Peru Guerrillas Insurgency, 1980-92
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
The SL launched its peoples' war with the burning of ballot boxes in the provincial Ayacucho market town of Chuschi on May 17, 1980, the eve of national elections. Unlike the short-lived guerrilla movements of the mid-1960s, the SL extended its range of activities and actions over the course of the 1980s and contributed to the expansion of violence by other guerrilla organizations, as well as by common criminals. By mid-1992 political violence accounted for over 25,000 casualties. The SL insurgency also caused some US$22-billion worth of property damages from direct destruction and indirect loss of production and employment.
The SL's success in comparison with earlier insurgencies' failures had at least seven explanations. First, the movement organized and developed over a fifteen- to seventeen-year period before it launched its "armed struggle." Second, the SL began and grew in a provincial university (San Cristóbal de Huamanga) beyond the regular purview of central government authorities and in an isolated highland department (Ayacucho). In 1990 Ayacucho Department was still one of the most sparsely populated (with less than 3 percent of the country's population, mostly Quechua- speaking native Americans) and economically deprived departments (generating a meager 1 percent of Peru's GNP). Third, the SL was organized from the outset and directed by a single individual, professor Abimáel Guzmán Reynoso, who had the capacity to impose an iron discipline, attract many of the university's most able students and faculty, and build a strategy of revolutionary war in Peru drawn from Mao Zedong and other leading Marxist thinkers and practitioners. Fourth, the government response was delayed for years because it refused to take the SL seriously. When the government did act, it was often on the basis of strong and sometimes indiscriminate military action rather than through a combination of military and economic activities to respond more effectively to the real problems of the provinces that the SL was trying to exploit. Fifth, continuing and often increasing economic difficulties during the 1980s made it harder for the political center at Lima to respond effectively to the growing needs of the periphery and gave the guerrillas more opportunities. For example, the SL moved into the Upper Huallaga Valley and became involved in the coca production and cocaine- paste trafficking business, which generated resources estimated to be as much as US$30 million per year that were used to pay SL salaries and strengthen the SL's domestic infrastructure. And sixth, the SL's insistence on autarkic autonomy took it out of the mainstream international communist movement, with all of its uncertainties, and gave it a greater sense of its own significance.
As of mid-1992, the SL was believed to have between 3,000 and 4,000 armed cadre and some 50,000 supporters in various civilian support groups. Although the SL began in Ayacucho, the movement consciously expanded to other departments, so that by 1992 most of its actions took place in other areas--particularly Lima, Ancash, Junín, and the Upper Huallaga Valley. The movement was organized into a Central Committee and Politburo and six regional commands, all of which had a certain degree of autonomy to be able to adjust to special local circumstances. A strict hierarchy of commitment obtained: from sympathizers to activists to militants to commanders to the Central Committee and Politburo. The militants formed the armed cadres and the assassination squads; the sympathizers and activists operated in the SL's Popular Aid (Socorro Popular) organization to help the SL prisoners or families of fallen comrades, to assist in legal defense or recruitment, to march in demonstrations, and to undertake other activities. There were believed to have been nineteen Central Committee members and five Politburo leaders who made the decisions for the organization and who were replaced as needed by the most qualified of the militants and so on down. Assassination squads had backups to increase the chances of successful operations.
The SL recruitment took place primarily among the young and the marginalized; the organization included large numbers of fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds and women. Sympathizers gradually proved themselves by their actions and advanced to the status of militants. Visits by journalists to prisons where captured SL militants were housed suggested that indoctrination was intensive and total, with songs, marches, plays, and skits manifesting a training both ideological and personal. Members appeared to be transformed by their experience, adopting a new, more aesthetic life-style, total subordination to the cause of the revolution, and an apparent utter conviction, inviting comparisons with religious fundamentalist converts. For the individual, it could be an uplifting, liberating experience; at the same time, the person put himself or herself in a situation of complete subservience to the organization and its leadership.
Guzmán and his colleagues were convinced that they had unlocked the secrets of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism and were pursuing the correct revolutionary course even as communist movements and governments collapsed around the world. To Guzmán, or "Presidente Gonzalo," as he was called in the SL, the failure of world communism resulted from its unwillingness to apply the purifying orthodoxy of China's Cultural Revolution to return regularly to the movements' essential proletarian foundations. The PCP was to Guzmán the new beacon of hope for world revolution; the SL's advance worldwide depended first on its slow, methodical, and above all "correct" movement forward in Peru. It was a movement that took the long view, building and progressing slowly on its own terms. Organization and cadre were more important than territory at this point, particularly among the urban proletariat; hence, the greater focus after 1988 on building the movement in the cities, particularly Lima.
Terrorism and intimidation were part of the strategy to neutralize those key individuals whom the SL could not co-opt, but almost always on a very selective basis, not indiscriminately, and usually for political, not military, reasons. Key targets were local officials, especially candidates and elected officers of communities, towns, organizations, and unions. Targets also included selected government employees and key foreign technicians in rural development projects. Occasionally, a national figure--such as a general, an admiral, or a deputy to Congress--was assassinated to drive the message home that no one was safe, that central government and the military were unable to protect their own.
