BOGOTA – It is somewhat ironic that Douglas MacArthur’s famous observation that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” is also an apt description of the life cycle of terrorist organizations. At least, it certainly applies to the Shining Path organization.
Casual observers of South America might be surprised to discover that the Shining Path is still around. Yet the Maoist insurgent group, which in the 1980s and 1990s waged a bloody guerrilla war against the Peruvian government, is still kicking. In its heyday, Shining Path controlled large swathes of Peru´s central highlands and perpetrated terrorist attacks in the capital city of Lima. Today, the group is a shadow of its former self; effectively confined to the Ene, Apurímac and Mantaro river valleys in the southeast of the country, where it wages a guerrilla war against Peruvian security forces, traffics drugs and extorts companies operating in the area.
Last month, Peruvian security forces struck a heavy blow. A military operation north of the city of Ayacucho killed three Shining Path members, including two high-profile leaders: Martin Quispe Palomino (alias “Gabriel”) and Alejandro Borda Casafranca (alias “Alipio”).
The deaths will have a direct impact on the group´s operational capacity and its ability to maintain its current sources of revenue. Both Gabriel and Alipio are believed to have led extortion attempts targeting local and foreign businesses operating in southern Peru, including the April 2012 abduction of 36 workers on the Camisea gas pipeline. Furthermore, Gabriel reportedly spearheaded the group´s expanded involvement in the drug trade, opening new trafficking routes to the northern jungle region of Loreto and the southern border with Bolivia.At least in the short term, the deaths of the two men will undermine the Shining Path´s normal economic activities. The demise of Gabriel in particular could cause the group to step back from its attempts to control long-distance trafficking routes and confine itself instead to controlling the local drug trade on its own turf. Some observers might conclude that the Shining Path is doomed in the long term as well. After all, the branch of the group that operated in the Upper Huallaga valley in northern Peru effectively collapsed following the 2012 capture of its leader.
Such a fate seems unlikely in southern Peru, where there is little risk of a leadership vacuum. Several key leaders remain, including “José,” “Raúl,” and “Olga,” who is believed to be the group’s new military leader. In addition, there is an ample stock of mid-ranking members capable of stepping up into leadership positions.
If the deaths of Gabriel and Alipio weren’t enough to bring about the Shining Path’s demise, they certainly leave the group vulnerable. Peruvian security forces have an opportunity to deal a decisive blow if they can devise a strategy to remove the rest of the group´s leadership.
In the immediate aftermath of last month’s operation President Ollanta Humala struck a triumphal tone, promising that “José” and “Raúl” would soon be in police custody.
Yet there is no indication that a coup de grace is imminent; in fact it might be quite difficult to execute. Although the president attributed the success of the operation against “Gabriel” and “Alipio” to increased information-sharing amongst the upper echelons of the security forces, the details made public so far indicate that it was actually planned on the basis of information provided by local informants—a source that cannot necessarily be relied upon to lead to similar successes in the future. The Peruvian government may still have a trick up its sleeve, but it if does not, the Shining Path will continue posing a security risk to the country.