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    Alberto Bolívar Ocampo. Politólogo. Profesor de Geopolítica en los Institutos Armados, el CAEN y la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.

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Terrorismo en Perú: 1980-2001(*)

(*) Albert0 Bolìvar. Tomado del libro: "Combating Terrorism: Strategies of Ten Countries", Yonah Alexander (ed.), The Michigan University Press, 2002.

Texto completo: http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472098241-ch3.pdf

THIS DOES NOT PRETEND to be a story of the twenty years of political violence in Peru that left more than thirty thousand dead and $25 billion in damages but is instead a critical analysis of the actors involved in this revolutionary war process and the strategic successes and mistakes that led to the war’s conclusion. Primarily, the conflict involved Sendero Luminoso (SL, or Shining Path), the smaller Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), and the Peruvian state. Both insurgent and state forces made serious and decisive mistakes during the conflict. But in the end the former were defeated because they committed more mistakes than the state forces and also because the latter, almost a decade after the beginning of the armed struggle on May 17, 1980, developed a different and more or less efficient counterinsurgency strategy than they had devised previously1.

The strategic defeat of SL and MRTA would not have been possible without the critical participation of the rural civil population, which forged an alliance with the security forces as part of that new approach in the late 1980s. This was, of course, the organization of self-defense committees (or rondas campesinas), which in the end broke Sendero’s strategic backbone.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peru was on the brink of collapse. The existence of the state, the survival of the nation, and the stability of a region were at stake. A small, ruthless, but organized and dedicated revolutionary organization almost destroyed the country. How did this happen? Why was the response so ineffectual until 1988–89? Carlos Tapia, a Peruvian counterinsurgency expert, says that in only a few instances in Latin American history has there been a case in which frivolity, inaction, or covert conciliation in the face of terrorist subversion took a country to the edge of collapse.

Also there have been few cases in which one can find so many mistakes committed by politicians and military leaders who had the responsibility for fighting the subversion and who facilitated its expansion and development over several years. From the beginning of the insurgency, both the civilian and military leaders failed to understand the real nature of the threat as a revolutionary war machine whose main objectives were political, although the primary symptoms felt were the military actions of the Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (EGP, or Popular Guerrilla Army), the armed branch of the SL. Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán structured the SL as an iceberg: the EGP acted on the surface, but the most important action took place under it.2 The Peruvian security establishment failed to understand that this insurgency was different from the one that took place in 1965, which was easily infiltrated and destroyed. Consequently, it required a new counterinsurgency approach.3 As this essay will demonstrate, Sendero also managed to wage a very efficient asymmetrical war that provoked and made the state’s initial response late, disproportionate, flawed, and counterproductive.


Wars, conventional and unconventional, are never fought in the same way. In 1965, Peru suffered an insurgency inspired by the doctrine and strategy of Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary. The intention of the insurgents was to mobilize, organize, and lead the peasants to an armed uprising. The problem was that they lacked the organizational structure, ideological coherence, material means, and intelligence concerning the sociopolitical environment to perform that kind of task. As indicated previously, the insurgents were easily infiltrated and were promptly destroyed by the security forces. Che Guevara became a legend but not an example.4 From the early stage in the organization of the armed party to conduct revolutionary warfare against the Peruvian state and society, Guzmán kept in mind the mistakes committed in 1965. He then set about creating a war machine within the framework of Marxism-Leninism- Maoism. According to the American counterinsurgency specialist William Ratcliff, Shining Path is one of the most unusual guerrilla organizations in Latin American history. Maoist parties have existed in the Western Hemisphere since the early 1960s, but no Maoist guerrilla force has ever caused as much unrest and destruction as this originally provincial group from the Andes.5 SL strategy also differed from traditional theoretical and experiential frameworks because the interplay of variables in Peru contradicted the existing scholarly theories of revolution developed during the Cold War. According to some of these theories, political exclusion was a key impetus to revolution. In the case of Peru, however, political exclusion was not a key factor. Rather, between 1980 and 1991, elections in Peru were fair and the electoral process was inclusive. Marxist parties participated in the political process, electoral and otherwise. Whereas the Marxist Frente Farabundo Martí (FMLN) participants in El Salvador frequently cited political exclusion

