Sendero Fades and FARC Rises in Peru

Repost from the old site.
Web Archive is your friend.
What wonderful dead Internet things it has managed to preserve for us, little snapshots long expired, such as Argentine Jewish journalist Uki Goni’s interview with Nicholas Shakespeare, author of the novel The Dancer Upstairs, based on the Shining Path* insurgency.
The novel was later made into a movie. Goni asks Shakespeare about the years he spent in Peru searching for Abimael Guzman (Presidente Gonzalo, leader of the Shining Path).
He never found him of course, but he did find a man who he said was the real brains behind the Sendero Luminoso movement, anthropologist Efrain Morote Best, former rector at the University of San Cristobal of Huamanga in Ayacucho, Peru from 1962-1968. This is where philosophy professor Guzman started his movement.
Many of the administrators, professors and students at the university were the nucleus of the movement, and Shining Path probably started 20 years before they burned ballot boxes in Chuschi, Ayacucho, on May 17, 1980, almost exactly 200 years after the last Inca rebel, Tupac Amaru, on May 17, 1781, was drawn and quartered by Spaniards, the four pieces then buried at far corners of Peru.
The Chuschi ballots burning was an inauspicious affair. At 2 AM, five masked youths and one adult entered the office of the registrar, tied him up, burned the ballots and registry and retreated into the night. The attack had been led by a schoolteacher. The incident was scarcely even noted in the press. But the single spark to light the prairie fire had been lit.
The correlation with the execution of Tupac Amaru was not accidental, yet this little-noted fact has hardly been noticed by anyone who studied the insurgency. But it has profound implications for understanding the movement.
Best’s son was the head on the military wing of Sendero and was the 2nd in command of the group. His brother and sister were also members. All were arrested and are serving sentences in prison. Best himself died in 1992. Shakespeare describes meeting Best in his hideout in northern Lima, surrounded by books and classical records, and coming face to face with the first truly evil man he had ever met.
Drinking coffee in Best’s home and talking for three hours, Shakespeare was shaking the whole time. Best had “no emotions”, while Gonzalo had “no personality” – an ascetic, humorless brainy type who bragged that he drank a bottle of mineral water on his honeymoon – this was his idea of a wild time.
Shakespeare’s interview paints Sendero as calculating and completely evil, a new Khmer Rouge. I do not necessarily agree with that, but I never supported them either. I believe that Sendero rejected Pol Pot’s back to nature Year Zero agrarianism, and surely they had nothing against intellectuals.
Indeed, it was a product of Mestizo intellectuals from the neglected provinces, victims of omnipresent racism and discrimination at the hands of the White ruling class.
Most of the cadres were young Mestizos, male and female, high school to college age, from the big cities on the coast and the provinces. Later there were many supporters amongst settlers in the jungle, amongst the ever-oppressed Indians in the Highlands, some jungle Indians and the urban poor and working class in Lima.
Shakespeare acts as if Sendero cared not one bit about the Indians. This is not true. The funeral of Edith Lagos, a fighter killed in 1982, drew over 30,000 (in a city of 70,000 people) – mostly Indians – to her funeral in Ayacucho, the capital of the province where it all began. The huge crowd had defied a ban on her funeral.
Furthermore, Lagos (rare photos of the strikingly beautiful Lagos here and here) had recently graduated from a Catholic high school run by nuns in Ayacucho. She had been a model student at the high school.
Earlier, her parents had sent her to Lima to study to be an attorney. She often skipped school to watch movies from India, because, she said, she liked to cry. When she was not doing that, she was meeting with trade union workers in the city and talking revolution.
She was rapidly recruited into the Shining Path and her rousing speeches electrified Indians throughout the Southern Sierra. At age 17, she was already a guerrilla commander. Lagos was captured several times by government forces. There is a photo of her in government custody in 1981, face swollen by beatings, 18 year old eyes already hard with determination. By now, Sendero held the northern third of Ayacucho.
On May 2, 1982, in one of Sendero’s most impressive actions, 500 Senderistas raided and took over the university city of Huamanga, a city of 80,000 people. They blew up the local jail and liberated 304 Senderistas, including Lagos. They held the city for a short time, confiscated every weapon in sight, and left.
