Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path)

views updated

Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path)

LEADER: Abimael Guzmán


ESTIMATED SIZE: 5,000-15,000



Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path in Spanish; SL), an extension of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), was a band of insurgents that formed in the 1970s, led by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán. SL formed in reaction to socioeconomic underdevelopment in the Peruvian highlands and promoted the idea of a "people's war" to end economic and social repression. SL's message spoke to the Amerindian of Peruvian society, as the revolutionaries spread ideas of Indian agrarian/communal rule in the hopes of returning to pre-Incan societal structures.

Advocating armed insurgency against the established Peruvian national government, Guzmán led Sendero Luminoso on a twelve-year campaign of political violence, with the express goal of gaining control and converting society to a pre-Incan cooperative agricultural structure. Through bombings, electrical and water supply disruptions, and armed conflict, Sendero presented a major obstacle for the president in sending an international message about Peru's stability and reliability as a place for foreign investment.

Between 1980 and 1993, the group's insurrection was responsible for 23,000 civilian, member, and military deaths, and more than $20 billion in state and personal property damage.


Peru suffered from a host of socioeconomic problems in the 1970s and 1980s. Dramatic income disparity, high infant mortality rates, runaway inflation, and chronic economic problems plagued the nation. The highland and mountain areas, where Quechua Indians reside, experienced the most crushing poverty and development problems.

Sendero Luminoso's ideology has been described by Daniel Masterson as "an amalgam of the socialist communal teachings of Jose Carlos Mariategui" (the Peruvian philosopher who founded the Peruvian Communist Party, PCP, in 1928), Marxism, and Abimael Guzmán's interpretation of these ideas. The unique ideology separated SL from blending with other international leftist organizations, and in fact SL scorned other communist movements and governments, including Cuba, China, and the USSR.

In 1964, a pro-Chinese faction within the PCP split from the party. Guzmán disagreed with Chinese communism, and by 1970 Guzmán split with the PCP and the pro-Chinese group, instead forming his own organization Sendero Luminoso, whose name comes from the "shining path" that leads to a return to pre-Incan, cooperative agriculture in Mariategui's writings.

Guzmán determined that the current government was imperialist and that the indigenous population in Peru should rise up in armed struggle against the state and place power in the hands of the peasants. Ayacucho, an area in the highlands populated mostly by Quechua Indians, became SL's center of operations. The peasants felt neglected by the national government; the government's failure to provide proper funding for basic human services, sanitation, refusal to institute land reform requests, and failure to stop the beginnings of SL violence in the countryside created support for the ideology behind SL. In 1991, eleven years after SL's armed struggle began and violence swept the countryside, 7% of all Peruvians and 11% of the poorest citizens still viewed the insurgency favorably.

For the first decade of SL's existence (1970–1980), Peru was ruled by a strong military government. Nationalization, land reform, and extreme changes in international relations were the cornerstones of the military's "Peruvian Experiment." However, the promised land reform did not unfold as SL had expected. The failure of this land restructuring provided an example for SL of how not to initiate and implement strategies for change. In fact, Sendero's first political action, the burning of ballot boxes and the boycotting of elections in 1980, was a careful move to make clear to society that change must be swift and intense.

From the standpoint of the national government, controlling Sendero Luminoso was difficult at first. As of 1980, the only laws applicable to terrorist trials and political violence were "disturbing internal peace," "disruption of public order," or "conspiracy to introduce terrorism" charges. The national government worked to pass a series of laws to give them legislative and judicial clout when arresting, trying, and sentencing SL members.

In addition, the Peruvian government used local and national police, as well as military forces, to fight against the SL in the countryside and in urban areas as needed. In both 1982 and 1983, military forces were ordered into Ayacucho, Apurimac, and Huancavelica to establish control and defeat the insurgents. At the same time, police organized voluntary, locally based peasant groups. These groups, patterned after the voluntary and successful peasant patrol groups used in the northern highlands, helped to alert the police of SL activities and strongholds. Also, as migration increased from Ayacuhco to urban centers, sparked by the violence and by the search for jobs, these peasants served as unofficial "troops" in the battle against SL.

