Culture Magazine

The Evolution of Terror in Peru

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


The Peruvian people have suffered through decades of terrorism. The initial bombing campaigns carried out by the Shining Path in 1980, in which dynamite stolen from mines was used in systematic attacks against secluded police stations and other targets in small villages high in the Andes Mountains (Gorriti 70), did not fully prepare the country for what was to follow. By the end of 1996, when the Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) stormed the Japanese embassy and sparked a four month long hostage crisis (Baer 26), Peruvians were tragically familiar with terror. The problem of terrorism had already escalated to the point when four years earlier it had served as justification for President Alberto Fujimori to suspend the Constitution and dissolve Congress in the 1992 Self-Coup (Chalk 383). The civilian death toll is estimated to be 69,280, with more than a third of these innocent lives lost during government sanctioned counterterrorist actions (Klaiber 178). The Rand Terrorism Database has hundreds of these attacks documented (see charts at the end of the article). There were 17,000 widows when the dust settled (Bondon 162), and direct economic damages from their war on terror are estimated to have cost $25 billion (Radu 3). During Peru’s two decades of horror, death and destruction were dealt out in the name of communist revolution, but also as a result of counterinsurgency efforts of the state.

There have been roughly three historical waves of terrorism, each with their own stylized characteristics. In this context, the left-wing terrorism that plagued Peru loosely fits chronologically between the anti-colonial ethnic-separatist terror following World War II and the more recent emergence of Islamist terror (Shugart 8). These categories preserve the coherence of the terrorist phenomenon across a wide range of ideological justifications and evolving definitions, while maintaining that there are shared characteristics. In the case of Peru, many of these traits are congruent with Shugart’s classifications. The spread of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine throughout universities in the 1960s inspired the revolutionary spirit in Peru, just as it did in much of Latin America at the time (Shugart 21). The typical failures associated with communist terrorism were also apparent in Peru. The Shining Path and the MRTA were ultimately unable to succeed after the introduction of effective counterterrorism measures, rejection of their tactics by the people, and the apparent failure of communist ideologies around the globe. Terrorism now survives in Peru in the form of drug trafficking networks that maintain leftist leanings.

Relative deprivation theory is a helpful model for understanding the roots of terrorism in Peru, and elsewhere. Both Shining Path and MRTA were born out of the failed legacy of leftist political parties who were not able to raise the living standards for the indigenous Peruvians. The founders of these movements were mostly from the middle class universities and wanted justice for the poor. Peru was still a virtually feudal society in the middle of the 20th century, with only the 0.1% elite classes controlling 60% the arable land, and the peasants performing menial tasks in abject service of the hacienda owners (Osborn 120). In 1980 there were millions of undernourished Peruvians who lived without electricity or running water, and around half of the population subsisted in poverty (Baer 11). These conditions are the fertile soil for violence to take root, and for many relative deprivation made terrorism a justified alternative to failed economic development. Terrorism in Peru has evolved from Maoist fundamentalism to narco-terrorism and under continued conditions of relative depravity the future path of this change is uncertain.

A Peruvian History of Violence

At the time the New World was discovered, the Incan empire dominated South America and controlled the region covered by the modern states of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and more (Prescott 3). From the fortress city of Cuzco, nestled high in the Andes Mountains, the emperor had absolute power and governed as a patriarchal and benevolent dictator (Prescott 10). On November 16th, 1532 the Incan Emperor Atahualpa led a diplomatic delegation to meet with the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the Incan city of Caxamalca (Prescott 165-166). Pizarro, like most of the Conquistadors, was only interested in the promise of the gold and treasure he could take from the Inca and staged a treacherous ambush of the delegation. A massacre ensued as the Spaniards decimated the Incas from horseback with guns and swords. Pizarro took Atahualpa hostage (Prescott 170), but the Conquistador had the Inca executed on August 29th, 1533 (Prescott 196). On November 1st, Pizarro entered the Incan capital city of Cuzco and ushered in almost three centuries of Spanish domination over Peru.

The Tupac Amarú Rebellion was a peasant and proto-nationalist movement in 1780 that desired independence from Spain and began a violent uprising in the region of Cuzco. The leader of the insurgents, Jose Gabriel, declared himself emperor of the Inca and took the name of his ancestor Tupac Amarú, a warrior who had resisted the Spanish during the original conquest. His rebel force was composed of indigenous Indians, but he also recruited Spanish Creoles, the mestizos of mixed heritage, and other minorities including black slaves (Walker 42). Tupac Amarú and his followers used their knowledge of the peaks and valleys of the Andes to their advantage, staging hit and run ambushes with slings and rocks against the better armed Spanish loyalists. The rebellion was suppressed when Tupac Amarú and his family were captured and taken to the center of Cuzco. On May 18th, 1781 the Spanish authorities executed Jose Gabriel’s family in front of him, cut out his tongue, and after a long, but failed, attempt to draw and quarter him, they cut off his head and dismembered him (Stavig, Schmidt 138). The drive for independence from elite interests in Spain and Lima would not be diminished and underpins the sentiment of the local people toward violent solutions to oppression.

