Walking the Shining Path

September 20, 1992|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK | JOHN M. McCLINTOCK,John McClintock was The Sun's Latin American correspondent from May, 1987 until June.

PERU -- This crazy guy wanted to dismantle Peru, redistribute the wealth and create a peasant agricultural society similar to that envisioned by Mao Tsetung during the failed Cultural Revolution of the 1970s.

The guy was Abimael Guzman Reynoso, the charismatic founder of Shining Path, one of the most disciplined and bloody-minded revolutionary groups ever to hit Latin America.

Until his capture last weekend, Mr. Guzman was getting alarmingly close to his goal. His 12-year campaign had moved from the Andean highlands to the slums of Lima, increasing the violence that had claimed more than 25,000 lives and that had caused $22 billion damage.

Hoping to capitalize on the seething discontent of his impoverished land, Mr. Guzman aimed to rid the nation of the white elite that ruled Peru since the Conquistadors. He also wanted to eliminate the talking-head politicians, the generals and cops who promised the moon but delivered millions to their private bank accounts.

The sea in which Shining Path swam was an economic Sargasso. In 1990, inflation had reached the astounding level of 7,650 percent, and roughly 12 million of Peru's 22 million inhabitants were living in extreme poverty.

Practically the only growth industry was the growing of coca, the prime ingredient in cocaine, with Peru providing about 60 percent of the world's output.

But even this was turned to Shining Path's advantage. The rebel group was almost entirely bankrolled by fees it earned acting as middleman in the sale of landing rights to the planes of the drug lords and other services.

The thousands of good-hearted souls who wanted to help the established government-- either as political candidates or community workers -- were summarily shot by Shining Path or blown to bits in its bomb attacks.

If all went according to plan, Mr. Guzman's terrorist organization would control the teeming slums that ringed the capital of 8 million. (As much as half of the country had been under some kind of martial law.)

In time, Shining Path would choke the life out of the old order like a vine strangling a rose.

Mr. Guzman became emboldened to change his nom de guerre from the simple "Comrade Gonzalo" to the grandiose "Presidente Gonzalo."

Fearful businessmen posted a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest or death.

While Presidente Gonzalo drew his inspiration from the East, by strange quirk of fate, Peruvian voters did so as well.

The panicky times had brought to center stage Alberto K. Fujimori, an agronomist of Japanese descent. He was a Ross Perot of Peru at a time when the established political order couldn't elect a dog catcher.

With an odd coalition of Evangelical Christians, disaffected politicians and technocrats, Mr. Fujimori captured the presidency 1990, employing an underlying racist appeal to Peru's mixed-race majority.

He was not of the European-descended elite, and once elected he vowed like Shining Path to start from scratch, albeit by drastically tightening Peru's economic belt.

To Presidente Gonzalo, "the reptile Fujimori" was a piece of cake. The amateur president would increase military oppression, which in turn would cause the people to see Shining Path as their protector, the only force that could bring peace and order.

After all, his followers believed, he was the inevitable "Fourth Sword of the Revolution:" Marx, Lenin, Mao and Presidente Gonzalo.

Indeed, with the Communist world receding in disrepute, Presidente Gonzalo was a revitalizing force. His was the most militant guerrilla group in Latin America; already a Shining Path clone was forming in neighboring Bolivia.

Washington was becoming worried. At the Pentagon's Southern Command in Panama, Army colonels talked of contingency plans to "interdict" this Wizard of Oz and his 5,000 fighters.

But Presidente Gonzalo did not seem overly concerned.

Last year, when police raided a Shining Path safe house in Lima, they found a video tape showing the paunchy 57-year-old Presidente doing a happy drunken dance.

He attributed the raid to dumb luck on the part of a bumbling police force. He was wrong.

When David Scott Palmer shared an office with Presidente Gonzalo in 1962, he found him to be "a handsome, athletically-built" philosophy professor who made no effort to hide his Communist beliefs.

Huamanga University in the Andean mining city of Ayacucho had been viewed as a beacon of hope for the impoverished Quechua-speaking Indians who dominate the region, but the nation's poor economy had caused it to be shut down for 75 years.

But in 1962, a different wind was blowing through Latin America, fed mainly by the success of Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba. The hemisphere's oligarrchs and generals feared the worst.

In response, President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress program to help Latin America thwart Communism, and he created the Peace Corps, sending thousands of young, idealistic Americans like Dr. Palmer to places like Ayacucho.

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