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A Path of Destruction

Since 1980, the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru have been responsible for over 30,000 deaths. So why, now that the organization is effectively dismantled, are the seeds for revolution still being planted?

Last month, a tranquil Maritza Garrido Lecca faced the front of the courtroom, her hair tied back, her elegant hands folded in her lap as she gazed intently at the judges. The former ballet instructor was about to be sentenced for sheltering members of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso—“Shining Path”—the Maoist guerrillas responsible for one of the bloodiest insurgencies in the history of the Western Hemisphere. On the ground floor of her dance studio in a suburb of Lima, Garrido Lecca had once taught ballet to children, but what was going on upstairs was of far greater interest to this court, for that is where she housed the founder of Sendero, Abimael Guzmán, and a group of his followers.

Here at her sentencing, la bailarina looked more like a white-collar professional than a revolutionary, smartly dressed in high heels, beige slacks, and a green alpaca sweater. One of the judges noted how during her incarceration before this trial Garrido Lecca had taught modern dance to her fellow inmates, and even edited a book. Her exemplary behavior earned her credit for time served and a release date of Sept. 11, 2012—the 20th anniversary of her arrest.

La bailarina accepted her fate with stoic indifference. Her composure sharply contrasted with the uproar Guzmán and 15 co-defendants had caused a year earlier when the trial was initially scheduled to begin. At that time there had been cameras in the courtroom, and the senderistas took full advantage of the photo opportunities. “Glory to Marxism!” they shouted, shaking their clenched fists at the judges and journalists. “Long live the Communist Party of Peru!” The courtroom chaos forced Peruvians to reexamine a horrific chapter in their nation’s history, and many feared Guzmán’s publicity coup would revive any remaining insurgents still operating in Peru’s jungles. The disruption became a national scandal, and an embarrassment to President Alejandro Toledo, who, believing the judges to be Sendero sympathizers, demanded they step down. The trial was postponed indefinitely.

Not since Guzmán’s 1992 capture have Peruvians been so entranced by a national event. Since 1980, Sendero had been responsible for more than 30,000 Peruvian deaths and caused more than $20 billion in damages to the country’s infrastructure. After Guzmán’s arrest and a humiliating theatrical display for the press, for which he was locked in a cage and dressed in a striped prison uniform, a tribunal of hooded judges convicted him of treason. But these secret military courts, implemented by former President Alberto Fujimori, were declared unconstitutional in 2003; Guzmán and his co-defendants received a new trial, and on Sept. 26 of this year, the proceedings resumed.

Many are quick to dismiss Guzmán and his senderistas as mindless killers. Indeed, Sendero is a violent movement with a singular, deadly mission—annihilate the opposition. But one must ask: How was Guzmán able to obtain such widespread popular support from idealistic intellectuals and an indigenous population that didn’t even speak Spanish? And how, after a 10-year guerrilla campaign, were this man and his movement able to control nearly a third of the country? The answers reside in isolated indigenous communities nestled deep in the Andes mountains, amongst Peru’s landholding class and its peasants—the latter of whom own little more than their ability to perform labor.

Two Separate Countries

Peru, almost twice the size of Texas, has three main geographical regions—the coast, the Andes mountain range, and the jungle (located on the eastern slope of the Andes). Traveling between regions is difficult due to the scarcity of navigable roads, and a lack of infrastructure in rural areas has resulted in the isolation of provincial towns and the creation of regional economies. In 1960, Guzmán, then a law and philosophy student, witnessed the miserable conditions of the indígenas while conducting a census study of earthquake victims in the Arequipa region on the periphery of the western Andes. None of their squalid mud-brick homes had indoor plumbing, and raw sewage contaminated the streams where families took their drinking water. Most of these peasants spoke only Quechua, further alienating them from Peru’s Spanish-speaking majority. Guzmán’s exposure to the plight of the indigenous poor challenged his bourgeois notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, while cultivating his interest in Marxist interpretations of class struggle.