The events leading up to Spain’s loss of its Latin American colonies began with Napoleon’s 1808 ouster of King Ferdinand the VII, which gave impetus to independence movements in the empire’s holdings (Walker 84). Peru became an independent country when it was liberated from Spain in the 1820s through the combined efforts of two foreign armies, one led by Simón Bolívar from Venezuela via Columbia and Ecuador, and one led by General José de San Martín via Argentina and Chile. The fight that ended Spanish domination of the continent was the Battle of Ayacucho in December 1824. First San Martín and eventually Bolívar were compelled to leave the new country to its own devices as Peru sought to shape its own destiny (Walker 121-122). The Battle of Ayacucho, which is a Quechua (the Incan language) word that means “corner of the dead”, is a legacy that would foreshadow the region’s future embrace of revolutionary violence.


Statue of San Martín in Lima. Photo courtesy of Mary Endicott, 2007.

Sendero Luminiso

The Sendero Luminiso movement began in the Ayacucho region of Peru, the site of the Spanish Empire’s final defeat in South America, within the halls of the University where Abimael Guzmán taught Philosophy. Preaching a leftist agenda he led a break-off faction of the Communist Party of Peru to create Sendero Luminiso, the Shining Path. Known as Senderistas, the movement’s members backed a hard line version of Maoist communism, in which violent revolution is the only true means of ushering in the socialist utopia that Marx had foretold of. Guzmán took on the persona of President Gonzalo and prepared his organization for fifteen years before launching the first stages of the Shining Path’s guerilla war in 1980 (Gorriti 21-36). This opening salvo commenced just as elections were being held to peacefully transfer power from the military junta to the democratically elected Belaunde administration, Peru’s previous President prior to a 1968 military coup (Gorriti 16-17).

The Shining Path structure was formed of regional committees led by Guzmán and the Central Committee, who met for strategic meetings called plenary sessions where they determined how to escalate the war. These sessions dominated by President Gonzalo. The Senderistas began with attempting to ignite class warfare in the countryside, and as they gained control of territory they could begin governing these areas for the revolution, strangling Lima and the big cities by curtailing food production (Gorriti 68). Maoist insurgent strategy indicated that population management and territorial advantage were the goals of every action. This strategy was most effective in the Ayacucho and Apurímac regions where Sendero was able to claim a significant foothold (Gorriti 83). The Shining Path guerillas wreaked havoc and murderous chaos across the Andes for the next two decades. The pace of attacks was virtually constant until at least 1992. Using small arms, Molotov cocktails, and dynamite stolen from mineral mines, the Senderistas attacked targets in Lima like the Chinese Embassy and various banks, but their primary focus on the countryside would bring massive violence to poorly defended villages and police stations in the Andes (Gorriti 71).

The battle of Poyeni, on September 4th, 1992, is a good example of how the “people’s war” being waged by the Senderistas eventually turned on them, into one of the people against the communists. Poyeni was an Ashaninka village of refugees in the jungles of the Apurímac Valley along the Tambo River. At six in the morning, the village was attacked by 200 terrorists with automatic weapons and grenades, intending to take control of the strategic Tambo River and forcibly recruit the villagers for combat and support tasks (Miller 132). Sendero was initially successful in recruiting Ashaninka Indians into their ranks earlier on. The Indians lived a primitive lifestyle of extreme poverty and a 95% illiteracy rate, and were already communally based, so the anti-capitalist message was appealing. However, the terrorist’s exploitation of the Ashaninka caused them to ultimately side with the government and join Self Defense Committees (Stern 558-560). Three hours into the battle the Ashaninka had suffered only four deaths, while their warriors had killed 60 Senderistas using simple blow dart guns, bows and arrows, and a few old rifles and shotguns. Ashaninka warriors had been hunting and fighting the other Amazon tribes for years and were defending their homes and families, while the communists were poorly trained, less motivated, and nervous in battle (Miller 135). The indiscriminant use of violence worked against Shining Path, because it undermined the message of social justice, and became a major factor in the eventual downfall of the movement.

