Why Peru Still Can’t Shake its Guerrilla Army

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Peru’s newly-elected President Ollanta Humala has promised to send more troops to an area of the country controlled by the Shining Path guerrilla group, but the rebels have proven themselves to be a difficult target.

On September 14, two Peruvian soldiers were killed when the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) ambushed a helicopter near the town of San Martin de Pangoa, in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region. The attack generated media attention, and was followed by an announcement that the military would deploy three more engineering battalions to the area, presumably to improve infrastructure in order to facilitate military patrols. They might help with 600 km of road that the authorities are planning to build to stimulate the legal economy and combat the coca cultivations in the region.

The rebel group is a shadow of what it once was, with authorities insisting for years that it is on its last legs. But while the guerrillas are estimated to number no more than 400 — down from some 10,000 at their peak during the early 1990s — they still pose a significant security threat, especially in the VRAE and Upper Huallaga Valley (in the north of the country), where the two main active Shining Path factions operate.

Indeed, according to an internal military report accessed by Peruvian magazine Caretas, attacks on helicopters in the VRAE region are actually quite common. Although the last deadly attack occurred on 1999, there have been 23 such ambushes on helicopters in the past three years alone. Much like the September 14 incident, 11 of the ambushes occurred at the moments when the helicopters were at their most vulnerable: during takeoff and landing.

On top of the helicopter attacks, Caretas also found that the around 60 soldiers have died since 2008 in rebel ambushes. Averaged out over the last three years, this represents a rate of five every three months. By comparison, there have been nine killed in the past three months. Though data is scarce on the number of confrontations between rebels and security forces, this could indicate that the Shining Path is stepping up attacks.

On the political front, the Shining Path’s progress is clearer; the guerrilla group has clearly undergone resurgence in recent years. As illustrated by the recent arrest in Bolivia of four Peruvians accused of spreading Shining Path propaganda, the rebels have been actively working to expand their support base in recent years. Especially key to their support networks are coca growers’ unions, who are legally allowed to grow their crop for traditional purposes such as chewing the leaves, or using them to make tea.

Much like in neighboring Bolivia, monitoring the legal cultivation is difficult, and each harvest tens of thousands of hectares of the leaf are processed into cocaine. Because of their involvement in the cocaine industry, the guerrillas represent a ready source of demand for illicit coca. This relationship was illustrated last December, when police arrested 30 coca growers, including three union leaders, for links to the Shining Path in the central Huanuco region.

Compared to their activities in the 1990s, when they became infamous for attacking civilians and shutting down local marketplaces, the group appears to have improved their outreach methods. According to a leaked State Department cable from October 2009 “There is no doubt that the [Shining Path] has adopted a ‘kindlier, gentler’ approach towards the local population.” In the VRAE, the insurgency allegedly “prefers to bribe peasants and local officials, rather than to terrorize them and even execute them, as they did in the past.”

There are even indications that the Shining Path may be aiming to become an officially-recognized political party. In the December arrests of the coca growers, police used as evidence a video recording of several of the individuals meeting with one of the rebels’ most well-known leaders, Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, alias “Comrade Artemio.” In the video, Flores speaks of the group’s intentions to enter into political struggle with “a very strong electoral lead.”

This could have been a reference to recent events. On September 16, an organization with links to the Shining Path known as the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef) presented a petition with 90,000 signatures calling for the group to be recognized as a political party and legally allowed to run in elections. Movadef has called for the release of Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman, and is more closely linked to the old guard within the guerrilla group. Because Guzman himself has denounced the second generation of guerrillas as mere “mercenaries,” it is not clear whether Movadef’s registration would result in the creation of a political party with sympathies for today’s insurgents.

On the other hand, the apparent enmity between the two groups may be only superficial. Insurgencies throughout history have adopted the method of fighting on both the political and military fronts as a method of turning public opinion to their cause, and Movadef could be an embodiment of that strategy. However, if this were the case, the guerrillas are not doing themselves any favors by calling for Guzman’s release. The jailed leader is extremely unpopular in Peru, as he is considered to be responsible for the country’s internal conflict, which left 70,000 dead.

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