Guzman, Abimael (Comrade Gonzalo)

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Abimael Guzman (Comrade Gonzalo)

December 3, 1934

Mollendo, Peru

Philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path

"As for terrorism, they claim we're terrorists. I would like to give the following answer so that everyone can think about it: has it or has it not been Yankee imperialism and particularly [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan who has branded all revolutionary movements as terrorists, yes or no?"

F rom 1980 to 1992, Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor, terrorized Peru as head of the Shining Path, one of the world's most violent terrorist organizations. About thirty thousand people died in a long string of bombings and raids staged by the organization, which claimed to follow the philosophy of China's revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong (also spelled Tse-tung; 1893–1976). Guzman was finally arrested in September 1992, after which the level of violence attributed to Shining Path dropped sharply, although Peru's government was not able to put an end to the Shining Path entirely.

Origins of a revolutionary

Guzman was born in 1934 near the small Peruvian town of Mollendo. His father and mother did not marry, and Guzman grew up in his mother's small house down the street from his father, who was a wealthy merchant.

When Guzman was five years old, his mother died and he went to live with an uncle. A few years later, he went to live with his father, his father's wife, and several half brothers. Soon the entire family moved to the town of Arequipa, in southern Peru. There he attended a private Catholic school. Guzman was an excellent student—he graduated near the top of his high school class—and at age nineteen he enrolled in the University of Arequipa.

Guzman studied philosophy and the law. He became especially interested in the writings of social philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), the father of communism. (Communism is an economic theory that does not include the concept of private property; instead, the people—represented by the the government—owns all goods and means of production.) Marx led Guzman to the writings of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Russian communist revolution; Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), the dictator who ruled over the Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries) for almost thirty years; and Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Although Guzman eventually led one of the most violent communist terrorist organizations in the world, he always maintained the image of philosopher and writer. He was never shown wearing a military uniform, but he was often shown carrying a book.

Guzman did, however, take on the revolutionary name Comrade Gonzalo. Some of his followers called him Doctor Puka Inti, meaning "Red Sun" in the Quechua language of native Peruvian Indians. Others called him Shampoo because, in the words of one follower, "he washes your head [thoughts]."

As a university student Guzman was strongly influenced by two men. One was a philosophy professor, Rodriguez Rivas, who was the center of a group of philosophy students who followed the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and the rule of "Reason." Guzman edited a magazine published by a group of Rivas's followers. Its main thrust was how to change the world, and mankind, by applying reason, regardless of how impractical the actions taken might be.

The other influence on Guzman was Carlos de la Riva, a painter and a communist. He convinced Guzman that in the 1960s, Chinese communists under Mao Zedong, who were in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China that left millions of Mao's "opponents" dead, had inherited the true spirit of communism.

His career begins

Guzman graduated from the University of Arequipa in 1962 and was hired as a philosophy professor at the Universidad Nacional San Cristobal de Huamanga. When Guzman left Arequipa for his new position in the town of Ayacucho, he was already well on the road to being a revolutionary.

Guzman's new university focused on technology in hopes that it could train people in an exceptionally poor and backward part of Peru to create greater economic growth. To accomplish this goal, well-paid professors were brought to the university, which was in a poor town of decaying, partially abandoned churches and (unable to read or write) Indians.

Guzman began organizing the many young communist students into groups to protest against the government. As Guzman succeeded in attracting poor young Peruvians to the Communist Party, which they embraced as an answer to the desperate poverty in Peru, he also worked to get them admitted as students at the university.

As the 1960s progressed, Guzman became an important figure on the campus. Even the sons of the university's president, who disliked the communist professor, were Guzman followers. Guzman was often surrounded by his students, many of whom came from poor Indian families.

In 1964 Guzman married Augusta La Torre, the daughter of the local communist leader. They had no children.

Also in 1964, Peru's Communist Party divided into two factions. One supported the Soviet (Russian) Communist Party; the other supported the Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong. The split in Peru reflected a similar division between Russia and China in the mid-1960s. In Peru, Guzman emerged as the leader of the pro-China faction.