Sendero Luminiso was decapitated in 1992 when Abimael Guzmán was captured at his safe house in Lima. When so-called President Gonzalo was put on display for the press, standing in a cell outside, dressed in a striped prison jump suit, and ranting about the unstoppable force of the revolution, many members of his organization put down their arms. Without Guzmán’s centralized leadership for planning, the Shining Path guerillas who remained could not coordinate attacks successfully and is now thought to be a common criminal drug running operation (“13 Peruvian Troops Killed”). Despite the changes, the organization remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, an honor that has not been bestowed on the MRTA since 1999. Shining Path’s current leader is Comrade Artemio (“Shining Path, Tupac Amarú”), but a new band of about 500 fighters is gathering strength and legitimacy under the leadership of the Quispe Palomino brothers. Waiving the banner of Sendero Luminiso, the brothers have engaged in drug trafficking, launched successful hit and run attacks against the police, and gained some acceptance from locals through a much more moderate approach to left-wing ideology than their Maoist predecessors (Bajak). Unfortunately the path may be getting darker for Peru as it gets lighter for Sendero Luminiso.


Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)

The Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) was founded in 1983 by Victor Polay, Nestor Cerpa, and Miguel Rincon after they became disillusioned as members of the left-wing political party American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). With the goal of bringing social justice to the people of Peru, who had suffered under oppression and inequality for generations, the founders of MRTA wanted to belong to a movement that took decisive action rather than raise money for political campaigns (Baer 9). In the view of Polay, Cerpa, and Rincon, a new strategy of targeted violence was justified if it was against the government in order to end abuses of power. The existing power structure in Peru was known to bribe justices and politicians, steal public money for personal use, traffic drugs and weapons, and mistreat prisoners (Baer 6-7). Like many Latin American leftists, the terrorists were heavily influenced by the communist ideals of Castro’s Cuban revolution, and sought the complete equalization of Peruvian society, including the collective ownership of land, schools, factories, and corporations (Baer 4). Besides the obvious symbol of revolutionary spirit invoked by choosing the name Tupac Amarú, the movement’s founders merged the ancient legacy of the patriarchal dictatorship of the Inca sovereign with the collectivist philosophy of communist centralization of power.

The MRTA saw themselves as modern day Robin Hoods and one of their first strategies was to hijack shipments of groceries bound by trucks to Lima’s supermarkets and distribute the food to poor villagers in the interior (Baer 11). In 1987, the MRTA subdued the police and took complete control of the city of Juanjui. A television news crew was asked to film the MRTA’s display of fair governance, which included a public meeting where all were encouraged to speak freely about the problems and needs of their community. The meeting, which was followed by a large celebration and soccer game, was later broadcast to the nation (Baer 13). The guerillas also sought legitimacy from local communities using the less violent means of supporting workers on strike and publishing an underground newspaper that brought attention to the plight of the peasants (Baer 24-24).

Symbolic targets that represented corruption and imperial capitalist domination were chosen by the MRTA, and the U.S. was singled out in particular. In 1984 they attacked the U.S. Embassy in Lima with small arms and again with automatic weapons and dynamite in 1985. The Texaco Corporation’s Lima offices were targeted in 1985 as well, and in 1987 the city experienced an attack against the U.S. Consulate. More attacks against U.S. interests were carried out by the MRTA than any other terrorist organization in Latin America (Baer 14-15). The high profile nature of these attacks achieved the attention they wanted, but in order to synergize publicity with much needed financing the MRTA began the kidnapping of symbolic individuals for media coverage and to earn revenues from ransom. They captured an executive from Coca-Cola, as well as one from a pharmaceutical company, who were both returned safe after ransoms were received. Mining executive David Ballón Vera, who was kidnapped on September 11th, 1992, was not so lucky and was murdered even though his ransom had been paid (Baer 19-20). The modus operandi of many terrorist organizations, especially those with a left-wing disposition, is to hit symbolic targets in order to get the message out and attract new supporters.

The MRTA’s most ambitious operation would also be its last. On the evening of December 17th, 1996, during a celebration in honor of the Emperor Akihito’s birthday at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, a small unit of terrorists took close to 500 guests hostage at the party. The captives included Peru’s major diplomats, many of the countries civilian, business and military leaders, diplomats and business leaders from Japan and other countries, and although he had decided minutes before the attack not to attend, President Fujimori’s mother, sister, and brother were already in attendance. Fourteen terrorists, led by Cerpa, infiltrated the event by impersonating caterers and staff, and entering through tunnels dug under the embassy from a house rented months earlier. The terrorists’ goals were to bring attention to the poor treatment of inmates in Peru’s prisons, as well as a negotiated release of over 400 MRTA prisoners.

