Known as Némesis, after the Greek goddess of retribution, the prison at the naval base in Callao near Lima recently witnessed the death of the bloodiest exponent of revolution in the history of Latin America.
Even after twenty-nine years behind bars, Abimael Guzmán remained so reviled that news of his demise on September 11th at the age of eighty-six was met with demands that his body be cremated and the ashes dumped at sea. Many Peruvians were determined to deny his remaining supporters, who revered him as Chairman Gonzalo, any opportunity for a ceremonial send-off around a grave that could become a future site of communist pilgrimage. This placed the Marxist administration of President Pedro Castillo, accused of containing figures sympathetic to Guzmán and his Shining Path guerrillas, in a bind. Peruvian law requires the state to turn the body over to the next of kin, in Guzmán’s case his widow, Elena Iparraguirre, nom de guerre Camarada Míriam, herself serving a life sentence for her role in their failed revolution.
Launched in 1980, this insurrection marked the start of two decades of uncivil war that a truth and reconciliation commission would later calculate cost over 69,000 lives from a population of just seventeen million people at the outset of hostilities. Uniquely in the history of Latin America’s guerrilla conflicts, in which counter-insurgency forces inflict the overwhelming majority of fatalities, the commission found that Guzmán’s organisation was its bloodiest participant. Shining Path was in other ways an outlier in the annals of Latin communism. Maoist in a region that looked to Cuba and its patrons in the Soviet Union, it took up arms despite lacking any foothold in society on the very eve of the return of democracy after a twelve-year leftist military dictatorship. Even among the country’s broader radical left, by 1980 increasingly engaged in democratic politics, it was viewed as a cranky irrelevance and Guzmán as an obtuse ideologue unable to work with others.
The group emerged in 1970 after a split within the faction of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) that took Beijing’s side in the Sino-Soviet dispute. (Those it broke with would eventually embrace Hoxhaism after taking Tirana’s side in the great Sino-Albanian schism). Centred on the University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, where Guzmán taught philosophy, his clique always considered itself the original PCP and this is how its documents and communiques were signed. But to differentiate itself from former comrades also claiming the title PCP it added “in the Shining Path of José Carlos Mariátegui” after the founder of the original party. Thus the group became known as Shining Path and its members as senderistas, from the Spanish Sendero Luminoso. When Guzmán broke with the future Hoxhaists he walked out with fifty supporters. At the start of the armed conflict in 1980 his party had grown to 520 militants and close sympathisers. By the early 1990s, when many feared it was poised for victory, it still only numbered 2,700 while its so-called People’s Guerrilla Army had a membership of five thousand, many of which were peasant ‑ often child ‑ soldiers, not fully integrated into the party. Guzmán compensated for these limitations with fanaticism and extreme violence. He demanded that his cadres should be ready to traverse “a river of blood” in order for the revolution to triumph: such was their commitment they waded right in. With few weapons, they killed with rocks and knives, often gathering whole communities together to witness mass executions. They dynamited the bodies of some of those they dispatched, hacked off the fingers of others who had exercised their right to vote and set fire to workers who ignored their strike calls. They never phoned in warnings before detonating large bombs in urban areas. It is hard to dispute the truth commission’s finding that Shining Path as an organisation was genocidal in character. Its report quotes internal party documents which state “the triumph of the revolution will cost a million lives”, with Guzmán himself demanding more extreme actions to “induce” the genocide which would clear the path to final victory. This millenarian disregard for human life in the pursuit of utopia has earned Shining Path comparisons to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and helps explain why so many Peruvians want Guzmán’s ashes thrown into the Pacific.
Guzmán achieved this level of fanaticism by breaking with anyone who rejected his ultra-Maoist vision until all that remained were those too limited or infatuated to realise he was a raging megalomaniac. From jail, Iparraguirre has told of first meeting him in 1973, when he gave a six-hour lecture on the history of the communist party. Afterwards she was the only person to ask a question. His answer took another four hours. She recounted this memory not with a roll of her eyes but as evidence of his brilliance. Having moulded an intellectually servile group, Guzmán was able to pound his vision into the heads of his underlings using his deep knowledge of the teachings of Lenin, Stalin and Mao until, in the words of the great Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori, “they were completely enclosed in circular arguments, trapped in a spider web of a closed discourse made with the sticky thread of confirming citations”. Even then some “right opportunists” questioned his decision to go to war. They were crushed and the party agreed to move ahead with its uprising in the remote highlands of southern Peru that would mark the start of “the strategic offensive of the world revolution”. Many of them would die in the attempt. Part of the horror Peruvians felt at senderista disregard for life was that it extended to their own. Guzmán had taught them that death should be embraced willingly: “[W]e have no right for the other’s blood to shiver alone, may its chill be mixed with the warmth of ours.” Degregori, in a much quoted analogy, perhaps best captured the Shining Path phenomenon and the small group’s disproportionate impact when he described it as “a sort of dwarf star in which matter is concentrated to where there is almost no inter-atomic space, reaching a heavy weight disproportionate to its size”.
