Peruvian authorities have dismissed Maoist guerrillas the Shining Path as "narco-terrorists" whose primary aim is drug trafficking. But the arrest of four Peruvians in Bolivia, accused of distributing propaganda for the group, may be a sign the rebels are re-embracing their ideological roots.
The four activists were arrested after handing out ideological pamphlets in front of a public university in La Paz. The material reportedly encouraged protests against Bolivian President Evo Morales and contained language associated with the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) of old, including "Long live Marxism, Leninism, Maoism!" According to authorities, all four Peruvians had links to Shining Path and were attempting to recruit students to the movement, offering "apprenticeships" in Peru where students would receive training in handling weapons and explosives.
Three of the detainees -- brothers William and Hugo Minaya Romero and Blanca Riveros Alarcon -- have been deported to Peru. The fate of the fourth suspect, Jose Antonio Cantoral, a long-time member of the guerrilla group who won political asylum in Bolivia in 1993, remains unclear: as a political refugee, he may be granted up to 90 days to leave the country.
The four "Senderistas" are accused of trying to build a network of political supporters in El Alto, the low-income neighborhood in La Paz where they were found distributing pamphlets. They were also known to give lectures at the Isaac Newton Institute, an educational center which, according to the Bolivian government, is a front for Shining Path activists. Critics in Bolivia have argued that the Morales government has not presented enough evidence against those arrested; human rights leader Victor Vacaflor said that while the pamphlets seized may be “very offensive” to the government, the four are entitled to “freedom of thought."
As Southern Pulse points out, these arrests indicate that the Shining Path may not have entirely abandoned the political ideology on which their reputation was built, despite their current involvement in large-scale drug trafficking in Peru. Active in Peru since the late 1970s, the guerrillas waged a bloody campaign that cost an estimated 70,000 lives. The group was severely weakened following the capture of their political leader and principal strategist Abimael Guzman in 1992, which came amid a hardline security crackdown by the government of Alberto Fujimori. The Shining Path remain only as a shadow of the force they were in their prime, but they persist nonetheless, to the continuing surprise of many. Now President Ollanta Humala, sworn in on July 28, faces the same challenge that confronted six of his predecessors: ending the conflict with the Shining Path once and for all.
Humala's task will not be an easy one. Despite a widespread belief that they were in terminal decline, the Shining Path have gained momentum over the course of the last two years. They are now believed to be divided into two notable and relatively distinct factions. The first, based in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley, in the northern jungle, is a small group headed by by Florindo Flores, or "Comrade Artemio," a man very much of the Shining Path old guard. According to local police, this group is responsible for the murder of five peasant farmers since June.
However, the faction attracting most attention is based in the Apurimac-Ene River Valley in the southern jungle, commonly known as the VRAE. Allegedly led by brothers Victor Quispe Palomino, alias "José," and Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias "Raúl," the group has shown surprising military capacity, and is blamed for an ambush which resulted in the death of five soldiers in July. Since retreating to the VRAE following the capture of Guzman in 1992, the VRAE faction has followed the path laid by fellow left-wing rebels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), in entering the drug business. The cocaine trade is thriving in Peru and the country now rivals Colombia for the title of the world's number one producer of cocaine. The VRAE has become the drug trafficking centre of Peru, allowing the group to reap significant profits.
The VRAE faction are believed by many to operate today as little more than an efficient drug trafficking organization, having all but abandoned the Maoist legacy of Guzman's Shining Path. They are, according to Jaime Antezana, a security analyst in Peru's capital Lima, no longer interested in political control and now use the Shining Path name as if it were a "franchise." The Peruvian government, too, has dismissed the Shining Path as "narco-terrorists." There indeed seems to be divisions within the Shining Path itself, with the once imperious leader Abimael Guzman describing the VRAE faction as "mercenaries," who have little to do with the organization which he founded in the 1960s.
But the Bolivia arrests are a new sign that elements of the group are still able and interested in doing political work. It is not the first time that Shining Path activity has been observed in Bolivia. In June, five Peruvians and a Bolivian were arrested for attempting to smuggle 43 kilos of cocaine from Bolivia to Peru. According to Bolivian authorities, one of those arrested, Ulser Pillpa Paitan, alias "Comrade Johnny," was a member of the Shining Path.
According to Bolivian Minister of the Interior and Police, Marcos Farfán, intelligence gleaned from this operation led police to the four activists arrested in El Alto. Pillpa Paitan allegedly informed police interrogators that he was working in conjunction with the Minaya Romero brothers, both arrested in El Alto, who had links to drug trafficking in the VRAE, but who, according to Pillpa, had moved their operations to El Alto.
The arrests in Bolivia confirm that political ideology is still of some importance to at least some members of Sendero Luminoso, contradicting officials' claims that the group is little more than a drug-running outfit. It is unclear how much Cantoral and his colleagues were in touch with Sendero cells in Peru, or whether they were operating more independently.
But there are opportunities on the horizon for Sendero Luminoso to further expand their political work: a number of former leading members of the Shining Path, arrested during the government crackdown of the early 1990s, are now finishing their jail terms. Calls have been made for the release of Abimael Guzman. These are men who waged a brutal war against the Peruvian state, driven by Maoist ideology. If the Shining Path proves it has the desire and ability to increase its political recruitment at home and abroad, it could very well build a force of committed fighters who could once again pose a serious threat to Peru's national security.