To the growing concern of Peru's civilian and military authorities, radical Maoist guerrillas have pushed into the strategic Alti Plano region that straddles this nation's border with Bolivia. The guerrilla offensive poses a direct challenge to President Alan Garc'ia P'erez and his strategy of using development aid to head off the growth of guerrilla gangs among the rural population. The Alti Plano plateau, inhabited on the Peruvian side mostly by Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians who grow potatoes and raise sheep, llamas, and alpacas, was meant to be a showcase of Mr. Garc'ia's anti-insurgency program.
Until now, the activities of the Maoist group called ``Shining Path'' (Sendero Luminoso in Spanish) have been concentrated in and around Aycucho, in Peru's central highlands.
In recent months, however, rebel forces have expanded their operations with daring assaults in the Alti Plano.
On March 2, 18 Shining Path guerrillas came to the Macaya farm cooperative, 30 miles northeast of Juliaca in the southern Peruvian department of Puno. The masked guerrillas burned down farm buildings, dynamited a truck, looted a granary, and commandeered hundreds of sheep and cattle, distributing the food and animals to some 300 peasants whom they had called in from the countryside.
The cooperative says that in five such raids since the beginning of the year, Shining Path rebels have stolen and given away more than 4,000 head of livestock and killed the wife of a cooperative member.
``The police couldn't do anything,'' says one official. ``Because in Azangaro, the nearest big town, there were only six officers.''
Residents worry that the Alti Plano may become a ``second Ayacucho'' -- a reference to the Peruvian department where Shining Path began its insurgency in 1980, setting off a battle with security forces that has cost more than 7,000 lives.
According to police, the group's goal in the Alti Plano is to secure an ``escape corridor'' to connect their Ayacucho base with potential sanctuaries in Bolivia and the Amazonian jungle to the east.
One police official here says that a force of ``50 to 100'' rebels armed with light-automatic rifles, submachine guns, and dynamite -- and occasionally reinforced by local peasant recruits -- has launched 30 armed attacks on livestock-raising cooperatives and peasant villages. The rebels have also carried out more than 110 bombings, causing ``incalculable'' damage to banks, power stations, government offices, and bridges, the official says.
Military and government spokesmen credit Garc'ia's policies -- which included interest-free farm loans and a doubling of the government rural investment budget -- with helping to pacify Ayacucho.
But the President's critics here say he has yet to meet the farmers' biggest demand: to take land from 43 large cooperatives -- which, like Macaya, were formed in 1972 when a left-wing military regime expropriated private holdings -- and redistribute it to hundreds of peasant communities that didn't benefit from the earlier program.
Garc'ia visited Puno in February, decreeing that cooperative land be ``restructured'' according to a government study due on June 5. Cooperative leaders are resisting, and no land has yet been redistributed.
Attacks by Shining Path rebels increased soon after Garc'ia's visit, concentrated in areas where the conflict over land is most acute. Church and police sources say that the guerrillas' efforts to exploit peasant impatience have met with some success.
``It impresses people when they share out cattle,'' says the leader of one peasants' federation. ``They say this is a group that can solve their problems''.
Despite reinforcements, which increased police garrisons in Azangaro, a center of guerrilla activity, from six men to 40, police say that the rebels often have them outgunned.
In Ayaviri, a cattle-raising center off the railroad line linking Lake Titicaca with Cuzco in the southern Andes, Roman Catholic priests say that newly arrived police reinforcements feel so threatened by Shining Path that they often walk through town in civilian dress to avoid being identified as police.
The Peruvian Army has largely stayed out of the fight against Shining Path in the Alti Plano. According to Peru's Constitution, military intervention would require an emergency decree by the President.
In February, Minister of War Jorge Flores Torres said that such a decree was under consideration, but that the government has so far not taken action.
Peasant unions, Catholic Church leaders, and some elected officials oppose military intervention, arguing that it might result in human rights abuses such as those reported in Ayacucho since it was placed under military control in late 1982.