Military officials in Peru have announced the death of a top Shining Path commander more than five months after an operation in which they claim he was injured in a firefight, raising questions about their timing and how his absence might impact the group moving forward.
The joint command of the Peruvian military announced in a March 30 press release that security forces had mortally wounded Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias “Raúl,” the second-in-command of the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (Militarizado Partido Comunista del Perú -- MPCP), a faction of the Shining Path rebel group.
The joint military-police operation occurred on October 29 of last year in a town in the Huanta province of Ayacucho department, which falls inside the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro -- VRAEM) region.
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Three Shining Path fighters were reportedly killed in the firefight and five others were injured, including Raúl. Officials with the Defense Ministry said the rebel commander was wounded by aerial fire.
The military later confirmed on January 27 of this year -- through a wiretap conversation -- that Raúl was dead. He had died of chronic kidney disease “aggravated by the wounds he sustained," the Defense Ministry said in its new release. The rebel group hid Raúl's death to avoid "demoralizing" its members, officials said.
Authorities have not explained why they waited more than two months to announce the death of the rebel commander.
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The death of Raúl -- who had fought alongside his brother, Victor Quispe Palomino, alias “José” -- serves as a serious blow to the remnants of Peru’s guerrilla movement.
Under the brothers' leadership, the group has tried to reinvent itself as the Militarized Communist Party of Peru, in an effort to gain the support of rural farming communities within the VRAEM that were victimized by the Shining Path.
The brothers, however, were among Peru's most wanted criminals. In 2018, the government offered a reward of two million soles (around $530,000) for information leading to their capture. The US Justice Department also indicted the pair and another Shining Path leader on terrorism, drug and weapons charges in 2014.
The death of Raúl sends a “seismic shock” through the ranks of the Shining Path faction in the VRAEM, according to security expert Pedro Yaranga.
“There isn’t anyone with the experience within the organization to rise up to third- or second-in-command. Nobody can replace Raúl,” Yaranga told InSight Crime. His brother, José, lacks the expertise that Raúl had in controlling the group and its messaging, which could lead to internal fracturing.
Peru’s security forces have long been under pressure to root out the rebel group, but have been unable to do so through past military operations and the deployment of thousands of troops to the VRAEM. The region's dense, mountainous terrain is extremely difficult to patrol.
SEE ALSO: Shining Path News and Profile
Raúl's death should have been headline news for the government, and the delay in announcing it raises suspicions that he did not die exactly as authorities have portrayed.
Given his delicate state of health since last year, including at the time of the operation, Raúl would likely not have been able to travel and fight in such a hotly contested area, Yaranga said.
“As of now, all of the signs point to the fact that Rául died from kidney failure, and not from bullet wounds or any other injuries sustained in the military operation,” Yaranga said.
The Shining Path faction operating in the VRAEM is primarily engaged in taxing coca growers and providing armed security for cocaine shipments passing through the region, where two-thirds of Peru’s nearly 50,000 hectares of coca crops were found in 2017, according to the most recent coca crop monitoring data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
While Raúl's death is indeed a blow to the Shining Path, the isolated region will continue to safeguard illegal armed actors and others involved in the drug trade.