However, when the military stepped in, the tone of these groups changed dramatically. The Peruvian military began obligating peasants to join the civil defense patrols, and those who were resisted were often labeled subversive. In addition to creating these forced peasant patrols, the military formed detention centers in peasant areas, such as Ayacucho, Apurimac, Huanta, and LaMar. These actions on the part of the military alienated peasants. The same peasants who fled SL's violence were now confronted with a difficult choice: support Sendero or face forced, unofficial military conscription.

SL was most active from 1984 through 1990, a period when Sendero increased attacks on Peru's capital, Lima. By 1990, when President Alberto Fujimori took power, SL was considered the greatest challenge facing the new president. President Fujimori publicly stated that SL would be eradicated by 1995. With the capture of Abimael Guzmán on September 12, 1992, Fujimori claimed victory over the insurgent group.


From 1970 through 1980, Guzmán used SL to gather support among rural Indians in Ayacucho. The failure of Peru's military regime to fulfill promises of land reform reinforced SL's conviction that violence was necessary for revolution. SL began to provide services in Ayacucho that the national government would not provide, such as medical services, education, and communal farming assistance. This decade was SL's gestation period, a time for garnering ideological support and gaining activists. By 1980, SL was ready for action.

On May 17, 1980, SL claimed responsibility for instigating the burning of ballot boxes and boycotting of elections in the town of Chuschi in Ayacucho. Although this action was accompanied by little violence, by the end of 1981, SL had claimed responsibility for more than 400 separate actions of political violence in Peru.

SL used three main forms of activity: sabotage, security force attacks, and town and village occupation. The main targets for sabotage were the Peruvian infrastructure and power structure, with roads, rail links, telephone lines, water sources, and electrical sources attacked. In addition, SL targeted security force bases and government workers' homes.

Sendero Luminoso also used displays of power in terms of political and economic manipulation, planning and causing blackouts and brownouts in Lima on key "holidays" within the SL movement, such as Guzmán's birthday, or the anniversary of political violence events.



Abimael Guzmán, the leader of SL, began his teaching career in philosophy and the University of San Cristobal de Huamanga in Ayacocho, Peru, a center of communist activity in the rural highlands. Three key factors influenced Guzmán's politics: deteriorating social conditions in Ayacucho, reading the work of Jose Carlos Mariategui, and his wife's encouragement to become more politically active in leftist causes. Guzmán became convinced that an armed struggle was required for the over-throw of the current Peruvian government and appealed to peasants to join him in the fight.

After more than twelve years of violent activity from SL and its cells, Abimael Guzmán was captured on September 12, 1992, and sentenced to life in prison. The cult of "Chairman Gonzalo," as he was nicknamed, continues to this day, as groups in Peru and the United States work for his freedom from imprisonment.

According to James Anderson, in his book Sendero Luminoso: A Revolutionary Model?, SL's campaign to overthrow what it called the "imperialist, Eurocentric" Peruvian government involved five key stages of armed struggle, including mobilization and propaganda dissemination, to gain solid support in the countryside; sabotage and rural guerilla activity; political violence and confrontation of security forces; expansion of bases into "enemy" zones; and blockading towns with peasant armies, and deployment of members to provoke a civil war.

In 1992, when Guzmán was captured, SL leaders were publicly stating that they believed themselves to be in the fifth and last stage, ready to provoke a civil war.

SL's activities in the countryside, however, alienated many of the peasants that provided the foundation of support for SL. In the early years of their activity, SL aided peasants in obtaining land. However, within a few years, the SL operatives became increasingly restrictive, controlling commerce and external trade, even controlling peasant access to the ocean for trade purposes. SL also prevented voting in various towns and used political violence against local leaders, claiming to have murdered politicians and forced hundreds out of office through threats.

