AYACUCHO, PERU — AS workers put the finishing touches on the clay-brick schoolhouse behind him, Marcial Pillpe Lujuan looks on fondly and says, ''This is a dream come true for our village.''
While such a project would be a source of pride in any community, in Huayapampa the little elementary school symbolizes victory over a once-powerful communist guerrilla group.
Huayapampa, a settlement of 320 people, is located near the city of Ayacucho in the Andean highlands of Peru's poor and backward Ayacucho state. For much of the past decade, the region has been ravaged by the horrendous violence of Peru's Shining Path communists -- and the war the military waged against it.
Funded by FONCODES, a Peruvian government social development program targeting the country's poorest rural regions, the school also represents the still-timid return of the Peruvian government to areas it virtually abandoned at the height of Shining Path activity in the 1980s.
Defense by sling-shot
''A couple of years ago, we wouldn't have dared to build this school. We might have been killed for even trying,'' says Mr. Pillpe, the village president. ''For a long time we were on our own up here, fighting off the enemy with nothing but sling-shots,'' he says. Then, pointing to a sign identifying the school as a government-funded project, he adds, ''Little by little, help is coming back.''
Signs of pacification in Ayacucho state, birthplace nearly 20 years ago of the Maoist El Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), are everywhere. A tour through the highlands reveals dozens of red-and-white FONCODES signs indicating projects bringing potable water, drainage, electricity, schools, and toilets to rural areas. In the city of Ayacucho, streets once left to military patrols even during daylight are now alive with markets and strolling patrons.
Yet even though Ayacucho is an example of how Peru is largely winning its war with the Shining Path, the state remains under emergency military control. Over half the country is under similar jurisdiction, which suggests the long way Peru has to go before full civilian government is reestablished.
And the visible progress does not mean that the Shining Path has disappeared. Last week, more than two dozen guerrillas and at least five soldiers were killed in a battle in the Huallaga Valley of central Peru. ''Senderologists,'' Peruvian experts on the Shining Path, say terrorist attacks and political violence can be expected to increase as the April 9 national elections draw closer.
''This electoral period is Sendero's last chance to show it is still out there,'' says Raul Gonzalez, a noted Senderologist in Lima. The guerrillas have traditionally stepped up terrorism during campaign periods, bombing power plants and banks, assassinating candidates, and warning peasants not to vote.
''They'd like to cause the kind of chaos Mexico has experienced after the assassination of [ruling-party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo] Colosio'' in March 1994, he adds.
It is questionable whether the Shining Path still has the strength to cause such havoc. Facing growing difficulty in rural areas, the guerrillas moved their emphasis to the cities in 1992, setting off bombs, cutting power supplies, and declaring it would capture Lima by October 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of Europe's landing on the Americas. But police captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman Reynoso, a former Ayacucho philosophy professor, that year.
Sendero was having one of its best years, says Gustavo Gorriti, a Sendero scholar now living in Miami. ''The people were psychologically defeated by the bombs, the government was teetering, and people were writing off the country. Then Guzman was captured, and everything changed.''
Guzman has since issued a declaration of peace from his prison cell, but at least one faction of the Shining Path is known to be under new leadership and operating in areas like the Huallaga Valley, with connections to traffickers in the local coca crops.
No clashes as spectacular as those of the Huallaga Valley have occurred recently in Ayacucho state. The absence of any major attacks, even after many soldiers stationed here were sent north in February to fight a five-week border war with Ecuador, suggests the Shining Path's weakness.
But the guerrillas ''are still up there,'' says Susano Mendoza Pareja, motioning to the mountains above La Quinua, the town outside Ayacucho where he is mayor. Last month, two members of a local ''rondeo,'' or civilian security force, were killed when they met up with guerrillas.
La Quinua is an example of what happened across much of rural Peru during the late 1980s as the Shining Path terrorized the countryside. ''The mayor we had during those years was purely symbolic, because at the time Sendero was killing mayors every week,'' says Mr. Mendoza. ''There was no government.''
Another critical step came in 1990, when Peru's newly elected president, Alberto Fujimori, allowed the military to arm the country's peasants.
''Fujimori realized the campesinos knew the terrain better than anyone, better than Sendero,'' says Mr. Gonzalez. Other analysts say Mr. Fujimori did not suffer from the same distrust of and disdain for the poor, mostly Indian rural populations that dissuaded Peru's previous governments from taking similar action.
The Shining Path had won initial support from many peasants when it decimated the local power structure, killing the mayors, judges, and police that the Indians despised after centuries of domination, Gonzalez says. But when the guerrillas took their Maoist philosophy a step further and began terrorizing the rural population, they lost their advantage, he adds.
That is when the Army began arming the peasants and when people like Mendoza began taking over towns and organizing paramilitary groups. ''We didn't do this to become a power ourselves, we did it out of need,'' he says. ''Sendero was slaughtering campesinos, and no one was defending them.'' Nearly 30,000 Peruvians have been killed in Shining Path violence and military repression since 1980.
Gonzalez says ''Sendero started to lose the war when it started to lose rural Peru'' in 1991 -- a theory that subsequently earned him a Shining Path death sentence.
What Gonzalez calls the ''drama'' of Peru is the ''political vacuum'' left by a 15-year internal war. ''When there is a vacuum, something fills it,'' he says. ''If the military pulled out tomorrow from the regions under emergency order, the void would be filled by peasant-group rivalries, drug traffickers -- and Sendero.''
Lima political scientist Enrique Obando agrees, but says ''that still does not make the Army the right force to reinstate'' government services and control.
Involving the people
FONCODES was created to involve local people in the delivery of services while developing a civic consciousness. ''If people participate in building something, the subversives will have a harder time attacking it,'' says Alejandro Afuso Higa, FONCODES's general director.
Yet even with FONCODES's $230 million budget (about $5 million will reach Ayacucho this year), building brick-by-brick is slow going. And the program doesn't provide the civil government -- mayors, administrators, judges, police -- communities will need to replace the military.
Meanwhile, new military-run civilian security forces have led to concerns about human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence -- especially toward former Shining Path sympathizers.
''At a time when others talk about democracy, all our answers are coming from the military, not from civilians,'' Gonzalez says.