The capture of “Comrade Artemio,” one of the last of the Shining Path rebels’ old guard to remain at large, is a security success for Peru’s government, but is unlikely to affect the country’s burgeoning drug trade.
On Thursday, the news emerged that Artemio, whose real name is Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, had been seriously wounded in the early hours of the morning. Some reports said was he shot by his own bodyguards, who were working for the authorities, though others said he was hit in a confrontation with the police. He was found on Sunday morning by a military patrol, lying gravely wounded in a hut near the river Misholla, in Tochache province, San Martin region. Later that day he was flown by military helicopter to Lima. As the veteran guerrilla fighter was being carried on a stretcher into a police hospital, his hands heavily bandaged, he shouted some unintelligible words and raised a fist to the watching press.
Peruvian authorities had declared in advance that Artemio would be captured alive, so that he could give information about his group and its activities. This is in contrast to the fate of another recently-fallen rebel leader, “Alfonso Cano” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who was shot dead while resisting capture, according to the account of the Colombian Army.
Peru’s politicians hailed the news as the definitive end of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), which they say is now finished politically and militarily. President Ollanta Humala declared that the group were no longer a threat, and that “those that remain are tiny remnants, who it will not take us long to capture.” He called on Artemio’s followers to surrender, and made a triumphant visit to the hospital to see the new captive (see image, below).
Artemio was one of the last commanders from the rebels’ heyday to remain at large. After leaving the army in 1980, he joined the Shining Path and was sent to the Huallaga region to set up a new branch of the group and seize control of the area from drug traffickers. He rose up the ranks, and became a member of the Shining Path’s Central Committee in 1989.
He left no clear successor. Gustavo Gorriti, of IDL-Reporteros, told El Comercio that most of Artemio’s comrades are much younger than the commander, who claims to be 47 years old, and that he was the only one with the authority and experience to lead the group.
The arrest very likely does mean the end for Artemio’s faction of the Shining Path, which is based in the Upper Huallaga region of northern Peru. This group, directly descended from, and still loyal to, founder Abimael Guzman, was already weak before Artemio fell. In December the commander gave interviews to the media in which he admitted that the Shining Path had been militarily defeated, and that, though the group’s political aims remained the same, armed struggle was no longer possible. He called for talks with the government, with the aim of his faction demobilizing and “disabling” their weapons.
The other remaining faction, based in the the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region further south, operates independently, and some analysts say it has completely transformed into a drug trafficking organization. The Huallaga-based faction perpetuated this idea. Artemio said he rejected and condemned the rival group, and his forces handed out leaflets accusing them of being anti-Maoists and anti-revolutionaries. Shining Path founder Guzman has also repudiated the VRAE faction, calling them mercenaries.
However, it would be a mistake to completely discard the ideological element of the VRAE-based faction. There are still reports of them carrying out political indoctrination of their recruits, and doing political work and propaganda. Víctor Quispe Palomino, alias “Comrade Jose,” who leads the faction along with his brother, was a member of the Shining Path from a young age, and came from a family that was connected closely to the group. Far from abandoning the Maoist rhetoric, they claim to be the true exponents of the Shining Path’s struggle, and have turned against Guzman, declaring him an enemy of the people.
The VRAE are far stronger militarily than the Huallaga group and have been putting up a tougher fight against the armed forces; they have not asked the government for any truce.
One possibility, then, is that Artemio’s followers could decide to join the VRAE-based group. Another possibility is that the VRAE “senderistas” could move north to take over the drug trafficking grounds of the Huallaga group. This is certainly important territory for the cocaine trade. The Huallaga Valley, where Artemio was based, is home to around a quarter of the country’s coca crops, according to 2010 figures from the UN. Although this has gone down by about a third since 2006, Huallaga remains a significant cultivation region.
Artemio has categorically denied making money from drug traffickers, admitting only to charging taxes from coca growers. He claimed in December that “my army has never been lent to guard maceration pits [to process cocaine], to guard the transport of merchandise … I have never allowed it.” However, many say differently, including the US State Department, which asserts that Artemio not only charges taxes from traffickers for exactly those services, but that he himself “repeatedly invests his own and/or Sendero money in drug trafficking ventures with local drug traffickers.”
Either way, it seems likely that the absence of Artemio’s forces will leave a power gap in the cocaine trade in the Huallaga region, and the VRAE faction may be in line to fill it. Even before Artemio’s capture, when the news of his injuries was made known, ex-commander of the armed forces Jorge Montoya said that the military must increase security on the route between the two areas, to stop the VRAE group moving in. Indeed, there were reports in 2010 that Artemio was fighting to expel VRAE members from his territory, after a band of 10 men sent by the Quispe Palomino brothers pitched up in the region of Tocache, trying to win the confidence of local people. After the news spread of the operation against Artemio, the armed forces scaled up patrols in the VRAE to discourage attacks, and police sources told El Comercio that a group from the region was heading to Tocache to take power. (Map source: El Comercio).
It is less likely that Artemio’s fall will make any difference at all to Peru’s drug trade. The “balloon effect” of security efforts in different parts of the country have been well-documented by the UN -- as coca production has fallen in the Huallaga region over the past few years, it has risen in the country overall and particularly in the VRAE. Another factor is that the government will now turn its attention more forcefully on the VRAE faction. Artemio pointed out in his interview in December that the armed forces had decided to go after the Huallaga group first -- “They consider it a priority to destroy me.” With this achieved, it could now be the turn of the Quispe brothers.