Communist Terror in Peru

Encompassing almost a half-million square miles in western South America, Peru is the third largest country on the continent.  The country had 17.8 million inhabitants in the 1981 census—a year after the beginning of communist terror—and 31.2 million in 2017, the last census.[1]  Peru is governed under a semi-presidential system during periods of constitutional rule.

During the long dictatorship of Augusto Leguía (1919-1930), two young rivals from Peru’s student-worker movement established political parties that would play major roles in the country’s future.  Forced into a long exile in 1923, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre founded the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) in Mexico the next year.  APRA is theoretically a continental party, but it took root only in Peru.

Although he visited the Soviet Union and borrowed liberally from Marxism-Leninism, Haya broke with international communism in 1927 by refusing to sign a declaration condemning imperialism at the World Anti-Imperialist Congress in Brussels.[2]  Haya maintained that economic imperialism was the first stage of capitalism in Peru and other Latin American countries.  Moreover, he argued that capitalism had to be tempered, but not prematurely destroyed, by a disciplined populist party and a strong state.  Thus, APRA’s emerging ideology called for an alliance of middle sectors, workers, and peasants against foreign economic interests and the Peruvian elite.  It was also sufficiently flexible to give Haya and APRA’s middle class intelligentsia almost total discretion to guide the party.[3]

Meanwhile, in Haya’s absence, José Carlos Mariátegui, had emerged as the major leader of the left in Peru.  In the pages of Amauta—a diverse journal of continental and even global influence—and a famous book first published in 1928,[4] he creatively melded Marxism with Peru’s Andean heritage.[5]  In contrast to APRA, Mariátegui distrusted the middle class and saw workers and peasants, particularly miners, as the potential protagonists of a socialist revolution. He founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP) in October 1928, affiliating it with the Communist International, and the General Confederation of Workers of Peru (CGTP) in May 1929.

Once Joseph Stalin gained a firm grip on power in the Soviet Union, “the Communist International became increasingly intolerant of ‘nationalist deviations’ from its official Marxism.”  The PSP was censured at the first Latin American Communist Conference at Buenos Aires in June 1929.[6]  After Mariátegui’s untimely death at the age of 35 in April 1930, the PSP changed its name to the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) and began to faithfully follow orders from Moscow under Eudosio Ravines and successive leaders.[7]  The new party was outlawed later that year after supporting mining strikes.

Whereas the PCP became a secondary political player, important in the labor movement and student politics, APRA emerged as Peru’s first mass-based and most enduring political party.  After Haya’s defeat in the 1931 presidential election and a failed insurrection in 1934, APRA was banned and repressed until 1945.  Article 53 of the 1933 Constitution, which outlawed “political parties of international organization,” was often invoked to prevent APRA and the PCP from fielding candidates in elections.  Following a brief democratic opening at the conclusion of World War II, both parties were persecuted during the dictatorship of General Manuel Odría (1948-56).  

In 1956 APRA helped restore Peruvian democracy and became more moderate.  Backed by prominent members of Peru’s economic elite in the 1962 election, Haya won a razor-thin plurality over Fernando Belaúnde, a young reformist.  But the traditionally conservative military, APRA’s nemesis, had become a force for change in the wake of the 1959 Cuban revolution and a wave of peasant unrest in the Peruvian sierra.  The military blocked Haya’s election, took power for a year, and imposed new electoral rules that all but assured Belaúnde’s victory over Haya in a 1963 rematch.  Forming a cynical alliance with the supporters of Odría that commanded majorities in both houses of Congress, APRA used the parliamentary weapons of Peru’s semi-presidential regime to block Belaúnde’s reformist program, especially land redistribution.

The Peruvian left began to fragment in the 1960s under the influence of the Cuban Revolution and the impact of the Sino-Soviet split.  Peru’s first guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), were largely formed by disgruntled former militants of APRA and the PCP.  The Sino-Soviet split led to the 1964 rupture of the PCP, with the two successor parties being identified by the names of their respective newspapers.  The PCP-Unidad was pro-Moscow and open to electoral politics, having given last-minute support to Belaúnde in 1963.  The PCP-Bandera Roja was Maoist and believed that armed struggle was inevitable.[8]  Many more schisms of the left took place in the years that followed.