After that, Sendero went on the offensive in Ayacucho. Bridges, electrical towers, police stations, barracks, banks and businesses were attacked. Three months later, President Belaunde declared a state of emergency in nine districts in the southern Andes and put them under military control. At the end of 1983, 8,000 peasants lay dead. Maybe 5% were Senderistas. The war was on.
Once, with other fighters, she blew a hole in the Ayacucho jail and liberated all of the Senderista prisoners. In the months before her death, a legend was born, the heroic Robin Hood guerrilla, a female Che Guevara. In the market of Huancayo, Edith Lagos wooden statues were already being sold, a young woman standing before a budding tree.
Legend* has it she was wounded in a shootout with authorities soon afterwards, apparently taken prisoner while alive, raped, tortured and finally bayoneted to death by government forces. She was all of 19 years old. This was pretty typical behavior by government forces.
In contrast, Sendero often tended to wounded government soldiers’ wounds, took them prisoner, and asked them to defect from the security forces or join Sendero.
Her father was asked to come to Andahualyas to identify the body. He came, picked up the body and took it back to Ayacucho. All along the way, the procession was repeatedly stopped as throngs of peasants poured into the road to mourn their dead heroine.
Her funeral and mass were held in the main Catholic (Lagos was a Catholic, as were most of rank and file Senderistas and even some of the leadership – Abimael Guzman himself is said to be Catholic) cathedral in Ayacucho, where her coffin was draped with a hammer and sickle flag inside church, an odd sight.
There is a rare videotape of the funeral. The chapel is packed with peasants, storeowners, government workers, all dressed in Indian garb. As her coffin is borne out of the church, a rousing, clapping chant rises from the crowd as it presses forward and drapes a hammer and sickle flag over her coffin: “Commandante Edith presente! The people will never forget your spilled blood!”
The crowd circled the square three times, each time swelling the crowd as more and more people poured out of their homes to join the march. Marching into the cemetery was a solid wall of humanity. The Shining Path banner rode on the outstretched arms of the crowd.
There are those who swear that Abimael Guzman himself was in the crowd. He may as well have been. The commanding officer of the police had ordered all of his men to stay inside during the procession.
Lagos is still regarded as a heroine by the local Indians at the time and for a long time afterwards. Her grave become a local shrine. Three times, government death squads blew up her grave to kill her vision. Three times, her father painstakingly rebuilt it, even though after the first blast there was not that much to put in there.
Each time he rebuilds it, he rewrites the poem that Lagos had composed before her death as her epitaph. Every year on the anniversary of her death, her mother brings a bouquet of yellow broom flowers to put on the grave, Sendero’s symbol of resistance. Even now, Edith Lagos banners, poems and sculptures festoon the city of Huamanga. The myth of Commandante Edith lives.
Lagos’ funeral, along with reports that many Catholics, including nuns and priests, supported the Shining Path, also gives the lie to the anti-Sendero line that “Sendero deliberately targeted the Church”, while at the same time accentuating the dramatic role that women played in the Shining Path.
In 1993, an organizational chart of the top leadership of Sendero showed 12 men and 11 women.
The widow of one of Peru’s most famous novelists, Jose Maria Arguedas, Sybila Arredondo, was arrested as a member of Sendero, sending shock waves through Peruvian society. Arguedas, a mestizo born in the Andes, captured the true spirit of the Peruvian Indian better than perhaps any other Peruvian author. He died a suicide in 1969.
1/3 of Sendero’s members and leadership were female. One of Peru’s top ballerinas was an associate of the top Sendero leadership and was one of those arrested with Guzman in 1992.
Clearly, the notion that Sendero oppressed women in general, widely made after the group killed Maria Elena Moyano, “Mother Courage”, in 1991, is without merit. Further, Moyano was killed, albeit brutally, for organizing counterinsurgency patrols and turning in supporters and members of Sendero to the police. As such, she was no longer a civilian.
The very name of the group was the Peruvian Communist Party en el Sendero Luminoso de (in the shining path of) Jose Carlos Mariategui. Mariategui, who wrote his most famous work in 1928, was one of the Peru’s most famous Marxist thinkers.
