The Andean People’s War: A Short History of Shining Path

One of the most hotly debated groups to have existed on the left is Sendero Luminoso, the Communist Party of Peru – Shining Path (PCP-SL). After dominating headlines in the 80s and 90s, discussion about them, even from a detached academic perspective, is virtually illegal within Peru and deliberately buried outside. As the largest Maoist organization in Latin America, and one of the largest in the world, it’s worth rescuing the history that many have tried to censor.

Origins & Theory

Founded in 1969 by Marxist Philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán aka Presidente Gonzalo in the lecture halls of the University of Huamanga in the Quechua city of Ayacucho in the Peruvian Andes. Sendero Luminoso, was the product of the ideological debates raging within the Communist Parties worldwide, the most important of which was the Sino-Soviet split which was a trigger for numerous debates around identifying revolutionary subjects and tactics.  

In the 60s, 52% of Peru’s population was rural. Guzmán, influenced by his travel to China and reading of the legendary Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, formed a small group of intellectuals and students around a shared analysis that Peru was still a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country and that therefore the campesinos (rural peasantry) especially indigenous Aymara and Quechua communities in the Andes, were the primary revolutionary subject. This conclusion meant that a Maoist strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside in a guerilla ‘Peoples War’ was the correct way forward. On international issues they of course had a shared view in favor of China and the Cultural Revolution which they identified as the ‘principal event in human history’.  

What began as a study circle of about 51 members, launched their formal break with the pro-Soviet faction at the 1970 Congress of the Communist Party. For Guzmán, the revisionism of that faction had become too much, a revisionism that had forced their members to vote for the bourgeois liberal presidential candidate, Belaunde Terry, in the early 60s. They spent the 70s patiently building the PCP-SL into an active organisation with an initial base among students in the universities of Ayacucho. By 1980, they were ready to announce themselves to the world.

People’s War

May 17th 1980 was the Shining Path’s first public act. The organization was still relatively small so their plan was to carry out a symbolic but easily achievable act. 1980 were the first elections in Peru after 12 years of military dictatorship, as a rejection of liberal bourgeois democracy, Shining Path members burned the ballot boxes in the town of Chuschi, Ayacucho. This was an act that put a clear divide between their revolutionary perspective and the reformist-electoralist perspective of the pro-Soviet faction.

Chuschi was just the beginning. Within the next few years the Shining Path was present across huge areas across the Andes and expanded their membership base beyond student radicals and began recruiting from the rural indigenous in which they had a presence. Their message of justice and agrarian revolution was an inspiration for communities that had been devastated by neoliberal reforms that rolled back price controls that existed to protect farmers. The new cadre politicized their communities and brought the most excluded peoples into revolutionary organization underpinned by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and Gonzalo thought. This was all taking place just after the victory of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and the revolution against the Shah in Iran, a period where everything seemed to be in play.

By December 1982 the government’s position had become untenable, the success of Shining Path in the countryside forced them to declare a State of Emergency that year and handed control over anti-Shining Path operations to the military. This is when some of the worst human rights abuses of the miltiary began, with soliders in Ski masks massacring villages and using rape as a weapon of war.  

During this early period of the People’s War, the Peruvian government didn’t take much notice of Shining Path. The liberal President Belaunde Terry, who the pro-Soviet faction had supported, was wary of declaring a state of emergency because granting new powers to the military could have opened the door for a coup against him. The military had just come from a period in which they controlled the government, so there was a inter-bourgeois conflict between them and the civilian capitalist government of Belaunde Terry. The President’s approach at this stage was to hand responsibility to local police.  

Civil War

When the Peruvian government militarized their response to the Shining Path in 1982, the situation began to resemble a civil war. The state funded so-called ‘rondero’ groups of local villagers to take up arms against the Shining Path and the violence of the whole conflict was ramped up.  

The Peruvian military no longer had the constraints of civilian control and so carried out some of the worst atrocities of the period. Among them is massacre of Accomarca in 1985. In this village, the Peruvian military accused locals of harbouring the Shining Path and so proceeded to round up everyone they saw, they separated men and women, the women were subjected to rape. Then everyone was pushed into a single building and then mowed down with machine gun fire. To ensure there were no survivors, the soldiers threw grenades into the building.  