Having lost patience with Peruvian democracy and facing the prospect of an APRA victory in the 1969 election, the military removed Belaúnde from office in October 1968.  Under the leadership of General Juan Velasco, the armed forces pursued a state-led development strategy, redistributive reforms, and a nationalist foreign policy.  Peru recognized the Soviet Union and China, while resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba.  PCP-Unidad and the CGTP supported the military government, in which prominent leftists held important posts.

The October 1973 oil shock and ensuing world recession led to higher prices for petroleum—which Peru had begun to import—declining prices for the country’s commodities, and a sudden end to external credit. After Velasco expropriated Peru’s independent newspapers, APRA orchestrated rioting and mass looting during a 1975 police strike.  His more conservative successor, General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, halted plans for more radical schemes of redistribution, but did not reverse the military’s land reform.

Although external factors had triggered the economic downturn of the mid-1970s, the long period of decline that followed was largely a consequence of the inefficient state-dominated economy that had taken shape under Velasco.  Between 1976 and 1992—when Peru’s major terrorist organization was substantially defeated—per capita real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell at an annual average rate of 2.1%.[9]  Periodic austerity packages required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became a routine part of Peruvian politics, but they did not solve the underlying problem and sparked unprecedented waves of strikes and social protests, largely led by a heterogeneous “new left” that had captured the allegiance of a generation of Peruvian youth.  A beleaguered Morales Bermúdez turned to APRA for support in exchange for a return to democracy.  At the very end of his life, Haya presided over an elected assembly that drafted the 1979 Constitution, which eliminated literacy requirements that had kept many indigenous Peruvians from voting.

[1] Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), Perú: Perfil Sociodemográfico. Informe Nacional (Lima, 2018), 13.

[2] Peter Flindell Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 260.

[3] Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, El Antiimperialismo y el APRA (Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2010). The original version of this text was written in 1928 and first published in 1935.

[4] José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (Lima: Editorial Minerva, 1928).

[5] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 262.

[6] David P. Werlich, Peru: A Short History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 186.

[7] A small splinter group led by Luciano Castillo continued to use the PSP banner.

[8] Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR), Informe Final (Lima, 2003), Tomo II, 16.

[9] Calculated from Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), Perú: Producto Bruto Interno Total y Por Habitante, 1950-2017 (Valores a precios constantes de 2007).  (Accessed 26 October 2021.)


Communist Terrorist Groups

During the 1980s, two communist insurgencies challenged Peru’s fledgling, more inclusive democracy, as it struggled with continuing economic decline, a growing debt crisis, hyperinflation, and successive waves of strikes and social protests.

By far the most serious threat came from the Shining Path, a fanatical movement founded by Abimael Guzmán in the impoverished Ayacucho region of the south central sierra.  After taking a teaching job at the newly reopened Huamanga University in 1962, Guzmán founded the clandestine Red Faction within the PCP, took the side of the Maoist PCP-Bandera Roja in the 1964 schism, and visited China during the Cultural Revolution.  Following his expulsion from Bandera Roja, the Red Faction became the PCP-Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in 1970.[1]  The name of the new party came from a Huamanga student slogan “by the shining path of Mariátegui”[2] and from Mariátegui’s assertion that “Marxism-Leninism will open the shining path to revolution.”[3]  

Guzmán, a spellbinding professor of philosophy, used a simplistic, rigid version of Marxism to win a zealous following of students from mostly peasant backgrounds who had few opportunities for upward mobility.  Indeed, he “was known as Dr. Shampoo for his ability to brainwash potential recruits to his movement.”[4] However, Guzmán was afflicted by a severe blood disorder that prevented him from living at the high altitudes of the sierra after 1972.  He was forced to take extensive leaves from the university and eventually to resign his post in early 1976.  After initiating the armed struggle in May 1980, Guzmán led the Shining Path from clandestine locations in Lima or other urban areas along the coast, though he could take short trips up to the sierra.[5]

While other leftist parties tried to organize workers, peasants, and other groups during the social unrest of the late 1970s, the Shining Path turned inward, developing well-disciplined cadres who were personally devoted to its leader, had faith in his utopian vision, and unquestioningly believed in the scientific certainty of their eventual triumph. Indeed, by the early 1980s militants had to sign a “letter of submission” to Guzmán[6] and were expected to sacrifice their lives if requested by the party.[7]  In the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, their resolve was stiffened by the mystique of Guzmán’s leadership, constant ideological reinforcement, and the party’s comradery, rituals, and propaganda.

