The Shining Path: Love, Madness and Revolution in the Andes 
by Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna.
Norton, 404 pp., £19.99, May 2019, 978 0 393 29280 0
Show More
Show More

On 26 December​ 1980, residents of Lima woke to a gruesome, incongruous sight: dead dogs had been strung up from lampposts in the city centre, some bearing pieces of cloth scrawled with the words: ‘Deng Xiaoping, Son of a Bitch.’ It was the work of the Partido Comunista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso. Sendero (or Shining Path, as it’s referred to in English) was an ultra-orthodox Maoist group which had a few months earlier launched an armed insurrection against the Peruvian state. The combination of ideological rigidity and violence was to become Sendero’s hallmark, but at this early stage not many people in Peru took them seriously: they were few in number, politically isolated even from the rest of the far left, and thought to be geographically confined to the highland region of Ayacucho. Yet the insurrection soon spread beyond its base in the Andes, engulfing large parts of the country, from remote mountain hamlets to Lima’s shanty towns, the pueblos jóvenes.

Sendero’s goal was nothing less than the destruction of the Peruvian state, which was, it said, dominated by a coalition of landowners and bureaucrats, from which the country’s workers and peasants could only be liberated by a ‘People’s War’ on the Chinese model. The movement was incubated in the 1960s at the University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, under the leadership of Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor. Born in 1934, Guzmán was the illegitimate son of an accountant on a hacienda. He became a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s while studying philosophy and law in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, before joining the faculty at Ayacucho in 1962. Originally a loyal Stalinist, Guzmán took the Chinese side during the Sino-Soviet split and became a Maoist, travelling twice to China – once in 1965, and again in 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution – and returning invigorated by the ideological fervour he witnessed there. By all accounts Guzmán was quiet and reserved, though he was also an effective pedagogue and a steely political operator, quickly able to extend the influence of the Maoist faction in Ayacucho, especially in the university. He and his fellow thinkers were prominently involved in student protests against the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado in June 1969. Dozens were killed in clashes with security forces, sparking further protests that led the government to call a state of emergency; Guzmán and other leaders were briefly imprisoned. The following year, he led a splinter group away from the main Maoist party, naming it the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path of José Carlos Mariátegui, after Peru’s most prominent Marxist.

It wasn’t until a decade later that Sendero began its armed struggle. Its first action was to send a detachment of fighters into the village of Chuschi to seize and burn ballot boxes on 17 May 1980 – the day before every other political party in Peru took part in elections that would seal the country’s transition to democracy after 12 years of military dictatorship. As far as Sendero was concerned, the elections were a sham that would do no more than repackage the same system of exploitation; a communiqué from September 1979 argued that ‘personalities change … but electoral opportunism persists, and the people gain nothing from it.’ Against the usual empty promises, Sendero offered a dramatic, total remedy: in the words of a party document from April 1978, ‘a mass war to destroy the old state of landowners and grands bourgeois and build a new democracy’.

Sendero’s rhetoric, shaped above all by Guzmán, deployed a distinctive combination of dry dogma and apocalyptic imagery. A document produced by its conference in December 1979 asserted that ‘our party forged with the strongest light and the purest steel had a decisive moment and generated the National Construction Plan … the communists rose up and the earth shook and as the earth shook the comrades advanced.’ At the 1988 Party Congress, held clandestinely in Lima, Guzmán said that ‘the soul of the party begins to burn even hotter, even louder, illuminating the skies and melting the earth … Legions of iron will converge in a red sea, armed, rolling across the earth, shaking and upending it.’ The verb barrer, ‘to sweep away’, appears frequently in Sendero’s statements, reflecting an almost millenarian commitment to smashing the existing political and social system.

In the early stages of the insurgency, though, Sendero presented itself not just as the destroyer of the old but also as the creator of a new, more egalitarian social order in the countryside. At the time, most of the poor, predominantly Quechua-speaking population of Peru’s southern provinces was barely scraping a living from the land – farming tubers and quinoa on the forbidding slopes of the Andes, herding llamas for their wool – and had enjoyed none of the promised benefits of economic growth. Literacy and health indicators were dismal compared to much of the rest of Peru, which tended to view the highlands as an atavistic drag on the country’s development. In many communities, meanwhile, material inequalities were reinforced by traditional hierarchies. This was one reason Sendero’s message resonated with many campesinos, or peasant farmers: its arrival in an area often meant the removal or even execution of the local authorities, the varayoq (literally ‘staff-holders’), a male-dominated chain of ceremonial posts that often reflected economic imbalances. Sendero detachments – in which women played leading roles, unlike in most villages or indeed on the rest of the Peruvian left – would install a new ‘popular committee’ to run village affairs, and would often administer summary justice to cattle thieves, drunks, wife beaters and corrupt officials. But while some villages may have welcomed the outsiders, many others resented their intrusion, and saw the violent levelling they brought as a threat to their way of life – to which the guerrillas responded by unleashing ferocious collective punishments. Sendero fighters became known as tuta puriqkuna, ‘those who walk at night’, adding to their fearful mystique.

