Sendero casts a long shadow

16 September 2017

As Peru recalls the arrest of Abimael Guzman exactly 25 years ago (12 September 1992), there has been a lot of soul-searching in the media about the nature of Sendero Luminoso, the circumstances under which it was neutralised, and the longer-term impact that this had on Peruvian politics.

On this last point, Peru has shown just how hard it has been to bury the hatchet and to achieve a modicum of institutionalised reconciliation. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose report was published in 2003, aimed to create the grounds for a coming-together and the reaffirmation of democratic values. But its conclusions were never fully accepted and its recommendations only partially implemented.

Whereas in other countries guerrilla leaders have found a way to work within formal political structures, this has proved impossible in Peru. In Uruguay and Brazil, guerrilla leaders were even elected presidents in the shape of Dilma Rousseff and Pepe Mújica; in Bolivia a former guerrilla leader is currently vice-president. In El Salvador, the FMLN also won power by democratic means. Even in Colombia, with its 60-year legacy of armed conflict, the reintegration of insurgent groups into the political life of a country proved possible; first with the M-19 and now (hopefully) with the FARC. But in Peru this has so far proved not possible.

In part, this is due to the uncompromising ideology of Sendero Luminoso and the extreme violence of the methods it used between 1980 and 1992, violating human rights. Sendero always rejected electoral politics in favour of armed struggle. But it is also due to the fact that among more conservative groups, especially in the armed forces, there has always been little or no willingness to accept reconciliation; Sendero was a terrorist group defeated by military force and only after much military blood had been spilled. Why look to ways to reincorporate former insurgents into the life of the nation? Is it not better that they are forever outlawed?

This is a debate that has come into focus with the activities of Movadef, an organisation spawned by Sendero but which purports to work within civil society. Most recently Movadef has shown its face among the more radical sectors of striking teachers. Should this group be outlawed? There are many sectors, probably the majority, that argue that it should. But ostracising what’s left of Sendero come at a cost in the longer run, especially in a climate of growing public frustration with politics as usual.

The unwillingness to accept such reconciliation reflects the strength of the right in Peru, especially in the shape of Fujimorismo. This is partly the consequence of the Fujimori regime’s success in defeating Sendero militarily (or at least marginalising it). The strength of Fujimorismo has acted as a major obstacle to the remedying of human rights violations by members of the armed forces. Supporters argue that it is a scandal that Alberto Fujimori has been jailed on account of human rights violations and that he should be immediately freed and his role in defeating Sendero acknowledged.

At the same time, the war with Sendero was a major factor in the eclipse of the left in Peru from the late 1980s onwards. Not only did the war help destroy much of the social and political organisation that had underpinned the left, but it opened it up to the accusation of being ‘fellow travellers’ and sympathisers with the idea of armed struggle. This was an argument cleverly deployed by Fujimori during his period in office, with many on the left since accused of being ‘terrorists’.

So the prospects of a Colombia-like process of reconciliation seem to be still a long way off in today’s Peru. The legacy of Sendero Luminoso will continue to cast a long shadow over the politics of the present. Meanwhile the reasons for Sendero’s growth and expansion in the 1980s, suggested by the report of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission still need to be properly assimilated.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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