The Shining Path was openly contemptuous of “revisionist” communist parties in the Soviet Union, Cuba, and post-Mao China.  Within Peru, Guzmán dismissed the leaders of the United Left—an alliance of the PCP-Unidad and various new left groups that became a formidable electoral force in the 1980s—as “parliamentary cretins.”[8]  Drawing a clear contrast with revisionism abroad and at home, he maintained that violence was indispensable for destroying the old state and its repressive forces, after which the new dictatorship of the exploited must “use their state to repress and crush any resistance.”[9]  The forthcoming victory of the Shining Path in Peru sometime in the 1990s would be the first step in the resurgence of world revolution after the failures of revisionism, including the Tiananmen massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.[10]  Guzmán considered himself to be the fourth sword of world communism after Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and even believed that he could become the greatest communist leader ever.[11]  At the beginning of the armed struggle in 1980, he predicted that the world revolution would triumph within 50 years.[12]

The Shining Path had only 51 militants when it was founded in 1970, 520 members and close sympathizers when it initiated the armed struggle in 1980, and around 2,700 at its apogee in 1990, not counting those in the Huallaga Valley (see below).  The ranks of its Popular Guerrilla Army, who were not fully integrated into the party, reached 5,000.[13]  Ironically, the socioeconomic disparities of Peru were replicated within the party: Guzmán and most of the leadership were light skinned and from middle class backgrounds, while most in the rank and file were aspiring mestizos (people of mixed race).[14]  Women played prominent roles in the Shining Path, often leading patrols and administering the coup de grâce to victims.[15] 

Although the Shining Path won some early support in Ayacucho—primarily among youth— and even gained tenuous control of some rural areas where the Peruvian state had scant presence, most peasants eventually rejected its attempts to brutally impose a rigid, puritanical brand of communism and to starve urban areas by limiting food crops and disrupting markets. After the armed forces took control of counterinsurgency efforts from the police in early 1983, the Shining Path began to shift most of its operations to other parts of the country, dynamiting Peru’s power grid, road network, and other key infrastructure.  Electricity blackouts and water cut-offs became common, indeed routine, in Lima and other major cities, while harvests often rotted in the interior for lack of transportation.  In urban areas, the Shining Path destroyed government buildings, factories, gas stations, the headquarters of political parties, and other targets.  Although its cadres were largely unsuccessful in their attempts to take over popular organizations in Lima and other major cities, they were sometimes able to shut down urban areas by intimidating bus drivers to stay off the streets.

Whereas the Shining Path resembled a deadly cult, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) was a more conventional Latin American insurgency that drew inspiration from Ché Guevara and was named after Túpac Amaru II, who had led a massive uprising against the Spanish colonial order.  The movement originated in a 1980 merger between one of the remnants of the Castroite MIR insurgency of the 1960s and a small leftist party formed by supporters of the Velasco military government.  The fledgling party briefly joined the United Left but broke with this alliance of legal leftist parties in 1982 to pursue armed struggle.

At its peak, several hundred militants filled the ranks of the MRTA, which was active in Lima and along the eastern slopes of the sierra.  Its leader, Víctor Polay, was from an APRA family and had been the roommate of Alan García—a former protégé of Haya who was elected president of Peru in 1985—when the two studied in Paris.  In contrast to the Shining Path's disdain for public opinion and its proclivity for intimidation, the MRTA staged actions designed to generate publicity, popular support, and funds.  Its first armed operation was a bank robbery. Like Robin Hood, members of the movement hijacked food trucks and distributed their contents to the poor.  The MRTA often attacked U.S. targets, especially branches of Citibank and outlets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The MRTA was largely autonomous on the world stage, though it received some assistance from Cuba.[16]   

Both insurgencies obtained most of their financing from coca—which became Peru’s leading export during the 1980s—by serving as intermediaries between peasant farmers in the high jungle and the mostly Colombian processors who refined the leaves of this Andean shrub into cocaine for the U.S. market.  In 1987 the Shining Path ousted the MRTA from the Upper Huallaga Valley, which at that time produced more coca than any other place in the world. 

