This article originally appeared in
Shining Path guerrillas weaker, but still considered threat in Peru
Special to the Chronicle

TINGO MARIA, Peru -- The people in this town on a remote edge of the Amazon
jungle are threatened on three sides by rebels of the Shining Path movement. Only the
western side of town, including the twisting road to the capital in Lima 350 miles away,
remains consistently open.

Despite the presence of the rebels, life in the town is quiet these days, though fresh red
graffiti proclaiming "Long Live The Revolution!" appears from time to time, reminding the
townspeople that the rebels are still nearby. A little farther out, the locals say, isolated
gunfire echoes from rebel training exercises, and farmers often report livestock missing,
presumably stolen by hungry rebels whose leaders started fighting South America's
bloodiest guerrilla war in 1980.

But even here, where the rebels are at their strongest, people say that the movement
responsible for more than 30,000 deaths and $25 billion in property damage has
weakened considerably.

"It is as if the rebels are lacking their will," said a farmer named Javier, who, like most
locals, declined to reveal his family name out of fear of the guerrillas.

To many who monitor the Shining Path's fighters, that will is confined behind layers of steel and dozens of thick barred doors at a special
naval prison outside of Lima. There, the movement's founder, chief ideologue and leader, Abimael Guzman, is serving a life sentence
that began five years ago today.

When Guzman was free, there were those who wondered if the Shining Path could be stopped. Many believed Peru's government was
on the threshold of collapse in 1992.

The Shining Path had captured the imagination of many of the desperate poor whose numbers dominate the country, mainly indigenous
people who clutched at any hope of jobs and change. The high-income districts of Lima were regularly rocked by car bombs.

In 1991 and 1992, when the rebellion was near its peak, an average of 12 businesses a day closed their doors, inflation raced to nearly
8,000 percent -- meaning that prices doubled every 72 hours over the course of the year -- and a newspaper poll found that only 6
percent of Peruvians believed the situation would get better.

    "Before Guzman was captured, times were desperate in Peru," said Gerard Maton, a political
    scientist at Lima's University of the Pacific. "There was virtually a state of anarchy, and most people
    knew that opposition meant death. In a way, the movement is still benefiting from the fear
    established when it was at its strongest."

    In the early 1990s, Peru's special anti-terrorism police estimated that more than 4,000 people a
    year were dying in the Shining Path's civil war, many of them rural peasants who the rebels
    accused of spying for the government. Last year, by contrast, estimates show the number of deaths
    had dipped to a tenth of that level.

    "The group is still dangerous, but not nearly what it was," Maton said.

    Guzman's capture was the catalyst for that change. He was in what he considered a safe house in
    a middle-class district of Lima on Sept. 12, 1992, when the anti-terrorism police burst through the
    doors on a tip from a source that some Shining Path leaders would be there.

Guzman was said to have remained calm and did not resist arrest. Some reports said he was heavily intoxicated. Several computer
disks of information and some of Guzman's top lieutenants were captured along with him, further damaging the movement.

News of the capture filled Lima's streets with celebrations and catapulted Ketin Vidal, the anti-terrorist police officer who led the raid, to
national folk hero status.

In one of the most surreal episodes in recent Peruvian history, Guzman was presented to the public three days after his capture. He was
unveiled in a cage like a trapped animal, and dressed in a humiliating cartoon-like costume of black and white stripes. Guzman paced
back and forth and promised loudly that the movement he founded would thrive without him. The crowd pelted his cage with rotten fruit
and vegetables.

"That day was one of the most emotional in the long history of Peru," said political commentator
Umberto Rey Hernandez, who was present when Guzman was placed on display by his jailers.

"Some people vented their anger by throwing things," Hernandez said. "Some people cried.
But I think everyone knew that getting Guzman meant a turning point in the country's history."

The government will not comment on Guzman's state today, except to say that he is physically
healthy. But contradictory rumors about him abound in the local media: that he is given just an
hour of light each day, that he has become a pro-government evangelical Christian, that he is
slowly converting his guards to Maoist philosophy to help facilitate escape, or that the former
college professor who once passed his time reading Karl Marx and Emmanuel Kant has since
lost his mind and reads only comic books.

What is even less clear is whether the movement Guzman founded will become a threat again
without him. The number of fighters in the Shining Path's ranks reportedly has shrunk every year
since Guzman was jailed, and the leaders have dwindled, having been killed or captured by
government forces. Only one top leader from Guzman's time, a man known by his code name
Comrade Feliciano, remains at large.

But the consensus is that despite government efforts, the group will remain fairly strong, at least in remote areas like Tingo Maria, until
the quality of life in the country improves to the point that the poorest Peruvians would no longer be willing to consider taking up arms.

"As long as people are as poor and without confidence in the future, the Shining Path will be attractive to a few," said Jaime Oliveras, a
colonel stationed near Tingo Maria who has fought the rebels for years.

"Sometimes I look at these poor kids around here who are 16 or 18 years old and I think that they've lived their entire lives in a state of
war and in desperate poverty," Oliveras said.

"If their lives don't improve in the next few years, they won't need Guzman," he said. "Any of one them could become the next Guzman."

Eric J. Lyman is a free-lance journalist based in Lima.
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September 11, 1997