Reacting to a riot in Ayacucho at the beginning of July, Prime Minister Carlos Ferrero was quick to pin the blame on Sendero Luminoso. He was backed up in this assessment by Education Minister Javier Sota Nadal and Interior Minister Javier Reategui. It is often useful for government ministers to have a handy explanation for things when they go wrong, but it is easy to miss the point – perhaps intentionally.

It is well known that Senderista columns maintain military activities in various parts of Peru. Mostly these are remote areas where coca is grown and where Sendero can act to defend coca growers (and quite possibly drug traffickers) in return for arms and money. Such areas include the valleys of the Upper Huallaga, the Ene and the Apurímac. In the case of the latter, Sendero has long maintained a presence in the highland area known as Viscatán that separates to the city of Ayacucho from the River Apurímac to the north.

It is possible that some Sendero sympathisers have been able to win positions of influence in popular movements, including the teachers’ union (SUTEP) which in Ayacucho takes a fairly strident radical line. But to attribute what happened in Ayacucho, when thousands of people took to the streets in support of SUTEP strikers, to the work of Sendero is pure fancy.

Ayacucho remains one of the poorest and least developed parts of Peru, and there is a genuine sentiment among the people of this old and culturally rich city that their needs have persistently been ignored by policy makers in Lima. Indeed, when Sendero Luminoso first emerged on the scene in the 1980s, it was able to build on these feelings of neglect and marginalisation.

While it may be convenient for politicians to brand all signs of discontent and protest as signs of ‘terrorism’ (especially post 9/11), it is a politically expedient way of dodging the real problem. And as protest against an incompetent and (some would say) corrupt government builds up – a general strike was due to be held on July 14 – there is a real danger of government once again resorting to authoritarian and arbitrary methods to confront such protest.

A clear distinction therefore needs to be drawn between the activities of Sendero (which should not in any case be exaggerated) and legitimate protest. Ayacuchanos are the last people to want to return to the horrors of military confrontation with its death toll of nearly 70,000 people. But there is a real danger of Sendero becoming a smokescreen behind which respect for democratic norms is sidelined