As economic chaos and political violence continued to escalate, Peruvians elected a political outsider, Alberto Fujimori, to be the country’s president in 1990.  In April 1992 Fujimori disrupted Peru’s tenuous democracy by closing Congress and taking over the judiciary and regional governments.  In May he launched a bloody assault on cell blocks in Lima's Canto Grande Prison that had been effectively controlled by the Shining Path’s highly disciplined militants.  The insurgency retaliated with a brutal car bombing campaign in the capital during June and July.  As security experts speculated that Guzmán was planning a Tet-style offensive, the anti-terrorist unit of the National Police captured him in a Lima safe house in September.  Hundreds of militants, including virtually all of the central committee, were soon arrested. Many more later surrendered to authorities under the terms of the so‑called repentance law, or simply abandoned the struggle.

Meanwhile, the MRTA’s Polay had been captured in early 1989, but he and 47 comrades escaped from prison under suspicious circumstances in July 1990 during the waning weeks of his former roommate’s presidency.  After Polay was recaptured in 1992, Néstor Cerpa became the movement’s principal leader.  In its last operation, the MRTA seized the residence of the Japanese ambassador in December 1996 during the annual celebration of the emperor’s birthday.  After a tense standoff that lasted more than three months, Peruvian commandos freed the remaining hostages and killed all of the MRTA militants, including Cerpa. 

[1] Carlos Iván Degregori, "Return to the Past," in David Scott Palmer, ed., Shining Path of Peru (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 34-35; CVR, Informe Final, Tomo II, 17.

[2] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo II, 17.

[3] "Shining-Path," (Accessed 27 October 2021.)

[4] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 371.

[5] Gustavo Gorriti, The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 192-97.

[6] Carlos Iván Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 88-89.

[7] Gorriti, The Shining Path, 99, 104.       

[8] Gorriti, The Shining Path, 122-23.

[9] Gorriti, The Shining Path, 123-27.

[10] Gorriti, The Shining Path, xv; Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 84.

[11] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 89.

[12] Gorriti, The Shining Path, 34; Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 88.

[13] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 22, 190(n3).

[14] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 368; Degregori, "Return to the Past," 40-41.

[15] Nathanial C. Nash, “Lima Journal; Shining Path Women: So Many and So Ferocious,” The New York Times (September 22, 1992), A 4.

[16] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 377.



Following Fujimori’s resignation and the restoration of democracy in 2001, an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), comprised of distinguished academics and public figures, worked for two years to produce an exhaustive report on the political violence that had plagued Peru during the preceding two decades.  The CVR received reports of 23,969 killed or missing between 1980 and 2000, but it estimated the total number of fatalities at 69,280, almost three times as many.[1]  The vast bulk of deaths took place before the 1992 capture of Guzmán.  The worst years were 1984, when the violence was still concentrated in Ayacucho, and 1989-1990, after it had become national in scope.[2]   

The severe violence had a disproportionate impact on the most marginal members of Peruvian society.  The region of Ayacucho—one of the poorest in Peru, where more than 81% of the population is indigenous—has only 2.1% of the country’s population but suffered almost 38% of the deaths estimated by the CVR and more than 40% of reported deaths and disappearances.[3]  Ayacucho and the neighboring regions of Apurímac, Huancavelica, Junín, Huánuco, and San Martín accounted for about 85% of all reported victims, but their share of national income is only 9%.[4]

Nationally, more than 35% of deaths and disappearances occurred in the poorest quintile of Peru’s districts (the smallest geographic units), but only about 10% in the most affluent quintile.  Similarly, the number of reported deaths and disappearances in rural areas was three times their respective share of the population.  Moreover, three quarters of the reported victims were native speakers of Quechua and other indigenous languages, who comprise only a fifth of the population.[5]  The victims of the violence were overwhelmingly young, male, and poorly educated.[6]

According to the CVR, the “immediate and fundamental cause” of the prolonged violence was the Shining Path’s decision to take up arms against the Peruvian state.[7]  This insurgency “was responsible for the systematic and massive use of methods of extreme violence and terror” that resulted in 54% of the deaths and disappearances reported to the CVR and 46% of estimated deaths.[8]  For Guzmán, violence was a tool for hammering ideas into the minds of the masses.[9]  In addition to assassinating government officials, members of the military and police, local authorities, prosperous peasants, and other “enemies of the people,” the Shining Path did not hesitate to kill leaders of peasant communities and popular organizations who did not accept its hegemony.  “The Shining Path employed assassinations as a means of eliminating all those actors who represented a counterweight or posed some sort of opposition or resistance (peaceful or armed) to this organization.  Likewise, the murders were used as a method of punishment, retaliation, or threat in the face of any attempted opposition, which is why they constituted generalized or systematic terrorist practices.”[10]

