Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Peruvian insurgent movement following a radical Maoist ideology, began its self-proclaimed "people's war" in May 1980, on the eve of Peru's first presidential elections in seventeen years. Founded and led since its formation in the 1960s by Abimael Guzmán Reynoso, the organization grew initially within the colonial University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga, which was refounded in 1959, in isolated highland Ayacucho, where Guzmán taught between 1962 and 1975. Using his position as director of the teacher training school and later as secretary of the university, after his group won internal elections in 1968, he built a loyal following, from those returning to their peasant communities to teach in local schools to faculty members and cadres of radicalized student activists. Originally part of a wider Maoist movement in Peru following the break between the Soviet Union and China in 1963–1964, Guzmán went his own way between 1968 and 1970 to found the Communist Party of Peru, which became known as Shining Path or PCP-SL.
Adopting the most radical orientation among the factions of China's Cultural Revolution over the course of at least three extended visits between 1965 and 1975, Guzmán was determined to pursue a "true" revolution on his own in Peru after the Chinese radicals lost out in 1976. The isolation and stark poverty of the Ayacucho region and the inadequacy of the agrarian reform pursued there by the military government (1968–1980) contributed to worsening conditions within the local peasantry and gave Shining Path organizers new support for their revolutionary project.
As quixotic as the initiation of the people's war seemed, just as Peru was returning to elected civilian rule with the full participation of other Marxist parties, governmental indifference for more than two years followed by a repressive and exclusively military response enabled Shining Path to gain support in Ayacucho in the early 1980s and gradually created favorable conditions for generalized political violence that had not previously existed. Not only did government actions worsen the security situation, but misguided policies also produced a major economic crisis by the end of the 1980s that allowed Shining Path to expand its activities throughout the Andean highlands, the Upper Huallaga Valley, and into Lima. By the early 1990s, the guerrillas seemed on the verge of victory.
Shining Path tactics depended on the use of small, highly mobile units that worked to undermine the presence of the central government and other organizations at the local community and neighborhood levels by intimidation, selective attacks, and carefully planned assassinations of key local figures. Operating from a small central committee and six zonal commands nationwide, the strategy was gradually to encircle the cities by expanding operational capacity in the countryside while simultaneously building support groups within the cities. Leaders insisted on complete self-sufficiency: They secured weapons by attacking police and the military, dynamite by raiding mines, and funds by levying "taxes" on drug-trafficking operations in the Upper Huallaga.
But as Guzmán was preparing to launch a "final offensive," to begin in October 1992, he and several other members of the central committee were captured at a Lima safe house, along with the party's master files. This dramatic reversal of fortune was the result of a combination of factors: Shining Path's overconfidence, bordering on hubris; its increasingly repressive actions against the very people that were to be the beneficiaries of its revolution; and, beginning in 1989, major changes in the government's approach, which began to target leaders through a small elite police unit, to train and provide arms to local peasant groups (rondas), and to conduct military operations designed to win hearts and minds and to be sensitive to human rights concerns.
Guzmán's capture marked the beginning of the end of Shining Path as a threat to state survival. It was followed by other government initiatives, including rapid trials, a repentance program that reincorporated into Peruvian society some five thousand former militants and sympathizers, and a major micro-development program that targeted the poorest rural districts and dramatically reduced extreme poverty by the late 1990s. Even so, the legacy of violence took a huge toll on Peru—seventy thousand deaths (almost half in Ayacucho alone), some $20 billion in direct property and infrastructure damage, more than half a million internal refugees, and the emigration of about a million Peruvians.
Although Shining Path is no longer a threat to the state, it still operates in some parts of Peru and appears to be slowly regaining momentum as a result of ineffective government policies and the return to the field of hundreds of convicted guerrillas who have completed their sentences.
Degregori, Carlos Iván, et al. Las rondas campesinas y la derrota de Sendero Luminoso. Lima: IEP Ediciones, 1996.
Stern, Steve J., ed. Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
David Scott Palmer