The leader and founder of Peru’s Shining Path rebel group, Abimael Guzmán, has died at the age of 86.
He was a former philosophy professor who had been sentenced to life in prison for terrorism and treason since 1992.
In July, he became ill and was transferred from a maximum-security prison to a hospital.
Over a decade of conflict between the Maoist guerrilla group and the Peruvian state, nearly 70,000 people were killed or disappeared.
Guzmán’s arrest had a significant impact on the group, but some of its members are still active in the coca-producing region.
Guerrilla in the making
Abimael Guzmán was born in December 1934 on Peru’s southern coast near the town of Mollendo to a wealthy merchant who raised him after his mother died.
The future rebel leader grew up in a wealthy family. He went to a private Catholic secondary school and then to Arequipa University, where he wrote a dissertation on German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
He became interested in Marxism while at university. By 1962, he had secured a position as a philosophy professor at San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University in the central city of Ayacucho.
Guzmán was inspired by Communist leader Mao Zedong during a trip to China in 1965, and upon his return to Peru, he encouraged like-minded academics to join him at the university in Ayacucho.
He and 11 others founded the Shining Path – Sendero Luminoso in Spanish – in 1969. The name was chosen to honour Peruvian communist José Carlos Mariátegui, who stated that “Marxism-Leninism is the bright path of the future.”
- Militant group founded in the late 1960s by former university philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán
- Becomes a guerrilla group in the 1980s and wages a bloody insurgency against the Peruvian government
- Almost brings the Peruvian state to its knees in the 1980s with its estimated membership of 10,000
- Almost 70,000 people die or disappear in more than a decade of internal conflict
- Guzmán and his partner, Elena Iparraguirre, are arrested in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison by a secret military court
- Their arrest is a heavy blow to the group, whose numbers dwindle to a few hundred in Peru’s coca-producing region
Inspired by Maoism, the guerrilla group tried to lead a “people’s war” to overthrow Peru’s “bourgeois democracy” and establish a communist state.
An offshoot of the Communist Party of Peru, the group did not engage in armed struggle at first.
Kicking off a brutal conflict
The turning point came in 1980, when the military, which had ruled Peru for 12 years, agreed to hold democratic elections.
The Shining Path not only boycotted the election, but also actively disrupted it in Ayacucho by burning ballot boxes. Because the guerrilla group’s goal was to establish a communist state, it was uninterested in democratic elections.
Instead, the group imposed a ruthless rule on the rural areas it had taken over, killing villagers suspected of siding with the government. It also instilled fear through public executions and show trials.
The assassinations and car bombings carried out by its members in the following years nearly brought the government to its knees.
To fight back, the government declared a state of emergency in the highlands and armed local militias known as rondas.
The atrocities committed by the military in its fight against the rebels compelled some people, particularly in rural areas, to support the Shining Path.
However, the Shining Path’s harsh enforcement of its rules, as well as the show trials and executions, did much to erode the support of those who were initially sympathetic to the group’s goals.
One of the deadliest incidents occurred in 1983, when 69 locals were killed with axes, machetes, and guns in retaliation for the earlier killing of a Shining Path commander in and around Santiago de Lucanamarca.
The atrocities, however, were not limited to rural areas. In 1992, the Shining Path detonated two truck bombs in Lima’s Miraflores district, killing 25 people and injuring 155 more.
The insurgency was effectively ended in September 1992, when Peruvian intelligence finally apprehended Guzmán above a Lima dance studio.
Authorities had long suspected that rebels were hiding out in apartments in the capital, and they became suspicious of one owned by ballerina Maritza Garrido Lecca.
Despite the fact that she claimed to live alone, the apartment produced far too much garbage for just one person.
When the agents went through it, they discovered medicine to treat psoriasis, a skin condition Guzmán was known to have.
Inside, officers apprehended Guzmán, his second wife, Elena Iparraguirre, and a number of other revolutionaries. When he was arrested, he was reportedly watching boxing on television.
After a three-day trial, judges wearing hoods to conceal their identities sentenced Guzmán to life in prison under drastic new judicial measures imposed by then-President Alberto Fujimori just months earlier.
He was taken to an offshore naval base on San Lorenzo island.
In October 1993, the Maoist insurgent appeared on television and publicly urged his supporters to “fight for peace.” Following his statement, approximately 6,000 Shining Path members surrendered under a government amnesty programme.
Since Guzmán’s arrest, a number of senior members of the Shining Path have been apprehended, and the group has been largely dismantled. Only a few remnants remain active in the Andes regions, where they primarily engage in drug trafficking.
Guzmán faced a new, longer trial in 2004, following the repeal of President Fujimori’s authoritarian measures. The media was restricted, making it impossible for reporters to follow the proceedings.
In October 2006, he was convicted of aggravated terrorism and murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Guzmán spent the last few years of his life in solitary confinement at a naval prison in El Callao, west of Lima. In 2010, he was allowed to marry fellow Shining Path guerrilla Elena Iparraguirre while still imprisoned.