After the Violence Abated: The Aftermath of Sendero Luminoso

Thursday, January 23, 2014 - 15:30

By the mid-1980s, many of the anti-communist military regimes that plagued the southern region of Latin American began to dwindle, allowing these nations to enter a stage of remission. But as part of the Latin American body was cured of the disease of political violence, others were newly exposed to the infectious disease. And this time, the other side attacked with a vengeance. In Peru, Maoist, Marxist, communist groups attacked the nation’s indigenous community leaving a path of devastating loss. In 2000, Peru finally freed itself of the political violence that afflicted the nation for twenty consecutive years. From 1980 until 2000, the nation suffered from immense political chaos and terrorism. This war, sometimes referred to as “the time of fear,” was originally instigated by Peru’s communist party, Partido Comunista del Perú Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path). In the beginning of the war, this group attacked rural indigenous communities hoping to abolish the capitalistic nature of Peruvian society. However, this complex political battle developed many fronts: indigenous Peruvians had no choice but to defend themselves against Sendero terrorist infiltration, the military became involved by giving arms to the indigenous to defend themselves, who were then mistaken for Senderos themselves and in turn attacked by military forces. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report of the event carefully estimates that there were about 70,000 deaths and disappearances during the 20 year span that violence ransacked the nation.

Although the armed struggle against terrorism initially  affectedly primarily indigenous groups in the Ayacucho region, in the 1990s the war moved from the countryside to the city. A car bomb planted by Sendero in a wealthy neighborhood of Lima exploded on July 16, 1992 killing 23 and wounding hundreds. Later that year the leader of the organization, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in Lima, Peru. After the capture of Guzmán, Lima became a battlefield as President Alberto Fujimori sought to control the nation through propaganda. Although Fujimori promised democracy, his administration virtually abolished the country’s legal system, leavinghim with almost absolute power. He targeted those who were thought to be enemies of the state, blurring the lines between terrorists and non-terrorists, and adding to the chaos that had already been scourging the country for over 10 years. With its leader gone, the organization began to face various internal problems. In the year following his capture, Guzmán offered a peace agreement with the government. This compromise caused a fracture in the movement, dividing it into two groups: those who wished to continue to carry out the vision of Sendero through violence, and those who wished to surrender. By the beginning of 1994, over 6,000 of the group’s terrorists feared imminent failure and surrendered under an amnesty law. At this time, this movement dwindled as its followers began to leave the organization, causing violence and death rates to slow.

After the Sendero movement split, the killings and terrorist attacks slowly came to a halt. In the mid-1990s, Oscar Ramírez Durand, one of the founders of Sendero, attempted to lead a resurgence movement. At this time, Sendero Luminoso only had the support of a few hundred men and the guerrilla movement was forced to exist primarily in the eastern jungle region of Peru. In 1999, Ramírez Durand, one of the last remaining free founders of the movement, was captured. The following year, Fujimori renounced his presidency and fled to Japan to live in political exile. Valentín Paniagua assumed presidency temporarily and shortly after established the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR--Truth and Reconciliation Committee) to investigate the human rights violations that occurred from 1980-2000. Alejandro Toledo then succeeded Paniagua in July of 2001. Under Toledo, the CVR’s official report was released in August of 2003. Its official estimation claims that there were between 61,007 and 77,552 deaths during the time of fear. It attributed 54% of the total deaths to be caused by Sendero Luminoso and 1.5% caused by The Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (a Marxist revolutionary group that also operated at this time). The remaining 44.5% of the deaths were said to have been caused by the police, military, other political parties, security forces, and the government during this time span (and especially under Fujimori). It also showed that the majority of the violence was targeted at indigenous populations in Peru. As a possible solution to the country’s post-war problems, the CVR called for acceptance of Peru’s indigenous peoples and recommended that the government prosecute those responsible for the violence at this time. In 2003, President Toledo publicly apologized on behalf of the state to the victims of Sendero, the military, and the government. Since the report has been issued, many leaders of Sendero Luminoso and officials of the military have been arrested for their actions. Guzmán was sentenced to life imprisonment, Fujimori was detained in Chile and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009, while other cases continue pending legal action. 

Although the most devastating terrorist attacks ceased by the mid 1990s, there have been several isolated events since. In 2002, six people died when a car bomb exploded outside of the U.S. embassy in Lima, only days before George W. Bush was scheduled to visit. Sendero members assassinated eight police officers in Aucayacu in 2005. Several more police officers died the following year when Sendero targeted workers of the National Coca-Cola Company. In response to these incidents, the Peruvian government initiated a counterattack against the remaining members of the organization in 2008. In October 2013, Sendero leader Rolando Pantoja Quispe, also known as former military commander “Artemio” was captured. Pantoja Quispe was known for involvement in kidnappings, torture, and narco-trafficking. Today, the group has turned to narcotrafficking in order to fund its organization. Although Sendero is too weak to pose the same threat to the nation that it once did, some still have fear that it may slowly gain support from marginalized indigenous peasants or from young college students. In 2011, former Sendero members made an effort to create a political party in order to become democratically elected. This group sought amnesty for those who committed war crimes and the release of some who had already been sentenced to jail. The possible revival of this group alarmed many Peruvians, causing the memory of terror to resurge.

As in many countries struggling with the remnants of post-war and post-terrorism periods, the topic of memory in Peru has been a controversial issue. The government had rejected early foreign offers to fund a memory museum, but in 2009 accepted a donation from Germany and created La Comisión del Alto Nivel (The High Level Commission) headed by writer Mario Vargas Llosa. In December 2011 the idea to build a memory museum was put into action, naming Diego García Sayán as president of the project. Currently, the government is still working to complete La Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (The Place of Memory, Tolerance, and Social Inclusion), located in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, and scheduled to be completed later this year. This museum will portray a plural testimony of what occured during this time, as well as visions of possible futures that look toward reconciliation, according to García Sayán. 

Although the construction of a memory museum is a fairly recent occurrence in Peru, other groups have worked to sustain the memory of what happened during the time of war. In 2003, the CVR gathered photographs from witnesses of the war, creating an exhibit entitled “Yuyanapaq: para recordar,” loosely translated from Quechua to mean “To remember.” Several civil society groups, particularly indigenous victims’ rights organizations, have made exhibits of their own to commemorate the victims. In 2005 one group known as Anfasep displayed victims’ clothing at a memory museum in Ayacucho. In the same year, the monument “El ojo que llora” (“The Crying Eye”), which names the victims of the terror, was inaugurated. In 2011, when there was a threat of Sendero’s resurgence, many of those alive at the time were shocked by the signatures that the group obtained from young students. One television station had broadcast interviews that proved that young people were unable to recognize photographs of Abimael Guzmán, whose face had once served as a symbol that terrorized the nation. Without a collective national effort to commemorate the suffering that occurred during this time, those who were perhaps too young to remember or those who were not yet alive at the time may fall into the same trap that allowed for Sendero to gain power in the first place. Francisco Soberón of the Pro-Human Rights Association states, “Memory acts like a vaccine” to prevent the recurrence of past events. In this case, memory serves as an immunization to the disease of political violence and terrorism that once plagued Peru; without it there remains the possibility that this affliction will return to devastate the nation.

About Author(s)

Madeline Townsend
Madeline is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a degree in Spanish and Global Studies, with a focus on the Latin American region. She plans to present an honors thesis on visual representations of the internal conflict that occurred in Peru between 1980 and 2000. She also studies Portuguese and Film Studies as minors and works as one of the Panoramas interns.