The standoff lasted 126 days before Fujimori initiated “Operación Chavín de Huántar”, in which 140 commandoes stormed the Embassy and successfully freed all of the hostages, except one guest who died of a heart attack. All of the terrorists, including Nestor Cerpa, were killed in the rescue, which had been carried out while many of them were distracted by a daily soccer game in the courtyard. The commando operation was named after of a three thousand year old temple with a network of tunnels and galleries. This was fitting, since the special forces unit entered the Embassy through tunnels that had been dug below the courtyard under the cover of months of loud nationalistic music that was blasted at the Embassy (Silverman 9-10). The use of the symbol of an archaeological site showed Fujimori’s ability to use Peru’s ancient heritage in his own public relations campaign against terrorism.

Victor Polay was sentenced to life after his capture in 1989, but he and fifty other terrorists escaped from Lima’s Canto Grande Prison the next year by digging a 275-foot tunnel under the walls. Polay was apprehended again 1992, except this time he was sent to El Callao Naval Base under the new terrorism laws of the Fujimori regime and was only let out of his six-foot square box one hour a day for the next eight years (Baer 21). The only MRTA leader at large by 1996 was Nestor Cerpa, and hundreds of the organizations members had been rounded up, leaving the group’s small remnants with little choice but to focus on freeing its comrades and bringing attention to the poor treatment of prisoners (Baer 23-24). The plan to exchange the hostages taken at the Japanese Embassy for MRTA prisoners was in fact a last ditch attempt by the guerillas to prevent their loss of power and influence. With the death of Cerpa at the conclusion of the crisis, the MRTA would cease to carry out any more major attacks, although it is believed that the organization still exists with about 100 members (Baer 51-52). The MRTA has evolved into obscurity, but the message of this movement still has the potential for resonance in Peru.

Reactions from the Peruvian State

The dark horse Alberto Fujimori was elected President of Peru in 1990 by campaigning in an original style of traveling the country side and speaking directly to the middle class. He vowed to take a strong stand against terrorism and as soon as he took office he cut off talks with the Sendersistas and MRTA. In 1992 Fujimori went on national television to announce that he was temporarily dissolving Congress and had passed eleven new laws by decree in order to combat the growing terrorist threat. In the two years since his election the problem had only grown, with deadly attacks becoming a common occurrence in the heavily populated Lima. Fujimori’s Autogolpe, the Self-Coup, was backed by the military and his approach to fighting and prosecuting terrorism took a totalitarian turn.

The legacy left by Fujimori is controversial because although his regime effectively brought an end to Peru’s terrorism plague, it threw out the commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the process. His approval rating was a low 35% just prior to the rescue of the hostages from the Japanese Embassy, which is insinuated by Peter Chalk (385) to be a referendum on his draconian anti-terrorism policies, since it was his lowest polling since the Autogople in 1992. It is more likely that the low poll ratings during the hostage crisis reflect the unresolved nature of the four month ordeal, and other assessments of Fujimori have been more forgiving. When compared to the Colombian government’s continued failure to suppress the FARC rebellion using policies of negotiation, the Fujimori regime’s brutal and ends-justify-the-means approach was ultimately triumphant. In the meantime he also maintained high approval ratings all along, winning a landslide reelection in 1995, and had very little assistance from the U.S. compared to Columbia (Radu 9). Military and police aid from the U.S. to Peru in 2006 was approximately $50 million, while Columbia received $600 million (Emerson 44), reflecting the continuing dependence of the latter on massive superpower support to combat its rebels. William Aviles (74-75) has illustrated how Fujimori was able to permanently diminish the role of the military in civilian governance by giving promotions and financial rewards to loyal officers, ushering in neoliberal economic reforms unilaterally.

Fujimori’s regime came crashing down in 2000 when corruption and human rights violations were revealed by the media, and the President fled to Japan. In 2005 he attempted to return via Chile where he was arrested and later extradited to Peru to stand trial in 2007. Fujimori’s former intelligence chief Vladimir Montesinos had already been sentenced to 25 years for involvement in the same crimes. Fujimori was convicted of 15 murders, for ordering killings by death squads, including the execution of an 8 year old boy. The state’s use of violence was not justified publically, and Fujimori defended his actions simply by saying, “I had to govern from hell…that is why I am being judged” (Romero). The state’s reliance on its own brand of terror tactics had been necessary, and a last resort, from Fujimori’s perspective. He had acted with a forced hand. His view was nevertheless rejected by the Peruvian people. In 2011, his daughter Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori was defeated in the Peruvian Presidential race by Ollanta Humala, a former army officer of indigenous decent. Humala actually led an army revolt against the Fujimori regime in 2000, and was later pardoned by the Peruvian Congress.