Marx’s concept of “surplus value” bears a resemblance to the Andean myth that Spanish conquerors converted Inca blood into precious metals for sale to wealthy Europeans.In 1962, Guzmán arrived in San Cristobal de Huamanga, where he had accepted a university teaching post. Of the Ayacucho region’s population, 75 percent supported themselves through subsistence agriculture, and 20 percent of these peasants served on haciendas, working three days per week on the land of a patrón in exchange for a place to grow their own crops. Peasant families on the haciendas had to provide a house servant, who often was a teenage daughter expected to satisfy the sexual needs of the patrón. Any offspring from this relationship would work the patrón’s land once they were old enough to perform labor. The abject poverty of Ayacucho’s peasantry and its subservient role to the landholding class turned the district into an environment especially suited for the development of Marxist ideals. The plight of Peru’s indígenas so enraged Guzman that he began a movement to destroy the Peruvian state, which he believed bore sole responsibility for oppressing the native people. Once Sendero had eliminated Peru’s social institutions, the senderistas would then form a Maoist utopian regime run by the peasantry.

Ripe for Revolution

Guzmán recruited on two fronts. His students at the university provided a steady supply of potential senderistas, but to reach Ayacucho’s half-million peasants, he had to learn Quechua. Then, in both the classroom and the village, Guzmán would draw parallels between socialism’s historical certainty and the Indians’ belief that an Incan utopia awaited them. His teachings borrowed from Marx’s humanistic writings, and he compared the laborers’ suffering to the degradation of the Indians by their European conquerors. (Marx’s concept of “surplus value”—the capitalists’ transformation of the workers’ labor into profitable commodities—bears a certain resemblance to the Andean myth that Spanish conquerors converted Inca blood into precious metals for sale to wealthy Europeans.) The Incan system of communal agriculture, still in use by peasant communities, also complemented Mao’s agrarian-socialist model. With a growing number of devoted, proselytized recruits under Guzmán’s wing, Sendero Luminoso was born.

Throughout the 1970s, Sendero refrained from violent activity. But a 1971 poem by Osmán Morote provides evidence of the senderistas’ ultimate intentions. After describing the deaths of a working family at the hands of an abusive dictator, Morote sums up his sentiments in the final verse: “Oh! What a frightening thirst for vengeance devours me.” This unsettling pronouncement of unmitigated brutality awaited Peruvians within the decade.

Annihilate to Preserve

On May 17, 1980, the eve of the country’s first general elections since 1963, five hooded men stormed the voter registration office in Cushi, near Ayacucho, and burned the ballot boxes. The registrar, who was bound and gagged by his attackers, was able to free himself and sound the alarm, and although the faces of his assailants had been covered, the registrar identified them as the same individuals who had threatened that morning to break into the office. Local authorities arrested four young men hiding in a rundown building on the outskirts of Cushi, and they all denied involvement until authorities found one of them was carrying a stamp used for certifying ballots. The fifth assailant, believed to be the ringleader of the group, was never apprehended.

The event appeared to be isolated, and thus few people took this—Sendero Luminoso’s first act of war—seriously. Almost a month before the incident, however, Sendero had concluded its first series of military training exercises and Guzmán—now called “Chairman Gonzalo”—gave his most famous speech, entitled “We Are the Initiators.” With impassioned oratory, Guzmán demanded his disciples arm themselves, and “rise in revolution” to strangle the reactionaries, whose flesh will “rot away” and “sink into the mud.” Chairman Gonzalo’s cult of personality rapidly grew, and he used Mao’s tactics to further centralize his control over the group. All senderistas—with the exception of Guzmán—regularly participated in self-critiques, where they sought periodic forgiveness for their selfishness and lack of commitment to the revolutionary cause. Those who Guzmán perceived as a threat to his leadership were targeted for these humiliations, which sometimes resulted in a militant’s dismissal from the group. Routine purging of “traitors” served as a constant example to anyone who considered challenging Guzmán’s authority.