SL was unique in terms of extremist groups in that it was not dependent on any outside organization for financial or arms support. Most of its money was received from extortion of coca farmers and plantation owners. SL received money and goods in exchange for protecting peasants that farmed small lots from drug traffickers. In addition, SL controlled critical airline runways for drug exports. Farming coca produced as much as forty times the average income per year for a peasant in Ayacucho; SL's protection of these activities helped them to gain support among this population.

SL was organized in a cell formation, with individual cells containing between five and eight members. Each unit contained an explosives expert, a munitions expert, four or five members, and a commander. The commander was the only contact person for the next level of the organization. By structuring itself in this manner, SL avoided large-scale captures by the military until 1992. SL viewed sympathizers and members as falling into five distinct categories: sympathizers—peasants or individuals who provided funds, food, medicine, etc. and who acted as messengers; activists—those who hung posters, painted slogans, and spread propaganda; militants—people who participated directly in violent actions (SL frequently referred to these people as their "militia"); cuadros (commanders)—individuals who managed regions and zones, or cells; and cupola (top leaders)—Guzmán and the Central Committee for SL.

SL membership ranged between an estimated 5,000 and 15,000. Membership was drawn largely from the working class, with disenchanted students, peasant farmers, miners, street vendors, domestic servants, and unskilled and semi-skilled laborers filling the ranks. At the higher levels, academics like Guzmán assumed most leadership positions. Women filled about 30% of the leadership positions in SL, part of an expressed tactic on the part of Guzmán. In Ayacucho and the peasant areas, the societies are highly paternalistic, and women are rarely considered subversive or threatening; SL used female members to maintain an element of surprise.

Sendero Luminoso was aided by the military's approach to rural peasants. In addition to the use of forced patrols, military groups would enter the sections of the countryside labeled "red zone" areas, where SL had control or was fighting to gain control. The security forces gathered peasants and cleared the area of civilians, hoping to eliminate SL's support base. These uprooted peasants were often forced to relocate to other villages, breeding intra-Quecha village rivalry and angering peasants.


Sendero Luminoso began.
The group's first political act occurred.
Active in terms of political violence.
Guzmán was captured and imprisoned for life.

In 1984, the Peruvian government put the "Internal Defense of the Territory Plan" in place. Phase one of this plan was implemented immediately: 7,000 troops were deployed to begin a "containment strategy" in areas of high Sendero activity. In addition, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations began to document disappearances and human rights abuses against suspected leftists in Peru. Between 1982 and 1990, Ayacucho was under a declared state of emergency. The crackdown on SL operatives in the countryside led to more attacks on Lima.

In 1985, when Alan Garcia assumed the presidency, he implemented a wide range of reforms, including redevelopment, funding programs to aid the unemployed and underemployed, and a peace commission to address the issue of the "disappeared" leftists. SL activity dropped in 1985, but by 1986 SL scaled up its activities and targeted Lima once again. Garcia placed Lima under a state of emergency and enforced a curfew for the entire city.

Sendero Luminoso's tactics resulted in a wide range of acts of political violence, including attacking Civil Guard officers in a pro-active offensive movement, starting around 1983. The Civil Guard claims that SL members attacked and killed guard members to take their weapons and uniforms, using both to impersonate officers. Confusion spread quickly as SL members were able to infiltrate military bases of operation and attack Civil Guard groups while in uniform.

In 1983, SL caused a blackout in Lima and set fire to the Bayer industrial plant, gutting it. In June 1985, SL detonated several bombs near a power transmission center and produced a blackout in Lima once more. They detonated several car bombs and set off bombs in popular shopping malls. In 1986, a prison rebellion instigated by SL members resulted in the deaths of more than 300 members. In 1993, a street bomb detonated in Lima killed 40 people and destroyed numerous buildings. Many of the attacks took place when foreign dignitaries visited Peru's president, a message from SL about its views on foreign investment and influence.