The Shining Path probably achieved its greatest degree of territorial control in the sparsely populated jungle of eastern Junín, home to the Asháninka tribe and an area where the government was virtually absent.  Many Asháninkas were forced to relocate and enslaved.  The Shining Path compelled some to kill friends, neighbors, and members of their own families.  The insurgency turned women and girls into sex slaves, while boys became child soldiers.[11]

The abduction of minors—about three-quarters boys and one-quarter girls—was widely practiced by the Shining Path in the regions of greatest violence.  Away from their homes, young children were forced to work as look-outs, messengers, porters, cooks, maids, and cultivators.  Those who were at least twelve years old became soldiers.  They participated in operations, and sometimes had to throw live sticks of dynamite at targets.[12]

Government security forces greatly increased the toll of violence by indiscriminately killing many people suspected of supporting the insurgents, especially during the 1983-85 period.  “In 1983, the armed forces entered an unknown territory in which they exercised indiscriminate repression: anyone was a potential enemy.”  Many of the units first deployed in the Ayacucho region were marines from the navy, “the most racist branch of the military” whose recruits primarily came from Lima and the rest of the coast, the most Hispanic part of Peru.[13]  During the two decades of the conflict, the armed forces were responsible for 29% of the deaths and disappearances reported to the CVR and 30% of estimated deaths.[14]

Although both the Shining Path and the armed forces committed massacres, about two- thirds of all victims died in groups of four or fewer people.  In other words, both sides selectively targeted most of their victims.  A major difference was that the military usually “disappeared” people before killing them.[15]  The Shining Path, on the other hand, frequently used “popular trials” and public executions to demonstrate “revolutionary justice” and intimidate the population.  Members of peasant communities were sometimes forced to carry out sentences against their neighbors, and bodies were frequently flagged with derogatory placards and left to decompose.[16]  Nor did the Shining Path attempt to cover up its mass killings—often carried out by extremely cruel methods— because these were justified by the party’s ideology and demonstrated that it was successfully carrying out its mission.[17]  Similarly, the assassinations of high profile targets in Lima and other urban areas—government officials, military officers, and business owners—were designed to instill terror, spread mistrust, and create the image of an unstable and vulnerable government.[18]

While the military gradually learned from its mistakes, the Shining Path became more ruthless.  The marines were replaced with soldiers from the army, who mostly came from the sierra, were more likely to be mestizo or indigenous, and in many cases even spoke Quechua. “[T]he army improved relations with villagers, fraternizing with them at community festivals, distributing tools and food, and assisting in development projects.”[19]  Moreover, “the armed forces did not seek total control of everyday life, as Shining Path did.”[20]  As it broadened the war, the insurgency placed increasing demands on peasants and became crueler and more indiscriminate in enforcing them.[21]  Peasants began supplying badly needed intelligence to the military, and under Fujimori the government provided light arms to peasant militias (rondas campesinas) and self-defense groups.[22]  By the time of Guzmán’s capture in 1992, local alliances of soldiers and peasants had largely defeated the Shining Path throughout rural Peru.[23]  

Almost a quarter of the killings estimated by the CVR (24%) were committed by peasant militias, self-defense groups, the MRTA, paramilitary groups, or unidentified agents.[24]  The MRTA accounted for 1.5% of reported deaths and disappearances and also carried out dozens of kidnappings with the goal of obtaining ransoms.[25] The CVR documented  6,443 cases of torture or inhumane treatment, primarily by government actors.[26]  At least 200,000 refugees fled the war-ravaged countryside, abandoning no less than 1.2 million hectares of farmland and exacerbating the problems of Lima's squatter settlements.  Many Peruvians were denied due process, due to anti-terrorist legislation enacted after Fujimori’s 1992 presidential coup. 

[1] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 53.

[2] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 54, 176 and Anexo Estadístico, 22, 84.

[3] INEI, Perú: Perfil Sociodemográfico, 20, 219; CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 53, 158.

[4] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 158.

[5] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 159-161.

[6] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 161-65.

[7] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 54.

[8] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 54 and Anexo 2, 13.

[9] Degregori, "Return to the Past," 40-41. 

[10] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 20.

[11] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 711-12.  See also Gustavo Gorriti, “Terror in the Andes: The Flight of the Asháninkas,” The New York Times Magazine (December 2, 1990), 40-45, 48, 65-66, 68, 71-72.

