Modern Peru has seen its fair share of chaos and conflict. Since 2016, the South American country has had seven presidents — four of them forced from office by scandals. Presidential corruption remains a problem in Peruvian politics, but for ordinary Peruvians, this is nothing new. Its roots go back deep into the 20th century.
Peru’s current crisis also has its origin in a civil war that almost tore the country to pieces during the late years of the Cold War. In 1980, a conflict erupted between the Peruvian Armed Forces and a communist militant group called the Shining Path.
Abimael Guzmán and the Birth of the Shining Path
If the Shining Path owed its existence to any one man, it would be Abimael Guzmán. Guzmán’s version of communism would fuel the group’s approach to war with Peru’s government for decades.
Guzmán was born in December 1934. He worked as a philosophy professor during the 1960s and was known for his far-left political leanings. Guzmán held especially dogmatic views on the international communist movement. In his eyes, the Soviet Union had veered away from true Marxism-Leninism after the death of Joseph Stalin. Only one true model for communist revolution existed — Mao Zedong’s China.
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By 1970, Guzmán and a small number of confidants had split from the original Peruvian Communist Party. They created a new organization — the direct precursor to the Shining Path. Guzmán structured the Shining Path much like a cult, with his closest followers referring to him as “Presidente Gonzalo.” For Shining Path commanders, their leader was the “Fourth Sword” of communism — the true successor to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Stalin.
The Outbreak of Revolution
For the first ten years of its existence, the Shining Path would lie low. It set up its roots in the Ayacucho region of south-central Peru, in particular at Guzmán’s previous employer, San Cristóbal de Huamanga National University. Recruiting students and disaffected members of Peruvian society would pay off in 1980. As Peru’s government, previously dominated by the military, held its first genuine election in years, the Shining Path made its move.
On May 17, 1980, the Shining Path attacked polling stations in the town of Chuschi. Cadres set fire to ballot boxes, rejecting both the Peruvian Armed Forces and the democratic process. This effort was ultimately halted, but it was just the beginning. For the entirety of the 1980s, Shining Path militants would wage war against the Peruvian government. They seized large swathes of Peru’s countryside, gradually infiltrating the major cities as well.
During the insurgency’s first two years, the Peruvian Army did not engage the rebels in direct combat. That was left to the national police. When the police proved unable to effectively contain the insurgency, President Fernando Belaúnde Terry authorized the army’s role. From 1982 onward, the Peruvian military and the Shining Path would seemingly seek to outdo each other in their violence. Gruesome atrocities would follow across the country.
Rebel Military Tactics and Terrorism
The Shining Path’s leaders adhered strictly to the Maoist doctrine of the “people’s war.” Abimael Guzmán believed that the communist revolution should begin in the countryside. From there, it would spread to major urban areas as it built up its strength. Much of the early phases of the war thus took place in Peru’s rural and mountainous areas — areas already only loosely under government control.
When the Shining Path took control of villages and towns, the rebels would often impose brutal rules on the local population. If locals opposed their movement, they could be punished brutally. The Shining Path’s methods of punishment could be crude, such as death by stoning, and guerrillas used knives and machetes to terrorize their victims, in addition to guns.
One particularly grisly episode during the early years of war occurred in Lucanamarca, on April 3rd, 1983. During the previous month, government-supported vigilantes had murdered a local Shining Path commander in the town. Furious, the Shining Path dispatched fighters to Lucanamarca and surrounding villages to seek revenge. By the end of the day, 69 civilians — including children — had been executed. Guzmán himself would admit to the atrocity years later.
The Shining Path was no less brutal in Peru’s cities. As it grew in strength and advanced on the capital of Lima, the group deployed truck bombs in densely populated areas. The most infamous of these attacks was a 1992 bombing in the affluent Lima neighborhood of Miraflores. This attack left 25 fatalities in its wake.
However, the Shining Path would ultimately be running on borrowed time. Peru’s military would start to gain the upper hand for the first time in the war; a shift made possible by a political shake-up.
The Fujimori Regime and the Beginning of the End
The early 1990s were monumental years in modern history. During this time, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China had long since enacted market reforms and started to steer away from true communism. Still, the Shining Path insurgency in Peru raged on. If anything, the rebels posed a more serious threat to the Peruvian state than ever before.
