Peru’s Unfinished Business: The Threat of Sendero Luminoso

During 1980-2000 Sendero Luminoso, MRTA and the Peruvian State killed and/or disappeared approximately 69,280 civilians[1], affecting more than 5,697 communities[2] and losing more than 26,000 million dollars as the result of attacks against infrastructure. This long-term conflict encompassed by high intensity and aberrant acts of destruction that affected physical and psychological aspects of Peruvian society decreased the level of trust in justice, and (in some extent) the government’s approach to solve the problem. Fujimori’s plan to attract guerrilla members to repent and have a ceasefire caused a sense of injustice, frustration and fear in the communities where former Senderistas publicly “repent” and lived among their victims without a rehabilitation and reintegration process.

In towns like Accomarca, Cayara, Hualla, Ayaucho, and Tiquihua the social fabric was torn apart shattering the possibility of a successful reconstruction because the conflict revolved around the moral dilemma of the right and wrong principle in the eyes of the victims, as Theidon stresses in her research “Intimate Enemies” the perception of impunity, injustice, impotence and fear subsist against the Senderistas and officers.

Peruvian society is divided between those who lived the conflict and were able to move on, and those in rural communities who co-exist with former guerrilla members embedded in their home town surrounded by fear, rancor and hatred. Former Senderistas in local power evidence the malignant social process that Peru has developed in rural areas and up to date poses a major threat to any reconciliation process: a prolonged trauma which impairs communities to interact in normal basis because they (the victims) are in an “extreme state of hopelessness and intransigence”[3]. Although a formal process for social reconstruction was set in 2001 (with the creation of the Commission for the Truth and Reconciliation -CVR[4]) to clarify the facts and responsibilities that occurred during the two decades of the armed conflict, there are still issues that trigger hostilities among disputants, long-term emotional attachments that polarizes identities creating new conflicts or reopening past wounds.

The government’s effort for a reconciliation and to establish clear and fair rules of law to offset uncertainties among the population has not bring the expected outcome in view of the fact that corruption, poverty, discrimination, unemployment, repression and an unequal market-oriented economic model have asphyxiated the reconstruction and reconciliation process, evidencing the complexity of the structural causes that gave birth to Sendero Luminoso back in the 1980’s [5]. Within this complexity rests the constant assault from Senderistas against the collective identity, exploiting to its advantage the inability of the government of Peru to respond to citizens’ demands and to guarantee the rule of law in large portion of the rural area, thus confirming state weaknesses that destroyed trust and undermined solidarity.

Although the incarceration of Abimael Guzman in 1992 succeeded to pacify the urban areas of Lima and Cuzco; the anti-terrorist plan to halt the violence in the countryside brought three unintended consequences in the population as it exacerbated fear, despair and a sense of injustice:

  1. Fujimori’s plan to entice Senderistas on coming forward and publicly repent without further consequences fractured the social fabric in the countryside as the “repentant” imposition forced the habitants to forgive them and continue with their lives as if nothing happened.
  2. The counterinsurgency strategy silenced the civil society, destroyed the concept of solidarity and undermined the collective action since former guerilla members became informants with the purpose to nullify government enemies and opponents, resulting on a constant assault against associations, federations, and committees who were labeled as subversive or traitors; at the end of Fujimori administration in 2000, Peruvian population was a weak silenced social collective with fear and terror embedded in their psyche with the motto of “Those whom speak out is a Terrorist” (Quien habla es terrorista).
  3. The last unintended consequence is directly connected to Abimael Guzman and his pragmatic attempt to hold unto power swinging his version of the People’s War into the political front. Promptly after his incarceration Guzman insisted on the necessity to suspend the bloody class war, at least momentarily, and focused on exploiting state practices of repression, clientelism, fear and corruption.

Although an important number of Sendero Luminoso members chose to recast timidly into the Huallaga Valley and continued the armed conflict, they were relentlessly pursued by Peruvian forces, infiltrated by the intelligence apparatus and living with the fear to be denounced by members loyal to Guzman at any given moment[6]. The government of Peru considered the split an important blow against Sendero Luminoso in terms of weakening the armed front and continued deploying forces to neutralize the guerrilla resulting on the increased presence of military campaigns in rural areas and what is more important: the government overlooked Guzman’s political strategy to abandon armed struggle by manipulating the perception of social injustice, human rights and discrimination.

Guzman succeeded on reinventing his ideology into a modern leftist movement positioning his strategy between a weak and fragmented civil society, the growth of a highly politicized middle class and the emergence of human rights organization and opposition press. As a result, from 2001 to 2008 civil groups pro Sendero Luminoso managed to liberate 3,495 inmates and the numbers of supporters of the “pensamiento Gonzalo” increased from 3,000 members in 1990 to approximately 360,000 followers at the end of 2011. The Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef) which supports Abimael Guzman political strategy has an infrastructure of 60 offices in the countryside, 13 in Lima and the financial support of the armed faction of Sendero Luminoso which still has control over the VRAEM and Huallaga Valley drug trafficking, and what is more the Movadef is conformed by 70% Peruvian youth and 30% of former Senderistas convinced of the vision of a prolonged people’s war under the leadership of Abimael Guzman.

Thus, Sendero Luminoso reoriented its strategy to construct legal defenses and heavy indoctrination of the masses; ordering the creation of civil right organizations to vindicate Guzman’s ideology paving the road for a new battleground in the political arena in Peru’s democratic transition, using the impulse that the Latin America Left has gain since the end of the millennia by including new political choices addressing local problems as “indigenismo” or the pursuit of social inclusion of the indigenous minorities and a real “autonomy” from United States regarding foreign policy. With apparently no pursuit to achieve State power thru armed conflict,[7] former guerrilla members and opposition leaders have managed to remain within the voters’ preference. Center-left and left wing political parties have transformed the political order they live in and insert themselves at the core of the republic[8] by turning State weaknesses –including violent repression- in opportunities.

🙂 Stay tuned.

[1] Comision de la Verdad y Reconciliacion. Anexo 2 “Cuantas personas murieron? Estimacion del total de victimas causadas por el conflict armado interno entre 1980 y el 2000”. P.1.

[2] Vega Luna, Eduardo Junta para los Derechos Humanos y Personas con Discapacidad de la Defensoria del Pueblo, “Resumen Ejecutivo el Informe Defensorial N162” p.12, Lima Peru

[3] Coleman T, Peter “Intractable Conflict” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice” Edited by Deutsch Morton, Jossey-Bass Ed. 2006, 2nd Edition. U.S. p.541

[4] CVR is the acronym for Comision de la Verdad y Reconciliacion in Spanish.

[5] Despite Peru’s great effort on placing the country as one of the strongest economies in Latin America with a GDP of 154 billion dollars and a GDP per capita of $10,210 (2011) and managed to lower poverty rates from 59% to 23%.

[6] How Difficult is to be God: Shinning Path’s Political P.874

[7] Cameron, Maxwell A.; Hershberg, Eric “Latin America’s left turns. Politics, Policies and Trajectories of Change” Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO., 2010, p.14

[8] opcit p.4

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