After twelve years of military government the 1980 elections resulted in a centre-right alliance between Acción Popular and the Popular Christian Party. Belaunde resumed the presidency having become an established celebrity during his years of exile and having built up, too, an impressive array of international contacts. The policy of his government was to increase the pace of development still further, and in particular to emulate the Brazilian success in opening up the Amazon – building new roads and exploiting the untold wealth in oil, minerals, timber and agriculture. But inflation continued as an apparently insuperable problem, and Belaunde fared little better in coming to terms with either the parliamentary Marxists of the United Left or the escalating guerrilla movement led by Sendero Luminoso.
Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), founded in 1970, persistently discounted the possibility of change through the ballot box. In 1976 it adopted armed struggle as the only means to achieve its “anti-feudal, anti-imperial” revolution in Peru. Following the line of the Chinese Gang of Four, Sendero was led by Abimael Guzman (aka Comrade Gonzalo ), whose ideas it claims to be in the direct lineage of Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao. Originally a brilliant philosophy lecturer from Ayacucho (specializing in the Kantian theory of space), before his capture by the authorities in the early 1990s Gonzalo lived mainly underground, rarely seen even by Senderistas themselves.
Sendero was very active during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it had some ten- to fifteen-thousand secret members. Rejecting Belaunde’s style of technological development as imperialist and the United Left as “parliamentary cretins”, they carried out attacks on business interests, local officials, police posts, and anything regarded as outside interference with the self-determination of the peasantry. On the whole, members were recruited from the poorest areas of the country and from the Quechua-speaking population, coming together only for their paramilitary operations and melting back afterwards into the obscurity of their communities.
Although strategic points in Lima were frequently attacked – police stations, petrochemical plants and power lines – Sendero’s main centre of activity was in the sierra around Ayacucho and Huanta , more recently spreading into the remote regions around the central selva and a little further south in Vilcabamba : site of the last Inca resistance, a traditional hide-out for rebels, and the centre of Hugo Blanco’s activities in the 1960s. By remaining small and unpredictable, Sendero managed to wage its war on the Peruvian establishment with the minimum of risk of major confrontations with government forces.
Belaunde’s response was to tie up enormous amounts of manpower in counter-insurgency operations whose main effect seemed to be to increase popular sympathy for the guerrillas. In 1984 more than six thousand troops, marines and anti-terrorist police were deployed against Sendero, and at least three thousand people, mostly peasants, are said to have been killed. “Disappearances”, especially around Ayacucho, are still an occurrence, and most people blame the security forces for the bulk of them. In August 1984 even the chief of command of the counter-insurgency forces joined the criticism of the government’s failure to provide promised development aid to Ayacucho. He was promptly dismissed for his claims that the problems were “the harvest of 160 years of neglect” and that the solution was “not a military one”.
By 1985, new urban-based terrorist groups like the Movimiento Revolutionario Tupac Amaru ( MRTA ) began to make their presence felt in the shanty towns around Lima. Belaunde lost office in the April 1985 elections , with APRA taking power for the first time and the United Left also getting a large percentage of the votes.
Led by a young, highly popular new president, Alan Garcia , the APRA government took office riding a massive wave of hope. Sendero Luminoso, however, continued to step up its tactics of anti-democratic terrorism at the Andean grass roots, and the isolation of Lima and the coast from much of the sierra and jungle regions became a very real threat. With Sendero proclaiming their revolution by “teaching” and terrorizing peasant communities on the one hand, and the military evidently liquidating the inhabitants of villages suspected of “collaboration” on the other, these years were a sad and bloody time for a large number of Peruvians.
Sendero’s usual tactics were for an armed group to arrive at a peasant community and call a meeting. During the meeting it was not uncommon for them publicly to execute an “appropriate” local functionary – like a Ministry of Agriculture official or, in some cases, foreign aid workers – as a statement of persuasive terror. In May 1989 a British traveller found himself caught in the middle of this conflict and was shot in the head after a mock trial by Senderistas in the plaza of Olleros, a community near Huaraz in Ancash, which had offered him a bed for the night in its municipal building. Before leaving a village, Sendero always selected and left “intelligence officers”, to liaise with the terrorists, and “production officers”, to ensure that there was no trade between the village and the outside world – particularly with Lima and the international market economy.
Much of Sendero’s funding came from the cocaine trade . Vast quantities of coca leaves are grown and partially processed all along the margins of the Peruvian jungle. Much of this is flown clandestinely into Colombia where the processing is completed and the finished product exported to North America and Europe for consumption. The thousands of peasants who came down from the Andes to make a new life in the tropical forest throughout the 1980s found that coca was by far the most lucrative cash crop. The cocaine barons paid peasants more than they could earn elsewhere and at the same time bought protection from Sendero (some say at a rate of up to $10,000 per clandestine plane load).
The 1980s, then, saw the growth of two major attacks on the political and moral backbone of the nation – one through terrorism, the other through cocaine. With these two forces working hand in hand the problems facing Garcia proved insurmountable. To make things worse, a right-wing death squad – the Rodrigo Franco Commando – appeared on the scene in 1988, evidently made up of disaffected police officers, army personnel and even one or two Apristas. Their most prominent victim so far has been Saul Cantoral, general secretary of the Mineworkers’ Federation. RFC has also been sending death threats to a wide range of left-wing militants, union leaders, women’s group co-ordinators and the press.
The appointment of Agustin Mantilla as minister of the interior in May 1989 suggested knowledge and approval of RFC at the very highest level. Mantilla was widely condemned as the man behind the emergence of the death squads and their supply of arms. He was known to want to take back by force large areas of the central Andes simply by supplying anti-Senderista peasants with machine guns. Opposition to the arming of the peasantry was one topic on which the military and human rights organizations seemed to agree. Many of the arms would probably have gone straight to Sendero, and such action could easily have set in motion a spiral of bloody civil war beyond anyone’s control.
Guzman’s success had lain partly with his use of Inca millennial mythology and partly in the power vacuum left after the implementation of the agrarian reform and the resulting unrest and instability, and Sendero’s power, and even its popular appeal, advanced throughout the 1980s. In terms of territoral influence, it had spread its wings over most of central Peru, much of the jungle and to a certain extent into many of the northern and southern provincial towns.
The MRTA had less success, losing several of their leaders to Lima’s prison cells. Their military confidence and capacity were also devastated when a contingent of some 62 MRTA militants was caught in an army ambush in April 1988; only eight survived from among two truckloads.
Meanwhile, the once young and popular President Alan Garcia got himself into a financial mess and was chased by the Peruvian judiciary from Colombia to Peru, having been accused of high-level corruption and stealing possibly millions of dollars from the people of Peru. His bad governance probably put an end to APRA’s chances of ever getting political control of Peru again

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