He was particularly important for highlighting the Woman question and Indian question. He was also a Catholic and was particularly harsh about the way that the Marxists in Peru at the time criticized the spiritual beliefs of the peasants. For an extensive review of the role of Catholic believers in many Communist parties and movements in the 20th century, see this fascinating web page.
One cannot really understand Sendero without knowing about Mariategui. So from the start, Sendero raised feminism and the liberation of the Indians as two of their banners.
Simon Strong’s Shining Path (1992) is the finest book ever written on the movement. He spent a lot of time in Peru and concluded that at the time, the movement had a huge amount of support, even among the military, the Catholic church, teachers, students, workers, peasants, the urban poor and exiles.
They also had massive support among the Ashaninka Indians in the Amazon, and also with some other tribes. The notions that Sendero held 1000’s of Indians “prisoner“, or that they massacred scores of unarmed jungle Indians, are total nonsense. At the time Strong wrote his book, the movement was at the peak of their popularity. Later that year, Guzman was captured, and it has been all downhill ever since.
But the general assessment of anti-Sendero authors, that Sendero either had no understanding of, or was hostile to, Peruvian values and traditions is just not true.
I also disagree with the standard assessment that Sendero is widely despised in Peru. Many people do have ambivalent feelings about them, true.
When the media writes about the flap about Cameron Diaz infuriating Peruvians with her Maoist “Serve the People” purse (the rightwing blogosphere has had an idiotic field day with this, but I seriously doubt that Diaz supports or supported Sendero, so the whole affair is just the usual rightwing character assassination), the Peruvians they refer to are elite, the only ones the media ever talks to.
No one else in Peru matters or has a voice.
At the moment, Sendero is fairly unpopular, even among those who formerly supported them. These same people also despise the government, the system, and the White elite who exploit them. But Sendero was so vicious and crazy, killing so many people, including the masses and other Leftists, that they left a bad taste in the mouths of many.
These people have not given up on revolution by any means. After all, the Peruvian system is worthless, insane and evil, and it should be destroyed. It is only reasonable that such an insane and evil system should produce an insane and evil insurgency – Sendero.
Now, Guzman and his fellow leaders sue for peace in prison, while a few holdouts under Comrade Artemio wage armed struggle, mostly in Ayacucho, the Huallaga Valley, the Satipo River area and Huanuco. A few years back, they were recruiting in the squalid slums of Lima once again.
These days, a more intelligent group of guerrillas is in Peru – the FARC* of Colombia. A massive, wealthy movement with deep roots in the Colombian poor, especially the rural poor, FARC has been spreading out lately down into the Ucayali River area in the jungle. They are primarily in the area of Yurimangas and north.
They have been spotted as far south as the Apurimac River near Ayacucho (where Sendero is still active) and even in Lima. They are very well-supplied, upbeat, loaded with cell phones and radios, very well-disciplined and are making deep inroads in Peru.
They give medical care, food, cooking utensils and field tools to the people and don’t bother a soul. They are quite popular with the masses they are interacting with, who see them as better than Sendero.
Many former supporters and members of Sendero have lined up with the FARC in Peru. Earlier this year, a column of Senderistas went back to Colombia, probably for training. FARC has been urging Sendero to join with FARC and modify their line.
Another column of the remaining leadership of the MRTA* (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) from around Tarapoto and Moyobamba in San Martin Province (their longtime headquarters – photo here) also left for Colombia around the same time – FARC is trying to join together remnants of both Sendero and MRTA with FARC in Peru – a very interesting and possibly fruitful plan.
For a great webpage on Tarapoto, complete with awesome pics, by an American woman who spent some time there, see here.
The notion that the MRTA was finished after the hostage raid in 1998 is not true – as the century turned, they continued to build the movement in every province of Peru. One of the problems with the MRTA is that they never had much money. Even around Taratopo, where they had a lot of support, they were a sorry sight, often sickly, pale, thin, and broke, wearing ragged clothes.