Left-Wing Extremism

The justification of violence for both the Shining Path and MRTA guerillas was ultimately inherited from the doctrine of the German economic philosopher Karl Marx. In the “Communist Manifesto”, Marx and his co-writer Friedrich Engels, explain the laws of history from which there springs a material struggle over the values of the old economic system of worker exploitation through wage competition. Industrialization is the key to this change, because although the powerful bourgeois class derives its power from exploitation, the process also creates an association between the vast proletariat majority who will inevitably overthrow their rulers using violent revolution (Marx, Engels 456). Vladimir Lenin (534), leader of the first successful communist revolution in Russia, modified this doctrine. He suggests that to win, rebel forces must have a strong leadership infrastructure with a mass of popular support behind them, which takes professional revolutionaries. Lenin’s revolution kicked off a century of communist violence that killed tens of millions of people in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Cambodia and Vietnam (Gorriti 102). These cases do not factor much into the discussion of modern terrorism, possibly due to the institutionalized nature of the killing and eventual legitimacy reached by many of these regimes, but they served as the model for Peru’s terrorism, and Shining Path philosophy in particular.

Between 1968 and 2004 communist/socialist groups have been responsible for 20% of terrorist incidents, with leftist/anarchist organizations contributing 14% of attacks, and 4% coming from those opposed to globalization (Lia 161). The traditional method of leftist terror networks has been to use carefully directed violence, such as assassinating high profile individuals who represent economic oppression or state corruption. Operations are tailored to the audience of potential constituents whom the terrorists want to connect with, and indiscriminate violence is not usually helpful to this end. The terrorist Michael “Bommi” Bauman disagreed with the German Red Army Faction’s (RAF) hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in order to free prisoners because violence that involved innocent civilians was never justified and it would taint the public’s opinion of the true “revolutionary vanguard” (Hoffman 230).

The MRTA fits the mold of a traditional leftist terrorist organization in both their methods and their message. Polay, Cerpa, and Rincon were heavily inspired by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean physician turned noble revolutionary, who assisted Fidel Castro in the communist takeover of Cuba. In his book, Guerilla Warfare, Guevara provides a blueprint for violent class struggle in the pre-industrialized third world. Guevara’s (45) instructions for urban warfare are to strike at infrastructure and economic targets in order to invoke such uncertainty that the people become hungry for violent revolt. However, “Che” is careful to explain that the tactic of sabotage is very useful, but it is distinct from terrorism. Terrorism, which he defines as the indiscriminate targeting of innocents, is counterproductive to collectivist ideology and does not invoke the appropriate response from the constituent public (Guevara 114). The MRTA professed that they were against the killing of innocents, and the unjustified killing of hostage David Ballón Vera was considered a low point by its members (Baer 20). This moderation of violence was reflected even while committing terrorism, such as their unilateral release of female, elderly, and sick hostages within hours of taking over the Japanese Embassy (Baer 30).

Abimael Guzmán rejected Guevara’s version of revolution, and the former Professor of Philosophy took Sendero Luminiso down a much deadlier path of indiscriminate killing than its leftist cousins. Guzmán’s chosen methods were derived from a much different incarnation of the communist legacy. The Shining Path’s version of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist philosophy has as the centerpiece of its belief system that the initiation of violence will reveal the tyrannical nature of bourgeois rulers, and that the greater the violence the more effective the revolution (Osborn 122). Guzmán’s version of armed class struggle required the complete destruction of the existing Peruvian society and culture before it could be replaced with communist utopia. Violence was inevitable based on the Marxian laws of history, according to Guzmán. Morality, human lives and rights, these were inconsequential in the cosmic armed struggle that transcends individuals. Guzmán sums up his views with the following proclamation (Poole, Rénique 156):

We reaffirm ourselves in revolutionary violence as the universal law to take Power and as the essence of substituting one class for another…We will attain communism only with revolutionary violence, and while there remains a place on Earth in which exploitation exists, we will finish it off with revolutionary violence.

