthier peasants.
Sendero's approach would be to redistribute land from the large haciendas to the poorer peasants who could work it collectively or as individual plots. Efficient medium-scale farms would be permitted provided they did not exploit their workers and they tailored their production to national goals. Peasant villages would be run along collective lines with the emphasis on small-scale labour-intensive methods.
The political philosophy of Sendero is frequently compared with that of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. But such comparisons are too simplistic. Peru is a far more developed country. The senderistas recognize this and know that a 'back to the land' policy is impracticable.
Senderista activists face many years of hardship, and the prospect of torture and death. But to Peruvians like Roberto, Sendero's vision of the future has still proved so attractive that the civil war has spread the length and breadth of the Andes as well as to Lima and other important towns. Precise figures on those involved are impossible to obtain. But there are probably over 3,000 political cadres and a parallel guerilla army of more than 4,000 people. Sendero can also call on a much wider pool of sympathizers.
Most of Sendero's cadres are from peasant or urban poor backgrounds. Students and teachers are also well represented and there are even a few ex-police and military personnel. 'Women,' says one spokesperson, are the most determined fighters.' Edith Lagos, a 19-year-old guerilla leader killed in combat in 1982 remains one of Sendero's most venerated martyrs.
Western feminism, though, is regarded as a middle-class preoccupation. The line is that women's liberation will come through active participation in the war. Sendero also takes an austere line on sexual matters. When an area is taken over the brothels are closed. Infidelity is discouraged, partly because it represents a security risk.
Children - the 'young pioneers' - take part in every kind of action, even assassinating members of the armed forces. Many are orphans whose parents have been victims of military oppression, though there have also been accusations that Sendero has kidnapped children.
Origins in Ayacucho
Sendero's armed actions were concentrated in Ayacucho during the first phase of the conflict between 1980 and 1982. The police proved unable to contain the guerillas and 'liberated zones' were established. In December 1982 President Belaunde declared Ayacucho an emergency zone and sent in the armed forces. Constitutional guarantees were suspended and the army had a free hand to do what it liked.
But the generals could not infiltrate Sendero's tightly organized cell structure and adopted instead a 'scorched earth' policy. Retired general Luis Cisneros spelt out their strategy with chilling clarity: 'The police do not know who the senderistas are. nor how many there are, nor when they are going to attack. For the police force to have any success, they would have to begin to kill senderistas and non-senderistas alike, because that is the one way they could ensure success. They kill 60 people and at most there are three senderistas among them and for sure the police will say that all 60 were senderistas.'
Thousands of peasants have been massacred in the war so far and most of these - as a result of the above policy - have been victims of the armed forces or the police. Sendero has also committed atrocities, but having a far greater awareness of what is going on in the villages, its actions tend to be more selective.
The army strategy also includes tactics taken from the Vietnam war such as the creation of strategic hamlets and peasant civil defence groups. People are moved to places where they can be watched and the 'guerilla fish' can be isolated from the 'peasant water'. These moves initially created grave problems for Sendero.
The guerillas responded by widening their geographical areas of operation in order to disperse the armed forces. And they did so very successfully - 'emergency zones' have since been declared in over half the departments of Peru. The guerillas have also stepped up their activities in Lima itself. Sendero organization in the shanty towns has increased so significantly that some party members are talking - optimistically - about telescoping the 'protracted people's war' so as to achieve victory in three to five years.
Sendero always follows the same procedure when it enters a new area. All landlords, medium-scale farmers, important merchants and State representatives, like district governors or justices of the peace, are either killed or ordered to leave or resign their posts. Criminals are hauled up before 'people's' courts - including rustlers, traders who cheat the peasants, and rapists. Many are summarily executed in bloody fashion.
The guerillas also try to reorganize agricultural production, distributing livestock between rich and poor peasants. And they instruct farmers to cut back food production to the level needed to sustain the family and feed the guerilla army. The aim is to starve the towns and heighten urban dissatisfaction.
Sendero then appoints its own supporters to positions of authority, selecting cadres to direct production and distribution, organize party cells and choose recruits for the guerilIa army. Their objective is to create what they call a 'People's Republic of New Democracy' - the name given by Mao to liberated areas of China between 1935 and 1949. But democracy is limited; in practice orders come from the party hierarchy and open opposition is not tolerated.
The Peruvian authorities frequently proclaim that Sendero has been defeated and that only 'mopping up' operations need to be completed. But in fact the guerillas have held the initiative for the last three years.
Ayacucho has given the army its biggest problems. In December 1988 a local pro-Government MP talked of low morale within the armed forces. There was no clear counter-insurgency strategy, he argued, and materials were short - the army has only three helicopters in Ayacucho. The soldiers, who are low-paid (and often go unpaid for months on end) were increasingly demoralized and preferred to stay in the towns, thus giving Sendero a freer hand in the countryside.
Things are no better elsewhere. In the jungle area of Tingo Maria an army officer voiced his complaints. 'In every skirmish the population supports Sendero ... we are living in a state of tension. But the senderistas do not suffer tension. They can ambush and then disappear. The army vehicles have needed spare parts for months and we don't have any petrol. We're not winning the war, we're going backwards. I don't know what the Government wants us to do here.' In January 1989 even a Peruvian general earned the equivalent of $65 per month. Who is going to risk their lives for such a paltry sum?
Sendero's morale by contrast is high. Their prison rebellion of June 1986 is one indication of the boldness of their approach. On that occasion several hundred senderista inmates fought the Peruvian police and armed forces in a ludicrously unequal struggle using a hotchpotch of improvised weapons. Roberto was one of 380 guerillas killed. At least 60 were dispatched at point-blank range after surrendering.
But it would be wrong to conclude from all this that an imminent Sendero victory is on the cards. Many Peruvians are appalled by Sendero's violent behaviour. Peruvian society may have been polarized by its terrible economic crisis. But the divisions are not yet such that thousands of people are prepared to take to the mountains to join the guerillas - though that might change if there is a military coup.
The immediate prospect is, therefore, that a civil war that has already claimed 15,000 lives will continue to drag on, bringing even more misery and hardship to the poor.
Victor Smith is a sociologist and 'senderologist' at a university in the UK.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7