Shining Path Tarnished

September 16, 1992

At last the government of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru has done something right. The efficient capture of Abimael Guzman Reynoso, the leader of Shining Path, along with top lieutenants, gives the Peruvian state a chance to survive. Since the government will try him for treason in a military tribunal -- with execution not legal but hinted at by the president -- the challenge is to keep him behind bars against the inevitable rescue attempts.

Peru was going down. Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path is part Communist Party, part mystic hero worship, part murder cult. Just as teen-agers in American slums are lured into drug retailing, counterparts in Andes villages were made to come of age by killing victims. The estimate is 26,000 since 1980 but the true toll cannot be known. A Shining Path state would be a killing field. This is the Khmer Rouge of the Americas.

Originally a Communist disciple of the teaching of Mao Zedong, Guzman was a left-wing scholar in the 1970s building a following among poor Indians and urban ideologues dedicated to the destruction of the Peruvian state to bring a decent society. But as his movement took to action, the means became the ends. The assassination victims are not exploiters but social workers, not plutocrats but Indian community leaders, not oppressors but potential liberators. The drug cartels are seen by Shining Path not as enemies of the people but as lucrative buyers of Shining Path protection services.

The young terrorists are not so much recruited as kidnapped. The movement does not win the hearts and minds of the peasants, but terrorizes them into compliance. The movement had spread from the mountains to the shanty towns of Lima. Bringing the life of the capital to a standstill would be the final act. Destruction of the state must precede the seizure of power.

Shining Path is a brilliantly organized, low tech terror movement of highly indoctrinated but semi-autonomous small cells unable to betray the whole. Not surprisingly, "Presidente Gonzalo" was caught with lieutenants by old-fashioned sleuthing in a comfortable suburb where his central committee was planning the offensive. The terror leader who eluded capture for 12 years surrendered meekly.

The movement can go on killing and bombing for some time and already has. But its chief planner is out of action, the myth of his invincibility shattered. Could the Russian Revolution have succeeded without Lenin, the Chinese without Mao?

The arrest strengthens the credibility of President Fujimori, if it does not vindicate his suspension of elected government in April. That is water over the dam, but this success argues for a quicker restoration of law and democracy. To save the state he still needs to make it the property of all the people and not of a small oligarchy.

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