At a planning session in 1981, Guzmán sought to institute “the quota”, a concept of orthodox Marxism (Gorriti 103). The idea is that victory will come only with a necessarily large body count. This ultimate goal came before everything else, making all Senderistas and innocents alike expendable for revolution. The “quota” would become a defining characteristic of Shining Path cadres and contribute to the group’s image as a death cult (Gorriti 99). The fundamentalist nature of Sendero Luminiso and the extreme flavor of communism adopted by Guzmán, which he transformed into his own extreme version dubbed “Gonzalo Thought”, is more akin to religious terrorism than traditional leftist terrorism. The dedication to violence is reminiscent of Al Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s proclamation that “terrorizing the enemy is a religious duty, and assassinating their leaders is a prophetic tradition.” (Lia 383) The justification for using armed terrorism, according to al-Suri, lies in its efficacy as the best political tool for bending an opponent’s will, as judged by history (Lia 415). Guzmán’s fundamentalist approach to Maoist communism in the form of “Gonzalo Thought” embraces violence in a similar historical justification, and both are driven by eschatological belief systems that dismiss the value of human life in the larger metaphysical picture.

Anti-Globalization and the New Left

Peru has one the world’s fastest growing economy, averaging 8.8% GDP growth between 2007 and 2011 (“GDP Growth”), despite the Great Recessionary Gap still plaguing the U.S. and Europe. Much of the development is in mining natural resources, which has led to protests from local inhabitants (“Latin America’s Surprise”). In June 2009, 30 police officers and civilians were killed in clashes over oil and gas exploration in the Amazon jungle. Local Indian leader, Alberto Pizango, accused of inciting the violence, was apprehended in May 2010 and is currently awaiting his controversial trial (“Peru Indigenous Leader Pizango”). Additionally, indigenous people in Peru have yet to see the benefits of the country’s economic reforms, even from their own tourism industry which heavily promotes Incan mysticism. Half of the country is still below the poverty line and 23.9% live on less than $1 a day (Hill 438-439). Feelings of inequity and exploitation create the conditions of relative depravity that can lead to violence and give impetus to a resurgence of left-wing terrorist groups.

In 2003, indigenous groups in Peru, and other Latin American countries, protested “Plan Columbia”, an initiative sponsored by Washington to address security and economic development in the region. Opposition to “Plan Columbia” is based on the belief that it is an agenda to exploit the resources on Indian lands (Radcliffe 389). The last posting on the MRTAs Spanish language website was in 2005 and railed against the passage of Peru’s free trade agreement with the America. This left-wing rant accuses the Toledo government of being servile to U.S. imperialism and accuses it of various corruptions, because the money from Peru’s economic growth is never returned to the people. In the article, praise is given to Cuba and Venezuela, as well as honorable mentions for the revolutionaries Che, Bolívar, San Martín, and Tupac Amarú, and the MRTA hails the rest of Latin’s America’s rejection of imperialism (“Peru: A Country Without”). Although dormant for years, and no longer on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, the MRTA or groups like it may arise to exploit frustrations over globalization and free trade.

The Shining Path is also considered a latent terrorist threat, and there were reports as late as 2008 that remnants of the group were sponsoring weekly attacks on army and police patrols in the Apurimac Valley (Avilés 51). The resurgence of the Shining Path in March 2002 was signaled with a car bombing in Lima near the American Embassy in which 9 people were killed (Bolivar). In 2003, the Shining Path attacked a mining site in the jungle that was under construction and took 71 workers hostage. The guerillas freed the hostages without injury after receiving ransom money (Duplain). In 2004 Peru was identified as having an amount of illegal explosives trafficking 20 times the typical country average, per capita (Lia 124). In April of 2009 the Shining Path ambushed and killed 14 Peruvian army and police, while defending their cocaine operations (Roberts, Escalante). Just recently in April 2012, the Quispe Palomino band took 36 construction workers hostage near Peru’s natural gas fields, and then ambushed and killed 8 police and soldiers during rescue attempts. This has shaken the people’s confidence in new President Humala (Bajak). Most Peruvians, a significant 70%, believe that Shining Path is winning its war against the government according to a recent poll (Bajak). Although Sendero Luminiso is still operating, it is much weaker than it used to be, there is good reason to believe that Maoist fundamentalism no longer guides their actions, and the organization has ceased directing deadly attacks against civilians. However, a utilitarian evolution of Shining Path does not preclude the reintroduction of left-wing political violence instigated by popular anti-globalization sentiment.