The bloody chaos this small group caused, placed alongside the economic disarray in a country reeling from the military dictatorship’s failed collectivisation policies and the ruinous populist response to the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s left many fearful it was close to achieving victory by the early 1990s. But subsequent research by most notably Carlos Tapia, another of the great Peruvian analysts of the conflict, confirms the view of participants on both sides who knew this was not the case. In fact Guzmán’s career and by extension Shining Path’s can best be viewed as a constant fleeing forward in an attempt to escape strategic failures. The various splits Guzmán was a protagonist in demonstrate his failure to operate within mass organisations and his decision to launch an armed insurrection can be viewed as an attempt to provide new forward momentum to followers he had led into an ideological and political dead end. He was like the leader of a millenarian sect who opts for mass suicide before his followers realise the end days are not in fact going to happen as predicted.
His people’s war was ‑ after the squandering of initial successes based on first-mover advantage ‑ another series of strategic defeats. The turmoil the group’s extreme violence wrought masked the reality that it was no closer to overcoming the obstacles to taking power through the gun that more moderate pro-Cuban guerrillas had faced across the continent. In fact its sanguinary nature made defeat more likely, as it quickly alienated the very peasant communities its initial strategy was based on. Once the military was sent in against it in early 1983 the group was never more than a hit-and-run outfit in the country and a terror group in the cities. In the whole conflict it only ever overran a single army base. Guzmán correctly predicted the war would do for the country’s democracy. But rather than a harbinger of the old order’s death rattle this was the prelude to his own defeat. Five months after President Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe in April 1992 Guzmán was captured in a safe house above a dance studio in one of Lima’s quieter middle class neighbourhoods.
He soon came to collaborate with the Fujimori regime, working with his captors to bring the Shining Path’s campaign to an end despite the commitment of its remaining leadership outside to continuing the struggle. The most generous spin that can be put on this is that Guzmán believed it impossible or undesirable for an organisation denied access to his ideological genius to triumph and therefore the war should end following the government’s greatest victory ‑ his capture. He provided valuable help to the state’s mopping-up operations by helping extract grovelling self-criticisms from captured senderistas who had defied his order to lay down their weapons. Like his own surrender statement, these were broadcast on television in a perverse echo of the Moscow show trials. Militants still at large could defy the imprisoned Guzmán. But once forced back into his orbit their independence of thought crumbled.
This collaboration never came with an apology for the Shining Path campaign. He merely employed more ideological gymnastics to account for why his “strategic offensive of the world revolution” turned out to be a mere bloody prelude to “an international context of a general imperialist offensive, of a general political retreat of the world proletarian revolution, that must be counted in decades, at least more than one”. Like many Marxist-Leninists he had placed a losing bet on a revolution whose triumph the laws of history had shown to be inevitable.
Because Shining Path was in many of its essences a cult formed in the image of its founder, the roots of Guzmán’s extremism have long been puzzled over. For some his interpretation of communism ‑ and he knew his Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao ‑ exposes the ideology’s inherent dangers. It is also possible his extremism was his sales pitch in the highly competitive marketplace of radical left-wing Peruvian politics in the 1960s and 1970s which then took on its own unstoppable momentum. It has also been widely noted that his personal biography encapsulated the social cruelties of Peruvian society. Guzmán was the illegitimate son a wealthy merchant-rancher had with one of his poor mistresses. His mother abandoned him and his father eventually took the boy in and ensured he received a good education. But his illegitimate status meant doors into elite society were closed to him. Even in his father’s house he was a second-class son, destined to be denied any inheritance. As Santiago Roncagliolo, the Peruvian novelist who authored a book on Guzmán, has noted: “The resulting cocktail was lethal: the rage of the poor added to the academic training of the rich.” This personal backstory is reflected in the militants he was able to recruit into his party. They were, especially in the crucial early years, provincials of the sort disdained by the coastal elite, especially as many were, if not peasants, poor and mestizo. Often they were the first generation of their family to get a secondary education or go to university, only to find few opportunities awaiting them in a caste-like society that viewed them as subaltern. Guzmán targeted them, selling Marxism as a means of accelerating progress towards a more equitable future in which they too could be valued, while his blood-soaked rhetoric promised a vengeance cloaked in righteousness for the class hatred they had suffered. Shining Path can be seen as an extreme example of the dangers a society runs if it educates its population only to then deny it access to the arenas in which it might pursue newly expanded horizons. Not for nothing did senderista propaganda always portray Guzmán as the wise teacher rather than revolutionary fighter. But too much can be made of this. Shining Path, it is worth repeating, was always a marginal group. Because of the war it is now often overlooked that the 1980s in Peru saw the United Left, then one of the most important leftist blocs on the continent, come close to taking power peacefully through the ballot box. Many of its militants were drawn from similar backgrounds as those who joined Shining Path and suffered similar injustices. But while never renouncing Marx they did not find it necessary to slit the throats of those who failed to share their utopian vision.
