Abimael Guzmán, leader of the guerrilla group that terrorized Peru, dies at 86


Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, which spread terror across much of Peru in the 1980s and 1990s, died on Saturday. He was 86 years old.

Guzmán died in a maximum security prison at Callao Naval Base in Peru, where he was serving a life sentence, prison officials said. They said he died of health complications, but did not specify the exact cause.

An estimated 70,000 Peruvians were killed during the peak decade of the Shining Path insurgency, at least a third at the hands of guerrillas. The Shining Path advocated a violent reorganization of society away from the vices of city life. Its leaders echoed Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge with warnings that “rivers of blood” would flow after their victory and that up to a million Peruvians could be put to death.

The Shining Path was almost entirely Mr. Guzmán’s design, and for a time it seemed poised to seize power in one of Latin America’s most important countries. His self-declared Maoist movement was one of the most fiercely radical in the modern history of the hemisphere, and his fertile mind and extraordinary powers of persuasion laid the groundwork for an intense cult of personality.

Like many of his generation in Latin America, Mr. Guzmán was delighted with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary victory in Cuba in 1959. Later, however, he came to despise Castro, the Soviet Union and even moderate factions in China.

Mr. Guzmán has visited China several times. He came out with the vision of a Peru without money, without banks, without industry or foreign trade, where everyone would be a small landowner and live on barter.

Peru’s two main communist parties expelled him, but he developed a devoted coterie of students and teachers.

“He was a very charismatic professor, with a flowery rhetorical style that really appealed to the students,” political scientist David Scott Palmer said in 2013. “He got so strong in part because of 17 years of preparation, and in part because the government’s missteps have created favorable conditions. to the revolution.

(Professor Palmer, who as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s shared an office at the National University of San Agustín with Mr. Guzmán, a faculty member, died in 2018.)

In 1980, the Shining Path carried out its first violent actions, notably the bombardment of polling stations and the takeover of town halls in remote villages. One morning in December, residents of Lima, the capital, woke up to the sight of dead dogs hanging from dozens of streetlights. Around everyone’s neck was a sign with a slogan referring to the factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party.

It was the first sign of the phantasmagoric savagery that was to befall Peru. Mr. Guzmán, calling himself President Gonzalo, proclaimed himself “the fourth sword of communism”, after Marx, Lenin and Mao. He preached “Gonzalo’s Thought”, which he said would bring the world to a “higher stage of Marxism”.

“When the Shining Path took up arms, the attempt seemed a doomed effort to graft the Chinese experience onto the entirely different Peruvian culture,” wrote Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti. “To most people in Peru, including the legal left, the movement seemed like a mad sect, hopelessly out of touch with reality. “

But Mr. Guzmán’s fighters waged a spectacularly successful military campaign that brought large parts of the country under their control. Terror and assassination were preferred tactics. The conflict has spread from rural areas to Lima, where water, electricity and food supplies have become unreliable.

Bombs exploded in cinemas, restaurants and police stations. Kidnappings were commonplace. Posters appeared on the walls warning civilians to flee. Thousands have done it. The economy, already in dire straits due to poor political leadership, has plunged into chaos.

The Shining Path attempted to find a base among indigenous peoples whose needs had long been overlooked by the Peruvian elite, although many indigenous peoples were also victims of the insurgency. Part of Mr. Guzmán’s strategy was to drag the army into bloody retaliation, exposing his “fascist guts”.

The military repression was indeed fierce. The soldiers killed scores of civilians and terrorized the indigenous areas, prompting the peasants to support the rebels.

After several years, the government changed course. He withdrew some abusive units, gave soldiers rudimentary human rights training, and launched civic action programs.

Two prominent figures associated with the Shining Path campaign, President Alberto Fujimori and his intelligence director, Vladimiro Montesinos, were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted of bribery and sponsorship of military squads. the death.

On September 12, 1992, members of a special police unit dedicated to tracking down the Shining Path leaders approached a house in an affluent neighborhood of Lima and captured Mr. Guzmán. He appeared before a military court dressed in a black and white striped prisoner’s uniform. Hooded judges convicted him of terrorist crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In 1993, Mr. Guzmán appeared on Peruvian television several times and called on Shining Path fighters to surrender their weapons. Most did, and the rebellion died down.

Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso was born on December 3, 1934 in the town of Mollendo on the southern coast of Peru. His father, who had six children with three wives, won a prize in the national lottery and sent him to a Roman Catholic high school and university.

After obtaining degrees in law and philosophy, Mr. Guzmán joined the faculty of the National University of San Agustín in the mountain city of Arequipa. He became director of its teacher training program, which attracted students from indigenous villages.

Mr. Guzmán is not known to have had children. As a young man, he married Augusta La Torre, daughter of a leader of the Communist Party in Ayacucho. Known as “Comrade Norah”, she became the second in command of the Shining Path. She died in 1988 under mysterious circumstances.

In 2004, when Mr. Guzmán was 75 years old, the authorities gave him permission to marry Elena Iparraguirre, who had replaced comrade Norah as head of Shining Path No.2 and was also serving a life sentence. for terrorism. They continued to be held in separate prisons.

Mr. Guzmán was tried for a second time, in a civilian court, after his military trial was ruled unconstitutional. In 2006, he found him guilty of aggravated terrorism and murder, and upheld his life sentence. During the trial, he shouted what could have been his last public words.

“Long live the Communist Party of Peru! he cried, waving a fist above his head. “Glory to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism! Glory to the Peruvian people! Long live the heroes of the People’s War!

Julie Turkewitz, Elda Cantú and Mitra Taj contributed reporting.



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