Peru's security forces had what seemed like the perfect plan to ambush a faction of the Shining Path guerrillas on their home turf. But things didn't play out as expected.
Sources say it was the riskiest operation in years. Riskier than when Peru's security forces killed Shining Path leader "William"; or when they killed alias "Alipio."
William died after taking a bullet. Alipio, alongside fellow Shining Path leader "Gabriel," lost his life in an explosion.
In both cases, the leaders of the Shining Path faction active in Peru's Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (a region known as the VRAEM) didn't know what awaited them. They walked into ambushes that ended with their deaths before they had a chance to react.
But the operation planned for September 2, 2015, was different. The losses made the Shining Path more alert, more suspicious. It was impossible to get them to visit houses or territory to meet up with collaborators who were actually cooperating with the government.
In order to find the guerrillas, the government had to seek them out on their own ground. After a few months, there was an opening. Intelligence officials from the special forces unit, known as the "Wolf Brigade," managed to pass themselves off as civil engineers responsible for paying off an extortion tax to a Shining Path leader: alias "Antonio." And according to sources, they paid this fee "one or two times."
The next cash handover was scheduled for September 2, 2015. On that day, the Wolf Brigade planned to carry out the operation that would either capture or kill Antonio.
But the plan was risky. These were the perfect conditions for walking into a trap, not carrying out an ambush. If it went well, the military would be able to take the Shining Path by surprise, but would have inferior numbers, less firepower, and probably a weaker position than the guerrillas. After the first blow, they would have to use surprise to their advantage, and hold out for the long five, ten minutes it would take for reinforcements to arrive.
Also important: geography. The designated meeting place was close to the village of Virgen Ccasa. On a map, it looks relatively close to the district capital: Llochegua, where a road will take you directly to the village. But browsing on Google Earth reveals rugged forests, the fluid backbone of the Andean foothills. Nearby are dirt roads that took you to Vizcatan, a stronghold of the Shining Path.
Virgen Ccasa's location, as shown by Google Earth. Image c/o IDL Reporteros
The road climbs a ravine surrounded by an impressive range of hills and forests. It had been well selected by the Shining Path, in order to drain the advantage from larger, better armed forces -- including those that arrived by helicopter. The trees allowed for hiding, escaping, gambling, turning a retreat into an ambush for those who knew how to walk the jungle's paths. And no one doubted that Antonio's unit knew how to do this very well.
According to the sources consulted for this story, within the Wolf Brigade were those opposed to carrying out such a dangerous mission. But the volunteers -- a mix of military and police -- insisted. During the previous handovers of the extortion tax, they said, "Antonio" had arrived with just four guerrillas. His "backup" didn't appear to be very close by, meaning that, with Antonio dead, it was possible to hold out until reinforcements arrived.
It was a simple plan, but it required flawless coordination. Those carrying out the action -- headed by the "engineer" and his companion -- would arrive first, driving a Toyota Hilux. The truck's rear hopper would be locked from the outside, and would carry a load of container drums -- supposedly full of hydrochloric acid, much in demand by drug traffickers in the VRAE.
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Nevertheless, beneath this cargo would be a hidden compartment, big enough to hide two people carrying enough weapons for four. Upon the signal, all they had to do was kick the truck's rear door, and it would fall open easily, as the fake lock on the outside actually couldn't lock anything. They would be able to breath, thanks to the air pumped into the compartment, and they would likely be numb from the long journey, but they would have to take action immediately. Thus, the two unarmed civilians would turn into an armed unit of four. A surprise attack -- but against how many?
Another Hilux would trail one kilometer behind the trail, with the same number of people -- two in the front of the truck and two in a hidden compartment. Their job was to speed up and get to the first truck as fast as possible, soon as the action started.
Back in the town of Pichari would be the top command of the Wolf Brigade, as well as Vice Minister of Defense Ivan Vega and head of the Third Brigade of Military Special Forces, General Cesar Astudillo. Four helicopters -- including a Mi-35, armored and with great firepower -- would be waiting with their engines warm, ready to take off. Each of the Mi-17 helicopters would carry a special forces team, equipped for combat.