By 1991, Sendero controlled various parts of the countryside in the south and central sections of Peru. However, SL's use of violence had alienated many of the peasants who formed their support base. When SL's leader was captured in 1992, Sendero had been responsible for a twelve-year stretch of political violence that threatened Peru's political system, economic development, infrastructure, and rural society. Through guerilla tactics, cell formation, propaganda, mafialike methods, and violence, the group kept three different Peruvian presidents very busy with initiatives and orders to eradicate the group.

After Guzmán's arrest, a group calling itself Proseguir (Onward) claimed to be the continuation of SL. The Peruvian government claims that the group numbers no more than 100, and that they are working with narco-traffickers as a funding source.

Isolated bombings, including a car bomb attack in Lima in 2002 that killed nine people shortly before a visit from U.S. President George W. Bush, have been attributed to SL. While isolated cells may be operational, Sendero Luminoso ceases to be a major actor in Peruvian politics today.


The Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru, a Berkeley, California-based organization, is an American group that identifies itself as being a continuation of the Peruvian Communist Party and Sendero Luminoso. According to the group's web site, "The Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru (CSRP) works in our communities to build political support for the People's War and active resistance to the Peruvian regime. The People's War is led by the Communist Party of Peru (PCP)—often referred to as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, by the media. We distribute the writings of the PCP (Partido Comunista del Peru) and other materials that help people understand what this revolution is about."

The organization claims that the capture and imprisonment of Abimael Guzmán (nicknamed Chairman Gonzalo) is unjust. The group's web site also states that, "After his capture and a secret, summary military trial before faceless judges in 1992, Chairman Gonzalo, leader of the Communist Party of Peru (PCP) and the People's War in that country, was thrown into an isolation cell in an underground military prison. He and other PCP leaders are still being held there today. He was last seen in public on 24 September 1992."

In 2003, Peru's Constitutional Court ruled that the terrorist laws under which Abimael Guzmán and others had been tried and convicted were unconstitutional. More than 1,900 alleged terrorists were given an opportunity for new trials in Peru. Chairman Gonzalo was one of those permitted a new trial. The proceedings, scheduled for November 5, 2004, were postponed. The Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru condemned the postponement, declaring Guzmán innocent of all charges.


The impact of Sendero Luminoso on Peru in the 1980s and early 1990s was extreme. Presidential preoccupation with the rebels was intense, and financial, political, and military resources were diverted from development into fighting SL. Sendero also garnered international attention for its activities as a rebel group and for its association with narco-traffickers.

Although there were pockets of SL activity following Guzmán's arrest, trial, and conviction, the group is now considered to be largely defunct, although the activities of Proseguir remain to be seen. Guzmán remains in prison, waiting for a new trial to be scheduled.

Shining Path (SL) a.k.a. Sendero Luminoso People's Liberation Army


Former university professor Abimael Guzman formed SL in Peru in the late 1960s, and his teachings created the foundation of SL's militant Maoist doctrine. In the 1980s, SL became one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere. Approximately 30,000 persons have died since Shining Path took up arms in 1980. The Peruvian Government made dramatic gains against SL during the 1990s, but reports of recent SL involvement in narco-trafficking and kidnapping for ransom indicate it may be developing new sources of support. Its stated goal is to destroy existing Peruvian institutions and replace them with a communist peasant revolutionary regime. It also opposes any influence by foreign governments. Peruvian Courts in 2003 granted approximately 1,900 members the right to request retrials in a civilian court, including the imprisoned top leadership. The trial of Guzman, who was arrested in 1992, was scheduled for November 5, 2004, but was postponed after the first day, when chaos erupted in the courtroom.


Conducted indiscriminate bombing campaigns and selective assassinations.


Unknown but estimated to be some 300 armed militants.


Peru, with most activity in rural areas.



Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.



Goritti, Gustavo. The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru. Durham, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Web sites

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (in Spanish). "Final Report." 〈〉 (accessed October 4, 2005).

Human Rights Watch. "Peru." 〈〉 (accessed October 4, 2005).

About this article

Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path)

Updated About content Print Article