Maoist Rebels Force State of Emergency in Peru

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/12/2005)


Masked gunmen launched a surprise attack on nine Peruvian National Police officers while en route from Aucayacu to Tingo Maria on 21 December in Peru's coca-growing department of Huanuco. Eight men died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head; one survived.


Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo announced the next day that specific provinces within the Peruvian departments of Huanuco and Ucavali would be added to the growing list of those under martial law, vowing that the attackers "will pay".


Following the attack, the Peruvian rebel group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) took responsibility in a communiqué for the ambush, stating its intent to "break the siege of annihilation against the popular war". The Peruvian government is now determined to stamp out the remnants of this once powerful rebel organization before it becomes a threat to national security.


However, it is not the Shining Path that is threatening Peruvian national security. It is rather the trade in cocaine and heroin. The resurgence of the rebel group is little more than a symptom of a growing problem with drug trafficking that is not just Peruvian but Andean.


"Drug war" strategies that force coca leaf eradication with little or no development to compensate, leave peasants with no option than to turn to non-state actors for employment. This reality manifests itself in the form of what remains of the Shining Path, an organization kept alive and relevant through a close relationship with Peruvian, Mexican, and Colombian drug traffickers.


Guzman and the Shining Path


Peru's Shining Path rebel group is the armed faction of the Peruvian Communist Party. Led by Abimael Guzman, the group began its armed conflict in 1980 with a total of some 520 armed peasants proclaiming the creation of a Communist-Maoist state as its primary objective.


After a decade of resistance, the rebel group had grown to over 2,000 combatants and, according to the Peruvian government, was responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Peruvians.


When Peruvian authorities captured Guzman in 1992, the Shining Path quickly dispersed, losing the momentum that had been kept up by what had largely become a cult of personality under the leadership of Guzman. But the rebel group was never completely eradicated.


Long after Guzman's imprisonment, members of the Shining Path remained a thorn in the side of Peruvian security officials because they have largely abandoned their political quest in exchange for more immediate returns earned by protecting coca plantations.


According to the Peruvian government, the group has committed 151 acts of violence so far this year. These sporadic attacks, when taken as a whole, represent a clear ability to use force to protect the coca-growing regions of Peru.


Peruvian sociologist and political analyst Jaime Antezana says these attacks are a display of power and not political. "An alliance between the remains of the Sendero Luminoso and narco-traffickers has been formed to defend coca," Antezana told Reuters, adding, "With ambushes [on police officers] and military base attacks, the SL is demonstrating power."


Most observers agree that these attacks are not part of an overall revolutionary strategy to take over the state, but headline-grabbing incidents that prove to their patrons in the drug-trafficking world that the Shining Path is still able to carry out military exercises.


"The latest actions are troubling, but they reflect activity in the drug-producing region and have to do with the nature of the drug trade more than the resurgence of a strategic threat to Peru," Michael Shifter, a senior fellow with the Washington, DC-based Inter-American Dialogue policy organization, told ISN Security Watch.


"The Sendero Luminoso is quite a different expression today, and more closely linked to the drug trade," Shifter added.


As the April 2006 presidential elections approach, the Shining Path may step up attacks to draw attention to a need for better policy for Peru's struggling coca-growing provinces, observers say.


Within these provinces, drug eradication programs forcibly eradicate coca plantations, but do little to provide social assistance or development programs to support the peasants they leave behind jobless.


The Shining Path's growing numbers reflect the increasing number of angry peasants left with little option than to join the Shining Path, the only employer in many coca-growing regions of Peru. The rebel group can pay up to US$150 a month for work that contributes to the protection of coca plantations and drug shipments.


A symptom of regional problems


A strategic alliance formed between drug traffickers and local strongmen has enabled Shining Path leaders to finance their activities. Much like the alliances formed between drug traffickers and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), both international and domestic drug traffickers in Peru have hired the Shining Path to protect their lucrative plantations of coca leaf and opium poppies.


According to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime Coca Cultivation Survey, "coca surface" in Peru grew 14 per cent in 2004, bringing production to 1998 levels at 50,300 hectares. Bolivia achieved a 17 per cent increase in 2004, while Colombia experienced a 7 per cent decrease.


These numbers point to the possibility of a displacement of coca leaf production from Colombia to Bolivia and Peru. They also indicate that poor projection of sovereignty into the highlands of Bolivia and Peru allows non-state actors to fill the power vacuum. In Colombia, these actors are the FARC and the right-wing paramilitary units that oppose them. In Peru, these actors are the remaining members of the Shining Path.


Observers also note that in some cases, Peruvian peasants eradicate coca leaf bushes by hand to make way for opium poppies, the precursor plant for heroin production. Reports indicate that Peruvian peasants are growing nearly 5,000 hectares of opium poppy, a figure that represents over 25 per cent of all poppy production in Colombia.


In early 2000, Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers distributed poppy seeds for free in the Peruvian highlands, making contacts and promising to return. They returned with cash, paying up to US$1,000 for 1 kilogram of opium latex - the sap collected from opium poppy plants just before the flowering stage. These earnings are considerable when compared to the US$50 that a Peruvian coca leaf farmer earns for a 12-kilogram bag.


The highlands of Peru may soon be decorated with opium poppies. This crop would provide more financial incentive for the Shining Path to remain involved, recruit more soldiers, and maintain a close relationship with drug traffickers.


Security and poor politics


The Shining Path has thrived under the leadership of President Toledo for two reasons.


First, his drug eradication policy is unbalanced. There is simply too much eradication and not enough social support and development. As long as there is no market for licit crops, there will be no incentive to stop farming coca leaves or opium poppies.


Second, the state presence in the Peruvian highlands has decreased since Toledo entered office in mid-2001. Toledo's decision to reduce defense spending on regional military outposts left these areas manned by the National Police, an easier target for rebels and drug traffickers. Reduced spending on intelligence has also affected the Peruvian government's ability to track and interdict the movement of organized crime and rebel groups.


Toledo's presidency has been all but a complete failure. In mid-2004, his popularity rating hovered below 10 per cent. Toledo's promise of more economic options for the poor has gone unfulfilled. Dependence on illicit actors has grown. Peru's future is less stable now than ever. Gaping holes in security are now filled by a resurgent rebel group and foreign drug traffickers.


The Shining Path provides a buffer between the government and organized crime that controls drug trafficking in Peru - the true threat to Peruvian national security. Toledo seems to have missed this point. The most significant difference between now and years ago, when the Shining Path killed some 30,000 Peruvians in one decade, is in the available funding. The rebels also have fresh human capital.


With no jobs and no other options, more peasants than ever are now willing to join up. It is a cause that is no longer about proletariat politics, but about money. As long as the drug trade continues to grow, the Shining Path will continue to kill officers of the Peruvian National Police and others just to prove they can protect it.