Discussed in this essay:
The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes, by Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna. W. W. Norton. 384 pages. $28.95.
In 1988, Peruvians found a surprise at their local newsstands: stories of a murderous love triangle involving the country’s most wanted man, Abimael Guzmán, alias President Gonzalo. Starting in 1978, Guzmán, a former philosophy professor, headed a three-person committee that ran the armed Maoist guerrilla movement he called the Shining Path. His second-in-command, Augusta La Torre, was his wife. His third-in-command, Elena Iparraguirre, was his wife’s best friend. The police had found a strange VHS tape in a Lima safe house vacated by a Shining Path cell. Guzmán and Elena, in a darkened room lit by red candles, performed a finger-snapping dance to the wedding song from the film Zorba the Greek while guerrillas clapped along. Augusta was dead, and Guzmán was clearly with her best friend now. Elena beamed with happiness. Peru’s yellow press claimed that Guzmán and his new lover had conspired to murder his wife, as if any more proof were needed of the Shining Path’s evil than the bombs that had already killed tens of thousands of people across the country. Right-wing governments all over Latin America called guerrillas of many types terrorists, but the Shining Path was the only group that really earned the label. An entire society jumped at the sound of a backfiring car and had candles at the ready for blackouts, since the guerrillas periodically took down the power system with dynamite. When the lights went out, Shining Path sometimes lit torches in the shape of a giant hammer and sickle in the mountains above Lima.
The truth of the love triangle was both more banal and more strange. La Torre, cooped up in the safe house, had probably committed suicide, though rumors that Guzmán had killed her lingered. Iparraguirre claimed that she only paired off with the cultish leader after the fact, in grief. Guzmán was a mass murderer, but he was not a womanizer. He was said to have described sex as a “physiological anxiety.” Family was bourgeois. La Torre and Guzmán had no children, and Iparraguirre abandoned hers to join the movement. She had told her astonished husband, “You’ll have to raise our kids now.” All three had been wholly committed to the revolution.
In propaganda photos, Guzmán posed wearing glasses with a book tucked under his arm. He was supposed to appear professorial and wise. Followers wrote songs dedicated to him. Incarcerated Shining Path fighters performed plays in his honor wearing caps with red stars in prison courtyards. Members proclaimed “Gonzalo Thought,” after Guzmán’s nom de guerre. Guzmán called himself the “Fourth Sword of Marxism”—Marx, Lenin, Mao, now Gonzalo. It sounded as ridiculous then as it does now. Both Guzmán and Iparraguirre fervently believed that once their guerrilla movement destabilized Peru to a sufficient degree, they would seize power. Gonzalo Thought, a deadening, pedantic reinterpretation of Marxism, would spread to acclaim and worldwide revolution. But the Shining Path remained what the anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori called a “dwarf star.” With only five thousand combatants, it shone bright and fierce for almost fifteen years, during which nearly seventy thousand Peruvians died. Then it burned out.
The Shining Path insurgency is a jagged scrap of history, a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. Alma Guillermoprieto, a journalist who covered the group, called it “a frightening quirk in the annals of guerrilla struggle.” Guzmán was a short, moon-faced Peruvian who fancied himself a great philosopher and scholar. From the capital, he moved to Ayacucho in the Andean highlands in 1962 to teach at a regional university. There he met La Torre, the daughter of local landowners, who used to spy on his Marxist reading group. Guzmán became convinced that Mao’s vision of peasant revolt better fit Peruvian social conditions than would an urban avant-garde. His nickname was “Dr. Shampoo” for his ability to brainwash students. For all his study of philosophy, Guzmán never bothered to learn Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by about 15 percent of Peruvians and nearly all Ayacuchanos (with more than 10 million speakers, it is the most commonly understood indigenous language in the Americas). Andean peasants—faces chapped by wind and sun, men wearing earflapped woolen caps and women with layered skirts and bowler hats over their braids—made less of an impression on Guzmán in Ayacucho than the books he read.