Communist terrorism is still a threat around the world and Maoist rebels are still active in Columbia, Mexico, Nepal, and the Philippines, while Italy, Greece, and Turkey have experienced a resurgence in armed leftists movements (Lia 162). The evolution of communist terrorism has been sustained in large part by continued economic inequality, and this condition persists in Peru. Globalization, and the trans-nationalization of terrorism, also adds to Peru’s security problems by bringing the completely new dimension of Islamic terrorism to its doorstep. The Under-Secretary of State in 2002, Richard Armitage, insinuated that Al Qaeda and Hezbollah had cells in operation around the region of Peru’s tri-border with Ecuador and Columbia (Radcliffe 386-387). The rapid communication of ideas and the realities of global interconnectedness in the modern era make the evolution of terrorism in Peru a problem for the world, and the evolution of terrorism around the world a problem for Peru.

The Rise of Narco-Terrorism

Narco-terrorism has been on the rise internationally. The original definition of narco-terrorism used by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was in reference to drug traffickers who used violence in order to maintain the supremacy of their drug cartels. However, the convergence of drug trafficking with traditional terrorism, in which the latter use the proceeds from the sale of narcotics to finance larger political or ideological goals, has led to a redefining of the phenomenon (Dolan 454). Today Peru is one of the top countries in the world in coca cultivation, along with Columbia and Bolivia, and their production doubled in the 1990s (Lia 121-122). The production and sale of cocaine and other drugs is a growing concern, and could lead to a resurgence of Sendero Luminiso and other terrorism groups if not addressed.

It is estimated that the remote highlands of the Andes still hide around 10,000 Shining Path guerillas who have now turned to cocaine production for financing, and are also being supported by Columbia’s FARC rebels who have branches all over the world, collaborating with many international terrorist organizations (Lia 71). The Shining Path originally demanded protection payments from coca farmers in the 1980s and 1990s, but now they are completely reliant on narcotics funding, and even sell mercenary and assassin services to the drug cartels. Shining Path has also began cultivating its own coca plants and processing the harvests into the final cocaine powder. Defense of this lucrative business, along with their persistent anti-capitalist agenda, forced a confrontation between the Senderistas and the military, most notably the aforementioned 14 soldiers who were killed in July of 2009 (Roberts, Escalante). The black market cocaine trade is helping to rebuild the strength of the Shining Path, through increased wealth, as well as with connections and support from transnational criminal networks.

Ironically the money from the drug trade became more accessible to the terrorists when corrupted authorities lost control over it. The head of Peru’s Investigative Police in the early 1980s, Eduardo Ipinze, was dirty and used the drug trafficking task force to assist the most powerful cartel in Peru, rather than stop it. Corruption permeated the police, and their work deteriorated, as the good cops were pushed out of the system (Gorriti 39-40). It was revealed in 1995 that there was an extensive network of collusion between the Peruvian military at the highest ranks and the drug traffickers. The connection of the drug cartels to the state, where it occurred, actually diminished the capacity of Shining Path terrorists to access this key source of funding. In the Huallaga Valley and the Apurímac River regions of Peru, where there has historically been extensive coca cultivation, General Alberto Arciniegas resisted U.S. policy on the drug war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and made combating Shining Path the dominant priority instead. He made agreements with the local coca farmers and traffickers to leave them alone and in return they ceased their support for the Shining Path, which undermined the terrorists financially. General Arciniegas was eventually removed from power at the behest of the U.S. and accused of helping the drug cartels (Manrique 215). Peru’s historical experience with fighting terrorism demonstrates the policy conflicts that can arise when these efforts are combined with fighting the war on drugs, and the complicated reality of official corruption.

Dealing with Peru’s coca farming is a difficult issue and the typical methods of eradication and interdiction risk alienating the poor peasant communities who rely economically on its cultivation. Coca has been grown in the Andes since the time of the Inca, and its use for living in the high altitudes is a strong tradition. Also, the crop brings a hefty profit and provides a source of revenue to the impoverished mountain and jungle regions of Peru, not to mention Columbia and Bolivia. The joint Columbian and U.S. strategy for combating FARC’s coca production under “Plan Columbia” has been to use grounds troops to give cover for herbicide spraying helicopters. This strategy has not reduced the total amount of cocaine production, which continues to increase, because cultivation is just moved to new locations. The anger and resentment created in rural communities, as their crops and livelihoods become collateral damage, results in negatives as well as positives for these operations (Stern 457-461). Peru’s coca farmers banded together in 2003, staging protests in front of the Presidential palace in Lima and shutting down a highway in 2003, to demand a greater allowance for legal coca cultivation and subsidies for lower priced alternatives such as cocoa, bananas, and coffee (“Peru’s Coca Farmer’s”).

