LIMA, PERU — 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.
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.
Most Peruvians seem to agree. In a weekend opinion survey by the respected Lima-based research organization Apoyo, 48 percent of those polled disapproved of the government's anti-subversive policy; just 40 percent approved. More effective control of terrorism was a major justification for Fujimori's April 5 self-coup. His popular support - down to 60 percent from a post-coup high of 82 percent - is sliding along with his perceived ability to exert that control.
Fujimori introduced no new anti-Sendero measures in his speech Tuesday, and human rights groups fear Peru's countersubversive strategy will become still more militaristic. Since the coup, "the countersubversive dynamic has been extremely short-term, with an emphasis on quick and spectacular results," says Enrique Bernales, former head of the Senate Commission on Violence and Pacification. "The degree of militarization is far greater than late last year, and it can be assumed that the excesses of the past
could be repeated."
Mr. Bernales says his figures show "disappearances" by the security forces continue at around pre-coup levels, but the number of subversives killed in armed clashes has risen sharply. Despite government claims that it is controlling subversion, more Peruvians - nine a day - died in political violence in the first six months of 1992 than in the corresponding period last year.
Vociferous public demands for a hard line have been partially satisfied by Fujimori's announcement last week that those charged with terrorism will now be tried as traitors by military courts. The death penalty, presently applicable only in cases of treason during "external" war, may be extended to internal terrorists.
But many Peruvians consider the military solution inadequate. "The military are like watch-makers," says former presidential advisor Hernando de Soto. "They know how to assemble and fix the mechanical parts but they have no concept of time."
Mr. De Soto says Peru's vulnerability to Sendero springs from the total discrediting of its institutions. Current Sendero strategy, he adds, focuses on finishing off an already weakened and corrupt state. Brutal methods may temporarily alienate mass support but "Abimael [Guzman Reynoso, Sendero's leader] has time on his side, and he has the advantage of understanding society. Fujimori doesn't."
"Sendero is a political party," says Tapia. "Today, with maybe 100,000 committed people, it has greater capacity for action than any other party. And you can't stop a political party by detaining a leader or two."
Which is why Peruvians and the international community are concentrating on promoting a speedy return to a functioning democracy.
The next month will be crucial. By late August the ground rules should be laid for November's election of a "democratic constituent congress" to write a new constitution. In announcing the election Tuesday, Fujimori said members of the assembly would be banned from running for political office for 10 years.
"Sendero correctly asserts that the Peruvian state does not represent its people," says De Soto. "That's why it's so important to create a system that is truly representative."