The divide between white and indigenous Peruvians is so great that people speak of “two Perus”—the more urban and richer coastal areas, and the Andean highlands. After independence from Spain, some openly racist elites called the country’s racial makeup the “mancha india,” the “Indian stain,” which they regarded as an obstacle to progress and modernity. José Carlos Mariátegui, Peru’s most important Marxist thinker and leader, who died in 1930, saw the “Indian question” as a social knot to be resolved through class struggle. Mariátegui described Marxism-Leninism as the “sendero luminoso hacia la revolución” (the shining path to the revolution). Guzmán appropriated the phrase, but shed both Mariátegui’s sophistication of thought and his interest in Peru’s indigenous past and present. La Torre, Guzmán’s wife, did speak Quechua. She learned it from her family’s farmhands, and—more charismatic than her stolid husband—tried to rally Andean peasants to their cause. As authors Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna point out in their new history of the Shining Path, the guerrilla movement replicated a phenomenon familiar since colonial times: a white elite leading a brown fighting force. The majority of deaths and miseries were endured by indigenous Peruvians.
Guzmán organized cadres and gained followers starting with his arrival in Ayacucho, but the Shining Path did not launch an armed insurgency until 1980. That year, during the first election since the military dictatorship ended, five masked guerrillas walked into the voter registration office in a small town and burned the ballot boxes. But the big news that day was Peru’s transition to democracy, and the minuscule rebellion barely made the national paper.
The armed insurgency had a problem: it lacked arms. Because Guzmán condemned Khrushchev as a perverter of Marxism, the Shining Path, alone among Latin American leftist guerrilla groups, did not accept help or guns from the Soviet Union. On two trips to China paid for by the Maoist government, Guzmán had learned to make weapons out of whatever was at hand. Peru had been a mining center since colonial times, and so guerrillas raided coal, copper, and gold mines for dynamite. Along with a small number of guns stolen from the police and felled soldiers, dynamite sticks and Gonzalo Thought were the Shining Path’s only weapons.
The group showed up late in world-historical time. The technique of using a small roving band of guerrillas to incite revolution in the countryside had worked in Cuba, but it was not as exportable as revolutionaries there had hoped. Che Guevara was killed in 1967, by a force guided by the CIA, while trying to incite rebellion in the jungles of Bolivia. Foquismo turned out to be a one-trick pony. (Two, if you count the Sandinistas, though the Nicaraguan dictator was so hated that the guerrillas hardly needed a strategy.) Though many didn’t know it yet, by 1980, when the Shining Path began its armed struggle, it was the beginning of the end for Latin American Marxist guerrilla groups. Guerrillas had either already taken over the state, as in Cuba and Nicaragua, or were overwhelmed by murderous state repression, forced disappearances, and massacres, as in the dirty wars of Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Even the inspiration for the Shining Path had moved on. Maoist insurgencies burned on in India and Sri Lanka, but Red China had opened and was going capitalist.
The Shining Path also had the problem of an enemy. There was no U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorship to tumble. Peru had a left-wing military dictatorship, a strange animal in the region. General Juan Velasco Alvarado, who ruled until 1977, nationalized foreign oil company holdings and oversaw an uneven but relatively successful land reform that abolished the old semifeudal haciendas and turned land over to peasants. He was replaced by a mildly more right-wing general, who oversaw the transition back to democracy. A resultant wave of popular organizing formed peasant, indigenous, and feminist groups. No matter their politics, Guzmán saw all of these groups as a threat. They would mute the people’s desire for “real” revolution. And the Shining Path, in addition to its wider terror campaign, went on the attack against other armed insurgencies. In the highlands, the Shining Path burned whole villages if anyone who lived within them dared to reject the group’s authority. Beyond the dead, some six hundred thousand people were forced to flee their homes. As La Serna and Starn write, “Their blackened farmhouses became an antique land’s newest stone ruins.”
The Shining Path differed in one other key respect from other left-wing groups in Latin America. The ideological difference—Maoist versus Leninist—was less important than the fact that Shining Path fighters were vastly more murderous and brutal than those of other guerrilla groups. They would set a cat’s tail on fire and let it loose in fields ready to be harvested. They immolated bus drivers who defied their orders. They exploded burrobombas, unfortunate donkeys packed with explosives and pamphlets, in open-air marketplaces. Next to the bodies of executed informers, they left hammer-and-sickle flags, or signs that read this is how traitors die. But, as Guillermoprieto noted, when Shining Path fighters were captured and asked about their motivations, they could barely stutter out a coherent reply. Between the spectacular violence and the deadening rhetoric of Gonzalo Thought, why did people join at all? How did the Shining Path manage to survive and carry out murder and mayhem for over a decade?
