Politics, Terrorism, and the Drug Trade

Sendero Luminoso’s Legacy in Peru

By Charlotte Lawrence


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n May 17, 1980, the eve of presidential elections to end a long period of political turmoil and military rule in Peru, a Maoist political party burned ballot boxes in the town of Chuschi, despite having turned down the chance to be on the ballot themselves. Rather than participate in democracy, the group known as the Shining Path chose armed revolt, which it saw as the only way to overthrow “bourgeois democracy” and achieve a dictatorship of the proletariat. The ensuing guerrilla war and the government reprisals it inspired brought destruction and suffering to Peruvians throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Starting around 1992, President Fujimori’s government began to make significant progress in quashing the insurgency. By 2003, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights had released its Final Report on the internal conflict, which listed the death or disappearance toll at more than 62,000.

Thirty-six years after the ballot burning in Chuschi, Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, is not entirely defeated. Of its violent remnants, two distinct groups endured in and around coca-rich river valleys. The Shining Path group operating in the Upper Huallaga Valley acted like a common criminal organization, using threats to control the civil population and profiting from the drug trade. It was led by a high-ranking member of the original Shining Path named Artemio. After his capture in 2012, his branch of the organization was more or less broken up. In the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers, or “VRAEM,” Sendero is led by Victor and Jose Quispe Palomino, sons of historic Shining Path leaders who embrace the Maoist ideology of their predecessors. Still, according to Ricardo Soberón, the former Chairman of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs, the VRAEM branch’s ideology has become a tool for control, rather than a genuinely held belief system. For example, according to an off-record Foreign Relations official, the Shining Path has phased out many extreme ideological practices – like flogging homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes – as unnecessary and unpopular.

Sendero activity in the VRAEM since the Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2003 has been characterized by sporadic clashes with Peruvian military forces, terrorist attacks against polling stations, and most of all, a cash influx from their role as security for the drug trade. The group also has a sizeable captive population of indigenous people and children whose numbers are occasionally diminished by government rescue missions. At this point, Shining Path is too small and weak to count as an insurgency, rather, it is a criminal terrorist organization with a unifying political history.

From start to present, the conflict has been deeply political. Rosa Cardozo, the Director of Amnesty International for Peru, explained the original civil war as a struggle between an emerging capitalist democracy (with some socialist tendencies) and an insurgency fighting for a Maoist vision of Marxist communism. The conflict can be further placed within Latin America’s common political history, with its lengthy period of colonial domination, and more recently the agrarian revolts in the 60s and the military dictatorships of the ‘70s.

But while the conflict can’t be separated from its political nature, aspects of it are politicized in an unnecessary and counterproductive manner. For example, the Reagan Administration offered financial military aid to Peru. However, perhaps out of a fear that the U.S. had interfered too often and unjustly in Latin America, Reagan withheld direct military assistance that might have ended the war. Even today, the Organization of American States’ and the United Nations’ anti-terrorism efforts ignore the ongoing Sendero conflict, focusing instead on louder Islamist terrorism. The politicization of the conflict is even reflected in the recent presidential election, with Keiko Fujimori casting herself as the tough-on-terror daughter of the Peruvian president who won the war against Sendero, promoting a dangerous dichotomy that posits harsh retributive policies as the only way to successfully combat criminality. Such politicization forecloses efficient and fact-based solutions with distracting rhetoric and misguided priorities.

Nothing is more politicized in Peru than the drug trade. Sendero’s historic and contemporary location, the VRAEM, is also the leading region in the world’s leading country for cocaine production, producing 200-400 tons of approximately 600 tons produced worldwide annually. Shining Path’s involvement in the drug trade has its roots in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the American and Peruvian militaries used interdiction to cut the air bridge transporting cocaine out of the country. In 2001, a civilian airplane was destroyed, which ended interdiction over Peru until 2015, when a controversial policy re-authorized the Peruvian military to shoot down airplanes suspected to be carrying drugs. It was because of interdiction that Sendero started to give security to convoys of 40 or 50 people on horses, each carrying 20-25 kilos of cocaine, who transported drugs from the VRAEM valley to mid-sized cities. With its insider knowledge, Sendero was able to offer security and a police-free route to traffickers in return for a steep profit.

Whether on the anti-terrorism side or the anti-drug trafficking side, responses to Sendero fall prey to an excess of politicization and not enough research-based, targeted problem solving. The problem exists at every level. For example, according to an anonymous OAS official, the OAS will not allow some officials to endorse the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, despite its thorough and unbiased nature, because the Report identified the downfall of Sendero with its own faulty decision-making, rather than as purely a result of government policy. Without understanding, acknowledging, and studying the causes of Shining Path’s downfall, it is hard to see how the Peruvian government can effectively combat its remnants.

Ricardo Soberón feels strongly about the politicization of drug trafficking and terrorism. In fact, he lost his job as Peru’s drug tsar in 2012 because he suspended a program which eradicated coca fields in the Upper Huallaga valley. Mr. Soberon felt that the program was a failure, and wished to re-evaluate its efficacy before continuing. His successor, a woman who had worked for a U.S.-funded anti-drug charity, continued the program. There is ample evidence that a supply-side approach to cocaine trafficking does not work. Traffickers move their fields, elsewhere, and in the meantime, they cut their cocaine powder with something cheap and sell it at the same price – so only the consumer loses. Efforts to shut down airstrips fail similarly: traffickers improvise, using trucks to block highways to create makeshift airstrips, for instance. A law professor named Robert Goldman, who served on the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and was part of an international task force evaluating Fujimori’s response to the Shining Path, echoed Soberón’s thoughts exactly: “The war on drugs has been a massive failure. It operates on a false premise that it’s a supply-side problem only when the demand in the western countries is so high that the potential for profits is almost unlimited.”

As a result of drug trafficking and sporadic Sendero attacks, a section of the VRAEM remains under a state of emergency, suspending Peruvians’ civil liberties and maintaining the military rule of the region – a policy which is particularly exceptional given the low level of risk in these areas. Though attacks do occur, they are rare. Yet 10,000 troops are stationed in the area, and the region under a state of emergency keeps expanding. Soberón’s explanation is illuminating, if true. He argues that the government and military exaggerate or emphasize the threat of Shining Path in order to justify the increased power given to them by the emergency state. Former President Humala, who was largely responsible for the militarization of the VRAEM in the 2000s, was a military man himself. Soberón suggests that instead of militarization, the VRAEM, which is currently distributed among 5 provinces, should be entirely contained within a single province. Although this would be less politically expedient, as it would shift resources away from the wealthier cities near the VRAEM, it would better direct funding towards the neediest areas affected by the drug trade.

Not every aspect of anti-Sendero efforts is so problematic. For example, a pacification effort currently underway aims to build infrastructure and provide alternate employment to drug traffickers in the VRAEM, a sensible solution given strong profit incentives that keep people in the drug trade. Diverting money away from costly and ineffective supply-destruction programs and directing resources instead towards treating the root cause of the drug trade – poverty – might go far towards cutting off Sendero’s drug-related funding. Another uncontroversial solution is the rescue program mentioned above. Recovering Sendero’s captives is particularly effective because Sendero’s recruitment base is not large – they both an unpopular and a very small organization. The more that Peru can utilize research and avoid false narratives or external interests, the better the VRAEM and the rest of the country will start to do.


Charlotte Lawrence is a junior Global Affairs and History major in Ezra Stiles college. Contact her at charlotte.lawrence@yale.edu.