Miguel La Serna: Peru and the Shining Path: Mission Accomplished?

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, by Miguel La SernaWe welcome a guest post today from Miguel La Serna, author of The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency. When we read the news that the latest leader of the Shining Path had been wounded and captured recently, we turned to La Serna for insight into the historical context of the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru. In this guest post, he offers a brief history of the insurgency and suggests what the capture of the man at the top does and does not mean. This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.—ellen

When Peruvian president Ollanta Humala received the news last week that Florindo Flores Hala, a.k.a. “Comrade Artemio,” had been captured, he immediately set out for the Upper Huallaga Valley to congratulate the security forces responsible for bringing down the Shining Path leader. “In the name of the police and the army we can say to the country: mission accomplished,” affirmed the exultant president. The fall of the rebel leader has many asking: is this the end of Shining Path?

This isn’t the first time a Peruvian president has proclaimed victory over the insurgent group. In 1992, Fujimori made international headlines when the elite Dincote police force captured Shining Path founder and leader Abimael Guzmán Reynoso. For many, this event marked Fujimori’s definitive triumph over Shining Path. That was 20 years ago. With the rebel group still standing and an ailing Fujimori behind bars for corruption and human rights abuses, one wonders who the true victor really was. Perhaps this time will be different. After all, Shining Path is only a shadow of what it once was.

Shining Path emerged in Ayacucho as a radical wing of the Peruvian Communist Party in the late 1960s, at the dawn of Peru’s military dictatorship. In the 1970s the party went underground to develop its Maoist-style guerrilla strategy. Shining Path resurfaced on May 17, 1980—the eve of the first democratic elections after twelve years of military rule—when it burned ballot boxes in the small peasant town of Chuschi. The event marked the official launch of Shining Path’s guerrilla insurgency in Ayacucho. Guzmán and other Shining Path leaders argued that despite the transfer of power, Ayacucho’s peasantry was still economically and politically marginalized, and that the landed elite still controlled the means of production throughout the countryside. For the next couple of years, the rebels enjoyed initial support from indigenous peasant communities like Chuschi and throughout the Ayacuchan highlands. By late 1982, the Shining Path insurrection had spread throughout Peru and was posing a serious threat to the stability of the nation-state.

This was the political climate when indigenous peasants from the Ayacuchan village of Huaychao took up arms against the insurgents in January 1983, forever altering the course of the insurgency. Together with the Peruvian security forces, peasant counterinsurgency militias dispelled Shining Path from most of the highlands. By 1995, with Guzmán and other Shining Path leaders behind bars, the insurgency had been weakened significantly.

Under Artemio’s leadership, the depleted insurgent forces have struggled to maintain a strong guerrilla presence in Peru, having retreated to the coca-producing jungles of the Upper Huallaga Valley and sustaining themselves largely through the cocaine trade. Just two months ago, Artemio admitted that the rebel group had been defeated and floated the idea of a truce with the Peruvian government. In January, the Ministry of Justice blocked an effort by the pro-Shining Path organization Movadef to secure recognition as a legal political party. In other words, Shining Path’s future was already grim when Peruvian security forces captured the badly injured Artemio last week. The 50-year-old Marxist was in grave condition, having sustained multiple wounds that nearly left him dead. It is still unclear whether Artemio suffered these wounds in combat with government forces or because one of his own men betrayed him. The result, however, is the same. Artemio is now in the hands of the counterterrorism police and awaiting trial.

So is this the end of Shining Path? Maybe. But then again maybe not. Whatever the case, Peruvian leaders would do well to spend less time issuing triumphant declarations and more time dealing with the manifold problems that enabled armed groups like Shining Path to emerge in the first place.

Miguel La Serna is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency (March 2012). Follow him on Twitter @Miguel_La_Serna.