Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Sendero Luminoso Guerrillas Stage a Comeback

Abraham Lima

LIMA, Jul 3 2003 (IPS) - The recent brief occupation of the village of Huran Marca in northern Peru by Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, who after routing the police brought the local residents together to listen to a political harangue, shot down government denials that the insurgent group is making a comeback.

Analysts say the occupation of the village and the earlier kidnapping of 71 employees of the Argentine oil company Techint point to a resurgence of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) rebels, although the group’s strategic and political aims are not yet clear.

In February, the group began to step up its armed activity in the highland jungles of the northern regions of Ayacucho and Apurimac and in tropical valleys in Peru’s central jungle region, sociologist Raúl González told IPS.

Political analyst Benedicto Jiménez believes the resurgence of Sendero has been fomented from prison by the group’s founder, Abimael Guzmán, in order to strengthen Sendero’s position with the aim of forcing the government to negotiate his release. According to Jiménez, Guzmán is still frustrated that he was not freed after a peace deal was signed in 1993.

The guerrilla war launched by Sendero in 1980, inspired by the Maoist concept of “encircling the cities from the countryside," and the consequent crackdown by security forces, had left a death toll of 50,000 – including both dead and “disappeared" – by 1992, when Guzmán was captured.

A year later, the guerrilla leader yielded to pressure from the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) and agreed to appear in a video recording in which he urged fellow “Senderistas" to give up the armed struggle and become a legal political party.

But his message triggered a split in the group. Most of the 12,000 members laid down their arms and gave up all military and political activism. But one faction refused to recognise the peace agreement signed by Guzmán, and retreated with their weapons to the Viscatan mountains, a remote jungle region in southern Peru.

Although the security forces never completely eradicated the armed remnants of the group, the Fujimori administration announced in 1995 that the group had been defeated militarily, that it had no political future, and that the last remaining members were “isolated in Viscatan."

González and another sociologist, Jaime Antezana, agree that there are two Senderista currents, one of which is based in Viscatan and makes incursions into the jungles of Ayacucho and Apurimac, and another that is based in the tropical valleys around the Central Huallaga river.

One of the groups, which calls itself Proseguir, rejects the 1993 peace accord and continues to advocate the strategy of armed action. The other is Historical Sendero, which answers to Guzmán and is following his plan to negotiate his release and convert Sendero into a legal political party.

Both groups carry out active armed propaganda in their respective areas, and have staged brief occupations of several towns and villages.

"A total of 134 Sendero actions have been registered in the past few months in both areas, including public acts of proselytism carried out by armed groups, as well as looting and firefights with police stations," said John Caro, a former head of the police office against terrorism.

"We are seeing a repeat of the same error committed between 1980 and 1982 by the government of Fernando Belaunde, who tried to downplay the problem in order to avoid alarming the population, and who later had to call on the army to intervene," he said.

The most high-profile actions, like the Jun. 9 attack on the Techint workers’ camp and the occupation of Huran Marca 21 days later, have been mounted by Proseguir.

The governor of the Apurimac region, Luis Barra Pacheco, told a Lima radio station that the six police officers at the Huran Marca police station escaped with their lives by fleeing into the jungle without attempting to fight the insurgents, who outdid them in both numbers and firepower.

"At least six of the 15 men and women who entered Huran Marca had AKM assault rifles, with firepower superior to that of the police," he commented.

Barra Pacheco visited Huran Marca on Jul. 1 accompanied by army troops. They removed the red flags left by the guerrillas and ordered the local residents to attempt to erase the revolutionary graffiti that had been painted on their houses.

The latest attempt by the government of Alejandro Toledo to deny that the guerrillas were growing in strength came on Jun. 25, when Interior Minister Alberto Sanabria said the armed confrontation that had taken place the day before, in which one soldier was killed and two were injured, was with “common criminals."

But the Defence Ministry refuted Sanabria’s claim that same day in a communique which stated that the incident had occurred in the context of army anti-terrorism operations.

Up to that point, only a few retired army generals and former police officials had concurred with the interpretation of civilian analysts who pointed to a resurgence of the guerrillas in this South American country that was shaken by civil war between 1980 and 1995.

The discrepancy between the versions of government spokespersons and those who warned of an increase in insurgent activity peaked when the 71 Techint workers, who were laying in a gas pipeline in the jungles of central Peru, were taken hostage.

Toledo stated at the time that the hostages had been “rescued in a brilliant operation carried out with great professionalism by the army, and without paying a single cent" of the one million dollar ransom demanded by the kidnappers.

But the victims themselves said they had been released by their captors before the military even arrived.

A rumour then began to circulate that Techint had paid a 200,000 dollar ransom.

But Antezana and González both said that the ransom, if it were paid, was not the most important aspect of what occurred, nor the main objective of the hostage-takers.

"The Senderistas did not run away, but withdrew in an orderly fashion, after making a compelling show of their operating capacity, without losing a single combatant, and taking half a ton of explosives, medicines, and food with them," said González.

He added that the political objective of the Senderista group that staged the kidnapping was to initiate a new phase in a spectacular fashion – in other words, to “re-launch" the guerrilla movement.

The analysts said the date chosen by Sendero for the high-profile kidnapping was significant, as it was the very day that the Truth Commision released a video in which one of the imprisoned guerrilla leaders reiterated the call for the rest of the insurgents to lay down their arms.

With the aim of bringing about a sense of "National Reconciliation", the Truth Commission is investigating the responsibility of the rebels, as well as the governments that fought them, in the more than 50,000 deaths and forced disappearances that occurred from 1980 to 1995.

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