Writing a narrative history of the Shining Path is no mean feat: it was a willfully obscure movement. Starn is an anthropologist who began his research in the Andean highlands when the Shining Path was still active and recalls cowering under a table during a bomb scare. La Serna is a historian who remembers blowing out his birthday candles as a kid during a Shining Path blackout. The two have turned up new material, including jailhouse interviews with Iparraguirre, and unpublished Shining Path documents kept by the Peruvian police. By far the best sources are the more than two hundred interviews conducted by the authors, which give the account its frightening immediacy. But the writing is often overheated and even strangely glib, as in: “It was a war frightening, deadly, and wrathful enough to have been sworded to life by a jungle sorcerer’s curse.” Still, the legwork is very impressive, and the book is absorbing when it hews closely to the perspectives of people involved in or affected by the conflict.
La Serna and Starn tell the history of Shining Path from various perspectives of people belonging to a range of social classes. The technique, minus some literary high jinks, is reminiscent of Conversation in the Cathedral, the best novel of one of the blundering villains of their story—Mario Vargas Llosa. The dominant threads are histories of Guzmán, La Torre, and Iparraguirre, with an emphasis—overemphasis, really—on their love stories. Then there is Narciso Sulca, an Andean sheep and llama herder who lives in a town where the Shining Path tried to gain followers by saying they would “destroy the government of the rich and make a government for the poor.” The guerillas also promised there would be no more “thieves, witches, or fathers abandoning their families.” But the town turned on the guerrillas, saying they had their own local authorities to punish transgressions. They massacred the Shining Path fighters. Sulca joined the local ronda—night patrols formed by peasants to protect their communities from the Shining Path—whom Quechua speakers call tuta puriqkuna, nightwalkers, a term also used to describe Spaniards during colonial times.
Other portraits include a red-diaper baby turned investigative reporter, two police detectives on the hunt for Guzmán, a child soldier in the Shining Path who grew up to doubt the movement, Mario Vargas Llosa—because what is a book about Peru without him?—and a tall and gangly Fulbright scholar invited to play on the Shining Path basketball team (the genial David Scott Palmer, who became a prominent political scientist). The latter has a walk-on role only, and the book is notable for the relative absence of North Americans who are too often the unnecessary narrator-guides to books about Latin America. Lori Berenson, a New Yorker who served fifteen years in a Peruvian prison for her alleged involvement with a smaller, rival Maoist guerrilla group, is only mentioned once, in passing.
For a time, the government ran rampant in its response to the Shining Path. This is when the conflict became known as Peru’s dirty war. The military and police disappeared, tortured, and raped people who were guerrillas and people who were not. In 1983, the Peruvian president sent troops to Ayacucho to occupy the city. They clomped through the streets singing:
Yes sir, here we are!
if I find you
I will eat your head.
Gustavo Gorriti, the Peruvian investigative journalist, was the first to publish stories about the army’s practice of disappearing and torturing people. He also wrote the first narrative history of the war, The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru, which is available in English. (A Peruvian friend told me he is so beloved that he cannot walk down the street in Lima without people stopping him to shake his hand.) Gorriti found that the military had established secret prisons and dubbed one La Isla de la Fantasía, Fantasy Island. La Serna and Starn write, “Here, the military joke went, captured guerrillas could fulfill their dream of dying for the revolution.” Often the army took people who had nothing to do with the guerrillas.
Andeans who had accepted the authority of the Shining Path in exchange for protection from the depredations of the army were dismayed by the Shining Path’s orthodox Maoist tactic: when the enemy attacks, we retreat. As one farmer complained to Degregori, the anthropologist, “It wasn’t manly.”
