Peru comes out strong in fight against Shining Path

Remaining terrorists from Sendero Luminoso are resorting to drug trafficking to try to keep their operations alive, but the government and Peruvian Armed Forces are able to corner them in the VRAEM.
WRITER-ID | 3 February 2014

Admiral José Aservi Cueto, former chief of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces of Peru.

“Drug trafficking exists in many areas, but terrorism per se is concentrated in the VRAEM. Our main goal is to eliminate the people who are trying to perpetrate terrorist actions to generate situations that will allow them to keep getting drug trafficking money,” said the former chief of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces of Peru, Admiral José Aservi Cueto, during an interview granted to Diálogo in Lima, in October, 2013. He was specifically referring to the terrorist group Shining Path, which has resumed activities in Peru after many years in obscurity.

A transformation in the Peruvian Armed Forces’ counterinsurgency tactics is turning its focus toward developing the VRAEM and getting closer to the populace.

Although this new faction of the Shining Path suffered a severe blow with the capture of its main chief, “Camarada Artemio” in February 2012, many others continue their terrorist activities. To counteract and disable them, the Armed Forces have waged a battle in the region of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers valley (VRAEM), an area dedicated to coca leaf cultivation, the raw material for cocaine production, where the Peruvian terrorists are cornered, according to authorities.

“By keeping the Shining Path terrorists in sight, Peru’s security forces, with special support from the Armed Forces, have prioritized the reduction of areas dedicated to coca cultivation, particularly in the VRAEM region,” Admiral Cueto added.

The tactic seems to be working well: according to a 2012 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has set a new record in the reduction of areas dedicated to coca cultivation. “We reached our goal of eliminating 22,000 hectares of coca crops in 2013,” said Carmen Masías, director of the National Commission for Life without Drugs (DEVIDA), a state entity responsible for conducting the Peruvian national policies against illegal drug trafficking.

Another action of the Peruvian government that seems to be yielding good results is the reward program aimed at capturing terrorists. Thanks to this program, in 2013 alone, Peru seized 19 terrorists; amongst them aka “Pepe Calderón” and “Felipe”, alleged key members of the group. It also led to the death in 2012 of the Shining Path’s number four in command, known as “Camarada William”. Hard blows like those perpetrated against the faction located in the Upper Huallaga Valley led Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to declare that the Shining Path “is extinct in that region. We will now continue our battle in the VRAEM area.”

The Beginning

But this “battle”, as President Humala called it, is unlike the one perpetrated by the Peruvian government in the 1980s. This “new” Shining Path is different than its original version, a group created and led by ideologist Abimael Guzmán, which took advantage of the three basic preconditions for the birth of an insurgency – according to the U.S. Army Counterguerrilla Operations field manual –: a vulnerable population that hopes for change, a strong voice to take leadership, and a lack of government control.

The Shining Path emerged in the country in May, 1980 with the clear objective of taking over the Peruvian government by force. The Sendero Luminoso (its original name in Spanish) took advantage of the rural, unprivileged and vulnerable indigenous populations’ economic conditions to convince them to take up arms against the government. The SL leaders patiently recruited people with those characteristics under the blind eye of the government and gave them hope for a better life.

The group initiated their activities with simple acts of protest, such as painting slogans on government-sponsored construction sites, then evolved into terrorism and, eventually, large scale attacks, including bombings, kidnappings, and extortion.

For two years, the Peruvian government completely ignored the Shining Path, allowing the group to establish strong foundations, especially in Ayacucho state and its surrounding areas. When the government finally reacted, it was forced to declare a state of emergency in the southern and central mountain regions, where soldiers were deployed to try to regain control of these zones.

During the following decade, Peru was dominated by violence and destruction, abuse against human rights, corruption, and economic chaos. The SL displayed exceptional ability to avoid the soldiers’ intense efforts, while it expanded into new regions within the country. Once again, the group was able to mobilize the rural workers from the Andes by promising them a better life.

The Shining Path had an efficient leadership; they were disciplined and developed a highly effective intelligence network, as well as a striking propaganda system. They were not only able to reach out to Peru in its entirety, but also establish networks in other countries, including the United States.


The government ignored the growing insurgency because they believed they were isolated in the mountain region, but this isolation actually allowed Sendero Luminoso to expand freely into the coastal region, eventually requiring a large counterinsurgency effort.

In 1983, the Peruvian government initiated a counterinsurgency campaign focused mainly on the military aspects of the counter guerrilla operations, which also promoted various political, economic, and social changes.

Rural Patrols

It was in the mid-80s that the Peruvian government decided to send combat patrols to gather intelligence data that could lead the operations to the SL’s defeat. Paramilitaries or local militias frequently performed many of these tasks and, along with the police, were primarily responsible for the community’s defense. They emphasized the physical safety of the population and guaranteed the lines of communication with the government. Peru used rural patrols known as Rondas Campesinas, to meet their goals.

It took a few years, but the tactic proved successful: in 1992, Abimael Guzmán was arrested. He was more than the group’s leader; he was the connection and ideologue who kept the movement united. Only after his arrest was the government able to see clear progress in the fight against the insurgents. In September 1993, the Shining Path was close to collapse. The group took almost 12 years to reach its peak, but after Guzmán’s capture it was dismantled in less than a year. The group did not engage in any more major attacks for many months, and some of the main leaders of the insurgency were arrested.

“The SL suffered a rapid decline without Guzmán’s leadership, and its remaining members retreated to the Upper Huallaga Valley, where they began to provide protection to the cocaine producers and drug traffickers,” said Russell W. Switzer, Jr. in his thesis Sendero Luminoso and Peruvian Counterinsurgency, published by Louisiana State University in May, 2007. However, a more aggressive government policy to combat drug trafficking finally put an end to the financial support system in the region.

