What happened at Ayacucho

Ronan Bennett

  • Shining Path: The World’s Deadliest Revolutionary Force by Simon Strong
    HarperCollins, 274 pp, £16.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 00 215930 9
  • Shining Path of Peru edited by David Scott Palmer
    Hurst, 271 pp, £12.95, June 1992, ISBN 1 85065 152 3
  • Peru under Fire: Human Rights since the Return of Democracy compiled by Americas Watch
    Yale, 169 pp, £12.95, June 1992, ISBN 0 300 05237 5

Travelling in the Andean highlands of Peru some thirty years ago, Peter Matthiessen observed a group of drunken Quechua Indians. ‘In this state the Quechua looks more slack-jawed and brutish than the most primitive man imaginable.’ The Indians were ‘rife with hatreds and resentments ... But they are so subdued by their own poverty, and by their failure to realise how very numerous they are, that a Quechua revolution, while one day inevitable, remains remote.’

The revolution came sooner than Matthiessen expected. Its foot-soldiers are no slack-jawed brutes, but highly disciplined and motivated guerrilla fighters. It is led by Abimael Guzman and organised by the Communist Party of Peru, popularly known as Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path. Sendero’s revolution began 12 years ago in Ayacucho, one of the most backward and isolated towns of the Peruvian Andes, whose name in Quechua means ‘Corner of the Dead’, in memory of those who fell in 1824 in the decisive battle between Bolivar’s forces, under Sucre, and those loyal to the Spanish Crown. Thus Ayacucho can be considered the birthplace of the modern Peruvian state, and may yet prove to be its burial site.

The revolution’s ferocity has given the Corner of the Dead a new and chilling resonance. Journalists, at first mystified by the theatricality and macabre ritual of Sendero’s violence, groped for clichés, something to help box the complexities of peasant insurgency and Maoist revolution into the requirements of the six hundred-word news story. They came up with ‘the Khmer Rouge of Latin America’. The tag stuck, but like all such tags does more to hinder than enhance understanding of the nature, causes and trajectory of Sendero’s revolution. It is the achievement of these books, particularly Simon Strong’s, to rip off the tags and subject the contents of the box to rational argument and analysis.

The roots of the revolution stretch back to the legendary barbarity of Pizarro’s conquest, beginning with the murder of the Inca Atahualpa and the slaughter of the Inca aristocracy. Defeated, leaderless, politically fragmented and cowed by the savagery of the white invaders, the Quechua Indians were almost at once reduced to slavery while the colonists helped themselves to the region’s fabulous riches. There were slave rebellions, hopeless, brutal, millenarian. In the rebellion of 1780-81 Tupac Amaru, a mestizo chieftain who claimed direct descent from the Inca, issued decrees liberating the slaves from the Cerro Rico mines and abolishing forced labour. The rebellion turned into an orgy of murder and pillage. As they advanced, the rebels butchered anyone with a trace of Spanish blood unfortunate enough to fall into their hands, executed priests and fired churches.

The rebels’ savagery was, however, surpassed by that of the colonists. When the Spanish captured Tupac Amaru, they brought him and his family to face torture and execution in the main square of Cuzco. There, after cutting out the rebel leader’s tongue, they lashed his limbs to four horses but failed to quarter him. Still breathing, the ‘liberator’, defiant to the end, was decapitated at the foot of the gallows.

From its inception, the Peruvian state was oligarchical and racist. ‘The tension between Western and Indian culture,’ Strong writes, ‘is at the heart of Peru’s post-conquest history.’ A small ruling class of European descent, established mainly on the coast, held sway over a huge territory with impressive natural resources. Until the 1970s they kept the Indians on their estates in conditions of virtual serfdom.

In the early part of this century, middle-class Peruvian radicals attempted to bridge the gap. Something like an ‘indigenous’ movement sprang up as young intellectuals came increasingly to understand the importance of Peru’s cultural duality. José Carlos Mariategui, who in 1930 founded the Socialist Party and whose thought has been an important influence on Sendero, mixed his highly theoretical Marxism with the millenarian strains of indigenous tradition.

For the most part, the Left in Peru played – without much success – the parliamentary game, but, from time to time, parts of it embarked on clandestine adventures. In 1965 Hector Bejar and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional took up the armed struggle after the Peruvian Communist Party (not to be confused with Guzman’s Communist Party of Peru) opted for the electoral road to reform. The ELN’s revolutionary effort failed because it could not mobilise the Indian peasantry (the greater part of the population, which now stands at over twenty-two million).

The oligarchy survived the periodic challenges from the Left, but, by the 1960s, its position was under serious threat from another quarter. The oligarchy had never developed a stable economic infrastructure. To be fair, they would first have had to negotiate formidable obstacles of geography and communication (most of the country consists of mountain range and jungle). More important, the Peruvian economy has always centred on the pleasure principle, plunder and immediate enrichment its only constants. Once, silver paid for the state and for the luxury. When the silver ran out, the oligarchy found respite, in the middle of the last century, in the commercial exploitation of guano. As a metaphor for Peru’s ‘development’, the move from silver into birdshit is rich in ironic possibilities.

