The Shining Path’s Abimael Guzmán Helped Keep Peru in the Past

Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, has died at the age of 86. With his passing and the rise of a new left-wing government, Peru finally has the chance to move forward.

Abimael Guzmán, pictured right, is escorted to a court hearing for a deadly 1992 bombing in Lima, Peru, on September 11, 2018. (Cris Bouroncle / AFP via Getty Images)

On Saturday, September 11, Abimael Guzmán, leader of the once-feared Shining Path guerrilla group, passed away while serving a life sentence in prison. Although the eighty-six-year-old convalescent had been captured almost twenty-nine years earlier to the day and had since been living in solitary confinement in a maximum security naval prison, no single figure has had as great and sustained an impact on Peruvian society and politics for the past forty years.

From 1980 until his 1992 arrest, Guzmán headed a vicious guerrilla campaign to topple the Peruvian state and replace it with a Communist government built in his image. Of course, a guerrilla army fighting for a more just society was nothing new in Latin America in the 1980s. Throughout the region, young leftists took up arms against oppressive dictatorships and US imperialism. What distinguished Shining Path from these other groups was its extreme penchant for violence.

According to an official report of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, CVR), the war claimed 69,000 people, the vast majority of them indigenous Peruvians. Yet, in a departure from Latin America’s other Cold War conflicts, where state security forces were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the atrocities, the CVR found Guzmán’s group responsible for more bloodshed than the state, other guerrilla groups, or paramilitaries, with a death count of around 30,000.

As Shining Path’s supreme leader throughout the conflict, Guzmán accepted and even encouraged this level of mass violence. Even after his capture in 1992, Peru struggled to shake the yoke of terror that his war unleashed, and he remained a controversial and influential figure in national politics up until his death.

The “Fourth Sword”

By the time he graduated college in the Andean city of Arequipa in the early 1960s, Guzmán was already an avowed Marxist. He had defended Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953, at a time when it was no longer popular to do so. “I always admired Stalin,” he later recalled, “even before I became [a Communist]. I understood that he was a great Marxist, albeit with serious mistakes and shortcomings.”

Before graduating, he wrote two theses, one critiquing the bourgeois state and another on Kantian theory. In 1962, shortly after graduating with dual degrees in law and philosophy, he accepted a position as a philosophy professor at the Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga, a newly reopened public university in the Andean city of Ayacucho.

There he met the young woman who would become his first wife, Augusta La Torre. The daughter of a Marxist landowner, La Torre understood the importance of forming a political alliance with Guzmán, a man whose intellectual capacity and political potential she clearly admired. Together, La Torre and Guzmán would become one of Ayacucho’s most influential couples. They took trips, separately and together, to China during the Cultural Revolution, returning to Ayacucho with a newfound commitment to leading their own Maoist revolution in the heart of the Andes.

After joining a Maoist splinter group from the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), Guzmán and La Torre formed their own splinter, the Peruvian Communist Party — Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), in late 1969. Although technically a break-off from the larger Peruvian Communist Party, Guzmán would always claim that his was the only true and legitimate PCP, dropping “Shining Path” from most official propaganda and documents.

Guzmán and La Torre spent the next decade building up a loyal and energetic contingent of students, professors, schoolteachers, laborers, and peasants, driving the party underground in the mid-1970s in preparation for the launching of a Maoist People’s War. It wasn’t difficult to recruit militants, either. After the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution, leftist guerrilla groups took up arms across Latin America, mostly against right-wing, US-backed dictatorships. At the time Guzmán began his career as a professor, many Peruvian peasants remained landless, living in abject poverty.

The pain was most pronounced in places like Ayacucho, where Guzmán recruited most heavily during this period. There, as the late anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori found in his book, Ayacucho: Raices de Una Crisis, most of the rural population was illiterate and lacked basic services like sewage and potable water. A left-leaning military government that took power in 1968 attempted to address some of these structural inequities, carrying out a sweeping land reform and other progressive policies. While some welcomed the reforms, many students, teachers, and peasants in Ayacucho and elsewhere protested the dictatorship. For them, Guzmán’s message of an armed struggle from the countryside was appealing.

Guzmán, the general secretary, would take up the nom de guerre Comrade Gonzalo. Eventually, as the war progressed, he would change his title to “Presidente” to solidify his stature as the party’s intellectual and political leader. Anointing himself the “Fourth Sword” of history’s great Communist leaders, after Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong, Guzmán would come to demand absolute power over the party and the total submission and loyalty of his followers. His “Gonzalo Thought” — a derivative of Mao Zedong Thought designed to offer direction and cohesion to party militants — was also a concept that Guzmán would work out over the course of the war.

