Peru’s Arrest of ‘Comrade Artemio’ Devastates Shining Path Terrorists
By Dialogo February 16, 2012
LIMA — The arrest of Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, the last remaining original leader of Peru’s Shining Path terrorist group who was still at large, delivered a major blow to the outlawed party just as it was trying to recast itself within the legal political system.
Known until recently only as “Comrade Artemio,” the 50-year-old rebel was arrested Feb. 12 in an abandoned house deep in the Upper Huallaga Valley in the country’s north-central jungle. He was alone and bloodied, having been injured in a firefight three days earlier. A special unit of the National Police that located him had actually been looking for a corpse, after a nurse in a nearby hamlet erroneously reported that Artemio had been shot in the chest and was dying.
Artemio was a member of the Shining Path’s “politburo” formed in the 1980s as the Maoist party began spreading throughout this Andean country. He was dispatched to the Huallaga in 1984 to establish a party presence there and — taking advantage of rampant drug trafficking in the region — turned it into one of the Shining Path’s principal bastions. He remained in charge, eluding capture for 27 years.
Artemio’s arrest a ‘serious defeat’ for Shining Path
Observers say Artemio’s capture is a strategic, symbolic disaster for the Shining Path that comes nearly two decades after party founder and leader Abimael Guzmán was himself arrested. It also comes as Artemio’s supporters try to register a legal version of the party.
“The capture of Shining Path leader Artemio is a serious defeat for one of the two armed factions of the Shining Path. Terrorism has once again lost, but we cannot let down our guard,” said Francisco Diez Canseco, president of the Council for Peace.
While savoring Artemio’s defeat, President Ollanta Humala’s government shares Diez Canseco’s opinion that there is still work to be done in the Huallaga and the Apurímac-Ene River Valley (VRAE), where a more violent breakaway faction of the Shining Path continues to operate.
Peruvian Defense Minister Luís Alberto Otárola told reporters Feb. 13 that the war on terrorism would not stop with Artemio’s arrest. The government immediately dispatched a large contingent of soldiers and police officers to the area where Artemio was detained to locate his followers, estimated between 50 and 100 armed fighters.
“All the possible escape routes were closed when the circle was closing on Artemio,” said Otárola.
Huallaga Valley still prime coca-growing country
Artemio was arrested in the province of Tocache, in the San Martín region. The province is part of a larger area — which includes provinces in the neighboring Huánuco and Ucayali regions — that has been under a state of emergency since December 2005, when one of Artemio’s columns ambushed a police patrol, killing eight officers.
Humala and his advisers recognize that the drug trade in the valley will make pacification difficult. The Huallaga was the country’s primary zone for growing coca, from which cocaine is extracted, for decades. It’s the reason Artemio was dispatched there in the first place, with money earned providing protection for the drug trade going to finance the Shining Path’s activities elsewhere in Peru.
The valley’s importance as a coca-growing region has declined in recent years, but it’s still home to more than 13,000 hectares of coca, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Huallaga is the target of Peru’s coca-eradication program, which eliminated 10,290 hectares there in 2011.
Otárola said the strategy used to nab Artemio would be applied in the VRAE, in the south-central jungle. The VRAE includes provinces in four regions, including two in Ayacucho, where the Shining Path launched its war against the state in May 1980.
VRAE faction of Shining Path steps up violent attacks
Besides being home to the largest remaining faction, the VRAE is now Peru’s principal zone for coca growing and cocaine production, with 19,723 hectares under cultivation, according to UNODC. The state does not have a coca-eradication program there.
Diez Canseco cautions that the government shouldn’t confuse the Shining Path remnants with drug trafficking, arguing that eliminating one doesn’t mean the other will disappear. He said the government should avoid lumping both under the “narco-terrorist” moniker.
The VRAE faction is headed by Víctor Quispe Palomino, also known as “Comrade José,” who joined the Shining Path as an armed combatant nearly 30 years ago. Unlike Artemio, Palomino broke with the Shining Path’s jailed leadership in the 1990s, after Guzmán began calling for a “peace accord” with the government. Guzmán’s followers, including his attorney, Alfredo Crespo, calls Quispe a “mercenary.”
While Artemio has been pushing for talks, saying in December that he was calling a unilateral truce to get the government to negotiate, the VRAE faction has grown increasingly violent in the past three years.
The group killed 12 soldiers and police officers in 2011 and routinely attacks anti-terrorism outposts in the zone, which has been under a state of emergency since May 2003. The most recent attack took place Feb. 6 in a hamlet in Cusco’s Quillabamba province.
A group of some 30 heavily armed fighters besieged a police outpost for nearly four hours, firing on it with automatic weapons and grenades. Two officers were seriously wounded.
Government hopes $5 million reward will lead to Quispe’s capture
Defense Minister Otárola said new operations were already underway to arrest Quispe, who runs the VRAE operation with two of his younger brothers.
“At the same time President Humala announced the arrest of Artemio, he said there was a firm and energetic decision to go to the VRAE and tear down the terrorist organization there under the control of José and his clan,” he said.
One thing that could help the hunt for Quispe is a $5 million reward offered for his arrest by the U.S. State Department. The Peruvian government also has a $1 million bounty on his head. U.S. officials, after congratulating Peru for Artemio’s arrest, confirmed on Feb. 13 that the reward for him would be paid. Retired Gen. Roberto Chiabra, a former defense minister, said the reward could cajole Shining Path collaborators into turning on Quispe and his brothers.
Also playing out in February was a decision by Guzmán’s followers to give up for the moment on an effort to register a legal political party. The Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef) embraces the Shining Path’s guiding philosophy and its vision of creating the People’s Democratic Republic of Peru, as well as demanding the release of Guzmán, 77, who is serving a life sentence.
The registration was initially rejected in November because of its similarities to the Shining Path, but given a window in January when the election board said the registrar’s office needed to rule on the party’s inscription, not only its philosophy. It was headed to a definitive rejection when leaders announced Feb. 1 that they would withdraw the petition.
Congress, in the meantime, has passed legislation banning political parties that embrace a violent philosophy. Movadef leader Crespo, a former Shining Path inmate, said the movement was examining several options but had not abandoned the idea of taking part in legal politics.
First, stop referring to these assassins terrorist as combatants, or guerrillas because they are not, they never were and they never will be because of their ideology and criminal actions outside the law and attacking from behind, there are thousands of innocent people cruelly killed by this band of terrorists, that is what they are, TERRORISTS, please be informed about their background before referring to them so benevolently, that all the good Peruvians are offended and we feel hurt by any concession made to this scourge, offending the memory of our dead people, all innocent victims of their craziness. They are not a political party, they are a band of criminals following the murderous totalitarianism ideas of their deranged leader, compliant by Justice he is in life imprisonment, which is what they deserve all these murderers. Some of these killers managed to flee the country years ago and are campaigning around the world to proclaim that they are guerrillas of a fair cause, and they get funding from many unwary people of North America and Europe, money that turns into weapons that have continued killing more innocents in my country, do not continue playing their game, they are terrorists, do not be naive accomplices of their crimes. NO to terrorism!