The Central Highlands Feature

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Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path)

In May of 1980, burning ballot boxes in the Ayacucho region heralded the start of a civil war that would last more than a decade and claim 70,000 lives. Searching for a "shining path" to modernity, Sendero Luminoso sought to improve the lives of highland peasants, but its revolution quickly devolved into a bloody war in which both it and the government committed human rights abuses on a massive scale.

Fighting what it considered a Marxist revolutionary war, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) first formed in the 1960s under the guidance of philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán and his "Gonzalo Thought." Following Peru's military coup in 1968 and its ambitious land reform in 1969, Peru's political left grew and fractured, with Sendero eventually forsaking politics and launching its "revolutionary war" in 1980 after 12 years of military rule. By burning ballot boxes in a town outside of Ayacucho, Sendero launched the opening salvo of its revolution.

Sendero promoted an exotic and violent philosophy of extreme Maoism. Guzmán and his disciples envisioned Peru as an agrarian utopia, and saw in Ayacucho's deep poverty and discontent the preconditions needed to destroy the country's existing political structure and replace it with a peasant revolutionary regime. Sendero's charismatic leadership built a core group of operatives who assassinated political figures and bombed police posts. To spread fear throughout the country, they hung dead dogs from lampposts. Their techniques ever more macabre, Sendero began committing atrocities against the very communities they claimed to be helping. Throughout the highlands, they used "people's trials" to purge those connected with the capitalist economy, including trade unionists, civic leaders, and the managers of farming collectives. What was once a "shining" path quickly became a bloody road to war.

Sendero's emergence was violent, but the government's response turned the conflict into a civil war. Peru's leaders sent in the military to quell what they viewed as a localized uprising, and the military in turn exacerbated the unrest by violating human rights and committing indiscriminate massacres of peasant populations. The anger of centuries of discrimination and disenfranchisement welled up and unleashed a torrent of senseless violence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a 2003 report estimating that nearly 70,000 people died or disappeared during the conflict. The commission attributes half of these victims to Sendero, and at least one-third to government security forces.

The Dancer Upstairs, a film directed by John Malkovich, is a fascinating look at the search for, and capture of, Sendero leader Guzmán in 1992. With his arrest, Sendero began a rapid decline, although it remains active to this day, driven more by narcotrafficking riches than radical ideology. In 2012 Sendero kidnapped 36 employees of a major gas company near the VRAE (Apruímac and Ene river valley), the country's main coca-growing region. The military freed the employees, but in the process lost three of their own. As with so many of the world's insurgencies, profits from the drug trade will likely sustain low-level Sendero activities into the near future.

Meanwhile, although Peru's economy has grown over the last decade, rural highland peasants still live in desperate poverty, a potent source of conflict in one of South America's most unequal countries.

Joining Guzmán in jail is former President Alberto Fujimori, who spearheaded the fight against Sendero. The former president is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for human rights violations.

—By Michael Goodwin

Updated: 06-2013

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