Abimael Guzman, leader of the guerrilla group that terrorized Peru, has died at the age of 86


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

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

An estimated 70,000 Peruvians were killed during the height of the decade-long Shining Road Rebellion, at least a third of them at the hands of guerrillas. Shining Path advocated a violent reorganization of society away from the vices of urban life. Its leaders echoed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia with warnings that “rivers of blood” would flow after their victory, and that as many as a million Peruvians might be killed.

The Shining Road was almost entirely Guzmán’s conception, and for a while he seemed ready to seize power in one of the most important countries of Latin America. His professed Maoist movement was one of the most violent radical movements in the modern history of the hemisphere, and his fertile mind and extraordinary powers of persuasion laid the foundation for an intense cult of personality.

Like many of his generation in Latin America, Mr. Guzmán was elated by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary victory in Cuba in 1959. However, later on, he derided 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, banks, industry, or foreign trade, where everyone would be the owner of the land and live off barter.

Both major Peruvian Communist parties expelled him, but he developed a devoted clique of students and professors.

Political scientist David Scott Palmer said in 2013: “He was a very charismatic teacher, with a flowery rhetoric that really attracted students. He became very powerful because of his 17 years of preparation, and in part because government gaffes created favorable conditions for revolution.”

(Professor Palmer was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and shared an office at San Cristobal at the National University of Huamanga in Ayacucho, Peru, with Mr. Guzmán, then a member of the faculty. Professor Palmer died in 2018.)

Shining Path carried out its first acts of violence in 1980, including bombing polling stations and taking control of town halls in remote villages. One December morning, people in the capital, Lima, woke up to the sight of dead dogs hanging from dozens of lampposts. Around their necks was a banner with a slogan referring to the factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party.

This was the first sign of the phantom savagery that was about to decline in Peru. Mr. Guzmán, who called himself President Gonzalo, declared himself the “fourth sword of communism” after Marx, Lenin and Mao. He preached the “Gonzalo Thought,” which he said would bring the world to a “higher stage of Marxism.”

Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorretti wrote: “When the Luminous Road took up arms, the attempt seemed a failed attempt to introduce the Chinese experience into the completely different Peruvian culture.” “To most people in Peru, including the legal left, the movement seemed like a crazy sect, completely detached from reality.”

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

Bombs exploded in cinemas, restaurants and police stations. Kidnappings were rampant. Notes appeared on the walls warning civilians to flee. Thousands did. The economy, already in tatters due to weak political leadership, has slid into chaos.

The Shining Path attempted to find base among the indigenous population whose needs had long been ignored by the elite in Peru, although many indigenous people were also victims of the rebellion. Part of Mr. Guzmán’s strategy was to drag the nation’s army into bloody reprisals, exposing his “fascist guts”.

The military suppression was already fierce. Soldiers killed many civilians and terrorized indigenous areas, leading many to support the rebels.

Several years later, the government changed course. It withdrew some abusive units, provided soldiers with rudimentary human rights training, and initiated civil action programs.

Two figures associated with the campaign against Shining Path, President Alberto Fujimori and his intelligence director, Vladimiro Montesinos, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted of involvement in corruption and sponsoring death squads.

On September 12, 1992, members of a special police unit dedicated to tracking the leaders of the Shining Path closed a house in a cozy Lima neighborhood and captured Mr. Guzman. He appeared before a court-martial in the black and white striped prisoner uniform. Persuasive judges found him guilty of terrorist offenses and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

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

Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Renoso was born on December 3, 1934 in the town of Molindo, on the southern coast of Peru. His father, who had six children by three women, won a prize in the national lottery and sent him to a Roman Catholic high school and to college.

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

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

In 2010, when Guzmán was 75 years old, authorities granted him permission to marry Elena Iparraguirre, who had replaced Comrade Nora as Shining Path’s No. 2 leader and was also serving a life sentence on terrorism charges. They were kept in separate prisons.

Mr. Guzmán was tried for the second time by a civilian court after his military trial was found to be unconstitutional. In 2006 he was found guilty of terrorism and murder, and a life sentence was confirmed. During the trial he shouted what might be his last public words.

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

Julie Turkowitz, Elda Canto and Mitra Taj contributed reporting.

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