Which brings us back to the megalomaniac Guzmán and his sinister skill in dominating his small clique selected for the purpose. For all his deadly seriousness there was an element of mimicry about him, a blind adoption of an imported ideology presenting itself as scientific truth in classic texts written by men who had validated their theories by taking power in their own countries. All that was necessary was to follow the script and victory was assured because, after all: “Nothing can stop the revolution, that is the law, that is destiny.” Subsequent work has shown early speculations about Shining Path’s supposedly indigenous Andean characteristics were wide of the mark. Guzmán understood little about the Quechua communities whom he selected for incubating his revolution. Despite his deep knowledge of the Marxist canon, of which he made great show, he was a derivative theoretician, and tellingly the only one produced by his movement. His career would finally reveal him to be that creature whom Mao despised ‑ an adventurer.
His party’s recognition of him as “the Fourth Sword of Communism” and the elevation of “Gonzalo Thought” to a supposed repository of scientific truth alongside those of Marx, Lenin and Mao is often taken as proof of his raging ego. (Examples of which are plentiful. One party resolution opens: “The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Peru fervently salutes our beloved, heroic and masterful leader, Chairman Gonzalo, the greatest living Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, great political and military strategist, philosopher, teacher of communists, centre of our Party’s unification, who by creatively applying Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to the concrete conditions of the Peruvian revolution has given rise to Gonzalo Thought, guarantee of the revolution’s victory.”)
But this personality cult was also a dark pantomime staged by a chancer making it up as he went along. Gonzalo Thought was the response to internal criticism of Guzmán’s abrupt deviation from the classic Maoist guerrilla war theory. This he had once fervently espoused, but he abandoned it once it had failed to deliver the promised victory in the countryside, deciding to switch to trying his hand in the cities.
Oscar Ramírez Durand, Camarada Feliciano, who led the remnants of Shining Path from Guzmán’s arrest until his own in 1999 and the only leading senderista not to abase himself before Guzmán after his capture, would later dismiss his former chairman as a “faker”. “I, like many others, were used as cannon fodder to satisfy the zeal for protagonism of the felon Guzmán, this psychopath who made himself God with our blood and the blood of the people, who never was in combat but was living the good life in Lima. He was always a coward and a traitor.”
Durand was one of the military leadership who by 1987 warned that Guzmán was divorced from the reality of the war on the ground and that the strategic shift to attacking the cities was precipitous. He had also wanted Guzmán to join his fighters in the field, something Guzmán declined to do, leading to accusations that he was a cowardly alcoholic who preferred to see out the war in safe houses with his first wife, Augusta La Torre, until her mysterious death in 1988, shortly after which she was replaced by the next person in the hierarchy, Iparraguirre. One does not have to believe, as many do, that she and Guzmán, for political or romantic reasons, conspired to have La Torre murdered to interpret as see as evidence of cowardice a “supreme leader” who hides away in safe houses with a small coterie of female followers, declining calls from his military commanders to join them in the field in favour of spending his day reading and writing while violence rages outside. Or, given that he must have presumed he would be summarily executed if found, then as someone only interested in the theoretical aspect of revolution-making, waiting to see how his go at it would turn out without actually engaging in the fighting he had put in train, as was the practice among Latin American revolutionaries. It is possible that the violence unleashed and sustained during two decades by Shining Path was so bloody because for Guzmán it was all theoretical anyway.
The career of Chairman Gonzalo represents another terrifying example from history of the bloodshed that can result when a damaged individual latches onto a dangerous idea. Peru is still living with the terrible inheritance Guzmán left. Revulsion at Shining Path has helped shield state actors for the crimes they committed during the war. Fujimori and his sinister spy chief, Vladimiro Ilich Lenin Montesinos Torres, were eventually jailed, Montesinos being locked up with Guzmán in the same Némesis he had ordered built for his former adversary. But the military and other security forces have otherwise largely avoided being held to account for the tens of thousands of Peruvians they killed and disappeared during the counterinsurgency. Efforts to hold them responsible, even by families of victims with no links to Shining Path, have been denounced as abetting terrorism. For many Peruvians horror at Guzmán’s revolution justifies, or at least has bought acquiescence, to state crimes against humanity. This also means that despite the family’s multiple crimes fujimorismo remains a political force in the country in large part because of Alberto Fujimoro’s victory over the guerrillas. Shining Path’s near total defeat (a small successor remnant fights on in the rainforest decades later) meant it too has not apologised. A victorious state never offered it any incentive to do so; captured militants were forced to serve out long sentences in harsh prison conditions where justifications for their actions were a constant topic of discussion. After decades behind bars, many senderistas are now being released and some have sought to reorganise politically. Now old, none have returned to armed struggle and before Guzmán’s death the main goal of Movadef, their new front organisation, was a general amnesty. But the release of unrepentant guerrillas and their attempt to re-enter political life is another destabilising legacy of the conflict.