as the main reason for their decision to join the movement, participants in Shining Path did not say that political exclusion caused them to join that organization.6 It was not pure serendipity but cold reasoning that led Guzmán to choose the proper political and strategic moment for the Inicio de la Lucha Armada (ILA, or Beginning of the Armed Struggle). “Silvia,” a Sendero member interviewed by American political scientist Robin Kirk, pointed out that Guzmán’s genius resided in his ability to choose the moment for his political project.7 The declaration of war was issued with the Chuschi attack of May 17, 1980, one day before the elections that were to mark Peru’s return to democracy after twelve years of military rule (1968–80). The candidates included the center-leftist Armando Villanueva of the Aprista Party and Fernando Belaúnde Terry, the very person who had been overthrown by the military in 1968. Belaúnde Terry won in a landslide and began the transition to democracy, coming to power on July 28, 1980. The Sendero leader knew that there was going to be great distrust between the government and the military. This was especially true in the case of Belaúnde Terry, who thought that the intelligence he was receiving about an insurgency was a ruse to allow the military to retain some degree of power. In reality, the military did not pay much attention to what it regarded as a minor insurrection, certainly no worse than the uprising that had occurred in 1965. What the military could not imagine was that Guzmán’s plan for the ILA would fully exploit the mistakes in organization, tactics, security, and mobility that were committed by the 1965 insurgents. Sendero insurgency was atypical and could not be found in the classical standards and manuals of counterinsurgency. Silvia was right. The political environment was ideal for Guzmán: the civil and military authorities distrusted each other and lacked exact knowledge of the real nature of the threat. Some of these problems would continue during Alan García’s administration (1985–90).8


Guzmán created a very closed, secretive organization, described by British expert J. Bowyer Bell as one hidden within a protective ecosystem, an underground that both protects and punishes.9 Joining the Shining Path had elements of a rite of initiation into a religious sect or, worse, an armed sect of true believers driven by what Bell calls the dream.10 These elements were not only the source of the energy driving the armed struggle, but they also largely determined the dynamic of that struggle. Few security or military analysts study or understand the sociological phenomenon of true believers or their dreams. All movements that opt for the armed struggle are shaped and circumscribed in large part by the need to turn a dream into reality. Rebels have great dreams, and Sendero was no exception. Its dream was transcendental and commanding, with promises of salvation and redemption. It offered an end to grievances and a future appropriate to a new reality. Never was the absolute dream impure for the true believer. Others may find flaws outside the organization, but the rebels see none.11

But besides the dream Guzmán needed a different kind of revolutionary organization. Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori says that most classic guerrilla groups clearly underestimate the role of bureaucratic organization in the making of their movements and in shaping society in general. Guzmán represented the culmination of a shift from romanticism to calculation. He built an authoritative organization and converted it, by its own definition, into a war machine. He coldly planned for mass death because the triumph of the revolution would cost a million deaths, as he said in a televised appearance days after his capture on September 24, 1992.12