Andean farmers, caught between the army and the Shining Path, and fearful of all outsiders, sometimes attacked the wrong people. This is where Mario Vargas Llosa comes in. Events in a small town called Uchuraccay in 1983 caused a national uproar. A group of eight reporters had been traveling to Narciso Sulca’s town, to write about a peasant there who had turned on the Shining Path. On their way, the reporters passed through Uchuraccay and never made it out. The national news reported that villagers had stoned the reporters to death. But many on the left suspected that government officials were the real killers. Some even believed that the peasant uprising against the Shining Path in Sulca’s town had never happened. Maybe the army had killed some innocent people, later claimed that they were members of the Shining Path, and then killed the journalists to keep the coverup quiet. This turned out to be a conspiracy theory, but the counterinsurgency had turned so indiscriminate that it was easy to believe at the time.
The moral controversy over Uchuraccay became so intense that the president convened an independent commission to investigate and invited Mario Vargas Llosa to lead it. The author, who admitted that he had only ever been to the highlands as a tourist, brought along several anthropologists and Quechua translators. They arrived in Uchuraccay by army helicopter, and rang the chapel bell to call a village meeting. The villagers, who fled when they heard the helicopters, cautiously returned. On the suggestion of the anthropologists, Vargas Llosa offered a tinkay, a ritual offering of coca leaves and cane liquor. Starn and La Serna have a little fun at his expense:
Here the anthropologists did not have it quite right. The tinkay was only performed in Iquicha at specific times, among them the planting season, which was weeks away. “Será su costumbre—it must have been his custom,” an Uchuraccaino puzzled later over Vargas Llosa’s offering.
In his report on the case, Vargas Llosa presented an exoticized vision of Andean farmers and condescended to what he imagined to be their backwardness. He described their lives as “ancient, archaic,” and isolated, despite their radios and rubber boots and experiences working stints in construction in Lima. Still, Vargas Llosa got the facts of the case right. The villagers had lynched the journalists.
There was no government conspiracy, but the military and police had fanned fears of outsiders in the area. In his report, Vargas Llosa placed some blame on the troops who had created “the context of abnormality, suspicion, panic, and hate that led to the slaughter of the journalists.” The army and the Shining Path were responsible for the dirty war, but neither were directly responsible for Uchuraccay. Then the government left the village out to dry; Shining Path guerrillas killed hundreds of the villagers in reprisals before the army got around to sending reinforcements.
As Starn and La Serna tell it, around 1982 the army realized that its own cruelty was driving peasants into the arms of the Shining Path and began to pull back, stopping the torture, at least in the countryside. In 1986, prisoners staged a rebellion at an urban prison called Lurigancho, and the police cracked down, killing 124 in a massacre.* (That’s compared with the 43 people killed in the brutal retaking of Attica in 1971.) But that was the last gasp of serious government suppression.
Though the Shining Path had once surged to hold whole regions around Ayacucho, once the army stood down, the balance of power shifted and the guerrillas moved their stronghold to Lima. Guzmán cycled through a number of safe houses in ritzy neighborhoods where the police would be less likely to search for him. The Shining Path had used mostly radical young teachers to recruit in the countryside, and now it saw some success recruiting fighters in the outskirts of Lima. La Serna and Starn tell this story through the most affecting portrait of the book, that of María Elena Moyano, the insouciant daughter of urban homesteaders. Moyano was black, a rarity among her neighbors, most of whom were indigenous. She was wildly outspoken. She gave speeches. She went dancing without her husband.
Moyano considered joining the Shining Path. She saw poverty all around her and thought something must be done. After she dropped out of college, she joined a Maoist study group and made contact. Like Elena Iparraguirre, she told her husband that she was leaving him to fight. Both Iparraguirre and Augusta La Torre disdained what they saw as bourgeois feminism and idolized Angela Davis and Micaela Bastidas, who, with her husband, Túpac Amaru II, led an anticolonial rebellion against the Spanish in the eighteenth century. Eventually 40 percent of Shining Path fighters were women, a figure that, along with the number of women in FARC, in Colombia, represented some of the highest proportions of female participation in any guerrilla movement.