[12] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 613-17, 621.

[13] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 152.

[14] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 55 and Anexo 2, 13.

[15] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 165-66.

[16] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 52-53.

[17] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 28-29, 54-55.

[18] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 46.

[19] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 411.

[20] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 152.

[21] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 151, 153; Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 410-11.

[22] Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes, 410.

[23] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 74, 151.

[24] CVR, Informe Final, Anexo 2, 13.

[25] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 550 and Anexo Estadístico, 84.

[26] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VI, 183.



The Shining Path has not posed a major threat since Guzmán’s 1992 capture, even though it was never eradicated.  In 1993, a convicted Guzmán requested talks for a peace agreement and began to praise Fujimori’s authoritarian regime without renouncing the ultimate objectives of the Shining Path.  His overtures—which were publicized and exploited by the government—created a major rift in the movement that he had founded.  Guzmán continued to command the allegiance of many in its dwindling ranks, especially among the old guard and those imprisoned.  Óscar Ramírez—the only member of Sendero’s politburo to remain at large after 1992—led a rival faction committed to armed resistance, which had become ineffective by the time of his own capture in 1999.[1]

Remnants of the Shining Path linked to the drug trade have been sporadically active during the new millennium.  A faction allied with Guzmán and led by Eleuterio Flores was based in the Upper Huallaga Valley.  It suffered heavy losses in 2010-12, including the capture of Flores, who was sentenced to life in prison.  The principal faction opposed to any peace deal evolved into the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (MPCP) and is based in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM), which has become the new center of Peru’s coca cultivation.  Shortly before the 2021 presidential runoff, it killed 16 people in a village in the area, leaving pamphlets that warned people not to vote.[2] 

In contrast to the fading but occasionally lethal shadow of the Shining Path, the MRTA ceased to operate after the deaths of Néstor Cerpa and his comrades in 1997.  Víctor Polay, its original leader, is scheduled to be released from prison in early 2023. 

After Peruvian democracy was restored, Guzmán and the captured members of the Shining Path received new trials because they had been convicted by military courts.  Guzmán and other major leaders once again received life terms, but some lower ranking members were released or subsequently completed their sentences.  In 2018 Guzmán and ten other leaders of the movement—including Ramírez and the founder’s wife, Elena Iparraguirre—received life sentences for the 1992 Tarata car bombing in a prosperous district of Lima.[3]  Guzmán died in prison on September 11, 2021.  Congress rushed to pass a law that allowed the government to cremate his body, so that a gravesite could not be used as a rallying point for his followers.   

Former President Alberto Fujimori is serving a 25-year sentence for ordering a death squad to kill suspected members of the Shining Path and other convictions.  Vladimiro Montesinos— the principal architect of Fujimori’s counterinsurgency policies and chief persecutor of his political opponents— is also in prison and faces additional trials.  The CVR maintains that Fujimori and Montesinos exaggerated and manipulated the terrorist threat after the captures of Polay and Guzmán in order to perpetuate the regime and cover up their own crimes. Paradoxically, the revelation of Montesino’s involvement in a gun-running operation to the FARC insurgency in Colombia hastened the fall of the Fujimori government in 2000.[4]

In addition to exacting very high human and economic costs that were immediately felt, two decades of political violence in Peru left many widows and orphans, robbed childhoods, destroyed educational opportunities, stigmatized communities and entire regions, and increased alcoholism and drug dependence.  The brutal ways in which many killings were carried out and frequent denials of the rites of mourning created large reservoirs of repressed grief.  Most of the conflict took place in Andean communities, often undermining traditional bonds and family ties, destroying local social and governance structures, and unleashing emotions of fear, mistrust, anxiety, resentment, and even hate.[5]  The adverse psychological tolls have had negative impacts on the physical health of many.

Peru has taken some modest steps to address the legacy of violence.  The mere acknowledgement of suffering in CVR hearings held throughout the country—particularly the highly disproportionate losses in the rural sierra and central jungle, often recounted in indigenous languages—was therapeutic.  An award-winning and widely disseminated documentary is based on the work of the CVR.[6]  In 2005, Peru established a reparations system that has made small, but symbolically significant payments to victims (Law 28,592).  In 2015 exhibits on the two decades of violence opened at the Place of Memory, Tolerance, and Social Inclusion (LUM) in Lima.  The era of violence is examined in curricula of the country’s schools.  However, historical memory is contested in Peru, as elsewhere.  In particular, many Peruvians feel that the CVR’s extensive documentation of violence by the military and its discussion of the inequities of Peruvian society had the effect of lessening or even negating the Shining Path’s responsibility for atrocities.