Although revolutionary organization is seldom defined, for many scholars the term includes the organization’s ideology, strategy, structure, and leadership. In one model, American political scientists Raj Desai and Harry Eckstein emphasize the importance of visionary and innovative ideas that are advanced with zeal as well as of a combat party that can make fervor efficient—that is, identify where the party is likely to gain adherents, mobilize and retain members, identify friends and enemies, and plot a plausible path to power.13 Guzmán’s recognition of the need for such an organization was also caused by the fact that terrorist and guerrilla groups have an organizational momentum that works in their favor in the face of government countermeasures. Guerrillas tend to plan well in advance, conduct detailed reconnaissances, and have the forces deployed for operations of prolonged and enhanced activity. Guerrillas are engaged in a war of attrition, and only after time and multiple demonstrations of countermeasures will they give ground.14 Sir Robert Thompson, one of Britain’s main counterinsurgency strategists, says that the individual in a threatened society could have been attracted during the first phase by the original cause—the dream. But in the second phase there will be much less attraction, and the individual will be most influenced by the efficiency of the revolutionary organization and the tensions that revolutionary war creates.15 The March 2, 1982, Sendero assault on the Huamanga prison—located in Huamanga, the capital city of Ayacucho—freed dozens of imprisoned guerrillas, provided a great attraction, and resulted in many new recruits. With this spectacular military action, SL proved that it was not an “armchair” revolutionary organization but a real and efficient one. From that date, it was seen as completely different from previous revolutionary organizations and the static rhetoric of the Peruvian Left. When insurgents can demonstrate relative military and organizational achievements, their chances for gaining support increase, especially if the government is inept, lethargic, and incompetent.

This concept, advanced by the U.S. National Defense University’s Bard E. O’Neill, may sound trite, but it is a truism that people generally gravitate toward the side perceived to be winning.16 Unfortunately, the Peruvian state was inept, lethargic, and incompetent. The Sendero developed a rigorous system of internal discipline that ensured its growing success in the first years of the war. Each new candidate for membership submitted entirely to the party’s authority, writing out the fullest possible self-criticism and waiting humbly for the party’s judgment of it. Again and again, recalls the journalist John Simpson, “I was to notice a certain look about Shining Path’s true believers: a calmness, a total certainty which came from the complete relinquishment of personal ideas, ambitions and feelings, and a wholehearted acceptance of Gonzalo’s—Guzmán’s nom de guerre—thinking.”17

There was a dream, there was an organization, and also there was a revolutionary elite. Michael Radu, a scholar at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute and one of America’s leading counterinsurgency experts, defines revolutionary elite as the group of individuals who have political, military, or ideological control over decision making within revolutionary movements. Revolution is summarily defined as a political, economic, ideological, and social project, not necessarily fulfilled but at least characterized by one overall goal: the radical restructuring of the entire society, from the distribution of wealth and property to the level of individual mentalities. Revolutionary elites are ideologically aware, decisionmaking, revolutionary professionals.18

Sendero reflected one of the most important features of Maoism: the dependence upon a highly charismatic and unchallenged leader. From the start, Guzmán built up his personality cult. After he went underground, his megalomania and his pro-Maoist and pro- Stalinist ideological bias permitted him to transform his already unchallenged control over Sendero into a godlike, mythical omnipresence. 19 When men with such a makeup are either perceived to have supernatural qualities or manifest impressive speaking skills and a dynamic, forceful personality, they frequently are able to motivate others to join their cause through their example and persuasiveness, as was the case with Guzmán.20 One of his maxims was: “strategic centralization, tactical decentralization.” No decision was made without his consent at the strategic level. Before his capture, American scholars William and Sandra Hazleton mentioned that analysts agreed that he was the chief architect of a very hierarchical and bureaucratic party that was, at the same time, decentralized to a considerable degree. This meant that long-range strategic planning and major political decisions were made by the national leadership but implementation was generally left in the hands of the regional zone commanders and sector and local cells.21 In the end, as Boston University’s terrorism expert David Scott Palmer says, one of the factors limiting Sendero was its dependence on a single leader. This is one reason why Guzmán’s organization began to crumble almost immediately after his capture on September 12, 1992.22

The Rand Corporation’s Gordon McCormick correctly described the importance of Guzmán as the force behind the scene. In retrospect, it can be said that Guzmán carefully cultivated an image of genius and omnipresence among his followers, who often appeared to be as enamored of the man and his image as of the goals and objectives of the organization. Authority and control within Sendero, in this respect, appeared to hinge on some variant of what has been termed by Ann Ruth Willner as “the charismatic leader-follower relationship.” Such a relationship is based on four elements. The group leader, in this case Guzmán, is believed to possess a unique vision of the future and superhuman qualities. Group followers unquestionably accept the leader’s views, statements, and judgment. They comply with his orders and directives without question. They give the leader unqualified devotion.

