AYACUCHO, PERU — THE peasant crouching beside a soft-drink can on a dusty Andean mountain road is not as harmless as he seems. He is guarding a civilian checkpoint. The can, fitted with a five-second fuse, is packed with a deadly mixture of explosives and nails. He, like all the other males over the age of 15 in his village, has joined Peru's new informal army, the "rondas campesinas," or civil defense groups. After 11 years of failure to combat Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) by conventional means, the government is supporting the rondas as "the axis of our military strategy in the Ayacucho area," says a local Army source.
President Alberto Fujimori has announced that arming the rondas is official policy, an effort to involve civilians more closely in countersubversive activity. The recently announced Unified Command for Pacification will, at least in theory, place the military under stricter civilian control.
Ayacucho is the impoverished, high Andes town where university professor Manuel Abimael Guzman, also known as "Presidente Gonzalo," declared war on the Peruvian state in May 1980. Since then, the Senate Commission on Pacification says, subversion has cost more than 20,000 Peruvian lives and an estimated $18 billion in damage to the economy - almost the same as Peru's foreign debt.
When Sendero first emerged in the Ayacucho area, "they awakened sympathy in the hearts of a people abandoned, ill-treated, and exploited for centuries," says local deputy Alberto Valencia. "Sendero came into villages and executed the corrupt, the villains. People felt liberated."
But 11 violent years later, "people have realized that Sendero ideology has brought them no results," says a local ronda leader. "They are tired - they are saying enough is enough."
Rondas are not traditional in the small farming communities of Ayacucho and the central sierra. They began further north in the Cajamarca Mountains in response to cattle rustling.
But as Sendero developed its armed struggle, the demands made on peasant communities became ever heavier - precious food stocks were commandeered and villagers were required to supply, from their own families, young recruits for Sendero's "popular guerrilla army."
THE regular Peruvian Army has proved powerless to protect isolated communities from Sendero attacks. It is notoriously underfunded and lacks the manpower and transport facilities to combat agile hit-and-run terrorist squads.
Army forces in the three subversion- and drug-ridden departments of Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Apurimac have two helicopters between them - and often only one works.
A thousand ronderos, under Army direction, paraded in Ayacucho's main square on May 20, 48 hours after a unanimously observed Sendero two-day "armed strike" had stopped all activity in the town on Sendero's 11th anniversary. Carrying a bizarre collection of makeshift weapons, some peasants marched in imitation of the Peruvian Army goose step. All appeared to favor the new joint-operations strategy, which has been in place for a year now.
"The terrorists don't harass us anymore," says one rondero from Huanta, a town 30 miles from Ayacucho, which was effectively controlled by Sendero until last year. "The Army proposed the rondas, but we all support it."
Church and human rights groups are critical, however. The Rev. Angel Acuna, who heads the archdiocesan Social Action Commission in the central Andean town of Huancayo, where 6,500 shotguns have already been distributed to ronderos, opposes militarization of the rondas.
"We cannot respond to the murderous violence of the subversives with more bloodshed," he says. "We are simply turning peasants into cannon fodder."
The second in command of the Apurimac region rondas, whose nom de guerre is Jorge, disagrees. He is calling for more modern weapons for his ronda troops "so we can confront Sendero on equal terms."
Fujimori's Unified Command for Pacification expects to control Army abuses, which continue to cause concern. In 1990, for the fourth consecutive year, Peru topped the international list for the number of "disappearances" - mostly blamed on the Army.