Rebel Groups Like Peru's Still Pester Latin America

Despite reforms in '80s, region fails to quell many guerrillas

Latin America would like to believe that in the 1990s it has put the decades of guerrilla movements behind it.

But despite the end of the cold war and strides toward democratization that have calmed the revolutionary fires, enough hot embers remain to remind the hemisphere that some of the conditions that feed extremist activities still exist.

The latest hot spot to flare is Peru, where guerrillas from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hundreds of hostages at a Tuesday night reception at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. Included in the group were Peru's foreign minister and numerous foreign ambassadors. The MRTA is demanding the release of 300 jailed comrades, economic reforms, money, and safe passage to the jungle. Dozens of hostages were released, but up to 490 people, including the president's brother, are still being held.

As with the rise of a shadowy guerrilla group that surged onto the Mexican stage in June, the Peruvian action is a jolting reminder that some Latin American countries are still ripe territory for extremist groups. But observers concur that, while the conditions that foment this type of movement are widespread across the region, it is impossible to speak of a generic guerrilla movement holding on in Latin America.

"It is difficult to establish a guerrilla prototype for Latin America, because almost every case has been distinct," says Alfredo Rangel, a national security expert at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Colombia has two main guerrilla groups, numbering up to 15,000, that have been fighting the government for more than four decades.

"What can be said is that the Colombian case runs countercurrent to the rest of Latin America in that the Colombian guerrillas have strengthened their economic, military, and territorial positions over recent years, while the broad tendency in the rest of Latin America has been a weakening and disappearance" of guerrilla movements, Mr. Rangel says.

Later this month, Guatemala's guerrillas, who fought a 36-year-long civil war, will sign a final peace accord with the government. In Mexico, the Zapatistas, who burst on the scene in 1994, are negotiating a political settlement with the government. Meanwhile, the Popular Revolutionary Army, which appeared this year in the Guerrero - a Mexican state with a long tradition of insurgent activity - surfaces periodically, but so far with little violence or impact.

Guerrilla movements that were beaten down in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela have not resurfaced, while the more successful organizations either took power (as in Nicaragua), or negotiated a settlement (as in El Salvador) and are now part of the democratic political structure.

Peru is home to two principal guerrilla movements: Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and MRTA. Both were much stronger five years ago than they are today, but both are still able to act despite a strong government counterinsurgency program.

"Both [Sendero and the MRTA] have been reduced to their minimum, but that reduction didn't erase them from the map, as Tuesday's action shows," says Raul Gonzalez, a Peruvian sociologist and expert on Peru's guerrillas. "MRTA is proving that, despite government intelligence and tough action in the past against them, they are still able to mount a very well-planned and well-executed operation."

President Alberto Fujimori had assured Peruvians he would eradicate the guerrilla groups by the end of 1995, but early this year he had to acknowledge he failed to keep his pledge when sporadic bombings, clashes with Army units, and hostage-taking continued.

Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist organization that terrorized Peru in the 1980s with bombings and vicious attacks against civilians, has been in decline since its charismatic leader, Abimael Guzman, was captured and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

MRTA, a Marxist revolutionary group that saw its heyday in the early 1990s - with attacks on Western embassies, American fast- food restaurants, and kidnappings of Western business executives - was front-page news again in January when a young American woman was sentenced to life in prison for belonging to the group.

This week's "audacious" act is that of a small but cohesive and ideologically vehement group "playing its last card," says Mr. Gonzalez. "They're playing all or nothing. Either they win their bet, or MRTA dies."

The reduced nature of Peru's guerrilla groups makes them all the more difficult for the government to deal with, Gonzales says. "It's comparable to the ETA [Basque separatists] in Spain, in that they are still organized enough to wreak havoc but too small and marginal for the government to consider negotiating with them."

Yet while Latin America's guerrillas may not be homogeneous, the fertile soil that has fed some guerrilla groups for four decades is very much the same across the region, analysts say.

All speak of the social problems of a region that has the worst rich-poor income gap in the world, flagrant discrimination against indigenous populations, and political restrictions that have continued despite democratic transitions.

While the region's large marginalized populations do not follow guerrilla organizations en masse, they do act as an incubator for guerrilla recruits.

Another important factor keeping guerrilla movements alive is a tradition in popular Latin American culture of taking up arms.

"In the countries where these movements remain strongest, there is tradition, myth - something that unites the guerrillas with a history," Rangel says. "In Colombia there is a long tradition of seeing violence as a viable solution; in Mexico you have the Mexican revolution."

The MRTA's action this week has an antecedent of its own. In 1980, the Colombian group M-19 stormed the Dominican Embassy and took more than 200 hostages, including ambassadors and other top officials.

A standoff lasted for more than two months, until the Colombian government granted the guerrillas passage out of the country and an undisclosed amount of money. But the Colombian government successfully resisted demands for the release of the guerrillas' imprisoned leaders - a key demand of the MRTA.

Almost two decades later, Peruvian leaders may be hoping they can do as well with the MRTA.

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