The Shining Path (Sendero Luminso) are Peru’s most well known and destructive terrorism group. On the world stage not much is known about who they are or what they did in Peru. Over the last few years in Peru, there has been a campaign to ensure people do remember the lives lost and stories from the relatively recent time of terrorism. During the 1980s and early 1990s the Shining Path wreaked destruction and devastation in Peru. It was the ordinary citizens that were the victims in the ‘People’s War’. It was their lives, their homes and livelihoods that were affected in this war, a war that they were not the agents of.
The Shining Path was a terrorist group that drew its various ideas from leftist and Marxist theories on imperialism and capitalism. It was founded by Abimael Guzman. It was during his time at San Cristobal of Huamanga National University in Ayacucho that Abimael Guzman turned to communism to find solutions for the poverty that he saw all over Peru. Abimeal Guzman was a member of the Communist Party of Peru-Red Flag until 1970. It is said that he was dissatisfied that this group would not take up arms against the government and therefore he created a splinter group, Sendero Luminso (Shining Path). Abimael Guzman was a university philosophy professor and it was in and through the universities that he developed the idea and spread his message that central government in Peru needed to be replaced. He believed that the government was run by the rich and that it needed a new democracy and the only way to do this was by force.
The first public act of the Shining Path was on the 17th May 1980. It was on the evening of the first democratic elections for 12 years in Peru. The attack took place in a town called Chuschi, in the Ayacucho Region. The Shining Path members took and burned the ballot boxes in the central plaza as an act of defiance against the government. Amazingly, new ballot boxes were brought in the following day. The elections proceeded without further trouble and little was reported of the event in the press. From this event the group’s activities grew and terrorism became a huge threat within Peru. Throughout the 1980s the Shining Path gained support from country peasants who were fed up with a centralised government that did little for them, particularly support was found in Ayacucho and surrounding areas.
As the support grew so did the area that became off limits to the state and non-supporters. These areas became dangerous for non-supporters. Their strongholds were the mountain areas of Peru, particularly Ayacucho and surrounding area. The worst violence was concentrated in the Andean Highlands, but violence spread to other areas and cities including Lima. In the Andean Highland, The Shining Path and government forces fought to control the population through terror. It was not uncommon that heavy violence was used, though it can be noted that neither the state nor the Shining Path can be seen as innocent. Many innocent lives were lost in these battles for control. Two different types of violence were seen in this war. The Shining Path, in order to preserve ammunition would hack their victims to death with a machete, whereas the government and paramilitary forces would use torture and sexual violence. More than often it was the common citizen, rather than the Shining Path or government forces that were caught up in the violence. Villagers were slaughtered and often village massacres would occur due to power struggles. The case often being that the villagers were caught up in the battles due rather than becoming involved by choice. Many of the deaths, disappearances and injustices were on innocent men, women and children. Some villagers were supportive of the Shining Path’s ideals, the rural villages had been neglected and misunderstood by central government for years and here was a group offering them the chance to be made ‘equal’ and popular ‘justice’. I am sure it seemed too good to be true for many, which sadly it was.
Over the years that the Shining Path had a stronghold in Peru, the estimated number of disappearances and deaths reaches the incredible toll of 70 000. It was the bloodiest conflict in Peru since the Spanish conquest. The Shining Path was and is remembered for its brutality and violence it deployed during the years of rein. Despite the fact and idea that they were a group looking to solve rural poverty and help neglected areas and people by central government, in reality they used much brutality on peasant communities. They disrespected local customs and forced closure of markets and community gatherings. This led to many communities forming community patrols to help defend themselves against attacks from the Shining Path. Local communities began living in terror, from both the Shining Path and the government and paramilitary forces as they fought against each other. This fear often led to families leaving their home and livelihoods. They uprooted and moved to Lima or other cities considered ‘safer’. They went in search for safety and a better life. Though no doubt leaving what had been your home for generations and a livelihood was not an easy choice. Many people taking what they could carry and nothing more. It is estimated that 200,000 people left their homes from 1980 to 1990. Due to the lack of contacts in Lima, families settled on the then outskirts of Lima. Having to build their own homes and find a new way to earn money to provide for the family, it was not an easy task. Eventually many families and communities were reconnected and live in the same ‘publeo jovenes’. Many of these areas were without water and electricity supply. Living conditions were hard. Today, many of these communities and conditions still exist. Many residents in the publeo jovenes are Andean villagers or families of villagers seeking a safer and better life from the time of the rein of the Shining Path.
