In downtown Lima, inside Peru’s National Antiterrorism Bureau, agents are putting the finishing touches on the new Terror Museum. Most of the display cases hold police-confiscated kitsch: rebel soap carvings, music boxes that play communist hymns, all of them bearing the image of Abimael Guzmán.
“Presidente Gonzalo,” as his followers call him, is the leader of Shining Path, the bloodthirsty Maoist guerrillas who killed more than half of the 69,000 Peruvians who died in the armed conflicts of the 1980s and early ’90s, according to a report issued in August by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nearby is a lifelike dummy of Guzmán in the striped prison uniform he wore after his arrest in 1992, the year that Peruvians believed the Shining Path had met its dead end.
But even with Guzmán and more than 2,000 of his fellow militants in prison today, consigning Shining Path to a museum now looks premature. Since March 2002, when the group set off a car bomb that killed 10 people near the U.S. embassy in Lima, three days before a visit by President Bush, Shining Path has made it clear that it’s back. “Everything is aimed at restarting the armed struggle,” says Major Rubén Zúñiga, an antiterrorism police analyst. “This is Guzmán’s strategy.” Zúñiga insists that the 68-year-old leftist — serving a life sentence in a Lima prison specially built for him — is still the motivating force for insurgents who have carried out more than 400 armed actions in the past two years. Most, like an ambush last July that killed five Peruvian army soldiers and two guides, have taken place in the central highland jungles, where Shining Path now taxes the lucrative coca-leaf shipments for cocaine traffickers.
The revival of Sendero Luminoso, as Shining Path is known in Spanish, is a stinging sign of Peru’s and South America’s failure to address the epic levels of rural poverty that worsened under the capitalist reforms of the 1990s. Since locking up Shining Path’s leadership a decade ago, Peru “has not been sufficiently agile in implementing development programs,” admits Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi, who oversees antiterrorism efforts. That’s a key reason why Shining Path has reloaded its AK-47s now. But the group has also been aided in no small part by government hubris. After crowing that he’d vanquished Shining Path in the early ’90s, then-President Alberto Fujimori enervated Peru’s antiterrorism apparatus — turning his intelligence police instead on political opponents. As a result, says Rospigliosi, “we have had trouble carrying out antiterrorism actions for lack of resources.”
That has simply reopened the Path, a group Peruvian war-history professor Alberto Bolivar, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, calls “an adaptable virus.” Peru can only hope that it doesn’t become the cancer it was in the 1980s — when Guzmán, a megalomaniacal philosopher, led a movement that was, as he put it, “inducing genocide” against anyone who resisted his communist revolution. Today, Shining Path rebels are driven by Guzmán’s voluminous writings — which they call “Gonzalo Thought” — though analysts believe he’s still able to impart messages from his cell.
For now, Shining Path’s new threat seems containable: its ranks are thought to be in the hundreds rather than thousands; and the group is split between those (including Guzmán) who eventually want to turn the organization into a political force, and a smaller faction that still favors military apocalypse. Still, the new Shining Path’s role model — and partner, say analysts — is the 18,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces (farc) in neighboring Colombia, whose gratuitous violence and narco-wealth have made them a mafia in rebel fatigues. A farc-Shining Path merger is the last thing South America’s economically beleaguered Andes region needs. In the Lima shantytown of Raucana — the only community Shining Path ever built in its bloody heyday — shopkeepers like Maria are now afraid to even talk about the group. The Shining Path, she insists, “are still watching us.”