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 consume 70,000 lives. Searching for a "shining path" to modernity, Sendero Luminoso claimed to fight on behalf of Central Highlands peasants, but its revolution quickly degenerated into a national bloodletting in which both it and the government committed human rights abuses on a massive scale.

Inspired by the Maoism of China's Cultural Revolution, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) first formed in the late 1960s under philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán Reynoso and his "Gonzalo Thought." After Peru’s military coup in 1968 and ambitious land reform in 1969, the country’s political left became fractured, driving Sendero to forsake politics and launch its "revolutionary war" in 1980 after 12 years of military rule. In setting fire to ballot boxes—the symbols of institutional democracy—in a town outside Ayacucho, Sendero launched the opening salvo of its campaign of terror.

Sendero's Maoism quickly took on the trappings of a death cult. Guzmán and his disciples 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 dictatorship. By means of a core group of fanatical, highly disciplined operatives, they assassinated political figures and bombed police posts, spreading panic and chaos throughout the country. Over time, their methods grew increasingly macabre: dead dogs hung from lampposts, electrical towers bombed to induce blackouts, blazing hammer-and-sickle emblems on the hillsides. Sendero also began committing atrocities against the very communities it claimed to be helping. Throughout the Highlands, Sendero used "people’s trials" to purge anyone 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 witches' sabbath of blood and horror.

Sendero’s emergence was violent, but the government’s response was no less brutal. 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 bloodshed that Peruvians are still coming to terms with today. In 2003, the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report estimating that nearly 70,000 people had died or disappeared during the conflict. The commission attributes more than 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 by a crack team of Lima police officers, Sendero began a rapid decline—though it remains nominally active to this day, driven more by narcotrafficking profits than radical ideology. In 2012, senderistas kidnapped 36 employees of a major gas company near the VRAE (Apurímac and Ene River valley), the country’s main coca-growing region. The military freed the employees, but in the process lost three of its own. Profits from the drug trade will likely sustain low-level Sendero activities into the near future.

—By Michael Goodwin

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