Key Peruvian Victory Against Shining Path Could Hasten End to Conflict

By Dialogo
August 26, 2013

LIMA — Peruvian authorities see the recent deaths of three Shining Path terrorist leaders as an opening to pacify the last area of the country still wracked by political violence.
A combined military-police unit raided a Shining Path camp on Aug. 11 near the town of Llochegua, in the central highland state of Ayacucho. The operation killed Orlando Borda, the group’s military strategist, and Martín Quispe Palomino, brother of Shining Path leader Víctor Quispe Palomino. The third man killed was identified only as “Comrade Alejandro.”
Llochegua, in Ayacucho’s Huanta province, is located in a series of valleys formed by the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers known as the VRAEM. The zone has been under a state of emergency since June 2003. Peru’s Joint Chiefs of Staff has estimated the Shining Path to number between 300 and 400 armed fighters in the VRAEM.
Local authorities, while recognizing the importance of the military’s action, said ending the conflict will depend on bringing investment in the zone, which remains isolated and suffers from some of Peru’s highest poverty rates.
“The population of Llochegua is united in its desire for peace and development,” the town’s mayor, Omer Sinchitullo, told Diálogo by phone Aug. 21. “The action of the Armed Forces that eliminated these subversives was important, but the state now has to take next step to guarantee investment so that we have a lasting peace.”
Mayor: July highway camp attack was ‘key turning point’
The VRAEM includes areas like Huanta, where the Shining Path originally launched its war against the state in May 1980. It is also where President Ollanta Humala’s government wants to bring a definitive end to the internal conflict that left nearly 70,000 people dead or missing between 1980 and 2000, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which turned in its final report a decade ago.
“There is widespread rejection of terrorist violence, which is becoming more isolated,” said Edwin Huamán, mayor of Ayna, a district in Ayacucho’s La Mar province. “People support the government, but they want to see investment in social infrastructure and productive projects.”
Huamán told Diálogo that a key turning point was not only the military operation that eliminated the three Shining Path leaders, but an attack by the outlawed party in late July that destroyed a camp and heavy equipment being used to pave the highway linking Ayna and surrounding jungle communities with Ayacucho’s capital city and the rest of Peru.
“The population reacted strongly to the insanity of the attack on the highway project. It is an emblematic project for us,” Huamán said.
VRAEM investment plan targets road, transport infrastructure
The Peruvian government began rolling out a major investment plan for the VRAEM last year, in response to a new campaign by the Shining Path that began with the April 2012 kidnapping of 36 gas pipeline workers. The workers were released unharmed after one week.
A series of attacks followed, including the destruction of an airstrip and three helicopters used to service the pipeline. In 2012, the Shining Path killed 20 soldiers and police officers; the group has killed another two soldiers this year.
Many of these actions — including the kidnapping of the 36 pipeline workers and the destruction of the highway camp — were led by Borda and Quispe Palomino, both of whom were killed in the recent raid.
This year, the government has budgeted slightly more than $1 billion in investment in the VRAEM. On Aug. 20, Transportation Minister Carlos Paredes announced that the state would invest $675 million in transportation infrastructure there — including roads and a new airport in the town of Pichari — between now and 2016.
“We need to integrate the VRAEM with the rest of the country,” Paredes said.
Coca eradication in the VRAEM now a government priority
The Humala administration would also like to immediately begin eradicating coca — the raw material used to make cocaine — in the VRAEM, which is home to roughly 20,000 hectares of coca. That represents nearly one-third of the coca grown in Peru, according to the most recent coca survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The government’s anti-drug agency, DEVIDA, has set an ambitious goal of eradicating 22,000 hectares of coca this year, building on the record-breaking 14,100 hectares eliminated in 2012. Eradication brigades have destroyed 14,800 hectares as of mid-August, but DEVIDA has said that the annual target could only be met if the work moves to the VRAEM.
Local mayors warn that the gains achieved with the death of the Shining Path leaders could evaporate if eradication begins without plans to replace coca with alternative crops as well as social assistance.
“As authorities in the VRAEM, we are concerned when the government talks about eradication,” Sinchitullo said. “Eradicate is a radical word. We would prefer to talk about gradual reduction that is accompanied by technical studies and investment so farmers can plant as alternatives to coca.”
Ayna Mayor Huamán said the government needs to take into account the spread of a coffee blight that’s decimating crops from Central America down through the Andes.
Coffee may not be best alternative for coca after all
Coffee exports from projects in which it has been used to substitute coca netted $60 million last year, down 31 percent from the previous year, due primarily to the blight. Coffee exports overall were $1 billion in 2012, down 36 percent from the previous year; exports totaled $134 million in the first six months of this year, down nearly 50 percent from the first half of 2012.
“We are working on alternatives to coca, but we have a big problem with coffee. If we do not have an alternative, the government should not think about eradication today. The reaction would be adverse,” Huamán said.
The VRAEM and Huallaga Valley, in the northern jungle, are the two zones where Shining Path remnants became entrenched after the Maoist party began to crumble with the September 1992 arrest of founder and leader Abimael Guzmán. He is serving a life sentence.
The leader of the Huallaga faction, Florindo Flores, was arrested in February 2012 and sentenced to life in prison this past June. The Huallaga Valley has been moving toward full pacification since his arrest.
Shining Path leaders in the VRAEM have called for followers to avenge the deaths of their fallen comrades, but no attacks have been registered since the military raid.