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PERU: Guerrillas on the Warpath for Peace Talks

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Dec 24 2008 (IPS) - A column of Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas operating in the northeastern coca-growing valleys of the Upper Huallaga river in Peru appears to be carrying out attacks in pursuit of a peace agreement, to include an amnesty and the restoration of the rights of those who took up arms in 1980.

That, at least, is what the records of police interrogations of Senderista leader Atilio Cahuana say.

Cahuana was captured in November 2007. His statements may explain why, a year after this reverse and the death of Sendero military commander Mario Espíritu Acosta, known as "Camarada (Comrade) JL", the guerrillas have again ambushed a police convoy, killing five members of the force.

Cahuana was incarcerated from 1988 to 1998 in the maximum security prisons of Canto Grande in Lima, and Yanamayo in the southeastern province of Puno, and was released after serving 10 years.

In prison he met Héctor Aponte, "Camarada Clay", a Senderista leader operating in the Upper Huallaga valley area. After his release, Cahuana joined Aponte and resumed the armed struggle in early 2000.

On Nov. 27, 2007, the police surprised a resting column of guerrillas belonging to the Huallaga Regional Committee, close to Aucayacu. "Camarada JL" was killed and Cahuana or "Camarada Iván", now a veteran militant and ideological theorist of the organisation, was captured along with another dozen guerrillas.

The government believed that this successful action would sap the strength of the Senderistas, and that the historic leader of the Huallaga Regional Committee, José Flores León or "Camarada Artemio", would soon be captured.

But in November 2008, almost a year after this operation, the guerrillas ambushed a police convoy close to Tingo María, an important town in the jungle of northeastern Peru.

During police questioning, Cahuana stated that the guerrillas would not surrender until the government sits down to talks about the legal situation of those who participated in the 1980-2000 internal armed conflict.

Cahuana described the Senderista attacks as a form of exerting pressure for negotiations to discuss "a political solution to the problems arising from the war," according to the interrogation transcripts.

"Firstly, (we want) to solve the issue of the disappeared, the exiles and the political prisoners. Secondly, a general amnesty as a step towards future national reconciliation. Thirdly, the restoration of the fundamental rights infringed by the regime of (former President Alberto) Fujimori (1990-2000). Fourthly, jobs for the people. And fifthly, the closure of the Callao naval base, which I myself proposed," Cahuana said, according to the records.

Sources at the anti-terrorist police (DIRCOTE) told IPS that the goal of this "political solution to the problems arising from the war" is to secure the release of Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of Sendero Luminoso, who is serving a life sentence in the Callao naval base, "as well as that of other high-ranking commanders in the organisation."

"They want to get Guzmán out in order to reorganise, regroup and continue the armed struggle," according to these sources.

"There is not a single document after Guzmán's capture (on Sept. 12, 1992) that indicates renunciation of the goal they set themselves when they began the armed struggle in 1980: to take power by force. That's why they have even resorted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to seek the annulment of Guzmán's sentence," the sources said.

Guzmán's lawyer, Alfredo Crespo, said on Dec. 10 that he had approached the IACHR because some of his client's rights had been violated during his trial.

Between 1980 and 2000, a period which spanned three successive administrations, government forces fought against the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas and the smaller insurgent Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Nearly 70,000 people were killed or "disappeared" by the guerrillas and state forces, according to a report by the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in 2003.

Sendero guerrillas were responsible for most of these crimes, according to the Commission, although the armed forces "practised generalised and/or systematic violations of human rights," the report says.

If the authorities accept dialogue now, it will not be the first time they have held talks with Senderistas from the Huallaga Regional Committee. A first meeting was held in late 2003, under former President Alejandro Toledo, according to the Cahuana interrogation transcripts.

Six government envoys showed up at that meeting, including an Interior Ministry representative. For the Senderistas, "three leaders and myself" participated, Cahuana said.

"After three meetings, 15 or 20 days apart, the government turned down a political solution. They said our demands were non-viable, and that they would rather we were dead or in prison for life," he said.

In February 2007 there was another attempt at dialogue, according to the Senderista leader. This time letters were sent to President Alan García and then Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo.

"In the third week of February, (the authorities) replied through a person who mediated in the conversation. The reply was negative. They said the government could not negotiate on this subject. The response was verbal, there was nothing in writing," Cahuana said.

The frustration of this attempt drove the Senderistas of the Huallaga Regional Committee to persist in attacking the security forces and, in parallel, to seek the support of the local people, whose livelihood is largely based on growing coca, the raw material for cocaine.

According to statistics from the governmental National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs, in 2000 there were over 13,600 hectares of coca in the Upper Huallaga valley, while in 2007 the area planted was over 17,000 hectares.

The Sendero guerrillas are making the most of local people's opposition to forced eradication of coca and are channeling that discontent to build up a support base among the campesinos (small farmers).

Cahuana's role was, in effect, to indoctrinate new members of the organisation, and to penetrate coca-growers' villages to recruit them to its cause.

"Whenever we arrived in a town or hamlet, we would discuss the local people's problems. Later, at the end of the meeting, they would bring up the subject of volunteers" to join Sendero, he said.

"I held constant meetings with the campesinos. Incorporating new recruits takes over a year. It is very complex and very difficult work, which is why we have the people's schools," he said.

Cahuana also carried out tasks that are normally the responsibility of public authorities. "I would settle border disputes between communities, arguments between families, problems the justice system was incapable of solving, debts, crop damage by a neighbour's animals, problems of common delinquency and rape," he said.

"We would discuss the children's education, the issue of teachers and of parents' associations, and so on," the Senderista leader said.

"We were in the areas where the state is absent. The political authorities of the Interior Ministry, such as governors and deputy governors, cannot do this; they do not go into those areas," he said.

According to the anti-terrorist police sources, the Senderistas are also kept going "in the Upper Huallaga by the 'war taxes' they levy on drug traffickers."

Cahuana, whose parents moved to the capital from the Andes highlands, was born in Lima on Oct. 8, 1964. According to his statements, he studied at schools in the centre of Lima from 1971 to 1981.

In 1988 he was arrested by the police in possession of explosives and Sendero documents, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in jail, he made contact with leaders of his organisation and developed into an ideological theorist.

Cahuana told his captors that his comrades would continue the struggle. "My love for the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP-Sendero Luminoso) has only one purpose: to bring about a political solution in our country, whatever the sacrifice, even of my own self," the record of his interrogation says.

Another Sendero Luminoso column, the Central Regional Committee, is active in the coca-growing zone of the valley of the Apurímac and Ene rivers in southern Peru, where it is being combated by the armed forces. There are indications that the Huallaga rebels have tried to forge links with this group, but there is no hard evidence that their actions are coordinated.

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