In 1968, after a century of economic decline and political stagnation, a group of leftish army officers seized power, displacing the right-wing President, Fernando Belaunde. The army officers initiated a programme of land reform and economic modernisation. The experiment with state socialism and collectivism was short-lived, however. More conservative elements emerged and the pace of reform slowed. Hopes raised by the changes soured. The failure of agrarian reform in the Seventies was seen as proof that the dispossessed peasantry could not look to the state tor remedy. After a decade of army rule, Belaunde, the representative of the old élites, returned to power.

It was at this time that Sendero Luminoso launched its revolution. On 17 May 1980, in the first action of the armed struggle, Senderistas burned ballot boxes in Chuschi, a village in Ayacucho By the end of the year there had been more than two hundred armed attacks, according to government sources. The rebels equipped themselves with dynamite stolen from mines, weapons captured from the Police and Army, and built up their organisation, chiefly in the departments of Ayacucho, Lima and Junin. On Boxing Day, in the kind of bizarre incident which has done much to give Sendero a reputation for unhinged ferocity, guerrillas strung up dead dogs from lampposts in the capital. Twelve years on, the death toll is somewhere in the region of thirty thousand, with unknown numbers of disappeared and injured. Today, Sendero controls much of the countryside – including the strategically important central highlands – and has reached the slums of the capital.

Sendero is the creation of Abimael Guzman, a former professor of philosophy, who in 1962 went to teach at the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho. A man of undoubted charisma – he was a favourite with students – and of Jesuitical inflexibility, Guzman soon established himself as the intellectual driving force of the university’s Left. An energetic organiser and polemicist, Guzman had joined the Peruvian Communist Party in 1959 or 1960. When, four years later, following the Sino-Soviet rift, the Party split, Guzman emerged as leader of the pro-Peking faction. He went on to develop an authoritarian and narrowly sectarian organisation which evolved into the Communist Party of Peru (Sendero Luminoso).

Guzman’s doctrinaire certainty attracted students and staff alike. At a time when the Left was in disarray, here was a man who gave every appearance of knowing exactly where he was going and what he was doing. He dismissed as revisionist both the Peruvian Left, including Bejar and the ELN, and most of the Left elsewhere, including Castro; he described Che Guevara, whom he reportedly met in China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, as ‘a chorus girl’. Strongly influenced by Maoist thought and military tactics, Guzman, following Mariategui’s line, sought to adapt Marxism (in this case, its Chinese variant) to indigenous Peruvian experience. In this he has succeeded brilliantly, helped, undoubtedly, by a messianic streak in his political repertoire which touches a nerve among the Indians.

Simon Strong, for several years the Independent’s correspondent in Peru, provides an excellent account of Guzman’s years at Huamanga. He is at his best in describing the social and intellectual origins of Sendero, and tackles his subject soberly, without a trace of sensationalism (except in the subtitle). He captures superbly the potent mix of ethnic hatred and Guzman-style Maoism. Unlike some other commentators, Strong does not allow the ferocity of the conflict to obscure his analysis of its social and political causes.

Strong is not afraid to say – unpalatable though some people find it that Sendero enjoys much popular support among Indians and lower-class mestizos. For its Indian supporters Sendero is a vehicle for social justice, a way to redress ancient wrongs, to fight against repression, to retake their land. Guzman, known as Presidente Gonzalo by his followers, has achieved a mythic status: to many Indians he is the ‘Red Sun’, the kingly figure representing the spirit of the Incas, ‘the messiah of the conquered who will ... reverse the present order and give his people back their land’.

Part of the reason tor Sendero’s success is its own ruthless prosecution of the war. Its strategy has been to obliterate the Peruvian state in the areas it controls, and it has been highly successful. The guerrillas intimidate or assassinate government functionaries, elected officials, police officers, civil servants, municipal officers and aid workers – anyone, however lowly, with any kind of link to the old state. Sendero does not balk at killing the unfortunate peasants dragooned into the Ronderos, the civil guard created as cannon-fodder for the Army. On 3 April 1983 a party of Sendero guerrillas entered the Ayacucho villages of Santiago de Lucanamarca and HuancaSanacos. After staging ‘people’s trials’, they murdered 70 peasants for refusing to co-operate. Even Guzman thought it excessive.

Strong’s thematic approach leaves little space for the minutiae of organisation and tactics. By contrast, the contributors to Shifting Path of Peru (mostly academics, but with a sprinkling of journalists) effectively combine detail and analysis. Gabriela Tarazona-Sevillano gives an authoritative account of Sendero’s structure and organisation. Michael Smith provides an assessment of its urban strategy that will do little to cheer the Peruvian authorities. Smith reveals that by mid-1990, Sendero had secured its beachhead in Lima and developed a sophisticated strategy to mobilise the support of slum-dwellers. Gustavo Gorriti describes the relationship between Guzman and Luis Kawata Makabe, ‘Sendero’s Stalin and Trotsky’.