When Pedro Castillo emerged from nowhere to become the unlikely frontrunner in this year’s presidential election much was made by opponents of the fact that Movadef had backed a teachers’ strike he led in 2017. This despite the fact that the rural schoolteacher had actually joined one of the armed peasant vigilante rondas that proved crucial in defeating Shining Path in the countryside. But to terruquerar ‑ smear all leftists and progressives as somehow linked to far-left terrorism ‑ is a tried and tested political tactic in Peru ever since its internal conflict and as irrelevant as his past as a rondero was Castillo standing as candidate for a marginal Marxist party linked to Cuba, whose revolution Guzmán despised. He overcame the smears ‑ just ‑ defeating in a photo finish the ethically challenged Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the jailed former dictator. But his victory has not stopped the terruquering and he has lost three ministers already, one for previous expressions of sympathy with Shining Path, one for claiming the group was a creation of the CIA and one, more seriously, after he was identified as a former senderista bomb-maker. Castillo could eventually benefit from the loosening of ties to the fringe party that nominated him after these cabinet ructions. He was always something of a cut-out for its leadership, which he never formed a part of and which never expected him to win. He has since turned to the more moderate left in the search for a broader base on which to govern but the election and early months of the new administration illustrate the capacity of the conflict’s malign afterlife to affect current events.
Efforts to tackle the war’s unresolved legacies have taken place. The truth commission made an important start in this regard, despite offensives by the security forces to limit its scope and then attack its conclusions. Sadly, attempts since then to prise apart the rigidly policed but partial, if not wholly artificial, categories of guilt, responsibility and victimhood have been met with often fierce resistance. This prevents the development of any shared understanding of the great national trauma the country suffered and keeps the door shut on a full accounting and with it a proper remembrance. It also means Peru remains a country of the disappeared. But the work goes on and one of the most remarkable results of this labour is now available in English with the translation by Duke University Press of The Surrendered by José Carlos Agüero. A sensation when published in Peru in 2015 it is a series of reflections on the conflict and its legacies by the son of two senderistas summarily executed by security forces. Through his personal history as the child of radicals who “decided to risk their lives in a war no one had declared against them” he explores the ethical complexities of the conflict’s aftermath with a sensitivity and subtlety that will make his book a valuable resource for anyone studying conflict resolution and reconciliation.
Though Agüero is unambiguous in his condemnation of Shining Path and the part his parents played in it, he refuses to concede, as many Peruvians demand, that they were monsters. Instead he restores their humanity without excusing them of their crimes or having any truck with a new generation of young leftists in Peru willing to express admiration for Shining Path’s “altruism” and he calls out the denialism of Movadef and other veterans of Guzmán’s party and their apologists. But while never trying to exercise what is his own obvious claim to be counted among the victims of the conflict ‑ instead he seems burdened with guilt for his parents’ actions and even seeks to apologise to their victims ‑ he is alive to the pernicious social and political impact of victimisation as a political cudgel. He argues cogently and powerfully for an approach that allows for doubt and ambiguity, “to move beyond naive, stereotypical narratives”. Agüero is clear about the culpability of Guzmán and Shining Path but aware that to blame them alone for everything that happened to Peru is an evasion. He is alive to the reality that in conflict aggressors can be victims too and sometimes victims’ accomplices, if for no other reason than because, once launched, a war’s twisted logic can impose its own brutal choices on a society. It is a fraught argument he makes and the space in which to make it in Peru remains small. Just for exploring the war’s unresolved issues Agüero has been smeared as a terruca (terrorist sympathiser). There remain too many Peruvians, whether for overlapping reasons of guilt, fear of the courts, political advantage or institutional loyalty unwilling to move beyond simply blaming Guzmán and his party for the all the war’s evils. To do so would finally allow for a fuller accounting and even perhaps facilitate the frustrated efforts, even decades later, to identify the dead. But Peru is not there yet. Guzmán’s body was eventually cremated and his ashes scattered in a secret location meaning he joined the thousands of victims of the war his ideological megalomania launched who still have no known resting place in a country still largely minded not to find them or fully account for how they vanished.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.