During the time of terrorism, Peru saw some Presidents, who were not ideal in dealing with what was happening in Peru. This just added to the problems and crisis that Peru was facing. The economy was plunged into a troubling time during the conflict. Inflation was incredible and changed daily. No one in Peru was left unaffected in one way or another by the conflict and terror that the Shining Path produced. During the first presidency of Alan Garcia, inflation reached 7649%. How anyone could live ‘normally’ is hard to believe. I remember talking to my Peruvian ‘parents’ and ‘grandparents’ in Arequipa about the early 90s and how one day you would go to buy a tin of coffee and the next time you went you wouldn’t know if you could afford it or not. Alberto Fujimori was voted in as president in 1990. He eventually stopped skyrocketing inflation, especially for basic necessities such as water and gas. Fujimori was just as tough with the terrorism as he was with the economy. During his time as President many human right abuses were committed and this added to the troubles the country was facing during his time as president.
In 1992 under Fujimori, Abimael Guzman, the leader and founder or the Shining Path was arrested and over the years most of the leadership of the original Shining Path have be caught, being placed in prison or have been shot. This was thought to have stopped the group and the threat they posed on the government and Peru. It did for a time, though over recent years there seems to have been a resurgence of the Shining Path. As well as peaceful new movements, though with very similar ideologies have also been reportedly growing as well as several more violent attacks on Shining Path members or attacks done by the Shining Path. There does seem to be a sense among people and unfortunately in reality that the government continues to ignore those living in the provinces and those living in poverty. These groups and movements say that they want to give this lost voice back to the people. Part of me, sadly, would not be surprised if the Shining Path or another such like group made a re-appearance on a larger scale in Peru in near future. They still have strongholds in parts of Peru and many of the leaders, including Abimael Guzman, in prison are due for release in the coming years. From newspaper stories and reports, he still holds on strongly to his beliefs and cause for ‘war’. Today most of the reporting on these groups is in relation to drug issues or killing of soldiers. I have no doubt that many stories are hidden or adapted for the press. That the real story of what is occurring in the areas ruled by drug barons and the remaining members of the Shining Path is hidden from the public eye.
Younger members of these groups were not alive during the terrorism years and therefore it is not part of their living history. They are not encouraged to remember and learn from the past. There are groups which deny that terrorism ever happened in Peru, and younger members are indoctrinated by these groups that the history books side with the winners rather than the truth. This is, I believe, the most dangerous road for Peru to go down. History needs to be told and learnt from in order that it is not repeated. Ollanta Humla, the Peruvian president, is passing legislation to make it a crime for people to publically approve, justify or deny the crimes of terrorism. This is a step which will help Peru remember but I do wonder if history is about to repeat itself? Recently there seems to be a real push to remember the true stories and the lives that were lost during the time of the Shining Path terrorism in the 80s and 90s. Lima’s national museum has dedicated a whole floor to photos from this time. It is a harrowing exhibition, though one which will not let the voices of the lost, stay silent. A memorial in Lima, called the ‘El Ojo Que Llora’ which has a labyrinth of stones with each stone having a name of someone who lost their life in the conflict. This was set up to help families and friends have a space for morning and reflection but also to help educate visitors about the recent past and allow them to reflect on broken relationships and the movement towards respect, justice and solidarity in Peru. Both of these keep stories of the past alive and enable us to reflect and learn from the past.
It is true that deep inequalities still remain and are embedded within Peru. This will not change overnight but I believe that change is possible if all parties are open to talking, but more importantly listening needs to occur. Peru does have a future and I hope that is one that does not contain terrorism and violence from the Shining Path or any other group.
After some language training to improve my Spanish I will be taking up the role of Short Term Coordiantor (STC) for Peru. The STC coordinates the Latin Link Step (teams) and Stride (people) programmes, placing them in projects lasting from a few weeks to two years. Based in Arequipa, I will be getting involved in a local church and my local community.