Sendero blew up schools, ignited shopping malls, destroyed farms, slaughtered livestock, and targeted leaders from other leftist groups.After 12 years of military rule, by 1980 Peru was struggling to transition back to a civilian government. But President Fernando Belaúnde’s ability to govern was hampered by economic deterioration, a lethargic congressional body of inept bureaucrats, and complications arising from Peru’s growing involvement in the drug trade. For centuries, laborers in the Andes had chewed coca leaves to stave off hunger and physical pain, but as the international market for cocaine expanded, the Colombian drug cartels relied on Peru to supply the additional coca leaf necessary to satisfy the demand. Alliances were established between the drug traffickers and the Andean peasants, who in turn relied on the senderistas for protection against the Peruvian military. The profits that Sendero made from its relationship with the coca farmers provided the guerrillas with food and munitions.

As Sendero’s influence in the Andean highlands spread, it began launching attacks against the infrastructure in Lima, a strategy inspired by Mao’s guerrilla campaign in China. Dynamite stolen from mining settlements was used to sabotage power plants and electrical transmission towers, causing city-wide blackouts. Throughout the 1980s, Sendero blew up schools, ignited shopping malls, destroyed farms, slaughtered livestock, and targeted leaders from other leftist groups. This brutality was the manifestation of Sendero’s mission to “annihilate in order to preserve,” one of several principles adopted by Guzmán to intensify the use of violence in the guerrilla campaign. But despite Sendero’s obvious presence in and around Lima, authorities intent upon breaking its hold on the region were unable to find its base of operations.

By 1991, Sendero controlled nearly a third of Peru and had made considerable progress in separating Lima from the countryside. That same year, President Fujimori’s National Directorate Against Terrorism (DINCOTE) obtained film footage of a meeting of Sendero’s leaders, in which they identified Domingo Quintero, the group’s second-in-command. The DINCOTE eventually found Quintero in a Lima restaurant, arrested him, and began staking out several Lima residences they believed to be Sendero safehouses. One of them was Maritza Garrido Lecca’s dance studio.

Guzmán’s Arrest and Aftermath

The first thing that attracted the attention of DINCOTE was the amount of garbage outside Garrido Lecca’s Lima residence—it was too much for a single occupant. And then there were the empty tubes of psoriasis ointment—Guzmán was known to suffer from the condition. Among the refuse was also a label from his favorite brand of vodka. Round-the-clock surveillance provided authorities with enough evidence to justify a raid, and on Sept. 12, 1992, agents stormed the studio and found Guzmán and eight others hiding on the second floor of the building. Also confiscated was Guzmán’s computer, which provided details about Sendero’s membership, organizational structure, and weapons caches. That same year, Guzmán, Garrido Lecca, and the other senderistas received life sentences from a military court, one consequence of Fujimori’s “anti-terrorist” decrees.

Throughout the rest of the decade, longtime senderista Oscar Ramirez Durand tried to keep the guerrilla cells active, and carried out a number of attacks against the state. But the organization was crippled, and no longer considered a threat to Peru’s stability. In July of 1999, soldiers captured Durand. President Fujimori proudly declared Sendero Luminoso “decapitated.”

“Socialism Has Failed”

Less than a week after Maritza Garrido Lecca’s second sentencing in October 2005, Guzmán stood before his judges and refused to answer questions about his involvement in Sendero, insisting he was not a “terrorist,” but a revolutionary.

Days later, Oscar Ramirez Durand had blasted Guzmán as neither, but simply an armchair socialist who left the dangerous work to his subordinates. Durand said socialism was a worldwide failure, adding that revolutionaries like himself were products of a delusional 1970s idealism.

President Alejandro Toledo, echoing Fujimori, claims Sendero Luminoso has been effectively shut down by the decimation of its leadership. Aside from a handful of scattered incidents over the years, the group has posed a limited threat to the lives of Peruvians. Still, the very factors that led to the birth of Sendero remain. Widespread poverty among Peru’s indígenas and their relegation to a lower class continue to fuel discontent among the population. Although Toledo, Peru’s first Indian president, ran on a platform to improve the living conditions of the country’s indigenous people, he has done little since taking office, and has seen his approval rating plunge as low as seven percent.

And so across the country, in remote towns and cities, indígenas gather and express their anger at Toledo’s broken promises. But the decisions they now make could very well change the lives of people at every level of Peruvian society.

It has, after all, been known to happen before.