Vice Minister of Defense Ivan Vega greets part of the special forces. Photo c/o IDL Reporteros
Flight time from Pichari to Virgen Ccasa is between six to nine minutes. The order to deploy the helicopters would come as soon as the action started. Both trucks would carry transmitters that would closely track the movements of their occupants. The first detonations, the first battle cries would be the signal.
At noon, the trucks departed to Virgen Ccasa, and the operation entered its irreversible phase. According to sources with knowledge of what happened, there was more anxiety in Pichari than in the trucks. None of the top-level officials present there were unaware that failure would represent a brutal setback in the war against the Shining Path in the VRAEM. The anxious and debilitated government of President Ollanta Humula would likely lack the strength to sustain the campaign: failure would only serve as another criticism of the president and his controversial wife.
On the other side, Antonio marched quickly and silently to the meeting point at the head of a mobile column. They were 20 guerrillas, well armed and trained, following a leader who, by all accounts, they trusted.
The operation was meant to deal first with Antonio and the three companions who would presumably accompany him, according to someone who was instrumental in designing the plan. "After eliminating the four," the source says, "The second goal was capturing or neutralizing the other 15," who would presumably be far away. The reality was otherwise.
Antonio's column was characterized by speed. In a seized pamphlet -- printed in the red ink that defined Shining Path printed propaganda in the 1980s -- Antonio is praised for having "organized the military participation of the women soldiers." His youth is highlighted several times. According to the pamphlet, Antonio is "active, resolved, decisive, energetic, and continuously and eternally displays a young spirit, he is extraordinarily young."
A pamphlet describing Shining Path leader "Antonio," seized during the operation. Photo c/o IDL Reporteros
This text is dated November 2013, less than three months after the deaths of Alipio and Gabriel. It seems to hint at an anxious hope for the succession and continuation of the Shining Path leadership.
On September 2, 2015, Antonio arrived to Virgen Ccasa better armed and better prepared than usual. His "column" was made up of some 20 youths, a few of them very experienced, and all of them well armed and trained.
The makeup of Antonio's Shining Path unit. Image c/o IDL Reporteros
It is difficult to know why he decided to do so, but before the "engineers" arrived, Antonio sent his backup force -- whose most powerful weapon was a PKT machine gun stolen from a downed helicopter -- to an elevation above the road, some 800 meters ahead of the meeting place.
Another three or four well-armed guerrillas would accompany Antonio to the meeting place, while another four or five acted as look-outs, placed in firing position within thick vegetation, on the side of the road.
SEE ALSO: Shining Path News and Profile
Unaware of any of this, the two Hilux trucks -- with a kilometer of distance between them -- ascended the road until they reached Virgen Ccasa, 1,300 meters above sea level. There, the driver and the passenger in the first truck saw Antonio and his companions, alert and waiting.
It was just after 3 p.m. There were only a few hours before dusk.
Pages from Antonio's notebooks, describing the distribution of his forces in June and August 2015. Photo c/o IDL Reporteros
The "engineer" and his companion greeted Antonio and his guards. According to sources, they then handed over the extortion tax -- reportedly around 50,000 soles (about $15,500).
After counting the money, Antonio said goodbye to the apparently successfully-extorted-engineers, then started walking away.
One of the two "civilians" approached the truck and gave the signal to the other two inside.
They kicked down the door, which opened with a thud, and they emerged with their weapons in hand, while the other two raced to equip themselves.
Antonio and his crew had walked some 40, 50 meters, when the movement back at the truck caused them to turn around. They saw the two armed men and then began running for cover while the first shots rang out.
According to one source with direct knowledge of what happened, the first one to start shooting was armed with a 40 mm. MGL grenade launcher. He fired at the guerrillas again and again.
The four operatives saw Antonio and his companions fall amidst the flames and the smoke of the explosions. Was it because of a concussion? Wounds caused by an explosion? Or was it a kill? The members of the Wolf Brigade continued firing and prepared to advance, when they were met with heavy automatic fire coming from the bushes on the side of the road, forcing them to take cover. It was the four guerrillas that Antonio had hidden there, in firing positions.