Extinction of the Shining Path?

A member of the Peruvian Special Forces trains in the VRAEM.

By the year 2000, the main efforts against Shining Path occurred in court. Many of the group’s leaders received sentences ranging from 30 years to life in prison. Soldiers continued to tighten the fence around the remaining group members, and focused in the Upper Huallaga Valley with high success rates, due in part to increased anti-terrorism training and U.S. support to the Peruvian forces.

The strength of the Shining Path would soon be reduced to 100-200 militants, according to numbers released by the Peruvian government back then. Additionally, Peru was working jointly with U.S. police forces, and collaborated with intelligence exchanges and access to databases. Many assumed that the Shining Path was extinct by the end of the 90s and early 2000s, according to an article published by the British magazine The Economist, in September of 2012.

However, a faction of the guerrillas decided to continue their illicit activities, now with a different focus and in another location, away from government presence. The group opted for shying away from the terror tactics applied in the early 80s, according to a study titled, Maoism in the Andes: Sendero Luminoso and the Contemporary Guerrilla Movement in Peru, by Lewis Taylor at the Center for Latin American Studies in the University of Liverpool.

Just like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Shining Path started to use drug money to finance their actions, now nestled in the hard-to-reach mountain region of the VRAEM.

The remaining members of SL in the VRAEM then began to establish connections with local drug traffickers, and protected them during the entire process of planting coca and extracting cocaine in the region. “The Shining Path tells the farmers to resist against the government’s plans and offer them help to defend their land and crops,” explained Peruvian safety analyst Jaime Antezana, during an interview with website in 2012.

The resurgence of the Shining Path is greatly due to a parallel resurgence in the production of cocaine in Peru. “The group’s base is in remote mountain areas where coca plants, the raw material for cocaine, abound. Their income is on the rise thanks to the taxes they charge in exchange for protection during trafficking (...),” said Ryan Dube and John Lyons, who have written investigative pieces about SL for years, in an article published by The Wall Street Journal, in May 2012.

“In Peru the reemergence of the Shining Path in a remote area lacking control by the government also interjects the narco-guerrilla organization as a non-state actor in another ungoverned or counter governed space. In the eyes of U.S. policy makers, the spaces they control are unsecure areas that can lend themselves to activities by cartels or even terrorists that could threaten the security of the United States," said Dr. Harry E. Vanden, professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of South Florida, who has studied the Central American maras for more than five years.

Strategic Vision

At the same time, the military and the National Police are executing joint counter drug operations in order to disrupt the enemy’s economic supply in the VRAEM. The armed forces also provide support to national development and social inclusion operations aimed at undermining the Shining Path guerrillas’ social support.

According to Admiral Cueto, a transformation in the Peruvian Armed Forces’ tactics is not shaped by a change in the SL’s modus operandi, but rather by a strategic and political shift in government, which turned its focus toward developing the VRAEM.

For Admiral Cueto, the integration between forces and an integrated approach to intelligence are other important aspects to consider. “At the same time, as the military-police union underwent a radical change, so did the intelligence side – we worked intel separately before, each one on our own –; now we work it jointly in a coordinated way.”

Winning the Fight

Peru understands that it must establish common policies and procedures in order to have everyone involved working together toward the same goal, meaning building a common front against transnational criminal organizations. In order to achieve that, the country is constantly exchanging ideas and lessons learned through bilateral meetings with Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the United States. “What’s the point of these meetings? To come together for a common fight against existing transnational crime,” said Admiral Cueto.

A good example is the integration with Brazil for the different editions of Operation Ágata to counter drug trafficking in the Amazon. Peruvian military personnel are working in the same area next to Colombian and Ecuadorean personnel on a more regional Amazon defense system. Among the objectives of this joint effort is preventing the remaining Shining Path columns as well as the FARC from building a presence there.

With the deployment of Peruvian military units in the VRAEM, Shining Path terrorists are desperately trying to find alternate areas in which to cultivate coca. “While the Shining Path was already involved with drug trafficking in the past, now it’s its main focus. The guerrillas currently operate with the efficiency and lethality of an elite drug trafficking organization,” declared Antezana to Brazilian security magazine Forças Terrestres in March 2012.

The operations that the military has been executing are the outcome of the overall effort to rid Peru from terrorism once and for all. To support it, the government gave rise to CODEVRAE, an organization with a ministry status dedicated to bringing together all the sectors that were used to working independently from one another in order to support the VRAEM region’s development in a unified way.

Admiral Cueto explained that it is important to make the VRAEM a national priority and give it very focused attention. For example, he said, “if we have a budget allocated solely to the VRAEM, no one will be able to use that money for anything else within the military or the National Police.”

Additionally, due to the successes Colombia has had in the fight against the FARC terrorists, Peru is following in their neighbor’s steps. “We’re focused on putting together a type of Acción Integral [a government effort to bring together the government, public and private sectors with society] approach like theirs,” said Admiral Cueto.

The integration of its intelligence units is also producing positive results, according to Admiral Cueto, who added that the government is providing logistical support for that. “The government is supporting us through different means that will translate into equipment we requested for next year: helicopters, UAVs… all the technological equipment that will allow us to surpass the challenges we’re facing in that area, including the weather.”

Technology is primordial in helping the military find those terrorists because they have dominated the region for over 20 years and know the area perfectly well. In that respect, Admiral Cueto explained that the military is unable to follow them because they plant bombs and mines in their paths. “We’re waiting patiently. We’re using our intelligence to execute targeted operations, and at this time we’re trying to dismember their entire logistical support network, but give us time and we will win this fight. That I can guarantee you,” he concluded.

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