Death of Abimael Guzman: End of the Shining Path of Peru

At the height of the Peruvian Civil war, Guzman became a symbol of resistance against a regime that was becoming increasingly brutal.

Abimael Guzman

Abimael Guzman (popularly known as Comrade Gonzalo), leader of the Communist Party of Peru – Shining Path of Peru, died on September 11, 2021, at the Callao naval base near the capital Lima. He was 86 years old. He was arrested on September 12, 1992, and for the last 29 years was kept in maximum security prison.

Guzman has been a controversial figure, staging a war against a corrupt authoritarian regime, and accused of many war crimes himself. Even among the left, the Sandero line has been considered hard-lined, as it saw Cuba and post-Mao China as revisionary and regressive. The Sanderos had few allies outside of Peru and often battled against the Peruvian state and other radical left groups in Peru.

Guzman was arrested by an authoritarian government and was tried by hooded judges in a military court. His trial and punishment were a mockery of a trial. After the end of military rule in Peru, his trial was declared unconstitutional by Peru’s Constitutional Court in 2003. His retrial began in 2004 and his third trial was in 2005 and he was sentenced to life in prison. In 2018 he was given another life term in prison.

Founding the Shining Path

Abimeal Guzman joined the communist movement as a student. Guzman had completed two doctorates, one in Kantian Philosophy and the second in Marxist jurisprudence. He was appointed as Professor of Philosophy in San Cristóbal of Huamanga University, Peru. By 1960s, he had become influential, at a time when the Parliamentary left was doing well in Peru.

PC: Reuters


In 1969, Abimeal Guzman formed a splinter group of the Communist Party of Peru – Red Flag, itself a pro-Chinese splinter group from the Communist Party of Peru. Guzman took an anti-parliamentary stance, instead of believing that only with peasant-led warfare, would the revolution come. The party was unnamed but was called the Shining Path after a quote by the founder of the Communist Party of Peru who said that Marxist-Leninism would be the Shining Path to Revolution. Internally the group would only sign as Communist Party of Peru. Members of the party were called Senderos (after the Spanish words for Shining Path, Sendero Luminoso)

Army takeover in Peru

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Peru oscillated between military and popular civilian governments. When left-governments gained some popularity, a right-wing dictator would institute a coup and massacre their organizations, starting from the American Revolutionary People’s Alliance, to the Communist Parties of Peru.

The Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Revolution inspired Peru. They were the first major socialist revolutions in the third world.

In the mid-1960s, the army found itself suppressing uprisings across Peru inspired by the Cuban revolution. The government was led by Fernando Belaúnde, an unpopular pro-American political moderate, who, it was hoped would be able to keep the “extremists” on both sides at bay.

However, when the Belaúnde tried to make a deal with the American Standard Oil Company to leave ownership in Peru in return for compensation, the leadership was afraid of another uprising and the army took direct control for 7 years.

The military government realized the growing resentment of the population against anti-people actions done by the American government, the Peruvian state, and the major corporations. Fearing further uprisings, the government instituted many pro-people policies. They forced the American military out of Peru, nationalized many industries, and most famously, they instituted the largest land reforms in Latin America, after Cuba.

The pro-people measures of the government only rocked the boat and led to a second coup, where the new government promised to return Peru’s Parliamentary democracy. When elections were conducted, Belaúnde returned to Peru as its new President in 1980.

Beginning of the Civil War

It was here that Guzman founded the CPC (Shining Path). Guzman believed that only through Guerrilla tactics could a socialist revolution be achieved. He theorized that only a popular war emerging from the peasantry would have a chance of fighting back. Decades of popular movements showed that either the Parliament would be a tool of the capitalists, or it would be overthrown if the left had a chance to change things through it. He began by organizing students and academics in his University and then he left his job and went underground.

In May 1980, Shining Path declared war against the government. Shining Path grew to control territory in rural Peru. They targeted all unpopular representatives of the state, army police, bureaucrats, and opposition leftists. Guzman’s guerilla warfare continued in the 1980s and was considered a deep threat to the Peruvian government. 25% of districts in Peru refused to hold elections.

In 1990, Alberto Fujimori became President of Peru. Fujimori heralded the neo-liberal phase of Peru, with a strong emphasis on fiscal discipline and anti-terrorism. Though his policies were so unpopular that he was not able to pass them through parliament, Fujimori used the military to institute a self-coup to suspend constitutional safeguards. Fujimori managed to use demagogic techniques to claim that he was suspending democracy to pursue the will of the people. He founded the National Directorate Against Terrorism, an intelligence organization dedicated to fighting terrorism. With the help of the National Directorate Against Terrorism, the Peruvian army led a war against Shining Path leading to the arrested of Guzmán.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission


Alberto Fujimori, Former President of Peru

After the fall of Fujimori’s corrupt and tyrannical government, the following president Alejandro Toledo formed a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) to look into the violence done by the Peruvian state and revolutionary movements, most notably Shining Path, during the decades of political crisis.

The TRC found that many war crimes were committed by both members of the Shining Path and the Peruvian state. Nearly 30,000 civilians died because of actions by each of the Shining Path and the Peruvian state, both in the crossfire of the conflict as well as in resistance to the excesses of Shining Path and the State of Peru when they ruled territory.

In the end, Guzman remains a controversial figure. At the height of the Peruvian Civil war, he became a symbol of resistance against a regime that was becoming increasingly brutal. Some have argued that the TRC report had over-reported the crimes of the Sanderos in order to protect the legitimacy of the Peruvian state, while others have argued that the TRC shows how brutal the Sandero control has been. Information during the Peruvian civil war was hard to come by, and records are hard to come by, but narratives from districts run by the Sanderos said that for most Peruvians, the Sanderos were no worse than the corrupt Peruvian state.

In either case, the story of Guzman and the Shining Path is a story of escalation. Popular uprisings in the 1960s led to a military coup, eventually culminating in the corrupt Fujimori government.

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The author is a mathematician and political observer based in Bangalore, Karnataka. 


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April 2024


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