The following year an armed revolt, inspired by the success of Cuban communists, broke out in several parts of Peru, including Ayacucho. But Guzman resisted pressure to lead his followers in support. His resistance reflected the growing split between Communist Cuba, which sided with the Soviet Union, and Communist China. The Peruvian authorities threatened to arrest him—to them, all communists seemed alike, whether they were allied with Cuba or with China—so Guzman left the country and went to China.

Guzman's stay in China had a major impact on him. He learned the theory of how to fight a "people's war," a kind of guerrilla revolution. These underground (secret) terrorist tactics had been used successfully by Mao and his Chinese Communist Party in its fight against the Nationalist Chinese in the 1940s.

"Serious revolutionary work"

By 1967 Guzman had returned to Peru, prepared for "serious revolutionary work," as he told his young followers in Ayacucho. His immediate challenge was to take charge of Peru's communists, many of whom were still attracted to the Cuban ideal that had served as an example for young revolutionaries throughout Latin America.

The main difference between the Chinese communist approach and the Cuban communist approach to gaining control of governments was the role of military action versus political action. The Cuban model was based on using small, mobile guerrilla groups to attack the military. Eventually, according to the plan, military victories in the countryside would lead to control of the cities and the country. The Chinese model was based on the idea that political organization had to come first, with military attacks coming later. While the Cuban model was to overwhelm the government's military forces in a series of battles and achieve military victory in the capital, the Chinese model called for gradually taking over the country by gaining the support of the population.

Guzman was a follower of the Chinese model. The Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–1967) was a follower of the Cuban model. Guevara was killed fighting a Cuban-style revolution in Bolivia. Guzman used his death as an example of the hopelessness of Guevara's approach.

The year 1968 saw an unexpected development. Peru's military forces, sensing that revolution was about to sweep the country, overthrew the elected civilian president. But instead of clamping down on communists, the Peruvian military launched major reforms and freed jailed guerrillas. Communist Cuba and the pro-Russian Peruvian Communist Party applauded. But Guzman and the pro-Chinese faction of Peru's Communist Party fought the new military government.

The next year, as students in Ayacucho protested a government decision that ended free high school education for students who did not have passing grades, Guzman's faction supported the student demonstrators. The demonstrations became violent and forced the military government to back down. Guzman was arrested briefly. While in jail, he broke with the leader of Peru's Communist Party and set up his own organization upon his release. To mark the difference between the two groups, outsiders began referring to one as Red Banner and to Guzman's group as Shining Path. But as this split was taking place, the military government opened diplomatic relations with China. Soon the two countries were on good terms. China's enthusiasm for a violent political revolution in Peru began to fall, leaving Guzman without a foreign ally.

Despite this setback, Guzman pushed ahead with his version of a people's war and a Chinese-style cultural revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a Chinese political movement in the 1960s that tried to stamp out all signs of capitalism in Chinese culture. (Capitalism is an economic system in which factories and other businesses are owned and controlled by private individuals. It is the opposite of communism, in which property is owned by the people as a whole and, in theory, is distributed to them equally by the government.) Other left-wing (communist-leaning) groups joined together against the Shining Path. By 1976 these groups had gained enough influence to force Guzman to leave the university. Although he had lost his base of operations, Guzman continued to pursue a Chinese-style communist revolution in the countryside. Meanwhile, in China, Mao died and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) rose to power, reversing many of Mao's more extreme reforms and opening the way for private businesses in China's economy.

Let the revolution begin

Although they had had close ties to the Chinese communists for a dozen years, Guzman's followers in 1980 criticized the Chinese leadership and struck out on their own to promote their vision of a communist revolution in Peru.

By this point they had only one communist ally in the world: the leader of the tiny European country of Albania, Enver Hoxha (1908–1985). But, eventually, even he sided with the Red Banner faction of Peru's Communist Party.

This loss of his last ally did not discourage Guzman. The Shining Path became more radical (extreme) than ever, constantly purging (forcing out) members whose beliefs were considered suspect. The party committed itself to follow what it called the "Guiding Thought of Comrade Gonzalo."

In January 1979, Guzman was arrested while in the capital of Lima. But the party hired a respected lawyer and persuaded at least one army general to support his release. He was let out of jail and disappeared, emerging only during the 1980s to lead one of the world's most violent and deadliest revolts.

