Gerard Coffey

Bogota – 26 de Julio 2010

Sendero Luminoso is back, or at least that is what the Peruvian media would have us believe.

Not that the headlines lack support. Students at the University of San Marcos recently marched in favour of an amnesty for Abimael Guzmán (or president Gonzalo as he was known to the Sendero faithful), a political union has been forged in Ayacucho between the Sendero inspired political group ‘The Movement for General Amnesty and fundamental Rights’ and a political organisation directed by the nationalist ex major Antauro Humala, (brother of Ollanta Humala, who finished second in the 2005 Presidential runoff), while a sweep of the prison where many of the hard line Sendero women are being held also produced information on the group`s future plans;  according to the police, one of the documents contained the following statement.

“The conditions under which our party’s activities are being carried out are changing radically. We have achieved freedom of meeting, association, and press. Naturally these rights are extremely weak, and to trust in present liberties  would be madness, if not a crime. The decisive struggle is to come, and the preparation for it must be in the forefront. The clandestine apparatus must be conserved” [i]

But while the facts have some sort of story to tell, this is hardly the first time Sendero’s resurgence, or supposed resurgence, has provided fodder for the front pages of the Peruvian dailies. Nor is it the first time the presence of the insurgent group has proved to be a useful political tool. This time the flurry of publicity coincides with the upcoming elections. Local councillors and mayors, including that of the capital Lima, will be elected in October while the presidential contest is slated for next year.

The present concern over Sendero has more to do with the latter; according to the polls Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori is the second leading candidate behind the present mayor of Lima, and ahead of Ex President Alejandro Toledo, Jaime Bayley the novelist film maker and openly gay television presenter, and the previously mentioned Ollanta Humala. The threat of resurgence of the guerrilla group could prove useful to Fujimori`s supporters and this is unlikely to be the last time the issue is raised publicly before the Presidential election.

Sendero in the town

Sendero may be back, but the reality is that it never disappeared. The civil war is over, but seventeen years on from Guzman’s arrest, and fourteen years after the annihilation of the remnants of the MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru) in the Japanese embassy residence, Peru is still rowing through the rough waters of the conflict’s wake.  Ex President Alberto Fujimori, attributed with defeating the guerrilla and putting and end to the decades long civil war that cost more than 70,000 lives, is in jail. Sentenced in 2006 to 25 years for his part in the Barrrios Altos y Cantuta massacres, he, like Sendero, has also declined to disappear. Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s chief of operations is another survivor. Despite serving a prison sentence more than one person has attributed the latest round of concern about Sendero to him and his desire to see Fujimori, and himself, back on the street. Perhaps the most interesting element of the proposal to release Guzmán, hailed as a `genius of the proletariat` by a mayoralty candidate for the town of Puno[ii], is the extent to which he and his captor now depend on each other.  The group calling for an amnesty for Guzman suggests that all prisoners jailed as a result of the civil war should be pardoned and freed, which would presumably include the ex President.

Fujimori and Montesinos are still in jail, for the moment at least, but a large number of ex Sendero members, (some 4,500) have been liberated after serving their sentences, although there is little evidence that the ex guerrillas have returned to the Sendero fold.

And on the subject of releases, the American Lori Berenson, convicted for being linked to the MRTA, (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru) recently had her prison sentence terminated having served only 14 years and six months of her 20 year sentence.  Berenson’s release provoked a storm of criticism not only for the early release, which took place only five days before Present Alan Garcia`s visit the White House and was widely seen as a gift to the Americans, but also because the Inter American Court of Human Rights ruled that she should be compensated due to her rights being affected and being imprisoned in `difficult` circumstances in the nineteen nineties. The Peruvian government was obliged to pay her some US $30,000, news that was not well received by the country`s ruling elite.

Sendero in the country

While stirring up a little Sendero fever may prove useful for certain political factions, there is little doubt that the real Sendero is still out there. It may be reduced and politically outflanked, even irrelevant, but in the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene rivers (VRAE) to the North East of Ayacucho, Sendero’s presence is more than simply paper headlines.  In 2009 the group inflicted a number of serious reverses on the Peruvian Army: patrols were ambushed and a helicopter shot down, and as a result a ring of bases installed to counteract the Guerrilla was quietly withdrawn.

The official position is that this Sendero rearguard is now nothing more than a drug running operation. The same claim is made about the FARC in Colombia, and while there is no way to know for certain how much truth there is to the claim, it does appear that the guerrilla is providing protection to runners. But if Sendero is running cocaine it is unlikely that this involves any kind of ideological contradiction for the group, that doubtless considers that if the enemy wants to poison itself with drugs, and pay Sendero for the privilege, then all the better[iii].

Whatever is going on in the VRAE, according to General Miyahsiro, viceminster of the Interior, and ex commander of Dircote, Sendero has not ‘returned’ , at least not in the form it had twenty years ago. Nor should the government intervene in the San Marcos University, he said, or presumably in any other of the universities the Peruvian Congress is investigating for presence of ‘subversives’.

[i] Incautan planes de acción a cúpula senderista presa en Chorrillos. Diario La Republica,Lima 26 June 2010

[ii] Candidato a la alcaldía de Puno asegura que Abimael Guzmán no cometió delitos. Diario La Republica, Lima, 21 June 2010.

[iii] A report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that in 2009 Peru overtook Colombia to become the world’s largest producer of coca leaf. Peru produces 45.4% of the region’s coca leaf while Colombia produced 39.3% and Bolivia 15.3% The same report lays much of the blame at the door of the consuming nations, confirming that the number of users in Europe has doubled in the last ten years