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The End of the Shining Path?

December 8, 2011

In an interview released yesterday, Comrade Artemio, a leader of el Sendero Luminoso (Spanish for the Shining Path) admitted that the internationally recognized Maoist terrorist group has effectively been defeated and that they have officially ended their campaign of violence. Or at least, that’s what the headlines indicated at the BCC, CNN, and the Washington Post.

But there may still be reason to proceed with caution.

For some background, el Sendero is one of two leftist rebel groups in Peru, with the other group being the Cuban Revolution-inspired Tupac Amaru. Both groups were most active in the 1980s and 1990s. A report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) explains the mission of el Sendero this way:

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.

Founded in the 1970s, el Sendero launched its campaign of violence in 1980. At that point, Peru was still on the long road to democratization. Weak government institutions and skillful propaganda efforts helped the Sendero movement grow. Some estimate that there were between 10,000 and 15,000 members in the early years. The Quechua-speaking highlands provided the perfect location to build a guerilla army: poverty and geography isolated the people from the more developed parts of the country, where the benefits of democracy and capitalism were most apparent.

In 1983, President Fernando Belaúnde Terry declared a national state of emergency. With the restriction of civil liberties, many civilians became caught in the crossfire. The armed conflict continued under President Alan García and came to a culmination under President Fujimori, who organized and armed rondas campesinas (“peasant patrols”) in addition to the national military and local police forces. The result was a combined death toll of up to 70,000 people in the 1980′s and 1990′s.

El Sendero quickly entered a decline with the 1992 arrest of its founder, Abimael Guzman. Although he called for a ceasefire from behind bars, there have been a few attempts at resurgance over the years. Most notably, Guzman’s successor, Oscar Ramirez Durand, recruited a few hundred men in the mid-1990′s–no where near the strength of the earlier movement–in the eastern jungle region. Ramirez was captured in 1999, and, like Guzman, is currently serving a life sentence.

Ideologically, el Sendero seems to have moved on from the goal of overthrowing the government in favor of a uniquely Peruvian flavor of Maoism, working now with drug traffickers instead. While Comrade Artemio has denied any direct connections with drug traffickers, he has admitted to tolerating their operations. The most recent attack el Sendero has taken credit for was the September 2011 downing of a military helicopter in a remote coca-growing region.

But in the interview, Comrade Artemio accepted responsibility for the horrors committed by el Sendero–even naming specific incidents, saying that they have been “guilty of abuses and mistakes”–and turning it back on the government. He says that el Sendero is willing to negotiate, but some government officials see negotiation as detracting from the fact they won the war.

This video by The Guardian shows part of the interview with Comrade Artemio (with English translation), in context:

Here are some of the main issues to consider regarding whether or not el Sendero truly has ended its campaign of violence:

• This is the first time Comrade Artemio, the only member of the original Sendero leadership team who is not imprisoned or deceased, has appeared publicly without the secrecy and mystique of wearing a mask.

• This is not the first time Comrade Artemio has called for a ceasefire. Historically, el Sendero is always the one to end the ceasefires they’ve initiated.

• With the arrest and imprisonment of both Guzman and Ramirez, el Sendero broke into two factions: one led by Comrade Artemio, and the other led by Comrade Jose. While Comrade Artemio has vowed no further violence, he has admitted that he can’t speak for the faction led by Comrade Jose.

• Comrade Artemio has made it clear that this is not an unconditional surrender. So far, he has not indicated what el Sendero would like to accomplish through negotiations with the government.

• In an interview with La Republica, Peruvian legal scholar Aníbal Quiroga explained (en español) that a truce between the government and el Sendero is not viable under Peruvian law, because el Sendero Luminoso is not a “recognized belligerent group.”

In the end, we hope and we pray for peace. While it seems unlikely that the government of Peru will “negotiate” with el Sendero, hopefully both factions will go the way of the ETA in Spain, rather than taking heart from the example of the FARC in Colombia. The legacy of el Sendero has clearly left its scar, and it’s time for the people who have been wounded the most to seek closure.

(Note: See Dec. 14th situation update here.)

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