Moyano’s husband, who had read Marx though he dropped out of school after sixth grade, tried to talk her out of it. He pointed out that the Shining Path didn’t have a solution to the Indian question, that the group was incoherent on this important point. “Peru is not like Russia with Lenin or Mao in China,” he said. “They’re one race, more united. We’re a mixture of races.” Besides, he said, his wife was from the coast. She would get cold fighting in the mountains. Moyano took some time to think and argue with her husband. In the end, she turned away from the Shining Path and got involved instead in local feminist organizing. No violence. She eventually became vice mayor of her district.
Here, as elsewhere in the book, Starn and La Serna do not give a convincing sense of why people were drawn to join the Shining Path. The authors briefly mention Moyano’s interest in liberation theology, the left-wing variant of Catholicism with a “preferential option for the poor.” But they do not draw out this connection, nor do they analyze another religious development that pulled in the opposite political direction: the conversion of at least one in ten Peruvians to Pentecostal Christianity during and after the dirty war. Starn and La Serna observe in passing that the Shining Path “wooed needy women with sacks of rice, noodles, and flour to feed their gaunt children.” But if poverty were a simple funnel into revolution, most Peruvians would have joined the Shining Path. I finished more than three hundred and fifty pages and still wondered why people took up dynamite to join a group that demanded blood sacrifice from followers.
Starn and La Serna write,
Some analysts would later attribute the war’s carnage to peasant brutality or latent Indian resentment about oppression. It was exactly the opposite. There had been little Andean killing before Shining Path. The main cause of the escalating carnage was the importation of Marxism in its most rigidly orthodox form.
But I had to turn elsewhere to find out why and how this worked. It seems that education was the key. David Scott Palmer wrote that the insurgency traveled with the blackboard across Peru. Young people were radicalized by teachers. At a recent lecture, Charles Walker, a history professor working on a book about the Shining Path, showed images of peasants indoctrinated by each side: forced to sit through lectures on the iconography of the Peruvian flag by soldiers on the one hand, and forced to recite Maoist sayings in Shining Path schoolhouses on the other. Recruits might have been bored by the didactic elements of the guerrilla movement but excitedby the potential for change. Walker stressed that many were the sons and daughters of peasants, and the first in their families to go to college. After graduation most found all avenues to social mobility blocked by Peru’s rigid classism and racism.
Moyano herself said that people saw the Shining Path as “something mythical, fighting for justice” and that students were attracted because “young people are rebellious, impulsive, vehement.” As Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in Say Nothing, his recent book about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, armed rebellion seems glamorous only to the young. Rank-and-file guerrillas age out at around thirty. Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez, in a memoir called When Rains Became Floods, recalls that he joined the Shining Path as a teenager and only later, “little by little we began to understand that the Party was a monster that assassinated its own people.” By then there was no easy way out.
Moyano turned away and became a prominent feminist political figure. Starn and La Serna claim that “she was too pragmatic, freethinking, and unbound by convention for senderista orthodoxies” anyway. By not explaining Shining Path recruitment, the authors run the risk of making those who did join simply sound stupid. They write,
Any sect, Marxist or not, requires its members to suspend disbelief in exchange for righteous certainty. “We craved to become simple and simple-minded,” a lapsed British Marxist explained the bargain.
I was startled to find in the footnote that the quotation was from Arthur Koestler. What he thinks about a very different bargain is irrelevant here. (And, more accurately, he is a Hungarian-British former Communist turned anti-Communist.)
Moyano’s story ends the way a lot of Shining Path stories end: with dynamite. In 1989, the Shining Path newspaper, El Diario, called Moyano a “pseudo-leftist” suffocating “the revolutionary struggle of the masses.” She helped run soup kitchens that were feeding more than five hundred thousand hungry people a day, dulling people’s appetite for revolution. Death threats rolled in. She was assigned a young bodyguard. Despite her early interest, Moyano had turned vocally against the Shining Path. “They’re not revolutionaries, but terrorists,” she said. At a neighborhood block party that she attended with her children, guerrillas finally came for her. Shining Path members shot her bodyguard in the stomach, then shot down Moyano as her neighbors and family fled. The assassins tied a dynamite charge to her body and backed away. “A thunderous explosion rocked the square.”