McCormick continues by saying that, although this relationship can be subject to a breakdown over time, when it is operative it results in a unique bond between the leader of an organization and its rank and file membership. The leader under this condition is much more than the mere head of the group. For a period of time, at least, he commands absolute authority and is regarded as a historic figure by his followers, who assume the role of disciples. A relationship of this nature will result in close group unity. It will also tend to limit the role of the organization’s secondary or midlevel leadership, whose principal role in the eyes of the membership will be to serve as a link between the leader and those who are sent out to do his or her bidding.23 That is why when Alberto Fujimori took office as president of Peru in 1990 he decided that the two pillars of his government would be international economic and financial reassertion and a counterinsurgency strategy at every level of government rather than just a focus on military aspects. But his main weapon would be the intelligence that allowed him to target the leaders of Sendero through the combined efforts of the National Directorate against Terrorism (DINCOTE) and the National Intelligence Service (SIN). He knew that the key to the strategic defeat of Sendero was to behead the organization, that is, to capture Guzmán. As mentioned previously, this strategic objective was spectacularly achieved on September 12, 1992; after that, the organization crumpled like a house of cards.


As a political and military organization, SL had from the beginning a single goal: to take over the national government of Peru by applying an adaptation of Mao’s strategy to surround the cities from the countryside. Thompson reminds us that in revolutionary war the aim is always political. As Mao stated: “Politics is war without bloodshed: war is politics with bloodshed.”24

According to Robin Kirk, Guzmán’s plans responded to a revolutionary ideal that did not envision a reformed Peru but rather a destroyed Peru, thus extirpating every last vestige of capitalism from Peruvian soil.25 For Gerónimo Inca, Sendero’s first stage (democratic revolution) was to take power through a prolonged or unitary people’s war, by which war was conceived as a combined assault. Again, Mao’s strategy of dominating the countryside and then encircling the cities was at the heart of Guzmán’s plan.26 This prolonged war had three components: strategic defense, strategic equilibrium, and strategic offensive. The plan was for the military arm, now called the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL, or Popular Liberation Army), to establish the República Popular del Perú, or People’s Republic of Peru. It is interesting to note that when Sendero began its people’s war the objective was to establish a República Popular de Nueva Democracia, or People’s Republic of New Democracy.27 This change, according to Peruvian expert Carlos Tapia, indicates that Sendero’s initial philosophy of struggle was poorly conceived and had abstract and ideological political objectives not well understood by the peasant masses.28 Thus, Guzmán adapted his rhetoric and developed a new plan more acceptable to his target constituency.


Sendero’s revolutionary warfare was the embodiment of the Maoist definition: a form of warfare that enables a small, ruthless minority to gain control by force over the people of a country and thereby to seize power by violent and unconstitutional means.29 French military analyst Col. Georges Bonnet has advanced the following equation to explain revolutionary warfare:

RW _ G _ P,

where RW stands for revolutionary war, G stands for guerrilla tactics, and P stands for political and psychological activities. Bonnet and other French military analysts concluded that in revolutionary war the military tactics of the guerrilla are secondary to the central strategic objectives of destroying the legitimacy of the target government through the establishment of a counterideology and counterinstitutions. Thus, it was the objectives sought, and the central importance placed on political warfare and psychological operations in achieving them, that differentiated revolutionary war from other forms of irregular combat. Mao Zedong was the first person to systematically apply this formula.30 Prior to 1990, Peruvian civilian and military authorities missed the most important point of Guzmán’s movement. As a result, they countered Sendero only in the military aspects of its actions and did not seek to affect what was below the surface of the Peruvian revolutionary reality. Thus, Peruvian government forces militarized what from the start should have been a mainly political approach to containing the insurgents. Sendero’s main strategy was the use of terrorism in the countryside.

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