History often has a way of haunting the present. In June, families buried the exhumed remains of loved ones from a mass grave was discovered in the Ayacucho region of Peru last year, revealing more evidence of the disappeared. Twenty-one bodies were found, all victims of the Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, guerrilla insurgent group.
There were three main actors in the internal conflict, each fought for control over the same territories. The Shining Path is a paramilitary Maoist group that aimed to form a utopian communist society by creating a peasant uprising. They tried to control the country, region-by-region, killing opposing forces or those who refused to become allies. The Marxist-Leninist Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or the MRTA, was a Marxist guerilla organization less violent than the Shining Path. They often took responsibility for their actions, which involved kidnapping, taking hostages, and directed assassinations. As a response, the military formed a counterinsurgency that was brutal and indiscriminate in its tactics to dismantle both organizations.
Alejandro Sanchez, a researcher with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., was born in Peru at the start of the conflict in 1981. This is Sanchez:
“At the beginning of the conflict, Shining Path and MRTA were regarded as criminals, they were not regarded as terrorist organizations that wanted to overthrow the government. The Shining Path and MRTA were severely underestimated. So at the beginning of the conflict in the first couple of years, it was the police that actually took the brunt of the operations against these insurgent movements. And it was only after ’83, ’84, after the Lucanamarca massacre, that they realized that these groups were actually for real. They really want to overthrow the government, they are killing civilians left and right, they have the car bombs they are utilizing now, so then the military was deployed to support the police. The Peruvian army was not trained to fight this kind of counterinsurgency guerrilla movements, so it took them years and years to figure out how to do it. And unfortunately some human rights abuses were committed by them as well.
At the time, the Shining Path and the MRTA infiltrated most echelons of Peruvian society. They were pressing universities in downtown Lima. They were pressing all over the highlands in the Amazon, so they didn’t know who was an enemy and who was a civilian. Unfortunately, because of this, a lot of human rights violations were committed.”
By the end of the conflict, many of the guerrilla leaders were killed or imprisoned, yet very few military officers were brought to justice. By 2001, the conflict had finally ended, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru was formed to analyze the human rights abuses committed during the conflict. Dr. Salomon Lerner Febres, former director of the Commission, co-authored a report that suggested steps for seeing justice upheld after the conflict. This is Febres:
“We created an anthropological forensic plan that named two to three thousand burial sites where 1 or 2 bodies were hidden, or even up to scores of bodies. When the plan was released, the sites were investigated, and since then, we have learned that there are six or eight thousand sites where victims were buried to cover up evidence, especially by the armed forces.”
Many of the families whose loved ones died in the conflict, may never see justice upheld. The conflict occurred in times of democracy and many of those same political actors or parties are actively involved in Peruvian politics today and do not want to mar their image by assuming responsibility. Some closure was finally brought to survivors when former President Alberto Fujimori was sentenced in 2009 to 25 years in prison for having ordered the killings of 25 people by death squad.
This is Febres:
“Peru requires institutional reforms, such as education, which should be accessible across the country. It requires job opportunities, for justice to be accessible to all Peruvians, that all Peruvians can be citizens that fully exercise their rights—those reforms have not been fulfilled, and that is a problem.
A political renovation is needed. There are no serious political frameworks or ideas in my country, so there is a big task ahead for young people.”
The Shining Path maintains about 300 fighters today, divided into two factions in the Peruvian highlands. Mass killings are over, but they still say they fight for their Maoist goals and claim they will control Peru in 2050. However, their meager public support and transition to a narcotrafficking group challenges the validity of those statements.
In addition to drug trafficking, the biggest threat they pose today is delegitimizing other popular movements in Peru. According to Alejandro Sanchez of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the government perceives no serious threat of a resurgence of a new guerrilla movement. However, they fear movement infiltration by Shining Path militants. Security forces often use this suspicion as a reason to crack down on major protests, despite lacking evidence of infiltration, as seen at the recent protests surrounding Peru’s Independence Day in July.
In another emblematic case in 2009, police fired on a roadblock by indigenous protesters at Bagua, and the ensuing confrontation left 34 dead, with deaths on both sides. The indigenous activists were initially set to face trial in a special terrorist court established to try drug lords and Shining Path militants. Although the terrorism court eventually deferred on hearing the case, 54 activists await possible life sentences, while only one police officer is behind bars.
Thirteen years have passed since the Shining Path ruthlessly pursued Maoist communism and threatened daily life in Peru. Yet their legacy haunts movements today, as does the government’s free pass to suppress possible “subversive” ideas as they see fit.