From a broader perspective, Peru has clearly made progress since the substantive defeat of terrorism in 1992.  Economic growth resumed in 1993 after Fujimori’s pro-market reforms and then intensified with the commodity boom earlier in this century.  By the end of 2019, GDP had grown in real terms for 21 consecutive years, as the size of the economy increased two and a half times.  From 2004 to 2016, the poverty rate fell from 58.7% to 20.7%, and the rate of extreme poverty plummeted from 16.4% to 3.8%.[7]  During its bicentennial year of 2021, Peru completed an unprecedented 20 years of uninterrupted democracy.

Nevertheless, the deep divisions that facilitated the rise of the Shining Path and the MRTA persist.  The recent economic boom primarily benefitted Lima and other areas of the coast, which had long been the richest part of Peru and home to most of its small white population.  The rest of the country—especially the largely indigenous southern Andes—lagged far behind.  Many advocates of greater equality complain that the legacies of violence and failed statist economic policies unfairly stigmatize their efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Peruvians within a democratic framework.  Respondents to Peruvian public opinion polls have long expressed mistrust of the country’s democratic institutions and frustration with endemic corruption, rising crime, and poor public services.

With the end of the commodity boom, economic growth began to taper in 2013, and GDP fell by 11.1% during the COVID pandemic and quarantine, leading to a resurgence of poverty.[8] In the 2021 presidential election, Pedro Castillo—a rural schoolteacher from the northern sierra who ran as the candidate of a Marxist Leninist party—won a razor-thin victory.  Two individuals in his initial cabinet appeared to have ties to the Shining Path, further raising concerns among many Peruvians.  The new president subsequently tried to disassociate himself from terrorism.

The future of Peru is very uncertain.

[1] Degregori, How Difficult It Is To Be God, 28-36.

[2] BBC News, “Peru's Shining Path Kills 16, Including Children, Ahead of Polls,” (May 25, 2021). (Accessed November 1, 2021).

[3] Jacqueline Fowks, “La Justicia Peruana Condena a la Cúpula de Sendero Luminoso a Cadena Perpetua por Segunda Vez,” El País (September 11, 2018). (Accessed November 1, 2021).

[4] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo I, 76-77.

[5] CVR, Informe Final, Tomo VIII, 167-266.

[6] State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism (New York: Skylight Productions, 2005).  Available in English and Spanish.

[7] Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), (Accessed October 27, 2021.)

[8] The World Bank, “The World Bank in Peru,” (Accessed November 1, 2021.)


BBC News, “Peru's Shining Path Kills 16, Including Children, Ahead of Polls,” (May 25, 2021). (Accessed November 1, 2021)

Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR), Informe Final (Lima, 2003)

Degregori, Carlos Iván. "Return to the Past," in David Scott Palmer, ed., Shining Path of Peru (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992).

Degregori, Carlos Iván. How Difficult It Is To Be God (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012)

Fowks, Jacqueline. “La Justicia Peruana Condena a la Cúpula de Sendero Luminoso a Cadena Perpetua por Segunda Vez,” El País (September 11, 2018) (Accessed November 1, 2021)

Gorriti, Gustavo. The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

Gorriti, Gustavo. “Terror in the Andes: The Flight of the Asháninkas,” The New York Times Magazine (December 2, 1990).

Haya de la Torre, Víctor Raúl. El Antiimperialismo y el APRA (Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2010)

Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), (Accessed 27 October 2021.)

Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), Perú: Perfil Sociodemográfico. Informe Nacional (Lima, 2018)

Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI), Perú: Producto Bruto Interno Total y Por Habitante, 1950-2017 (Valores a precios constantes de 2007).  (Accessed 26 October 2021.)

Klarén, Peter Flindell. Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (Lima: Editorial Minerva, 1928)

Nash Nathanial C. “Lima Journal; Shining Path Women: So Many and So Ferocious,” The New York Times (September 22, 1992)

“Shining-Path," (Accessed 27 October 2021.)

State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism (New York: Skylight Productions, 2005)

The World Bank, “The World Bank in Peru,” (Accessed November 1, 2021.)

Werlich, David P. Peru: A Short History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978)