During the firefight, the guerrillas that could still move dragged Antonio away from the kill zone. The shooting was so intense that the guerrillas left behind Antonio's gun, backpack, tactical belt, and the radio with his son's name on it, spilled across the road.
One kilometer away, another ferocious gun battle was taking place.
When those in the second Hilux heard the shots, they decided they needed to take out their guns right away and run towards the first truck as reinforcements.
From the hill on the side of the road, the other group of guerrillas deployed by Antonio saw a driver and his passenger transform into four armed men. And they opened fire.
The PKT machine gun -- which was operated by a guerrilla known as "Alejandro," according to one source -- cut across the landscape. Within seconds, one of the four men from the second truck fell wounded. Soon afterwards, another one fell... and then, within moments, a third. Now, only one of the four remained, precariously entrenched, and hemmed in by guerrilla gunfire.
No one from the first truck was wounded, but nor did they capture anyone. They attempted to advance, but the guerrilla fire kept them from getting to where Antonio had fallen. Once the smoke settled and they could see the road again, Antonio and his guards were gone.
Meanwhile, the sound of four or five helicopters in combat formation steadily grew louder.
In the control room back in Pichari, the deployment order was given as soon as they heard combat was imminent.
Then, during interminable seconds and unrelenting tension, there was the confused sound of combat from the first truck, and then the second.
Once they heard that the first wounded man was down, then the second, then the third, everyone went pale. "I saw Ivan go white," said one of the officials who was there. And then, things got worse.
The Mi-35 and the Mi-17 helicopters interrupted the combat, lending one another mutual support. The Mi-17s looked for the best places to insert the combat patrols, in order to support the eight operatives and cut off the guerrillas' retreat.
However, the guerrillas backed away fighting, although they had at least one wounded, perhaps more. "They dragged, fired, drew back, then fired again," said one official who followed the battle closely.
The guerrilla group with PKT machine gun focused their attention on the helicopters. When one helicopter flew overhead, looking to deploy the security patrol, a bullet gravely wounded a member of the Marine special forces before he could disembark. According to the source, the bullet wounded the man's kidney, liver, and lung. Another man received a bullet to the head.
The patrols landed and attempted to cut off the guerrillas' retreat, while the Mi-35 supported them from above. However, the guerrillas dispersed into smaller groups, then briefly reunited in order to concentrate their fire and thus successfully hit two Mi-17 helicopters, according to sources from the Wolf Brigade. The Shining Path managed to keep their distance and gradually retreat from the battle site.
When night fell, the troops were also ordered to retreat from the area.
In Pichari awaited a group of top officials led by Vice Defense Minister Vega, whose main concern at that time was saving the lives of those who'd been badly wounded.
Vice Minister of Defense Ivan Vega, General Cesar Astudillo, and Police General Vicente Alvarez describe the results of the operation. Photo c/o IDL Reporteros
Those who'd received serious injuries were stabilized in Pichari. This happened quickly, and may have been what decisively saved their lives. The member of the Marine special forces was transported to Huamanga and then onto Lima.
The combatant with the head wound was evacuated by helicopter to Pucallpa, as the other nearby town, Mazamari, didn't have a landing strip for nocturnal flights. From Pucallpa, he was transferred by plane to Lima. According to sources in the security forces, both of the wounded are out of danger.
In Pichari, the security forces tried to put a positive spin on what happened. Ivan Vega said that, per his judgment, Antonio was dead, although all they had to show for it was the objects that fell from Antonio's back and hands due to the force of the explosions: his tactical belt, the gun, the radio, the notebooks. But these were things, not Antonio.
Needless to say, it was unduly hasty of Vega to assert Antonio was dead, without the evidence to back it up.
But nor was there any need to exaggerate. The gunfight in Virgen Ccasa didn't end with the expected results because the security forces encountered an opponent that was more numerous, better armed, and more skillful in combat than what was expected. The results did manage to show the audacity and initiative of the security forces -- the remarkable synchronization of plans, the cooperation between forces, and the extraordinary efforts that their leaders went to in order to save the lives of the wounded without backing down.