AYACUCHO, PERU — THE tourists came back to Ayacucho this year. For the first time since Abimael Guzman Reynoso's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas declared war on the Peruvian state 13 years ago, visitors from elsewhere in Peru and a few intrepid travelers from abroad mingled with locals for the colorful and traditional processions of Easter week.
"The reign of terror is over," said Msgr. Luis Cipriani, Ayacucho's archbishop. "There is still fear, but we've made the great leap forward - people can hope once more."
Ayacucho, a lovely but impoverished Andean town, was both cradle and bastion of Sendero, the Maoist guerrilla movement that has terrorized Peru.
In the 1970s, the ancient courtyards of Ayacucho's colonial San Cristobal de Huamanga University were populated by revolutionaries bent on reversing centuries of elitist rule.
"We were all Maoist then," recalls an economics professor who taught there alongside Mr. Guzman. Like Guzman, he dreamed of a "new state" where Peru's peasants, led by intellectuals, would win power.
The revolution came into the open in 1980, when Sendero burned ballot boxes in a village near Ayacucho. But throughout the decade, early enthusiasm gradually gave way to disillusionment. The promise of victory for the peasants faded while, in the face of brutal military repression, Sendero became increasingly savage and demanding.
"Most of Sendero's followers were, in fact, not converts to the ideology," the professor explains. "Rather, they were forced by threats of bloody reprisals ... to collaborate."
In the view of this professor, the final blow to Guzms credibility was his televised appearance in a cage, after his capture last September.
"We couldn't believe it - he was still spewing out the same worn-out arguments. We all said, `he's back in the stone age.' And we laughed at him." Citizens form rondas
A crucial element in the response of civilian society has been the formation of rondas or civil defense groups. These sprang up spontaneously about four or five years ago as remote communities discovered they could not depend on the Army for protection. Peasants began patrolling their villages armed with pitchforks and machetes. Often they fashioned guns from pieces of plumbing pipes attached to wooden sticks.
Two years ago, President Fujimori bowed to rondero pressure and started handing out modern firearms. The Army began to register, train, and drill ronda groups, gradually coming to rely on them as a complementary fighting force. Now the Army and rondas frequently operate joint patrols.
Gen. Ronaldo Rueda, commander-in-chief of the huge Ayacucho-Apurimac military zone, served in the area as a colonel back in 1987. He explains the recent changes in Army strategy.
"We're not using repression anymore - instead, 80 percent of our time and effort is spent on pacification and winning the confidence of the population," he says. "In this, the rondas have been enormously important. They bring information. They are our eyes and ears."
Better information means the Army can identify Sendero's members and take selective action against them, largely avoiding the indiscriminate abuses common in the past.
This is not to say that human rights abuses never occur. "But in the past year or two, the Army has shown itself much more respectful, and finally the police are being punished when they abuse their power," says Monsignor Cipriani. Reports of disappearances are sharply down and relations between the security forces and the residents are visibly better than two years ago. Military band
At the Army base in Huanta, the change is immediately obvious - instead of khaki, soldiers wear cheerful blue T-shirts. And their new military band, inaugurated by commanding officer Max Salazar just a couple of months ago, already been inundated with requests to appear at local civilian celebrations.
"It sounds crazy, but the band is the best weapon I've got to fight subversion," explains the jovial Mr. Salazar. "People around here used to associate the Army with rough treatment - all soldiers did was break down doors, search, maybe steal and abuse. Now I go in with assistance, and with music."
The Army's "civic action" budget is limited, but Salazar has managed to host modest breakfasts for up to 500 children at a time in the 77 villages in his area.
Mr. Fujimori's policy of encouraging members of Sendero to "repent" and turn themselves in has also paid off, Salazar says. In his area, he says, numerous former Sendero collaborators (though few hard core militants) have surrendered in the past year.
Still, some 400,000 people are estimated to have fled the violence in the Ayacucho Huancavelica-Apurimac zone in recent years, abandoning their homes and small patches of land. Most end up in the capital, Lima, where they live precariously in often squalid, makeshift shacks.