Some have contended that counternarcotics efforts can be counterproductive when it comes to fighting terrorism, as they weaken democratic institutions and promote economic instability. This extends to an undermining of intelligence gathering, the alienation of local populations, and a shift of power from central governments to local agitators (Felbab-Brown 56). Counternarcotics efforts, at least those accompanied by historical police corruption, have sometimes undermined Peru’s fight against terrorism in the past. However, now there is a resurgent Shining Path that is receiving funding directly from cocaine production, regaining their organizational strength using drug money. This is a big problem.

I had a chance to speak about this issue with Stu Steinberg, an Enhanced Law Enforcement Consultant, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009-10, who has helped instruct the Afghan border police on drug interdiction. His expert experience and informed sense is that production and trade of narcotics are sources of power and funding for terrorists and criminal organizations, a scourge that needs to be suppressed along with terrorism, plain and simple. Arguments that counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations work at cross-purposes come from armchair theorists and miss the point altogether, because poppy and cocaine farmers are already inside the criminal and terrorist networks interdiction efforts can’t risk pushing them to support terrorists organizations which they already give material support to, if not outright belong to. The only reason that Peru did not have a problem with narco-terrorism before was because the state had a problem with corruption. Peru will need to find a way to neutralize its underground cocaine farmers if it ever hopes to diminish the potential power of terrorist organizations such as Shining Path.


I traveled to Peru in September of 2007 where I proposed to my wife at the majestic ruins of Machu Picchu. Other than the mystique surrounding the Inca and their wondrous city hidden in the jungles and clouds of the Andes I was not especially aware of the richness of Peruvian history or culture. However, by the end of our trip I was quite familiar with the many aspects of this geographically and demographically diverse country. We started in the coastal metropolis of Peru’s capital Lima, where a small gritty child would not let us pass on the sidewalk until we had handed him some money. Next we journeyed over the Andes to the Amazon Jungle via Puerto Maldonado and the Madre de Dios River, where we saw a family of Peruvians mining gold on a specialized platform boat with a conveyer belt for dredging the river. In Cuzco we experienced the humble and hospitable culture of the Andes when we ate the traditional dishes of Alpaca and Guinea Pig. In the small village of Chinchero we watched Quechua women demonstrate the traditional process of dyeing and weaving Alpaca hair into soft colorful clothing. In Ollantaytambo we climbed the giant ruined walls of the last ancient Inca fortress to fall to the Spanish in 1537 when the conquerors let the remaining Incan warriors flee down the Urubamba River.


Ruins at Ollantaytambo. Photo courtesy of Mary Endicott, 2007.

I had already become slightly aware of the Shining Path because I had read about a controversy in June 2007 regarding actress Cameron Diaz wearing an olive green handbag, with a red star and Mao Zedong slogan, on her own trip to Machu Picchu. She ended up having to issue a public apology for causing emotional distress to the locals by invoking the painful memories of Shining Path terrorism. When I asked our Andean tour guide about the incident he said he did not know who Cameron Diaz was, but that in the 1980s he believed that the country was under the influence of communist Russia and China and that now it was more influenced by the U.S.. Then I asked him about the other hot Peruvian political topic of the day, former President Fujimori’s arrest in Chile while transiting to Peru for another run at President, even though he was still wanted on corruption charges. Our guide had nothing nice to say about Fujimori and said he was guilty of everything he was accused of. Luckily the Peru I experienced on my trip did not display a hint of the violence of the previous two decades.

Terrorism in modern Peru has evolved from attacks by a collection of communist guerilla outfits with differing degrees of fundamentalism into utilitarian narco-terrorism, with the potential for anti-globalization violence. The evolution of terrorism in other parts of the world has taken a more fundamental turn with the rise of Global Jihadism, but Peruvians guerillas appear to have left the most extreme Maoist versions of their ideology behind. Hopefully this portends a much less violent future for Peru, even if there are still unresolved security problems. With the emergence of narco-terrorism, the future is more uncertain, and the trade-offs needed to separate terrorists from coca farmers are difficult to make politically and diplomatically.

To solve the problem of terrorism in Peru the government must address the relative deprivation that supports it. The contagion of terrorist ideals as they evolve can take root anywhere that people feel insecure and threatened by other groups. However, just as dry grass and dead scrub brush has little resistance to the spread of a wild fire, if the conditions of relative deprivation are severe the spread of violent extremism has little resistance either. More than anything, the experience of researching Peru’s history with terrorism has made we want to find a way to support the indigenous people of the country. In the future I will look for opportunities to give back to a region of the world that has given me some of the most beautiful memories in my life. Next time I go back to Peru I hope it will be for more than a vacation.

Jared Roy Endicott

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