HUANTA, Peru -- Several dozen dark-skinned people sit on the dusty ground of the Castropampa military base. At an army officer's barked command, they rise and stand at attention. But these are not soldiers. They are Indian peasants, members of a local "Civil Defense Committee."
Earlier that morning, answering an army summons to appear at the military base in Huanta, they walked 6 miles from the hamlet of Quinrapa. With 5,000 other Huanta peasants, these men, women and children form the backbone of the Peruvian government's controversial civil defense effort, designed to enlist civilian support against the Maoist rebels of the Shining Path movement.
Defense Ministry officials in Lima are enthusiastic about civil defense, noting that rebel activity in Ayacucho, birthplace of the civil war that has cost Peru 18,000 lives, declined after the effort began.
But Shining Path recently launched a new offensive, and the poorly armed civil defense groups are among their primary targets. Along with attacks on police installations and political figures, guerrillas killed 11 civil defense members in Ayacucho in 10 days.
Some of the most successful civil defense organizing has taken place around Huanta, a provincial town that has seen some of the worst bloodshed in Peru's 10-year-old war.
The army officer who organized the civil defense groups here in April said he reminded the peasants of the Shining Path's cruelty when he arrived. "I asked them, 'What have you gotten from 10 years of the Shining Path? Nothing. The Shining Path has killed you, mutilated you and treated you like animals.' "
The peasants apparently agreed. Although a similar, if more brutal, program failed in 1983, experts say today's effort has won greater peasant support.
Quinrapa is typical of the 73 civil defense bases that now dot the Huanta countryside. Hastily thrown together in April, the village resembles a refugee camp. Five hundred peasants abandoned their adobe homes to move to the reed huts and ragged lean-tos of this scrubby upland plain.
The settlement faces west, toward the mountains of Huancavelica, "which is where the Shining Path comes from," Civil Defense President Luis Quiquin said.
A thorny barrier of woven vines protects the dusty new village, or "pago," while rustic platforms serve as watchtowers.
Journalists who visit Quinrapa are accompanied by an army patrol, and it is difficult to know how villagers feel about their new lives. Most respond to questions in monosyllables. Only their leaders, the liaisons with the military, speak freely.
They are uniformly enthusiastic.
According to "Tiger," a civil defense leader in Quinrapa, "We all knew who was in the Shining Path, but fear of reprisals paralyzed us." Organized into a Civil Defense Committee and armed with rustic weapons, the villagers "forced the subversives to confess before the village assembly."
Human rights experts are sharply critical of some aspects of the program. "The peasants are cannon fodder," said Pablo Rojas of the independent Human Rights Commission.
For instance, all Quinrapa men and women aged 18 to 30 participate in paramilitary patrols. Once a month, 50 to 60 of them, armed with surplus army weapons or homemade shotguns, go on patrol for several days, accompanied by a squad of soldiers.
One military officer explained that "the peasants travel in front of and behind the soldiers, so the Shining Path sees them and attacks them. Only then do the guerrillas discover the heavily armed soldiers."
Peasants told a Peruvian journalist that civil defense members in Quinrapa killed a fellow peasant who had hidden arms for the guerrillas. Human rights workers say executions of this kind, which are often blamed on the Shining Path, are common.
The patrols have also been accused of attacking villages that refuse to join the defense effort. "The civil defense groups," worried Mr. Rojas, "reproduce the abuses of the armed forces and in many cases the extreme cruelty of the Shining Path."