In a neat piece of symmetry, the 1980 elections were won by Fernando Belaúnde, who had been deposed by the military in 1968. During his previous spell in office in the mid-1960s the Peruvian army had put down a short-lived leftist guerrilla movement in the south. But this time he began his five-year term by putting police ‘countersubversive units’, known as sinchis, in charge of dealing with the insurgency. Beatings, rapes, torture, summary executions and disappearances multiplied. The brutality with which Peru’s security services treated the highland population was in itself enough to provide Sendero with a stream of recruits and sympathisers. In September 1982, the funeral of the senderista Edith Lagos, killed in a clash with security forces, drew a crowd of ten thousand onto the streets of Ayacucho, chanting such slogans as ‘The people will never forget spilled blood!’ Starting in 1983, responsibility for the counterinsurgency was transferred to the marines and the army; a large swathe of Peru was effectively under military rule, and the abuses suffered by the local population increased further. One Peruvian commentator at the time likened the troops sent to the Ayacucho region to ‘an occupying colonial army’; for the high command, the Andes might as well have been Algeria. (Not coincidentally, the Peruvian army had received training from the French.)

But the war wasn’t fought only in the Andes. From early on, Sendero had established a presence in the poor neighbourhoods of Lima, and as its influence increased it began to direct its fire against community organisations, NGOs and the rest of the Peruvian left. Not only did Sendero not want allies; it targeted other leftists for intimidation or assassination. Its detachments were often armed with little more than rocks, machetes or sticks of dynamite they had stolen from foreign mining concessions. More than once they loaded donkeys with explosives and sent them into crowded marketplaces (these were known as burrobombas; other homemade devices included the queso ruso, ‘Russian cheese’, a crude bomb with a timer). All told, according to the final report of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, issued in 2003, Sendero was responsible for 46 per cent of casualties in the war, making it an unusually lethal guerrilla army – and an exception to the worldwide norm. In most cases, government forces are responsible for the lion’s share of deaths in civil conflicts.

Over the course of the 1980s, Peru descended into a manifold crisis. As well as suffering the debt spikes and hyperinflation that afflicted the whole of Latin America, it was beset by political and institutional dysfunctions of its own. The war against Sendero seemed to point to a more epochal breakdown. Its fighters regularly cut the power lines to Lima, plunging the capital into darkness; sometimes, they set a nearby hillside ablaze with the shape of a hammer and sickle. The government of Alan García, elected in 1985, responded by ramping up the repression. Two weeks after his inauguration, government troops marched into the village of Accomarca, herded the 62 inhabitants into a church, shot them and burned the bodies. In June 1986, Sendero prisoners simultaneously took over the jails of El Frontón, Lurigancho and Santa Bárbara; the government dealt with the protest by bombing the prisons, leaving more than two hundred senderistas dead in the rubble.

The war rumbled on through the rest of García’s presidency, with neither Sendero nor the government able to strike a decisive military blow. By this time, other armed actors had entered the fray: as well as another leftist guerrilla group, the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, there was a galaxy of local peasant militias, organised on a village-by-village basis to defend against Sendero without relying on the equally predatory army. The 1990 presidential election, which pitted Mario Vargas Llosa against the agronomist Alberto Fujimori, unfolded against this uncertain backdrop. Having campaigned against the novelist’s platform of harsh neoliberal measures, once in office Fujimori turned around and implemented more or less the same programme – the ‘Fujishock’. And he took an even harsher approach to the counterinsurgency than García had: as well as arming village militias with Winchester rifles to take on Sendero, he set up secret tribunals, presided over by hooded judges, to pass summary judgment on captured ‘terrorists’, while his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, unleashed death squads against suspected Sendero sympathisers.

By this time, whatever support Sendero had enjoyed was eroding, its dogmatism and ruthless use of violence increasingly becoming political liabilities. Emblematic in this respect was its assassination in February 1992 of María Elena Moyano, the radical leftist vice mayor of Villa El Salvador, a vast shanty town to the south of Lima. After gunning her down at a neighbourhood communal meal, her assassins tied a bomb to her body and blew her to pieces. A few months later, a series of Sendero car bombs in Lima, Callao and Villa El Salvador killed dozens and injured scores more. Then, in September 1992, after a lengthy surveillance operation, the Peruvian authorities scored a major coup by capturing Guzmán, who turned out to have been directing the war not from the Andes but from a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood in Lima. When he was paraded before journalists in a striped prisoner’s uniform (Fujimori had ordered it to be made especially for him), it confirmed Sendero’s political defeat. Militarily, remnants of the movement fought on in remote valleys, where they continue to operate to this day. But although Sendero has continued to carry out occasional attacks – notably a car bomb that went off outside the US embassy, killing nine people, just before George W. Bush’s visit to Peru in 2002 – it is no longer the threatening force it once was. Since 2000, when Fujimori was hounded from office, taking with him Montesinos and the architecture of repression they had built between them, the country has regarded the conflict as being at an end.

