Photo by Anadolu Agency
Artillery Row

He brainwashed you

The legacy of communist cult leader Abimael Guzman lives on in Peru

Occasionally, just occasionally, you want to write an obituary when bereft of sympathy for the subject. So with one Abimael Guzman: founder, leader and guru of a vicious army of insurrection in Latin America called the Shining Path. A self-appointed mass murderer who tortured the country of his birth, Peru, for a bloody decade with a madcap revolution that claimed Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and yes, Mao Zedong as its various messiahs. Even nearly three decades after his arrest, and now his death, Peru still suffers from the tragedy of Guzman’s war.

I never met Professor Guzman, whose calling card was “every revolution needs a philosopher” thank goodness I didn’t. Given his track record, and that of the Shining Path with visitors who became hostages, chances are I wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. But I spent time in the Andean highlands, the base for his Shining Path, in the late 1980s, when he and his disciples had the country by the throat.

Bizarre to remember how by then Peru, the land of the Incas, among the most organised and disciplined of ancient cultures, had become dysfunctional beyond belief. Starting our journey in the capital, Lima, we had planned to interview the President, Alan Garcia, once a shining star of the next generation of Latin American politicians, dubbed “South America’s Kennedy”.  We discovered he was clinically depressed, holed up in the Presidential Palace, seeing no one, while the country burned any way you looked, with an inflation rate of 13,000 per cent and a government riddled podrido, in Spanish, putrid with corruption that went all the way to him at the top.

The young lads with us were terrified, their fingers constantly on the trigger

So we ventured southeast to Huancayo, and beyond that regional capital, to a mountainous landscape of beautiful llamas and woolly alpacas, home to the Wankas (if you don’t believe me, then check out the local football team, Deportivo Wanka). The Wanka people once defied the Incas to preserve their language, their farms and their villages, many living at very high altitude, 10,000 feet and above. Somehow making the most of a brutally cold climate, thin soils, and little irrigation, to grow everything from potatoes, to tomatoes, to chilis, and nurturing herds of camelids, those alpacas and llamas, alongside their favourite culinary delight, the guinea-pig.

At the national university in Huancayo, a hotbed of Shining Path support, we spoke to Elena, a young, bright-eyed academic who fronted a daily radio programme that sounded like an unabashed apology for the revolutionary movement. She patiently explained how Shining Path had adopted first the mantra of Lenin, “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Then the tactics of Stalin: “the use of terror to irrigate the revolution”. Finally, Guzman adopted the strategy he had witnessed firsthand on visits to China as a student in the 1960s, Chairman Mao’s edict: “take the countryside first, then the cities”.

The following weekend we accompanied a unit of the Peruvian army as they moved out of Huancayo, to the villages of Ortocuna and Concepcion. Having seen armies at war in Africa and the Middle East, I remember registering that the young lads with us were terrified, their fingers constantly on the trigger, no banter but silence the order of the day, their faces masked in balaclavas, their captain telling us that was to protect them from being recognised off-duty. “Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), they are everywhere, they could be living next door to you,” he told us. “And they kill with pleasure.”

A morning in those villages told us that Guzman’s strategy, built around the cult of him as the “Fourth Sword of Marxism”, after Lenin, Stalin and Mao (let’s just say he was never knowingly undersold), specifically his campaign to seize the countryside ahead of the cities, was working. You sniffed it, rather than heard it. Yet even opinion polls, amazingly, detected support for Shining Path in the poor pueblos of the highlands.

One victim had been tortured in front of his family

Most villagers looked blankly into space as you sought answers to straight questions about when they last saw the Senderistas. In thatched huts, you spied young men sitting aimlessly, bodies somehow coiled for action. Then, at a water well, young women dressed more like factory workers than farm girls. One couple, tending a family of llamas, suggested with nods and winks, rather than words, that the guerrillas had been there that morning. Looking around us, I concluded they hadn’t left. The captain gave the order to move out with rifles cocked, ready to fire. I relayed to him that we’d had enough, happy with what we got bla bla. I wanted out, and fast, scared more than I’d ever been in Beirut, or Mogadishu, or Chechnya. He gave us an escort out of there.

The following day we attended funerals in Huancayo, a sad procession from a neo-classical cathedral downtown, to a cemetery below a bridge that connected the city to the countryside. Among the dead that day were three people from the villages we had visited, murdered by Shining Path. One victim had been tortured in front of his family. So much for Professor Guzman, who liked to cite Stalin and Mao in support of the thought : “the revolution is irrigated with blood”.

Yet despite his arrest in 1992, and imprisonment for life thereafter, Guzman’s legacy is a country still scarred by the mad, murderous revolution he led. You can count the lives lost: tens of thousands, killed by Shining Path and by the Peruvian army too, because the military was equally capable of murder in reprisal. You can measure it in the number of governments, of all persuasion, Peru has endured ever since; indeed the manic depressive Alan Garcia returned to power for a second time after the Millenium. Sadly, you can witness the latest government, led by a left-wing populist, with members of his Cabinet accused of being sympathisers of Guzman and Shining Path.

Then you think of the man, Abimael Guzman, in the end a paunchy, overweight prison inmate, married behind bars to one of the many women who joined Shining Path. And you consider what his followers called him : “Shampoo — because he brainwashed you.”

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