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Peru's guerrillas exploit economic troubles. Shining Path joins labor strike in first attempt to build political front with leftist parties

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The MRTA, a pro-Cuban, Marxist-Leninist group with links to Colombia's M-19 guerrillas, was largely an urban guerrilla group until last October, when it launched its first rural guerrilla column. In the first week of November, MRTA took over a provincial town and a few small villages in the central northeast province of San Mart'in. Far more publicity conscious than the hermetic Sendero, MRTA allowed one take over to be filmed by a national television crew. Guerrilla leaders gave press interviews, were shown dancing with local girls, and refrained from any of the typical Sendero practices of killing government officials. They called for a program of peace and justice and demanded better wages for workers.

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The public's fairly warm reception of this new style of guerrilla, in contrast to Sendero, prompted a flustered President Garc'ia to first condemn, then offer to negotiate with the MRTA if it would lay down arms. When this was rejected, the government declared San Mart'in under military emergency and sent in the Army.

The Army has scored some successes against MRTA, chasing various columns into the far reaches of San Mart'in and capturing a major arms cache. Nonetheless, MRTA has hung on.

Sendero Luminoso sees MRTA as competition for the radical left's support, according to Mr. Gonz'alez and Manuel Granados, another analyst of Sendero. MRTA's relatively positive public image and its efforts to explain its actions have helped force Sendero to show another, less brutal face and present its program more clearly, Mr. Granados says.

But Sendero's reputation for harshness, recently reconfirmed by reports of three massacres of approximately 80 peasants in Ayacucho Province, will be hard to shake. In addition, four peasants last week told of being held hostage by Sendero and forced to work on a highland farm for more than three years.

Granados says as conditions worsen in Peru and democratic political options narrow for how to solve the country's crisis, Sendero could take Peru to a full civil war in the next two to three years.

Peru's bleak economic scene

Peru's economic outlook is gloomy.

A continual, rapid rise in the cost of living has squeezed family budgets. While the economy has registered robust growth rates in the last two years - 7 percent in 1987 and 8.5 percent in 1986 - inflation last year rose to almost 115 percent. This was up from 63 percent the year before. Some economists are predicting an inflation rate of 200 percent this year.

President Garc'ia has had to ask his countrymen to be patient and tighten their belts. He argues that, despite Peru's meager resources, his government is trying to improve living conditions.

The President says he has increased the monthly minimum wage by 511 percent from 360 intis (the Peruvian currency) when he came to office in July 1985 to 2,200 intis today. But devaluations of the inti have eaten up much of that raise, which in official exchange rate dollar terms climbed from just $21 to $35 a month.

While the prices of many basic goods, such as milk, cooking oil, and rice, remain controlled, much of the economy is geared to the black-market dollar. That now hovers at about 90 intis to the dollar. Further, price controls have provoked hoarding of and speculation in many products.

To aggravate the problems, Peru's foreign exchange shortage has begun to produce scarcities, as factories slow down because imported parts or inputs are unobtainable.