Peru’s Shining Path Still Poses a Threat

In mid-February, Peruvian security forces scored a major victory against the notorious Shining Path terrorist group with the capture of the movement’s last major leader known as Artemio. The Shining Path has waged war on the Peruvian government since the 1980s, a persistent thorn in Peru’s side. After Artemio’s capture, I wrote a report for my organization, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), analyzing the significance of this victory and questioning whether Shining Path should still be labeled as a terrorist organization. To these ends, I focused on whether this movement continues to possess a political ideology (like it arguably did when it was founded and when it started its armed struggle) or if it is simply a narco-terrorist organization preaching that it is fighting for a Maoist doctrine.

Today, the members of the Shining Path are generally regarded by Peruvian bureaucrats and security forces as criminals looking for financial wealth through lucrative drug trafficking. I was also recently quoted in an article by Kelly Hearn for The Washington Times about the Shining Path and the Mexican cartels’ presence in Peru. Without a doubt, the growing influence of Mexican cartels (like Sinaloa and the Zetas) in Central and South America is a growing concern, yet this should not overshadow the Shining Path’s dangerous operations in Peru.

While Artemio’s capture was quite significant in the Peruvian governments’ struggle to suppress the terrorist organization, it enjoyed limited media attention, apart from think tanks and security-related news outlets. Conversely, the mid-April kidnapping, by Shining Path guerrillas led by Gabriel (whose real name is Martin Quispe Palomino and is the insurgent group’s fourth in command), of 36 workers from a gas plant in Camisea, gained much more international recognition.

Thankfully the workers were subsequently freed; nevertheless, the liberation was not the result of Lima having paid a ransom (Shining Path asked for a $10 million ransom), but of operations carried out by the Peruvian security forces. After the workers were liberated, international attention on the issue quickly died down, although Peruvian media coverage continues due to the number of police officers killed during the altercation with the Shining Path. One of the deceased is female police helicopter pilot Captain Nancy Flores Paucar, whose case holds the sad distinction of being the first female pilot fatality in the Peruvian government’s war against Shining Path.

While I understand that taking over 30 individuals hostage is a significant show of force, Shining Path’s capabilities should not be exaggerated. This insurgent movement carried out a similar operation in 2003, taking over 70 workers of the Techint company hostage, all of whom were eventually freed. Since this incident, the Shining Path has been severely weakened by its dwindling membership, with only a couple of hundred troops at best, and control of an increasingly limited territory. Gabriel’s operation in Camisea allegedly composed of around 150 troops and was a powerful show of force even though it probably pushed Shining Path’s current capabilities to the limit. Furthermore, Shining Path is currently split into two factions: Artemio’s faction, which operates in the Huallaga, and the other that is led by Jose (real name Victor Quispe Palomino and Gabriel’s older brother) operates in the VRAE region.

Thus, Shining Path now lacks the command structure, troop capacity and territorial control it enjoyed during its mid/late 1980s’ heyday. While the greater VRAE region’s dense forests make for difficult maneuvering, it would have been logistically complicated for the Shining Path to hide dozens of hostages for an extended period of time in the undergrowth. This is a strong contrast to the Colombian insurgent movement FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), which has held a plethora of hostages for years in the jungles of Colombia, including high-profile individuals such as Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, detained from 2002 until 2008.

In addition, Shining Path’s recent operation in Camisea, while daring, was not a particularly impressive feat. I say this because, as previously stated, Gabriel’s forces numbered over a 100 and their targets were 30+ unarmed civilian workers. Even more, the place where this incident happened, the Camisea gas plant, is located in an unprotected region in the Peruvian highlands. In fact, the regional government of Cuzco, where the Camisea gas plant is located, has complained that it needs a police or military base in order to combat narco organizations, including Shining Path.

The mayor of Kiteni, a province in Cuzco, has also declared that the civilian population in the Cuzco region does not trust the security forces and that troops sent to find Gabriel are already pulling out, leaving the area once again defenseless to future operations by Shining Path. In comparison, one of the most memorable operations in Peru’s war against terrorism was carried out by the country’s other terrorist group, the MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru), which held dozens of individuals captive in the Japanese embassy in Lima for 126 days in 1996/1997.

If we compare the Shining Path’s Camisea operation to the MRTA’s embassy takeover, the former was not as ambitious as the latter. What is impressive is that the Shining Path, while weak, continues to attack the country’s security forces, whether be it military or police. For example, as the police tracked down the terrorist unit that kidnapped the Camisea workers, a number of officers were killed. Not long after, Shining Path members, led by “Comrade Mendoza,” attacked a military base in Huancayo. After the attack, the insurgents fled but planted a number of mines that injured six Peruvian soldiers who were chasing the fleeing insurgents. In a more recent incident, in late April, Shining Path members killed two police officers and one soldier in Echarate, in the Cusco region, that were part of the patrols searching for Gabriel and his troops.

With this analysis, I am not trying to minimize Shining Path’s operational capabilities. My point is that this insurgent group, whether it remains faithful to its political ideology or if it is just a front for a narco-organization, is still capable of much violence. Shining Path is generally regarded as a moribund organization and international attention has shifted to the expansion of Mexican cartels and South American countries like Colombia and Peru (alleged Sinaloa members have already been spotted and detained in Peru). With that said, Shining Path’s recent actions, whether they are the kidnapping unarmed workers or, more alarmingly, the continued attacks against Peruvian security forces demonstrate that the insurgent group has, unfortunately, not been fully defeated, just severely weakened.