The 1989 municipal and 1990 national elections went ahead as scheduled despite SL threats, but over 400 local districts (out of some 2,016) remained bereft of elected officials. Most foreign development projects, including those of France, the Netherlands, and Japan, with between 500 and 1,000 specialists in the field, pulled their people out of rural areas or quietly withdrew from Peru entirely after one to three of each group's members were killed in 1989-91, and the Peruvian government could not guarantee the safety of those remaining.
Attacks on Peru's infrastructure sent a similar message--electrical pylons were toppled, bridges and railroad tracks blown up, roads catered, factories bombed. Through such actions, the SL was unable to paralyze the country, but did impair its function. Living in Lima became more difficult with electric-power cutoffs and rationing, water-use limits, and spot shortages of key foodstuffs. About 150,000 Peruvians migrated each year in 1988 and 1989, according to official statistics; in 1990 the figure was 328,000.
The expansion of violence by the SL also took its toll on the armed forces. Thirty-one military and forty-five police members were killed in political violence in 1985; in 1990 there were 135 military fatalities and 163 police deaths. The expansion in the number of provinces under a state of emergency owing to the insurgency forced the deployment of an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the armed forces, predominantly the army, to these areas. Because most of the military's equipment was originally purchased for more traditional border defense purposes rather than for combating insurgency, there were continuing shortages of matériel. In addition, the economic crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s reduced the defense budget substantially, making such fundamental activities as provisioning and maintaining troops in the field quite difficult at times. Helicopter maintenance was a particular problem. Under those conditions, human rights violations by the armed forces and police increased substantially in the late 1980s after marked improvement in 1985 and 1986.
In spite of the multiple challenges posed by the insurgency, the armed forces also experienced a number of important successes. These included the June 1988 capture of several important SL leaders, including Osmán Morote Barrionuevo, believed to have been the organization's number-two figure and chief military strategist. There were also major raids on SL safehouses in Lima in 1990-91 that yielded key documents and computer files of the organization; one raid reportedly came within minutes of capturing Guzmán himself. Significant military operations in the Upper Huallaga Valley in 1989 under the command of General Alberto Arciniega Huby, the political-military chief of the region, restored government control to most of the area, at least temporarily, with many SL casualties. Guerrilla fatalities nationwide increased markedly, from 630 in 1985 to 1,879 in 1990. These military successes were attributed to a number of factors, including improved intelligence gathering and coordination with the military units in the field, as well as the overextension of the SL organization in some parts of the country and the SL's use of larger military units in the field. In addition, the SL met with greater civilian resistance as peasant communities organized armed peasant patrols (rondas campesinas) that served as volunteer defense forces.
The most dramatic government success was the September 1992 capture in Lima of Guzmán himself along with other important SL figures, including at least three members of the Central Committee. This police Dincote operation resulted from painstaking intelligence work. Guzmán's capture helped restore the tattered prestige of Peru's police forces and gave the Fujimori government a significant psychological boost at a critical juncture. Guzmán was tried in a military court that October and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He began his imprisonment in solitary confinement in a military prison on San Lorenzo Island. Documents seized in the September safehouse raid led to the subsequent capture of other important SL militants at the regional and local levels. Many, although far from all, analysts believed that this was the beginning of the end for the SL, especially if the government could take advantage of the movement to begin implementing local development projects.
The military and police forces also experienced considerable success against a much smaller and more conventional guerrilla organization, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru--MRTA. Organized in 1985 by disaffected members of the youth wings of several of Peru's legal Marxist parties, the MRTA began to compete with the SL for support, primarily in Lima, parts of the Upper Huallaga Valley, and the adjacent jungle. Some of its members were killed by SL forces and by the military. A number were captured, including, in 1988, the MRTA's head, Víctor Polay Campos. By early 1990, much of the organization had been disbanded and its jailed leadership was trying to work out a negotiated settlement with the government for the ending of hostilities. But the MRTA got a new lease on life in July 1990 when some forty-seven jailed members, including Polay, tunneled their way to a mass escape from Lima's Canto Grande Prison. The crowning indignity for the outgoing APRA administration was that the escapees videotaped the entire operation.
In the months to follow, the MRTA resumed operations with expanded military activities in the Upper Huallaga Valley and adjacent jungle, and elsewhere. The MRTA appeared to be more willing to consider conversations with government authorities than the SL, which adamantly refused any contact. However, because they were responsible for only between 10 and 20 percent of the incidents of political violence, it was not likely that any settlement that could be reached would significantly diminish Peru's insurgency problem. In any event, with Polay's recapture in 1992, along with a substantial number of his lieutenants, the MRTA appeared to be close to elimination as a significant guerrilla threat. The same careful police intelligence work that brought in Guzmán enabled Peru's government to advance against the MRTA.
Data as of September 1992
NOTE: The information regarding Peru on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Peru Guerrillas Insurgency, 1980-92 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Peru Guerrillas Insurgency, 1980-92 should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.