Is Shining Path really back on the rise? It’s highly unlikely

In late July, Peru’s President Ollanta Humala announced that drug trafficking is no longer a parallel power in the Valley of the Rivers Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro (VRAEM) region.  Whilst this is a little premature, according a White House statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2014 marked the lowest estimate in coca cultivation since 2010, though production potential rose by 7 percent.  Despite this, Ollanta Humala declared that since he assumed office four years ago, alternative crops had developed in more than 98000 hectares of land previously utilised for the cultivation of the coca leaf.  Although the Peruvian government announced approximately US $566 million allocated to development efforts for the residents of the VRAEM, this region still remains as one of the world’s densest coca-producing belts, and home to some of the Andean region’s poorest populations.  Moreover, this region marks one of the last active areas of Sendero Luminoso, otherwise known as Shining Path.

Counterterrorism bases in the VRAEM. Photo by Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú, Creative Commons

Counterterrorism bases in the VRAEM. Photo by Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú, Creative Commons

Last week, Peru’s Defence Minister Jakke Valakivi stated that the government has been unsuccessful in eradicating the remaining faction of the insurgency, admitting that ‘we cannot say that this terrorist group has been exterminated…it is much weakened, of course, but it continues to operate’.  The remarks come after Peruvian security forces rescued 54 adults and children held by the Shining Path, some for over decades.  Amongst claims that militants are still holding around 200 people captive, there are concerns that the movement is back on the rise.  The question is , does Shining Path really have the capacity to strengthen to levels it enjoyed during the 1980s and 1990s?

The short answer is, no. Shining Path was considered to be one of the most violent and dangerous insurgencies in the world, and has been listed on the US’s List of Foreign Terrorist Organisations since 1997.  Throughout 1968-1980, Peru experienced military rule, when General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrew President Fernando Belaúnde Terry.  By 1977, both economic and political pressures prompted the military regime to initiative a gradual return to civilian life.  Consequently, this resulted in the Constituent Assembly elections in 1978, with the Assembly producing the constitution of 1979.  The constitution set up elections every five years, and municipal elections every three years beginning in 1980.

On 17th May 1980, the eve of Peru’s first democratic elections in sixteen years, Shining Path announced that it was initiating its armed struggle.  Although a very small, obscure group at the time, Shining Path’s first attack was the burning of ballot boxes in the remote Andean town of Chusci, located in the southern Andean Department of Ayacucho.  The group’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was a university professor and founding member of the pro-Maoist Communist Party of Peru- Bandera Roja (Red Flag).  Shining Path was formed from another pro-Maoist, break away faction by Guzmán in 1970.  He was considered amongst followers as the ‘fourth sword of Marxism’ behind Marx, Lenin and Mao, and believed that Peru after the death of Mao had now become the epicentre and vanguard of world revolution.

Though founded by Guzmán, the insurgency’s ideology was heavily influenced by

one of Latin America’s foremost Marxist thinkers, José Carlos Mariátegui, who sought to adapt Marxism to the realities of Peru.  ‘The Problem of the Indian’ published in 1928 was particularly influential, where Guzmán argued that Mariátegui anticipated Mao in emphasising rural rebellion as the vehicle for revolutionary change in less developed economies.

Within existing literature on Shining Path, it is noted that there are a few specific factors that accounted for the mobilisation of the insurgency.  The ideology of Shining Path was heavily Maoist, influenced by the Peruvian environment and realities of agrarian life.  Maoism seemed be more resonant within Peru, arguably much more than any other Latin American countries, particularly because of its emphasis on rural politics and the glorification of the traditional culture of the peasants and agrarian labourers.  Guzmán himself was convinced that by the late 1970s, Peru resembled China in the 1930s and that the country’s experience provided a ripe foundation for revolution.