The deadly revolt of the Shining Path

In the spring of 1980, Shining Path began its armed revolution. The organization was largely without friends or allies, even among other communists. Its tactics ranged from violent political demonstrations to more traditional guerrilla attacks against army installations. A favorite strategy of Shining Path was assassinating civilian government officials. This wiped out the central government's power in many rural areas, where the Shining Path became the only ruling force.

Guzman never pretended his revolution would be easy. He had long warned his followers to be prepared to cross a "river of blood" to achieve victory. He began to claim an even larger role for himself. New recruits to his party swore loyalty to Comrade Gonzalo, who was described as "chief of the Communist Party of Peru and of World Revolution."

Rural villages that resisted the Shining Path paid a high price. In April 1983, for example, Shining Path guerrillas rounded up villagers in the Andean town of Lucanamarca and murdered almost seventy people. "We made them understand that they were confronting [facing] a different kind of people's fighters," Guzman said of the massacre in a 1990 New Republic interview.

For more than a decade, Shining Path fought its revolution with little or no regard for the number of people it killed. In a dozen years, about thirty thousand Peruvians died, many at the hands of Shining Path raiders. By 1986 Shining Path controlled areas on either side of a line running north-south through the Andes Mountains. The organization also spread its influence into Peru's coastal areas and even into the capital of Lima.

In 1987 the organization moved into Peru's main cocaine-producing area, about 500 miles (805 kilometers) southeast of Lima, which brought Shining Path into conflict with drug traffickers, American anti-narcotics workers, and Peruvian military and police authorities. Shining Path welcomed conflict with the United States. If it could transform its communist revolution into a war of resistance against the capitalist United States, the organization said, "90 percent of the population would follow us."

Reaction and arrest

In July 1990 a new president, Alberto Fujimori (1938–), came to power in Peru. At first, little changed. Shining Path continued its brutal campaign. But in May 1992 Fujimori dissolved Peru's congress and its courts. He began ruling the country by decree, backed by the military. The move was highly popular with many Peruvians, who felt the government hadn't done enough to fight the terrorists. Newspaper polls said 80 to 90 percent of the population supported the change. Three years later, in 1995, Fujimori was elected to another term.

Under strict military rule, the government soon began making progress in its campaign against Shining Path. Regional commanders and party leaders were arrested and its operations were interrupted. The biggest success came in September 1992 when Guzman was arrested, along with six of his leading commanders.

Still operating under military rule, Fujimori's government put Guzman on trial under unusual circumstances. The government prosecutor and the judges all appeared in hooded robes that hid their faces, to prevent Shining Path guerrillas from targeting them for revenge. The entire trial was conducted in secret.

Guzman was convicted of treason (betraying one's country) and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to an underground cell on an island off the coast of Peru, then transferred to a maximum security prison on a naval base.

Although the Shining Path swore revenge, Guzman's absence was a major blow to the organization. Its numbers and influence soon dropped.

In 1993 Guzman publicly appealed for his guerrilla followers to negotiate a peace agreement with the government. Some thought Guzman had been forced to make the appeal; others thought he was simply admitting defeat. Whichever was the case, the Shining Path refused. Guzman remained in prison, kept in his cell for all but a few hours a day, with no real chance of ever being released.

For More Information


Olsen, William J., editor. Small Wars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Periodicals Press, 1995.

Palmer, David Scott, editor. The Shining Path of Peru. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Strong, Simon. Shining Path: Terror and Revolution in Peru. New York: Times Books, 1992.


"The Cell at the End of the Path: Peru." The Economist, September 19, 1992, p. 50.

Gorriti, Gustavo. "The War of the Philosopher-King." New Republic, June 18, 1990, p. 15.

Smolowe, Jill. "His Turn to Lose." Time, September 28, 1992, p. 47.

Strong, Simon. "Where the Shining Path Leads." New York Times Magazine, May 24, 1992, p. 12.

Werlich, David P. "Peru: The Shadow of the Shining Path." Current History, February 1984, p. 78.

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Guzman, Abimael (Comrade Gonzalo)

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