Peru declared a state of emergency in three outlying regions over the weekend amid fears of attacks by remnants of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency on the anniversary of its first act of defiance.
Thirty years ago on Monday, followers of Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor who believed he was “the fourth sword of communism” after Marx, Lenin and Mao, burned ballot boxes in the remote town of Chuschi on the eve of the first democratic elections in 12 years.
It was the beginning of 20 years of guerrilla warfare that would claim 70,000 lives, three-quarters of them Andean peasants in a brutal campaign of assassinations and arson attacks. “That attempt [to overthrow the state] maybe came closer to success than ... we are prepared to acknowledge,” says Gustavo Gorriti, author of several books about the Shining Path years.
Since Mr Guzmán’s capture in 1992, most Shining Path followers have been disbanded. He is serving a life sentence and has been reduced to waging legal battles for the right to marry his lover, prompting the justice minister to joke that Mr Guzmán’s prison is not a “love boat”.
But Mr Guzmán’s legacy is no laughing matter. While the two remaining splinter formations of Shining Path are but a shadow of the original group, no one disputes their grip on two of the most efficient coca-growing zones in the world. Coca is the raw material for the production of cocaine.
“Shining Path protects the coca farmers and provides safe routes for drug mules,” says one observer of Peru’s narcotics trade.
“It also plays the role of assassin and enforcer for the cartels and there are increasing, but less confirmed, reports that it is involved in production and processing of cocaine.”
Peru is the second-biggest coca grower in Latin America after Colombia, producing 302 metric tonnes in 2008, up 4.5 per cent from 2007.
In the Apurímac and Ene river valley, south-east of Lima, which has some 16,719ha of coca under cultivation, Víctor Quispe Palomino, the secretive leader of the most threatening splinter group, and his fighters have killed scores of soldiers since the start of a government offensive in late 2008.
The group lacks the political organisation of the original Shining Path and has developed a paternalistic relationship with many of the same local farmers who fought to expel them in the 80s and 90s.
The son of guerrilla parents, Mr Quispe Palomino, abhors Mr Guzmán as a traitor to the Maoist cause and yet claims he is pro-business. “It is obvious that they earn a fixed amount of money from every group of [drug mules],” says Mr Gorriti of the group’s protection racket.
“At the same time they are not concentrated solely in coca and cocaine – they also have an interest in logging, and it seems that they are also pretty much interested in mining and the energy/gas business.”
Mr Guzmán has reportedly dismissed the group as “mercenaries” who “tossed Marxism-Leninism-Maoism into the trash”.
Further north, in the upper Huallaga Valley, the only member of Shining Path’s central committee to remain under arms has been eluding security forces in a cat-and-mouse game that borders on the farcical.
“Comrade Artemio” is more interested in seeking a peace deal than fomenting wider revolution, says Mr Gorriti. He takes a cut of economic activity in the region, including coca, and although he is rumoured to own some coca fields, he does not appear to be a major trafficker.
Neither group poses a threat to the stability of the Peruvian state, Latin America’s sixth-biggest economy, which is emerging from its deepest contraction in eight years with an International Monetary Fund growth forecast of 6.5 per cent for 2010.
A new political party of former Shining Path members is unlikely to attract much support in next year’s elections from an electorate still traumatised by the horrors of war that followed Guzman’s call for “rivers of blood”.
But Mr Gorriti says the numbers of followers who abandoned armed insurgency but still support political action are “not all that negligible”.
He says: “I wouldn’t be so sure that the Shining Path is completely dead. I saw the May 1 parade, with the number of people spouting slogans very much like those of the Shining Path.”