A Dozen Years of Darkness

The war began on May 17, 1980, the eve of Peru’s first democratic elections after twelve years of military rule. That night, a small column of Senderistas, as Guzmán’s followers were known, burned down the registrar’s office in Chuschi, a town of mostly Quechua-speaking peasants in the Ayacuchan countryside. In the weeks and months to follow, Guzmán’s militants carried out actions of little consequence, torching administrative buildings, knocking over power lines, and raiding landed estates.

At one point during the war’s first year, they hung dead dogs from lampposts throughout the capital city of Lima, a reference to “running dogs,” pejoratively used by Mao to refer to those who abetted the forces of imperialism. In this case, the dead dogs were a rebuke of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who had begun steering his country away from Maoism and toward market reforms.

By the end of 1980, the Senderistas had added what Guzmán called “selective terrorism” to their list of actions. These included, specifically, public executions of abusive landowners, local authorities, and cattle rustlers. These actions initially captured the sympathies of many indigenous peasants, who had long been clamoring for justice against local wrongdoers.

Everything seemed to be going Guzmán’s way. His rural insurgency had captured the attention of the nation, the curiosity of the Peruvian and international left, and the support of the indigenous peasantry. It was the last time he would have all three. By late 1982, as his militants expanded throughout the countryside, the scope of their terror expanded. They not only continued to kill cattle rustlers and landowners, but they also added other customary indigenous authorities, called varayoqs, to their list of victims, threatening to replace these leaders with party-imposed Senderistas. For many villagers, this was a bridge too far.

Beginning in 1983, peasants throughout Ayacucho began revolting against the Shining Path. In the village of Lucanamarca, indigenous villagers killed a Shining Path column leader. In response, Guzmán’s rebels visited bloody vengeance. In April 1983, a column of Shining Path guerrillas went from door to door, ripping men, women, and children from their homes and forcing them onto the ground in the main square. The fortunate ones received a single bullet to the head or chest. The less fortunate ones were hacked to death with machetes or doused with boiling water. The rebels attempted to burn the survivors alive, but they had to abandon the plan when a child sentry alerted them to an incoming army advancement. They fled the scene, leaving sixty-nine peasants — among them seventeen children and one six-month-old baby — dead or dying.

For many, the Lucanamarca massacre would come to symbolize Shining Path’s — and by extension, Guzmán’s — capacity for evil. Nor was it an isolated event. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Shining Path fighters gunned down civilian leaders, bombed still-occupied buildings, and killed anyone who stood in the way of their ideology and platform.

Yet it was the indigenous peasantry that bore the brunt of the group’s wrath. Shining Path terrorized the Andean countryside, hacking unarmed men, women, and children with machetes, slitting their throats, and bludgeoning them to death with large stones. While several in the party’s hierarchy oversaw this destructive campaign, none had more influence than Guzmán, its chairman and supreme leader. He appeared to welcome the violence, embracing it as necessary for Peru’s liberation. “What good does it do to mourn the dead?” he asked his followers after Shining Path had initiated its terror campaign in the countryside. “The entire history of the peasantry has been drenched in blood. The blood spilled fertilizes the revolution.”

Reflecting years later on the Lucanamarca massacre, Guzmán admitted that there had been “excesses,” but ultimately justified his group’s actions as necessary in order to demonstrate that Shining Path was “a tough bone to gnaw.” Asked by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his party’s 1992 decision to gun down María Elena Moyano, a black activist, community organizer, and fellow leftist who had been vocal in her criticism of Shining Path’s terror tactics, Guzmán allowed only that his fighters’ decision to dynamite her corpse while her body was still warm had been a “useless excess.”

The state had blood on its hands as well. Peruvian security forces carried out their own reign of terror against anyone suspected of Shining Path sympathies. Once again, the peasantry experienced some of the worst atrocities. In 1985, army soldiers raided the Ayacuchan village of Accomarca, which they believed to be sympathetic to Shining Path. The soldiers lined up dozens of people before going down the line and shooting them dead. Some of the villagers still lay wounded when the soldiers set fire to their bodies. Before leaving, the soldiers burned the village to the ground. Once the smoke had cleared, seventy-one villagers — most of them who had nothing to do with Shining Path and roughly a third of them children — had been murdered.

