By: Giovanni Giacalone

Sendero Luminoso’s historical leader, Abimael Guzman, died on September 11th at the Maximum Safety Center of the Callao Naval Base. He was 86 and had been serving a life sentence for terrorism and treason since 1992.

Guzman, also known among his followers as “camarada Gonzalo”, had been arrested on September 12th 1992 during a raid conducted by the Grupo Especial de Inteligencia (GEIN) in a two-floor house located in Lima’s residential area of Surquillo. Together with him, eight other high ranks of Sendero Luminoso were detained, including Laura Zambrano and Elena Iparraguirre “comrade Miriam”, Guzmán's female companion. Shortly after the raid, most of the remaining leadership fell too.

The 1992 “Operacion Victoria” and the beginning of the end for SL

The 1992 operation against Sendero Luminoso’s leaders, known as “Operacion Victoria”, put an end to twenty years of violence that according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, caused over 69,000 victims. 

The capture of Guzman left a huge vacuum and ravaged the organization, which never recovered from the blow. This is due to the fact that Sendero Luminoso had founded its roots on the figure of “camarada Gonzalo”, due to its strong charisma and authority, as confirmed by a Sendero Luminoso political officer during a birthday celebration for Guzman at the San Juan de Lurigancho penitentiary in December 1990: “There is no No. 2. There is only Presidente Gonzalo and then the party…Without Presidente Gonzalo, we would have nothing”. 

Gustavo Gorriti, the author of the book “The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru”, explained how in Peru there were no visible leaders that could have even gone close to Guzman’s strategic vision, capacity, and decisiveness. [1]

Guzman had sought to create a mythic figure of himself but this veneration, that went very close to a cult of personality, was also one of Sendero Luminoso’s  weakest points, together with the constant violent attacks against other Communist groups, trade unionists, and the quick loss of support in the rural areas due to the group’s extreme violence against peasants that wished to remain neutral in a context of bloodshed caused by the Marxist guerrilla, the Peruvian army and the “ronderos”, autonomous defense groups formed by peasants that acted against Sendero Luminoso.

For instance, in March 1983 “ronderos” in Lucanamarca (Ayacucho province), killed a Sendero Luminoso local commander; the following month the organization responded by murdering 69 people (including 18 children, the youngest of whom was 6 months old) in the provinces of Ayacucho and Huancasancos. This became known as the “The Lucanamarca massacre”. 

A brief history

Sendero Luminoso was formed between 1969 and 1970 as a small offshoot of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) by the already cited Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor at the University of Ayacucho who had become fascinated by Maoism after a trip to China. As a matter of fact, Sendero Luminoso’s Ejercito Guerrillero Popular was an almost perfect copy of Mao’s army, and its visual propaganda was clearly inspired by Maoist features.

One of Guzman’s main propaganda tactics was to recruit university students fertile to Maoist propaganda and send them to the “selva” and the “sierra” to politically indoctrinate peasants.

Sendero Luminoso initially gained popular support in the rural areas of Peru, starting its activity with only 12 members (including Guzman), reaching 500 by 1980, and 3,000 at its peak of power in 1990.

However, the organization’s extreme and indiscriminate violence against civilians in both urban and rural areas quickly brought to a loss of support. [2]

The post-1992 developments

As a consequence of “Operacion Victoria”, Sendero Luminoso fragmentated into splinter groups such as the one based in the VRAEM that accused Guzman of being a traitor, and the one led by Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, alias “camerada Artemio”, based further north in the Huallaga Valley and loyal to Guzman. These factions further split into other subgroups and quickly interlaced with drug traffickers.

Between 2002 and 2010 Sendero Luminoso tried to resume violence through a series of terrorist attacks against the US Embassy in Lima, multinational companies, and Peruvian law enforcers, but the Peruvian government quickly managed to inflict heavy blows against the remaining splinter groups, arresting leading commanders including “camarada Artemio”, Jaime Arenas Caviedes, and killing Orlando Alejandro Borda Casafranca, alias "Alipio”, Marco Antonio Quispe Palomino and recently, in March 2021, his brother Jorge.

On March 23rd 2021 an attack perpetrated by the “Militarizado Partido Comunista del Peru” (MPCP), considered to be an evolution of Sendero Luminoso and currently led by Victor Quispe Palomini “camarada Josè”, murdered 18 people in San Miguel del Ene (Satipo province). According to fliers found on site, the assailants’ aim is to "clean VRAEM and Peru of "parasites, corrupts, homosexuals, lesbians, drug addicts, and thieves".  However, there are still many unclear elements regarding this attack.

While Abimael Guzman was still a historical figure kept in very high regard by the splinter factions still loyal to him and by Sendero Luminoso’s political sympathizers, he had no more influence regarding the armed activity. His death is certainly sad news for his followers; some of them will eventually idolize him but, as already said, the end of Sendero Luminoso occurred between September and December of 1992.

Instead, it is rather important to point out the close link between what remains of Sendero Luminoso in the VRAEM region and the drug production and trafficking activity that this area is known for, currently making Sendero Luminoso more of a problem in relation to drug trafficking, rather than terrorism. A July 2021 White House report indicated Peru as the second largest cocaine producer in Latin America (coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record level of 88,200 hectares), right behind Colombia. We should therefore not be surprised if Sendero Luminoso’s splinter groups will prefer business to political militancy.

[1] G. Gorriti, “The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru”, (University of North Carolina Press; New edition, February 22, 1999).

[2] The group's methods were particularly brutal, including stoning victims to death, or placing them in boiling water. The Shining Path carried out massacres of peasant communities perceived as being against their struggle, as well as attacking the security forces and other representatives of the state.

Image Source:án#/media/File:Abimael_Guzmán_Sendero_Luminoso.jpg