The​ Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that between 1980 and 2000 the conflict caused nearly seventy thousand casualties – twice as many as previously estimated, the majority of them in poor, rural areas. How and why was an apparently fringe movement able to pose such a serious and sustained challenge to the Peruvian state? The question has perplexed Latin America experts almost since the insurgency began. ‘Senderologists’ face the problem of explaining where the movement came from in the first place, and why it took such a different path from the rest of the Peruvian and Latin American left. Not only did Sendero take up arms when the country’s other leftists had settled on the electoral route; it also went against prevailing trends in the region as a whole, since – Central America aside – this was a moment when much of the Latin American left had turned away from guerrilla warfare. Sendero went against the tide in its Maoism, too: Mao had died in 1976, and China had begun its ‘reform and opening up’ two years later (hence the animus against Deng Xiaoping). Yet Sendero’s very status as a historical and political anomaly – seemingly out of place, out of time – only deepens the enigma. Given how extraneous to Peruvian realities the insurgency seemed to be, how was it able to gain a foothold, and to last as long as it did?

There has been no shortage of commentary on the Shining Path in the English-speaking world. Since the 1980s reporters, political scientists and anthropologists have produced a string of books, and more recently historians have joined in. There has also been a scattering of personal testimonies, including memoirs by former senderistas. (One of the most successful of these, Lurgio Gavilán’s When Rains Became Floods, describes his time as a teenage volunteer in Sendero’s forces, his capture by the Peruvian army and unexpected survival, and his return two decades later to some of the combat sites near Ayacucho. It was translated into English in 2015.) But what has so far been lacking is an overall narrative synthesis of the conflict. The Shining Path by Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna is intended to fill that gap. Starn, an anthropologist, is known above all for his book Nightwatch (1999), which provided a detailed portrait of the rondas campesinas, the peasant militias which at the turn of the 1990s became the bulwark of the Peruvian government’s attempt to beat back Sendero. La Serna, a historian, previously wrote The Corner of the Living (2012), a close-quarters description of the origins and unfolding of the war as seen from different villages in the Ayacucho region. Both writers have studied the local dynamics of the conflict, examining its emergence from, and eventual destruction of, traditional village hierarchies, and the way years of violence, fear and flight to the cities remade or shattered Andean communities.

The Shining Path draws on an enormous archive: as well as the nine volumes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Starn and La Serna make use of the commission’s formidable collection of eyewitness testimonies and oral interviews, as well as a slew of previously inaccessible government and police files, including documentation from the Peruvian counterterrorist agency, Dincote. They also conducted more than two hundred interviews across several continents, some of them with leading participants in the events, including high-ranking senderistas such as Elena Iparraguirre, Guzmán’s second-in-command and later his second wife (a.k.a. Comrade Miriam – apparently her choice of alias was inspired by Charlton Heston’s sister in The Ten Commandments).

The result of all this legwork should have been an authoritative account of the Sendero insurgency, but Starn and La Serna’s narrative is often clumsy and is strewn with errors. They show little interest in reasons or context, focusing instead on the personalities at the centre of the drama – telenovela-style – and dwelling with particular relish on Guzmán and the two women who ran the organisation alongside him: his first wife, Augusta La Torre (Comrade Norah), who killed herself in 1988, and his second, Comrade Miriam. On the rare occasions Starn and La Serna do venture some kind of analysis or argument, it tends to devolve into tired Cold War clichés, as when they announce that ‘the main cause of the escalating carnage was the importation of Marxism in its most rigidly orthodox form.’ (For comparison, it’s hard to imagine any serious person blaming the ongoing conflagration in the Middle East on ‘Islam’.)

