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Peru's `Shining Path' Presses War in Capital As Public Doubts Grow

By Sally BowenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1992


LIMA'S normally lively night spots have been empty for the past two weeks. Residents of the city's still affluent suburbs scurry home hours before the 10 p.m. "vehicular curfew" comes into force. Those who venture into sidewalk cafes sit well back, away from windows.

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Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) has finally brought its 12-year-old guerrilla war home to Lima's middle class. And with government institutions and the political opposition marginalized by President Alberto Fujimori's April 5 dissolution of Congress and suspension of the Constitution, the rebels are stepping up their push to fill Peru's political vacuum.

In recent weeks, Sendero has planted dozens of car bombs in the capital - including one in the smart suburb of Miraflores that killed at least 20 people. And last week, a two-day "armed strike," during which residents were warned not to go to work, paralyzed large sections of Lima and gave the impression the guerrilla movement is gaining ground.

Experts expect the Sendero actions, for which they say up to 1,000 front-line guerrillas have been pulled into the capital, to continue for another two weeks.

"This is crazy," says Julio Sanchez, a Lima taxi driver who lives in Miraflores and helped with the rescue operations the night of the car bomb. "How can these terrorists expect to win support when they commit such horrific acts?"

But Sendero is seeking support primarily in less-well-off areas of the city. During last week's strike Sendero for the first time put forward a broad-based political program. Widely distributed Sendero pamphlets advocated lower taxes, higher wages and pensions, land for the landless, and homes for the homeless.

The reason for the tactical shifts, experts say, is that the rules of the game are changing. Sendero is entering its "fourth campaign," a new phase of its war, and passing from what it terms "strategic equilibrium" to "strategic offensive."

"The April 5 `coup' caught Sendero on the hop," says researcher and international migration expert Isabel Coral. "They'd been focusing on the shantytowns, trying to win popular support and assassinating local leaders who opposed them. But with the coup they switched attention and started to hit prominent targets that would further undermine the government's legitimacy."

In his annual Independence Day address to the nation Tuesday, Mr. Fujimori downplayed the current wave of violence. "Sendero is trying to regain lost ground," he said. "It's a desperate, anarchic reaction."

Fujimori claims tough action by his armed forces-backed government at rebel strongholds in universities and prisons has hit the subversives hard. And he can point to recent successes: the capture of several apparently important subversive leaders in recent weeks, and the dismantling of propaganda machines like the one that published Sendero's newspaper, El Diario.

But according to sociologist and Sendero expert Carlos Tapia, Fujimori is claiming victory too soon. "It's not true that Sendero is on the point of defeat. It's been checked in a handful of provinces - that's all." Mr. Tapia says the government does have a counter-subversive strategy, one that is more organized than those of previous regimes. "But it's the wrong one," he says.