Then, on September 12, 1992, Peru’s intelligence police captured Guzmán during a raid on his safe house in an upscale Lima neighborhood. Captured alongside his second-in-command and future (second) wife Elena Iparraguirre, Guzmán surrendered without putting up a fight. Authorities brought the rebel leader before a military tribunal of hooded judges, who sentenced him to life in a high-security prison. A subsequent civilian retrial upheld the conviction. The insurgency continued in various forms without Guzmán at the helm, but he eventually acknowledged that his capture marked the effective end of the armed phase of the insurgency. Today, a severely weakened splinter of Shining Path remains active in the coca-producing zones of the Peruvian jungle, but they claim no formal ties or allegiance to their former leader.

Abimael’s Shadow

Guzmán’s oversize presence in Peruvian politics — even from behind bars — has made it nearly impossible for the country to heal the wounds of a bloody war.

An exhaustive 2001–3 investigation of the government-sponsored CVR was a major and necessary step in the nation’s long road to reconciliation, but it was only one step. Even after (and during) the public hearings and subsequent publication of the Commission’s findings, there was a palpable fear that, at any moment, Guzmán’s ideas could take hold and his reign of terror would return.

Government officials took great pains to ensure this didn’t occur. Most of the Shining Path possessions that had been confiscated during Guzmán’s capture have been placed in a museum. That museum, however, lies inside Lima’s counterterrorism police compound and is not open to the public. This unusual practice bespeaks the conundrum of post-conflict Peru. On the one hand, police wanted to celebrate their historic capture of the nation’s most wanted terrorist. On the other, they feared enshrining the museum as a site of Senderista pilgrimage.

In 2016, when the family members of eight Senderistas killed by government forces during a 1986 prison massacre erected a mausoleum north of Lima to honor their dead, Guzmán once again entered the national conversation. Outraged Peruvians demanded the mausoleum’s immediate demolition, and speculation swirled that Guzmán’s followers intended to lay his remains there after his death. After two years of controversy, authorities bulldozed the structure and moved the remains of the eight slain rebels to a nearby cemetery.

Meanwhile, fears that Guzmán still held sway over left-wing politics mounted. The Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights, known by its Spanish acronym MOVADEF, a political organization that inherited Shining Path’s political ideology and platform after Guzmán’s capture, demanded political amnesty for him and other imprisoned Senderistas. The group also requested legal recognition as a political party, a request continually dismissed by Peruvian lawmakers, who regard MOVADEF as a group of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. The Peruvian right, as well as top officials in the intelligence community, insisted that Guzmán not only influenced MOVADEF’s political agenda, but that he in fact called the shots.

In 2016, I asked Colonel Oscar Arriola, head of the Peruvian National Police’s Intelligence Division of Metropolitan Terrorism, about the state of Shining Path after Guzmán. He replied, “There is no [such thing as] Shining Path after Guzmán.” As far as the colonel was concerned, Shining Path and MOVADEF were one and the same, and Guzmán still controlled its ideology, platform, and politics.

Supporters of former president-cum-autocrat Alberto Fujimori regularly denounced anyone who did not categorize Guzmán and his ilk as terrorists as “apologists,” an accusation that now carries with it the threat of jail time under an apologia law. My coauthor, Orin Starn, and I were the target of this accusation shortly after the publication of our book The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution, which chronicles Guzmán’s rise and fall and the turbulent war years.

Conditions haven’t seemed to improve much since then. The 2021 election saw Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, lose by a razor-thin margin to leftist Pedro Castillo. In the process, one could see Guzmán’s oversize shadow again creep into the public sphere. Castillo’s opponents alleged connections between the presidential hopeful and Shining Path, allegations that did not let up after he assumed office. This political practice of accusing leftist and left-leaning politicians of Shining Path sympathies, affiliations, or proclivities has generated a new terminology, terruqueo (“terrorist-baiting”), a Peruvian equivalent of red-baiting.

Most recently, social media posts attributed to Castillo’s prime minister, Guido Bellido, appeared to show the Castillo appointee quoting Guzmán and posing with pictures of the Shining Path flag. Bellido denied any Shining Path sympathies, but many had already made up their minds. In these and many other instances, Guzmán looms over Peru’s political discourse, always threatening, always menacing.

These are the struggles of a nation that has never fully recovered from its internal armed conflict. Perhaps now, with Abimael’s shadow no longer looming in the background, the nation can finally begin to heal.