Compared to that impotent picture, and Sendero’s madness and brutality, many of Peru’s peasants think that the FARC are just dandy. Even in Colombia, the FARC has been much more sane and less brutal towards the masses than Sendero was.
As such, you can now go into areas of Colombia where everyone for miles around is in the FARC in one way or another, every villager in every town, every ragged farmer in every field with a gun hidden in his clothes, every woman in apron cooking in her kitchen. And it has been this way for decades in Colombia in these areas. This is the reality of FARC’s roots in rural Colombia.
The interview with Shakespeare, who is hostile to revolution, nevertheless makes clear that Peru is one nasty place. It is the most racist country he has ever been to, Shakespeare opines. Sure it is.
If someone from a lower class (or caste, really) asks a white elite for the time of day in Lima, the rich man will not even speak to the lower-class person. In fact, he won’t speak to him virtually no matter what he wants. The Indians have been killed, enslaved, raped, abused, ignored and basically slaughtered with hunger, disease and out and out murder since Pizarro stepped ashore in 1521.
Shakespeare went to Ayacucho, where a white man had been murdered by Indians a week before. Everywhere he goes, the Indians whisper pistaco – the name for a mysterious white giant that murders Indians for their fat which he uses to run Western industry. Pistaco does not exist, but the Indians think he does.
Shakespeare said that Sendero started a myth that Tupac Amaru’s body, quartered and buried over 200 years before, was slowly growing underground and would regenerate as he rose with Sendero’s victory. The materialist Sendero would never make up such a story. The story could only come from the Indians themselves, and I am sure they believed it.
And in many ways, Peru today is the same as at any time in the decades and centuries after Pizarro waded ashore 500 years ago. Until that changes, Peru will always be in a revolutionary situation.
Peru created Sendero; it could not have grown in any sane or decent society. If Best was evil, so was the land that made him. The crimes of the Sendero Frankenstein rest in large part with its creator, the horror called Peruvian society itself.
Sendero carried out 96 actions last year, about 2 a week; clearly, it is still alive, though nowadays they are fighting to get their leaders and cadres released and negotiate and end to the war – reasonable demands that no Peruvian state will cotton to. A few years back, they were recruiting again in Lima’s horrid shantytowns (photo here).
Meanwhile, FARC expands with great success across Peru.
They combine this success with a group in Venezuela, FARV – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Venezuela – (which has 2,000-3,000 members but has not engaged in many actions yet) and another group in Ecuador called FARE – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador – mostly in the border area with Putamayo and just building a movement now.
FARB – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Brazil – exists in the Dog’s Head region of Brazil where Peru, Brazil and Colombia all come together, building a movement once again.
FARC also uses the border areas in Panama as an R and R area. The local Cuna Indians of the Darien are quite cooperative, but the Panamanian state has murdered some of them for allowing FARC to stay with them, though FARC has never done a thing in Panama.
Recently, FARC has been spotted all the way over in far northern Guyana, where they are trying to tax the gold mining operations. This sighting implies that FARC also has a presence all across far northern Brazil.
US media reports place FARC operatives recently in Bolivia, where they were giving political advice to groups associated with the new president Enrique Morales before his election.
Despite recent offensives by the Colombian state, FARC is alive and well and expanding across much of Latin America. This as the radical version of Sendero peters out.
Revolution is a bloody thing. If states don’t want 12 year old kids carrying AK-47’s professing revolution while roaming their slums*, they need only create a semblance of a decent society.
There is no end of history, and you can only push a man so far before he rises up to strike you back.
*A Salvadoran man I met in a San Mateo, California restaurant in 2001 told me he saw a 12 yr old boy in the San Salvador slums carrying an automatic weapon and chanting revolutionary slogans in 1969. He went home and told his family, and his parents resolved to sent him out of the country, saying that revolution was surely on its way. Their omniscience was keen. 11 years later, it exploded in full force via the FMLN*.
*This blog strongly supported the FMLN in El Salvador to the point of contributing money to their weapons fund. We also strongly support the FARC in Colombia, all of its regional split-offs and the MRTA in Peru. We do not support the project of Sendero Luminoso as they kill people who are completely innocent. All support for groups is with certain reservations.

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