However, the tide would begin to turn with the election of Alberto Fujimori as President of Peru in 1990. Immediately, Fujimori was an outlier in Peruvian politics. He was educated as an engineer in France and the United States and had no political experience. Yet he developed close connections with the Peruvian military. He also promised to address Peru’s dismal economic conditions, including out-of-control inflation and a lack of foreign investment.
During the Fujimori years, the army would have practically free rein in dealing with terrorism. They armed local militias to fight the Shining Path; this led to some of the worst atrocities of the entire war. In April 1992, Fujimori made the daring move of gutting Peru’s judiciary and suspending the country’s constitution. The president and his military allies could effectively rule Peru by decree.
Although the rise of Fujimori was to the detriment of Peruvian civil liberties, many ordinary Peruvians didn’t care. With their market reforms and promises of security, Fujimori and the military commanded a significant following. The authorities’ harsh tactics would seem to pay off in September 1992. During this time, troops would locate none other than Abimael Guzmán in a high-end neighborhood of Lima. In part due to the cult-like structure he had created within the Shining Path, Guzmán’s arrest would cripple the movement. The Shining Path would continue to conduct attacks, but by 2000, their strength had been sapped.
Fujimori’s authoritarian response to the insurgency may have won him admirers among ordinary Peruvians, but even he fell victim to Peru’s old scourge of corruption. Embezzlement, bribery, and rampant human rights violations became the order of the day. In November 2000, Fujimori escaped from Peru to Japan. Surprisingly, he returned to South America five years later, only to be extradited by Chilean authorities back to Peru in 2007. In April 2009, the disgraced ex-president received a 25-year prison term for organizing anti-Shining Path death squads. As of 2023, he remains in prison.
Assessing the Conflict: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In the aftermath of any war, establishing justice for victims can be very difficult. With the Fujimori regime in the rearview mirror, this is exactly what the Peruvian government set about trying to do.
Fujimori’s successor, Alejandro Toledo, formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the summer of 2001. The Commission’s main stated goal was to identify the perpetrators of human rights abuses during the Shining Path insurgency. Its scope covered both the Shining Path and the Peruvian Army. According to the TRC’s final report, commissioners collected over 17,000 testimonies from the worst-affected departments of the country. Notably, leading figures from the Fujimori administration refused to collaborate.
The TRC’s final report was published in August 2003 and detailed the extent of violence and terrorism in Peru between 1980 and 2000. It blamed the Shining Path for approximately 54 percent of all fatalities. The rebels had committed crimes ranging from forced disappearances and terrorist attacks to the recruitment of child soldiers. The Peruvian military, police, and allied death squads perpetrated about 44 percent of all deaths and abductions. In total, the Commission believed the civil war had claimed over 69,000 lives — mostly from impoverished and ethnically Indigenous communities.
More than twenty years after the TRC’s final report, debate continues regarding the true scope of the Shining Path conflict. A 2019 indirect study cast doubt on the Commission’s casualty figures, attributing the most fatalities to the Peruvian military’s campaign. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission argued in favor of their original findings. Whatever the reality was, the civil war in Peru claimed between 48,000 and 69,000 lives over a twenty-year period.
Abimael Guzmán died in prison on September 11, 2021 — almost twenty-nine years to the date from his capture. Peruvian authorities cremated his body in secret, not wanting any remaining supporters to give him recognition in death.
The Shining Path in the 21st Century: Failed Dreams, Destruction, and Drugs
The 21st century has only seen the Shining Path fall further from its peak. What remains of the once-feared organization has shed any semblance of a guiding ideology. Instead, Shining Path splinter groups now only occupy a single valley region, known in Spanish as the VRAEM. They finance themselves primarily via cocaine trafficking.
While the Shining Path no longer poses an existential threat to Peru’s national security, its actions — as well as the Peruvian government’s response—continue to cast a long shadow. Despite Alberto Fujimori’s downfall and imprisonment, his ideology and heavy-handed tactics are still popular with many Peruvians. Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, is a crucial political figure, in spite of her own controversies. Victims of both the Shining Path and the Peruvian Army still struggle to find relief more than forty years later. With Peru currently mired in political deadlock, the country probably won’t truly heal from the Shining Path insurgency any time soon.