Amnesty International, among others, has repeatedly described the Peruvian Armed Forces as the world’s worst violators of human rights. The appalling record – worse than Sendero’s – is documented by Americas Watch in Peru under Fire. The compilers criticise the Peruvian state for its high tolerance of human rights abuse. At the beginning of the war, Belaunde imposed a state of emergency on the worst affected regions, and the area covered has been expanded by his successors in office. With constitutional safeguards suspended in so much of the country, torture, kidnapping and murder by the Peruvian Armed Forces have become routine.

The worst instance of terror came in 1986, shortly after the election to the Presidency of the populist Alan Garcia of the centre-left APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana). Seeking to embarrass Garcia during a meeting of the Socialist International in Lima, Sendero prisoners staged co-ordinated riots in three jails in Lima and Callao. Garcia ordered the military to quell the riots: ‘The outcome was multiple executions of inmates after their surrender. In all, between 200 and 250 prisoners were killed after laying down their weapons.’ At the island prison of El Fronton only 35 of 135 prisoners survived a naval bombardment.

The prison massacres apart, Garcia’s largest contribution to Sendero’s continued growth was his catastrophic mismanagement of the economy. To be fair, he was faced with a desperate situation on taking office: interest repayments on foreign debts (totalling $16.7 billion) amounted to three-quarters of the value of Peru’s GDP. Garcia announced that future repayments would be limited to 10 per cent of foreign export earnings and was promptly blacklisted by international financial interests. The country plunged into an economic nightmare. By 1989 annual inflation was running at 1000 per cent. By the following year (it is hard to find two sources in agreement), it stood at somewhere around 6000 per cent. Living standards are now lower than in the Sixties.

If anything summed up Peru’s desperate plight during the dog days of Garcia’s presidency, it was, for me, watching the television pictures of a police raid in the capital. Armed police surrounded the building, called on the occupants to surrender, then smashed in the doors. I watched as the police dragged out bewildered-looking men and women. More policemen emerged. They were carrying – at first it scarcely seemed credible – baskets of bread. The officer in charge was asked if he considered the raid a success. Yes, the officer replied, he had uncovered and suppressed another panaderia clandestina. I thought I had misheard. But no: ‘an illegal bakery’. There were people begging for bread in the streets, there were queues from morning to night outside the shops, and here were armed police raiding a bakery.

Some liberal observers hoped that the 1990 General Election would be a turning-point. They pinned their hopes on Mario Vargas Llosa. An internationally famous writer, elegant and urbane, Vargas Llosa was the man of light for those who believed in ‘the middle way’ between Sendero and the old oligarchy. The trouble was that, having no party organisation of his own. Vargas Llosa needed the backing of the old, discredited Right. His advisers hated this, and some, like his US-based consultant, Mark Malloch Brown, thought his man was damaging himself needlessly by associating with politicians like Belaunde, who represented ‘all that was worst in the traditional political order’. But they missed the point. It was too late for the middle way and their man was not just associating with the old oligarchy, he was part of it: just another rich white man whose political and cultural values were a world away from those of the vast majority of his fellow-countrymen.

Had Vargos Llosa come to power, would he have been able to defeat Sendero and turn Peru – his expressed intention into a Latin American Taiwan? I doubt it. More likely he would have ended up as front man for the Right and its military backers. This has been the fate of the nonentity, Alberto Fujimori, who defeated Vargas Llosa at the polls. Fujimori, like Vargas Llosa, has no real political base. He won because the middle ground gambled on one last, desperate roll of the political dice. He soon found himself unable to govern. In April this year, with military backing, he staged a coup, accepting once and for all his role as the stooge of Peru’s traditional rulers.

Following Fujimori’s autogolpe (which occurred loo late for inclusion in these books), the Army went into the prison of Canto Grande. By the time they came out fifty to a hundred Senderistas were dead. I had visited one of the Sendero blocks in Canto Grande in 1989. One did not need to be in sympathy with the prisoners, who had established a high degree of autonomy within the jail, or with their aims, to see the prison as a microcosm of the country: the contrast between the discipline, commitment and organisation of the Senderistas and the corruption and demoralisation of the guards was stark. The Senderistas were well aware of this. Their blocks served as highly effective propaganda models, and many Peruvians looked up to and respected the men and women who organised them. Government and Army were equally aware of this.

Meanwhile, the country continues to fall apart. Its economy ticks over – just – with regular infusions of narcodollars, hard currency from the sale of coca to the Colombian cartels. Much has been made of the alleged links between Sendero and drug traffickers However, Strong and the contributors to Shining Path of Peru emphasise that no one has ever produced evidence tor this. On the contrary, there are proven connections between establishment politicians, police and army officers and the drug traffickers. Many suspect, and not without good reason, that the alleged involvement of Sendero in the drug trade is being played up by the US as a cover for involvement in the anti-insurgency war.

Will Sendero win? Strong’s epilogue suggests that he thinks they might. Describing Raucana, Sendero’s ‘first liberated area in the Peruvian capital’, he writes: the ‘party has directed the settlers’ land struggle ... and created a model community while keeping Us ban ner discreet. Existing under the very noses of the Army ... Raucana is an embryo of the People’s Republic of New Democracy.’