This strategy of genocide against rural Andean villages was the product of US advisors in the country that were importing their strategy in Vietnam of creating ‘strategic villages’ and clearing areas that were suspected of harbouring the ‘enemy’

Accomarca was not the only example of this, perhaps the most extreme case came in 1989 in Huanuco, another indigenous rural area. The population was opposed to the presence of the Madre Mia military base there and so seized control of it and forced 250 of the soldiers stationed there to flee. The state felt that this challenge to their territorial control was unacceptable so they proceeded to massacre everyone in the local village as a reprisal. Shining Path put the number of villagers killed at 1,500.   

Despite this extraordinary state violence, the Shining Path continued to grow. By 1990, the had control of 10 of Peru’s 24 provinces. A poll that same year showed that 30% of Peruvians thought that Shining Path were on the verge of taking power at a national level. Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, years later, said: “Guzmán was the Latin American revolutionary who – with the exception of Fidel Castro – came closest to overthrowing a government and seizing power”.

Presidente Gonzalo, and the rest of the organization, analyzed the situation and decided that they had achieved ‘strategic balance’ in the conflict, and that the time for a ‘strategic offensive’ had arrived. They formed ‘People’s Comittees’ in their provinces and stepped up their activities in the urban centres like Lima. They were beginning to encircle the cities.  

The Peruvian state, now under President Alan Garcia, ordered a revenge strike against Shining Path prisoners being held in government jails. More than 300 prisoners were executed in the San Pedro, Santa Mónica, and El Frontón prisons in Lima and Callao. A war crime.

It was in 1990 that Alberto Fujimori came to power. Another escalation in the repression against Shining Path. Fujirmori was elected in 1990 on the promise of introducing social reform and ameliorating the devastating effects of neoliberal policies that had impoverished Peruvians.

However, once in power he further extended ‘shock therapy’ measures, then in 1992, using the excuse of fighting Shining Path, he launched the so-called ‘self-coup’, in which he ordered the military to seize power and establish a junta in which he would remain as leader. The congress and judiciary were closed and Fujimori was now dictator with total power, backe by the military.

The human rights violations and massacres only worsened. He created the death squad known as “La Colina”, who kidnapped, interrogated, and murdered anyone opposed to his regime, regardless of whether they were affiliated to Shining Path. Some of the worst massacres took place at La Cantuta University and the Barrios Altos working class district in Lima.

Excesses

This is not to say that the Shining Path did not carry out excesses themselves. The Peruvian state and the Fujimori dictatorship committed more atrocities, but some Shining Path actions did result in civilian deaths too. These actions were criticised by the other parts of the Peruvian left and even by President Gonzalo himself.

One example often cited is the ‘Lucanamarca massacre’ in 1983. In this town, Shining Path members killed 69 people including some women and children. It was a frenzied response to an incident in which a Shining Path member, Olegario Curitomay, had been brutally lynched, stoned and burned alive by the paid ‘Rondero’ paramilitary groups. Gonzalo later admitted that the violence was excessive. On the other hand, he claimed that suppressing the people’s anger at that moment would have hindered the development of the People’s War.

Perhaps some of Shining Path’s tactics, borne out of the intensity of the armed conflict with the state, alienated some workers and petit bourgeois groups who could have supported them. Many communists and revolutionaries in Latin America were opposed to guerilla warfare as a tactic generally, that debate was raging at the time.

Censorship of Debate Today

In 1992 Presidente Gonzalo was arrested and the Peoples War fizzled out over the next few years. The Fujimori dictatorship declared victory and ruled till the end of the decade.

Today, historical debate over the legacy of Shining Path is banned by the Peruvian state and mainstream media. Anyone who questions the Shining Path’s designation as ‘blood thirsty terrorists’ are labelled as terrorists themselves and prosecuted for the crime of being a ‘terrorist apologist‘. This piece is an attempt to revive that debate and show the historical facts that the Peruvian state and mainstream history would prefer to be kept hidden.