Peru’s Maoist Rebels Survive by Selling Drugs and Enslaving People
One of Latin America’s most enduring conflicts is Peru’s war with Shining Path. While mostly destroyed in the 1980s and 1990s, the Sendero Luminoso remains a disturbing example of how an insurgency can survive for decades given the right conditions.
Shining Path distinguished itself for its vindictiveness, violence and Maoist-inspired ideology. In the late 1960s, philosophy professor Abimael Guzman transformed a small number of communist militants into a major force in rural Peru.
Its conflict with the Peruvian state claimed an estimated 25,000 lives. In 1985, the group even sabotaged the runway lights at Lima’s airport during a visit by Pope John Paul II. “Then, a huge hammer and sickle — the Shining Path symbol — was set ablaze on a mountainside north of the capital,” the Associated Press reported.
The Peruvian government captured and imprisoned Guzman in 1992. During his second trial in 2012, Guzman was unrepentant about ordering the killings of civilians. “They were not ordinary civilians,” Guzman said. “We are talking about informers, collaborators with the armed forces, traitors to the party, criminals who extorted people using the name of our organization, common criminals and homosexuals.”
Today, the group exists on life support with only around 150–300 members — the figures range widely — and it avoids direct fighting with the military. However, clashes do happen. Earlier this month, Peruvian military police skirmished with Shining Path and killed six of its members. The fighting occurred in a region plagued by drug smuggling.
So how does Shining Path persist after all these years? Partly it’s because the rebels tap into drug trafficking. Partly it’s the terrain. Peru is vast and rugged, which is even more the case in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley where the group has its strongest presence.
Then there’s slavery. In July, the Peruvian army rescued 39 Asháninka Indians whom Shining Path had effectively enslaved.
“Some of the adults had been living in the camp for 30 years,” Peru historian Miguel La Serna wrote at the Global Observatory. “According to an internal communiqué from the Peruvian national police, the captives had been forced to work as agricultural laborers and the women were expected to breed and raise a new generation of militants.”
One argument is that Shining Path has given up on revolution — and it’s mainly focused now on making money through drugs and forced labor. But as with slavery, the group justifies exploiting the drug trade as a means to an end.
Shining Path is, then, primarily an insurgent group. If the militarized faction is indeed involved in the drug trafficking business, it is a secondary concern. The principal objective is, and has always been, to wage Maoist insurgency.
This is an important distinction to make, not just in the Peruvian case, but also with respect to other insurgent groups believed to have connections to the narcotics trade. As mentioned, critics of the FARC have also used evidence of the Colombian guerrillas’ drug ties to discredit it. Yet FARC are likewise first and foremost insurgents. However contradictory, however deplorable their actions may be — kidnappings, illicit activities, violence against the very population they claim to support — the rebels justify them as necessary steps toward an end game of revolution. To dismiss them as bandits or criminals misses the point entirely.
There’s a lesson here. Look to other insurgent groups around the world — Boko Haram and Islamic State, to name two. Now remember to never underestimate ideological reasons, in addition to the above factors, behind a group’s ability to survive.