Abimael Guzmán. Picture by Ipeape, Creative Commons

Abimael Guzmán. Picture by Ipeape, Creative Commons

Morever, Shining Path’s initial base of the San Cristóbal National University of Huamanga aided in its mobilisation strategy.  Like Shining Path’s original core support base, the university was situated in Ayacucho, which was one of the most isolated and poorest regions in Peru.  The re-opening of the university after its initial closure in the mid-19th century was designed to serve for social and economic change within the region by offering local youth various specialisations that were specifically designed to address the local problems of the area, including education, nursing, and agricultural engineering amongst others.  At the time, Guzmán was a philosophy professor before transitioning to various roles within the university, eventually becoming Director of Personnel.  Particularly throughout the 1960s, the university was considered to be a ‘breeding ground’ for communism, which was influenced by Guzmán’s position.  In the role of Director of Personnel, there was the ability to forge an institution committed to teaching and implementing Marxist principles, and then extending them after students graduated and returned to their communities.  Consequently, it is believed that this dynamic aided in Shining Path’s recruitment and mobilisation at a later stage.

Finally, though not prevalent in all insurgent movements, there was a significant degree of charismatic leadership surrounding Guzmán.  Within the university, there was a high degree of patronage and loyalty towards Guzmán, and was perceived as having both strong intellectual and tactical ability.  Particularly amongst core members, there was a genuine perception that he was worthy to be considered as the ‘fourth sword of Marxism’, and there was a strong dedication to the leader.

The Shining Path consisted of an elaborate political and military structure, operating in hierarchical format with Guzmán at the head of most functions.  It is generally estimated that by 1992 there were roughly 10000 militants, with some going so far as to estimate around 50000 passive supporters.  However, after Guzmán’s capture in 1992, there was a decline in membership to around 500 members  Later, he called on his followers to agree to a ceasefire and make peace with the government.  This move towards a peace settlement created a split within the insurgency between two main factions- those that remained loyal in the Huallaga Valley region, and those that considered Guzmán to be a traitor within the VRAEM region.  The latter is now led by members of the Quispo Palomino family.

In June this year, the US Department of Treasury designated the Shining Path as major drug traffickers, and sanctioned it as a narco-terrorist group.  The Department  froze the individual assets of Shining Path leaders Victor Quispe Palomino, who is known as “Comrade José;” his brother, Jorge Quispe Palomino, also known as “Raúl,” and Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, who is known as “Comrade Artemio”. He headed the faction loyal to Guzmán in Huallaga and Peruvian Troops captured him in February 2012. In June 2013, a court sentenced Artemio, the last of the original Shining Path leaders, to life in prison.

Despite the re-emergence of Shining Path in the media given the events of the last few weeks, and the admission by the Peruvian government that it hasn’t been able to defeat the movement, it is unlikely that what’s left of the Shining Path will be able to mobilise to the extent that it be considered a serious threat to the state’s stability.  Whilst it is evident that the faction operating in the VRAEM is firmly engaged within the coca industry, it is difficult to label the movement solely as a drug trafficking organisation, given that the current movement does indeed espouse a general form of Maoism throughout its propaganda.  The term ‘narco-terrorist’ is fitting, however it is critical to acknowledge that this militant group acting under the name ‘Shining Path’ has fundamentally transitioned from the original insurgency.  Currently, the group is estimated to have 80 fighters and some 350 members. In terms of ideology, the political objectives of the present faction are unclear beyond attempting to secure a monopoly of the coca industry in VRAEM.  In fact, I’d go so far to argue that given the incredibly loose ties between those operating in the VRAEM and the original core leadership, the name ‘Shining Path’ is purely being utilised in an attempt to legitimise the group’s economic objectives.  The ideological underpinning differs from the Shining Path under Guzmán’s directive that mobilised on a strong Maoist platform in areas where the agrarian elements of the discourse resonated.  Moreover, the group doesn’t have a leader like Guzmán.  Whereas many insurgencies survive without charismatic leaders, in the case of the original Shining Path command-and-control was heavily structure around the leader, and he was viewed as the vehicle of its political objectives.  Throughout the movement, there was a genuine perception by the top tiers that Guzmán was the ‘fourth sword of Marxism’, which sheds light on the effect his arrest had on the original insurgency.  Whilst the Peruvian government hasn’t been able to dismantle what’s left of the movement as yet, given current ‘pacification strategy’, the development of alternative livelihood crops and significant funding being devoted to social initiatives within the VRAEM, it may only be a matter of time.