*Note: In light of the recent discovery in Peru of a mass grave containing 17 victims believed to be killed in the 1980s by the Shining Path, we revisit this AQ article, which details the havoc waged by the Maoist insurgency group at the time. (June 24, 2015)
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Peru was plagued by a wave of terrorism mainly attributed to the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group. In their attempt to violently overthrow the government, guerillas carried out assassinations, bombings and brutal massacres.
The Peruvian government reacted by suspending constitutional rights and mobilizing its intelligence agencies as paramilitary groups massacred villagers suspected of supporting the Shining Path. Now, 20 years after the Shining Path’s power waned with the arrest of its founder, Abimael Guzmán in 1992, some Peruvians fear that a new iteration of the group has risen up.
The Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights—Movadef) was founded in 2009 by lawyers for Abimael Guzmán and is considered a political arm of the Shining Path. According to its website, the group aims to create political transformation through promoting workers’ rights. But Movadef is motivated largely by its goal of securing the release of Guzmán, as well as other first-generation guerrilla leaders who are currently serving life sentences in prison. The group claims that providing amnesty to Shining Path leaders will lead to national healing and reconciliation.
Movadef has expanded rapidly in recent months, with supporters popping up from Argentina to Chile. Many Peruvians remain shocked by the group’s ability to gain support in universities and the teachers’ union, and to appeal so easily to the nation’s youth. Although Peru’s economy is one of the fastest-growing in Latin America, residents point out that stark inequalities still exist. Some suggest that Movadef is more organized and accessible than the government’s own agencies, many of which are notoriously inefficient.
In January 2012, Movadef gathered signatures to petition and register itself as a formal political party and join the political institutions it once fought to destroy. Approximately 370,000 signatures were collected from individuals supporting Movadef’s participation in the political process. Groups of students at the Universidad La Cantuta and Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú solicited signatures for the petition on their respective campuses.
Although the request was ultimately rejected by Peru’s Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (National Jury of Elections—JNE), the group’s perceived political resurgence raised concerns across the country. It prompted a debate on the changing collective memory of Peru’s violent past, as well as how to curb future conflicts.
In an extreme move that evokes parallels with Holocaust denial laws, President Ollanta Humala reacted by introducing a bill last August that would criminalize the denial of terrorist crimes. According to language in the bill, those who “approve, justify, deny or minimize” the crimes of terrorism could face sentences of 6 to 12 years in jail. Groups such as Human Rights Watch quickly criticized the law for its overly broad language, which would threaten free speech rights and potentially silence legitimate protests.
Many deeply affected by the conflict in the 1980s claim that Movadef’s current sympathizers are simply too young to remember the violence carried out by the Shining Path.
“What worries me is that I’ve lived through this,” said Lucia, a terrorism survivor who now lives in Lima and declined to give her last name. Lucia grew up in the region of Ayacucho, where the Shining Path first began its guerrilla war. “I know that people are entering the universities, telling our kids many things, telling them that they can be heroes. But that is the way it started in Ayacucho, when the Shining Path came to hold meetings to recruit our young people.”
But others point out that the Peruvian government, which also committed atrocious war crimes and then tried to cover them up, makes it difficult to understand what really happened. According to Peru’s Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), government forces were responsible for up to one-third of all deaths that occurred during the internal conflict, abusing their power to wrongfully jail, rape and execute thousands of innocent people.
The majority of Peruvians are horrified by Movadef’s growing popularity, and wish for it to be restrained. But they also seek justice for past victims of government brutality, clear facts about the conflict and a solid plan for moving forward.
Lucia, whose father was wrongly persecuted and ultimately killed by government forces, notes that her family and friends feared state police as much as they did Shining Path rebels. “The terrorists came and burned down our houses, and then the police came and burned them down as well,” she says. “Someday I will write the story of my life, so the people will know the truth.”