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Rebel group's presence growing near Peru's capital

The mayor of a Lima suburb has received death threats that he says are from the Shining Path.

By Lucien O. ChauvinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2002



LIMA, PERU

Seated in his small, windowless office, Martin Pumar is in crisis mode – jacket off, sleeves rolled up, sweat collecting on his forehead. He's trying to find a creative way to approach protesters chanting outside.

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Mr. Pumar is winding up a four-year term as mayor of Villa El Salvador, a sprawling district south of Lima, Peru's capital. He is worried that supporters of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas are trying to use his turf to make a comeback in Lima, the group's ultimate prize.

"There are people participating politically with pro-Shining Path rhetoric," says Pumar. "They want to take advantage of the population's just demands, agitating the political climate like they did in the past."

Since the beginning of the year, Pumar has been receiving death threats, which he first dismissed as a hoax. Residents at town meetings say they hear antigovernment comments that sound like the Shining Path of old. Pumar has begun coordinating with federal antiterrorism police.

Since 1980, the Shining Path's goal has been to transform Peru into a North Korea-like proletarian nation. The group's war against the Peruvian government sprang back to life with a March 20 car-bombing near the US Embassy in Lima, which killed nine people. It came only three days before President George W. Bush visited the country.

"The Shining Path wants to show that democracy is weak, that it can't handle problems like crime and corruption," says Pumar. "They want to erode people's faith in democracy, which has only started to take root here."

Although the Shining Path has been active in the countryside – according to the US State Department's 2001 Human Rights Report, they carried out 103 actions and killed 31 people last year – attacks in Lima are where Peruvians take notice. "The major impact of the bombing was that Peruvians began thinking about the Shining Path again for the first time in years," says Raul Gonzalez, who has studied the Shining Path for more than a decade.

By focusing on Lima, home to one-third of Peru's 25 million people, the Shining Path is notching up fears of instability at a time when President Alejandro Toledo's negative ratings are nearly 60 percent in most polls. People are growing disenchanted with the government's inability to improve the country's economy.

Shantytown is key

Villa El Salvador is key to the Shining Path's strategy. It began as a shantytown on Lima's southern edge three decades ago.

Unlike other shantytowns, however, it has been highly organized and its different mayors have respected original plans for urban growth. While not wealthy, it is held up as a local model of development and citizen participation. Its citizen organization has always provoked the Shining Path's ire.

When the Shining Path first turned its attention to Lima in the early 1990s, Villa El Salvador was one of its principal targets. The rebels exploded car bombs and assassinated local leaders, including Lieutenant Mayor Maria Elena Moyano, in 1992. Former Mayor Michel Azcueta barely escaped an attack on his life.

"Villa El Salvador is a natural target for the Shining Path. Actions there always have a ripple effect on Lima and the rest of the country," says Mr. Gonzalez.

Gonzalez says they have already moved into Lima. "I think Shining Path has already reorganized in Lima, but there isn't just one Shining Path," he says. "There are different groups with the same objective, but they do not coordinate actions."

Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi says the Shining Path helped instigate a late-March land invasion by more than 1,000 squatters in northern Lima.

Mr. Rospigliosi and Gonzalez both say there is credible evidence that the Shining Path trying to infiltrate trade unions and state-run universities, where they were strong in the 1980s. A raid on a former state employees' union turned up weapons and Shining Path-related documents. At San Marcos National University, a group of students trashed the main library. Officials say this was instigated by the Shining Path.

Long battle

The Shining Path launched its guerrilla war against the government in May 1980, burning ballot boxes the same day Peruvians went to the polls to elect a democratic government after 12 years of military rule.

Within a decade, the party had cells operating throughout the country and the government was forced to declare 75 percent of its national territory under a state of emergency. Some 30,000 deaths and $20 billion in losses are attributed to the war between the Shining Path and the armed forces.

A major break for the government came in September 1992 with the arrest of Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path's founder and leader, and most of the party's leadership. Since then, the party has dwindled, with Guzman calling for a political solution to the conflict.

A truth and reconciliation commission is currently holding hearings to determine the root causes and political climate that led to the past violence.

Several Shining Path organizations, such as the People's Support Committee, have come out with statements denying involvement in the March 20 bombing. Yet they continue calling for defense of the revolution and used the communiqué to attack Toledo as a puppet of the US government, which they label "the principal enemy of all peoples in the world."

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