For the Shining Path, the endgame was slow. The manhunt for Guzmán had gone on so long without the leader being spotted that friends of the detective team called them “Ghostbusters.” Meanwhile, elections took place in 1990. Vargas Llosa, who had long lived abroad in Paris, was sucked back into Peruvian politics by the Uchuraccay commission and decided to run for president. The Shining Path blew up local candidates. Inflation was at 7,000 percent, which worried many Peruvians even more than terrorism. Vargas Llosa advocated for austerity measures. Margaret Thatcher told him she hoped he would win.
Vargas Llosa found support among the elite but posed some of the same problems as a candidate as John Kerry would years later in the United States: he wore turtlenecks and spoke French. Vargas Llosa’s patronizing attitude to poor and indigenous voters did not help. Alberto Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants who became known affectionately as El Chinito, came out of nowhere to crush Vargas Llosa in a landslide. He had improbably managed to sell himself with the slogan “A President Like You” and without a known political platform of any kind. Two weeks after the election, to combat hyperinflation, Fujimori announced drastic austerity programs of exactly the kind Vargas Llosa had proposed during the campaign. The cost of food tripled.
Fujimori doubled down against the Shining Path to distract from the country’s economic crisis. He armed the peasant rondas, the night patrols, for the first time. There were now more than three thousand night patrol groups who became the front lines of the war. Some former Shining Path fighters joined: los arrepentidos, the penitent ones. Fujimori mostly reined in the indiscriminate massacre of peasants. Still, ronda fighters sensed injustice. “We’re suffering and dying every night, doing the job for the army,” one said. Another observed, “We’re bringing peace back. Not the soldiers. Not the president. Not the congress.”
As Starn and La Serna show in the most gripping section of the book, a persistent unit of the antiterrorism police saved Fujimori’s presidency by finding and arresting Guzmán in Lima in 1992. (One big break was finding Guzmán’s psoriasis medicine in the trash outside a safe house.) The rondas won back the countryside for Fujimori, and once the Ghostbusters nabbed Guzmán, that was more or less the end of it. A cult deprived of its Dear Leader is no longer a functional cult.
But the Shining Path opened the way for Fujimori, and Fujimori turned Peru dark again. His most trusted adviser was Vladimiro Montesinos, a former army intelligence officer and CIA asset who trained at the School of the Americas. With that kind of résumé, human-rights abuses were all but guaranteed. Montesinos became famous after he had himself filmed arresting Guzmán. He oversaw a team of spies and death squads. In 1992, at Montesinos’s urging, Fujimori shut down Congress in an auto-golpe, a self-coup, to consolidate control. After Fujimori’s wife accused his brother of corruption, Fujimori divorced her, and his daughter Keiko stepped into the role of first lady—accompanying the president to public events. Fujimori set up special antiterrorism tribunals and convicted thousands of people accused of Shining Path activity, often without evidence. The judges wore black hoods to obscure their faces.
By then, many Peruvians were so relieved that the Shining Path was no longer dynamiting the country and the economy had stopped skidding that they were less than concerned about the rule of law. Fujimori was president until November 2000, when he fled to Japan after allegations of corruption and murder. (He also oversaw the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of Peruvian women, most of whom were indigenous.) Fujimori was tried in 2008 and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for overseeing forced disappearances and assassinations by political death squads during the fight against the Shining Path. Even during the trial, his approval ratings were over 65 percent. The terrorists had it coming, a lot of Peruvians thought, and deserved whatever they got. Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, is currently one of Peru’s most powerful politicians. She came within an inch of winning the presidency in both 2011 and 2016 but is now also in jail on corruption charges.
Andean peasant rondas, the night patrols, were never fully recognized for helping to win the fight against the Shining Path in the countryside at great personal cost. Fujimori took the credit, and his daughter nearly managed to establish a political dynasty as a result. At the end of the war, a truth and reconciliation commission estimated that of the nearly seventy thousand dead, the Shining Path was responsible for 54 percent of the deaths, the government—army, police, rondas—for 37 percent (some cases were unclear or the result of violence by other, smaller groups). It was the bloodiest war in Peru since the Conquest. Of the disappeared and dead, 75 percent did not speak Spanish as their first language. Most of the dead, on both sides, were indigenous. La Serna and Starn quote a line from Albert Camus: “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed. But it is always someone else’s blood.”