PERU'S Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas call this month ``Red October.'' Several important anniversaries in the international communist calendar and some domestic commemorative events mean that, traditionally, it has been a month of violence.
But there's been a a dramatic turn of events for Sendero this October. The organization's founder and leader Abimael Guzman Reynoso - sentenced to life imprisonment a year ago - has written and been filmed reading aloud two letters in which he offers ``conversations that would lead to a peace accord.''
Mr. Guzms surprise peace call was first revealed by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 30. In two subsequent television appearances, Mr. Fujimori has presented the former public enemy No. 1 to an expectant public.
Reactions have been mixed. Some Sendero sympathizers refused to believe this clean-shaven, slim, smartly dressed, and submissive individual could be the stout and bearded Maoist fanatic. His group is held responsible for the deaths of at least 26,000 Peruvians and some $22 billion in damage over the past 13 years.
The content of his messages was an even greater surprise. Guzman said his own capture and that of other top Sendero leaders had raised ``fundamental questions of leadership'' within the organization. The party confronted ``a great and historical decision.''
With the same ``firmness and resolution'' that they had used in the ``people's war,'' they should now ``fight for a peace accord,'' he said.
Guzman stopped far short of recanting or calling for an immediate cease-fire, but his words of praise for Fujimori's counter-subversive strategy struck many listeners as incongruous. But there were no signs that Guzman was speaking under duress.
David Scott Palmer, a United States expert on Sendero commented, ``It's almost incredible: I can't take it in. A year in prison seems to have changed him completely.''
Much of the credit for the apparent ``softening-up'' of Guzman appears to belong to chief presidential adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. Mr. Montesinos, a senior intelligence official, has been a shadowy but powerful figure throughout the Fujimori administration.
Fujimori refused to confirm or deny Montesinos' involvement in Guzms change of heart - he preferred to refer jokingly to the intermediator as his ``emissary.'' But intelligence sources have revealed that as far back as November 1992 Montesinos initiated talks with Guzman.
Experts on Sendero speculate on what is behind the apparent capitulation. In the opinion of Raul Gonzales, a political scientist and expert on Sendero, ``Guzman, apparently, is a broken man. He was psychologically prepared to die [for the revolution] but not to vegetate in prison.''
Professor Palmer, however, warns that Guzman, ``always a master of strategy and tactics,'' could be playing for time, allowing his guerrilla organization to regroup after the damaging series of captures of high-ranking leaders in recent months.
Gustavo Gorriti, author of the most exhaustive analysis of Sendero, believes that the messages may now oblige those leading militants still at large to ``establish a difference between the prisoner Guzman and ``Gonzalo thought,'' Guzms ideology.
Fujimori, meanwhile, has rejected any possible ``negotiation'' with what he calls ``this criminal and genocidal band. All we can do is converse,'' he says. His government, however, is promising new legislation in coming weeks to encourage Sendero militants to lay down arms.
A big question mark now hangs over the future of Sendero. Statements gleaned from leading but anonymous militants by a local news magazine indicate Guzms followers are split. Some say that, having pledged total allegiance to Guzman, they must accept this decision and contemplate peace.
Others, however, including a spokesperson from Sendero's ``metropolitan committee'' in Lima, rejected the Guzman video messages as ``a trick by the government to discredit our leader.'' He said the armed struggle would continue and forecast attacks in the near future against banks and selected government officials.
While there has been no violent response in the Peruvian capital since the showing of Guzms second message, in Sendero's traditional stronghold in Ayacucho province, a guerrilla column attacked a village and killed 15 peasant farmers in reprisal for forming an Army-backed civilian defense militia.
What would set the seal on the counter-subversive achievements of the Fujimori administration - and, with a nice sense of timing, boost the pro-government tally in the upcoming vote on the new constitution - would be a ``direct and clear call to lay down arms,'' in the president's own words. He has already hinted that may come in a third Guzman broadcast within the next few days.