Starn and La Serna insist on how outlandishly alien to the Andean world Sendero was, but then admit that ‘a new guerrilla insurgency might find some takers in the neglected backcountry even now.’ Yet rather than explain why that might be, what larger factors and forces are still in play, they sidestep the question. Most disappointing of all, their book doesn’t address the central mystery: if Sendero was so foreign to rural Peruvian society, how was it able to take root at all? One of the most astute observers of Sendero, the late anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori, described it as ‘a sort of dwarf star … in which matter gets so compressed it acquires a great specific weight disproportionate to its size’. But despite its smallness and political marginality, Sendero was not extraterrestrially detached from Peruvian society, as has often been assumed. Some of Guzmán’s closest comrades were drawn from the Ayacuchan middle or even upper classes, notably Augusta La Torre, who was from a well-connected landowning family, and Osmán Morote, whose father was the rector of the University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga (who had hired Guzmán in the first place). But while it was for the most part led by educated, middle-class Peruvians, Sendero drew most of its footsoldiers from among poor, predominantly indigenous highlanders and their city-dwelling sons and daughters. Here it helped that, unlike most radicals from Lima, many of Sendero’s leading cadres spoke Quechua, and were able to convey the core message of class war directly to the local peasants. (One Quechua communiqué read: ‘The guerrillas and peasants will take the city and all its authorities and the rich will disappear. There will no longer be contempt for the high-country peasants.’) Sendero’s pedagogical origins made a difference too: as the American journalist Michael Smith argued in 1992, Sendero was able to spread ‘almost anywhere’ there was ‘a blackboard and benches’.

In some ways, Sendero’s doctrinal inflexibility and its distance – physical and ideological – from the rest of the Peruvian left were assets early on, allowing it to develop an unusual cohesion and consistency of outlook. These features would eventually be subordinated to a grotesque cult of personality, in which Guzmán – ‘President Gonzalo’ – was hailed as the ‘Fourth Sword of Marxism’ (after Marx, Lenin and Mao). But in the meantime they had made Sendero a formidably disciplined political and military force. This is especially striking given that, unlike many other guerrilla insurgencies, Sendero had no practical support at all from outside the country; according to Starn and La Serna, most of its shoestring budget came from tuition fees from a small private school in Lima (they reject the idea that Sendero made fortunes from the drug trade in the Huallaga Valley). There is another respect in which its isolation made a difference. Much of the global left experienced perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square as deep ideological shocks, prompting a re-evaluation of strategy as well as basic principles. Sendero by contrast saw these events as confirmation of its worldview: it had already identified both the USSR and China as ‘revisionist’ powers hostile to the true revolutionary cause, and now destined for the same scrapheap of history as the capitalist world.

The insurgency took place at a moment of great tension in the Peruvian countryside, when it had become clear that the Velasco dictatorship’s radical land reform of 1969 had fallen far short of its goal of transforming rural society. Many Andean communities tried to overturn centuries of deprivation by laying claim to land, even as the whole agricultural sector was sinking. Thousands migrated to the cities, while others remained, caught between their communities’ traditional patterns of inequality and hopes for a radical rupture. The economic and social foundations of Peru had, in short, been profoundly shaken even before the Sendero insurgency began, and they would be rocked still further by what followed: a debt and inflation crisis, a devastating guerrilla war and counterinsurgency, and then the neoliberal shock therapy of the 1990s. From the 1970s onwards Peru had all the problems that afflicted other Latin American countries – with the difference that it experienced all of them simultaneously. Sendero was both a symptom and a cause of this, interwoven with everything modern Peru has become.

In Lima’s Miraflores district, at the top of one of the red sandstone cliffs that edge the Pacific, stands a museum dedicated to what it calls ‘the period of violence from 1980 to 2000’. An elegant, minimalist concrete structure, built thanks to a large donation from the German government, the Lugar de Memoria, Tolerancia y Inclusión Social (LUM) opened its doors in 2015. It has been subject to repeated attacks from members of the security establishment and from supporters of former president Fujimori, who have accused it of ‘glorifying terrorism’. For these people, the mere existence of the LUM is a standing insult, as if acts of memory were in themselves treason or sabotage.

The controversies around the LUM are part of a wider, ongoing dispute over what the conflict meant. The armed forces and a large slice of the Peruvian political class have consistently sought to frame it as a ‘struggle against terrorism’. This has the bonus of delegitimising not only past but also present opposition to the government; it is telling that the word terruco (terrorist), has now become part of everyday political discourse in Peru, an all-purpose slur that can be applied to environmental protesters, journalists, museum curators and rival congressmen. (There is even a verb: terruquear – to call someone a terrorist.) The continual resort to the authoritarian lexicon developed during the war emphasises how vividly present the conflict still is, and the degree to which it continues to shape Peru’s political system. Perhaps even more damaging than the denialism or name-calling, though, is the lack of justice or accountability it abets. Many senderistas were retried by regular courts after Fujimori was removed from office, and are still serving lengthy jail sentences. But comprehensive though the commission’s report may have been, it resulted in very few indictments of military personnel. Many of the bodies of those killed or ‘disappeared’ by the military have yet to be found, and little of the compensation promised to victims’ families by the state has been issued. Twenty years after the conflict ended, and forty since it began, a full reckoning – let alone a reconciliation – remains elusive.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences