In the early hours of Monday, April 9, at least 40 armed guerrillas entered the village of Kepashiato, in the Cusco region. It sits on the edge of the wild Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE), which is home to the last remaining faction of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) rebel group. The guerrillas, led by commanders known as “Gabriel” and “Alipio,” spent some hours in Kepashiato, shopping for groceries and holding a political rally with villagers, before leaving with 36 prisoners. The hostages were workers on the Camisea gas pipeline, all Peruvian nationals, some employed by the Swedish company Skanska and some by a Peruvian contractor.
In exchange for their freedom, the rebels demanded a $10 million ransom, along with explosives and a yearly payment of $1.2 million. The government sent 1,500 police and military troops into the area, promising it would take "all necessary measures" to rescue the hostages.
About 11 a.m the following Saturday, a group of the abducted workers turned up without warning in a small village in the VRAE. They said all the hostages been freed by the rebels before dawn that morning, and had walked for seven hours until they reached help.
The Peruvian government quickly denied any ransom payment -- Humala said that no concessions had been made to the rebels, while Skanka issued a press release saying; “All actions with the kidnappers have been handled by the Peruvian authorities and Skanska will not comment any further on the details of their release.” According to the authorities, the guerrillas were surrounded by the armed forces on Friday evening, forcing them to abandon their prisoners and flee. La Republica reports that an air strike by the security forces on Friday night allowed three of the hostages to escape and give the authorities information on the location of the rebels. The armed forces then closed all roads into the area, so that the group would not have the supplies or logistical back-up to keep hold of the prisoners.
It is certainly likely that the rebels lacked the resources to feed their hostages for much longer. Next door to Peru, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group have been forced to cut kidnapping in recent years as pressure from the security forces means they no longer have large, semi-permanent camps to keep scores of hostages for indefinite periods. Accounts of the Shining Path prisoners back this up -- although the gas workers say they were treated well, the rebels fed them only once a day.
It could be that the Shining Path, knowing the limits on their resources, had been aiming to take a single high-value foreign prisoner rather than dozens of Peruvians -- Analyst Pedro Yaranga told El Comercio that the rebels had been planning to kidnap a top Camisea executive in Kepashiato, but that the target, an Argentine national, had left the village hours before the incursion. When the rebels found he was not there, alias “Gabriel” decided to kidnap the workers instead.
However, many have raised questions about the government's account. One hostage told the press “We were freed voluntarily. Take care with the press and the armed forces saying that we were rescued." The Swedish firm was apparently ready to negotiate; an audio recording has emerged of what appears to be a conversation between a Skanska representative and a spokesman for the Shining Path -- listen below. IDL-Reporteros reports that Skanska held a series of talks with the rebels. The company was apparently making steps to fulfil the rebels' conditions for the release, reportedly bringing a civilian helicopter in from Lima in answer to the rebels’ condition that their “demands” be delivered by a civilian helicopter pilot.
Additionally, the fact the hostages had to walk for seven hours before finding help suggests that the security forces had not in fact been closing in on their captors. It also seems unlikely that the security forces could so effectively cordon off this wild zone, where the Shining Path enjoys a measure of local support, so that in less than 24 hours the experienced rebels would be out of supplies and on the run.
Analyst Jaime Antezana told the press there was no doubt a ransom had been paid, and that, according to his sources, contractors on the Camisea project handed over $5 million to the Shining Path to obtain the release of the workers.
But even if the rebels received no ransom, and were forced by military pressure to hand over their hostages, the kidnapping was a coup for the group. It demonstrates that despite the government’s statements that the VRAE group are mere “remnants” of the Shining Path, and that the movement has been beaten, they remain capable of causing chaos and spooking foreign investors. This will be even more worrying for the government than the body count from last week’s clashes -- one police officer was killed on Thursday, and at least three more reportedly died in clashes after the hostages were freed. As the FARC have found in Colombia, focusing attacks on foreign companies has the power to bother the authorities as much as sporadic attacks on the security forces.
The case is a demonstration that much of the VRAE region, and its surroundings, remains territory in which the group can operate with relative impunity. The fact that the rebels could occupy Kepashiato for several hours, openly advertising their presence to the population, reveals their confidence and the utter lack of state presence in the region. The mayor of Echarate district, where the village is located, complained after the attacks that the district has only 30 police officers for its 45,000 inhabitants and 17,000 sq kms, while the roads are so bad that it takes six hours to get from the district capital to Kepashiato.
If the Shining Path did indeed receive payment for their hostages, the week’s events were not just a publicity coup but a test case for a tempting new source of revenue. The group does not commonly kidnap for ransom, and the last mass kidnapping took place in 2003, targeting another company working on the same gas pipeline. It is not clear why the VRAE faction would be turning to kidnapping as a revenue source now, given that they are thought to be deeply involved in the cocaine trade, and may be moving to take over the territory of a rival branch of the Shining Path, whose leader was captured in February. The group may earn a quarter of a million dollars a month from guarding cocaine shipments in the northern part of the VRAE. A $5 million fee would, then, be a highly substantial sum for them.
It's possible that the kidnap was also motivated by tactical considerations. Sources in the VRAE Special Command told La Republica that the guerrillas' aim was to open a new combat front just outside the VRAE (see map) in order to reduce the pressure from the armed forces, who have struck heavy blows against them in the zone in recent weeks.
Importantly, the case demonstrates that the VRAE group are not mere apolitical drug traffickers, as the Peruvian government likes to assert. They spent time rounding up the population of the village in order to harangue them with political speeches, and the used political rhetoric to justify the kidnapping, declaring that they had received complaints about the company from the local population. This shows that they continue to have a profound interest in presenting themselves as a political organization and in winning public support.
If the VRAE rebels remain a potent political force, with the motivation and the power to menace international companies and extract multi-million dollar ransoms, then it is unlikely that this kidnapping will be their last.
View Shining Path Kidnap of Gas Workers in a larger map
Image: A police officer, wounded during the rescue mission, greets the media and says he is grateful to be alive.