Home
home > contents > Peru: Investigating Twenty Years of Recent Violence. Overview
Peru: Investigating Twenty Years of Recent Violence
Overview
The articles in this section address the cataclysm suffered by Peru between 1980 and 2000, perhaps the most tumultuous period in its history: more than a decade of violence perpetrated by brutal terrorist movements and the military, principally in rural Quechua-speaking areas of the high Andes, that resulted in large devastating migrations and some 70,000 dead and missing, and the disintegration of a fragile, often repressive democracy that ended in eight years of arbitrary and autocratic rule.

Less than ten years separate us from this period. Peruvians have begun to assimilate it through the public hearings in the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (CVR, 2002 - 2003) shown on television. Far from the Pacific coast where the majority of the country’s inhabitants live, the theater of violence was primarily “the other Peru,” the puna. There the Shining Path guerrillas (SL) made themselves known on election day in 1980 when they destroyed the ballot boxes in a village in the Ayacucho district where illiterate peasants were preparing to vote for the first time.

These twenty years revived the question that has troubled Peru’s historical consciousness since the beginnings of the 20th century – are we a nation? – while raising others: What is going on with a society capable of spawning such an organization? What are the burdens of Peru’s history, what are the promises unfulfilled that end up being expressed this way?

The six authors here attempt to answer these questions as scholars – to provide explanations based on research. The effort to understand what happened in this period already began shortly after the violence first appeared. In the heat of events it continued throughout the period, ending up with scholars’ active contributions to the work of the CVR. As is traditional with Andean studies, history and anthropology are the main disciplines represented here.

Peter Klarén’s article, “Time of Fear (1980-2000), Modern Violence and Its Long Duration in Peruvian History” (Spanish version), invites readers to undertake a necessary exercise of historicization – to take perspective on all that had just occurred and attempt to understand the recent past in light of the rest of Peru’s history.

As Klarén indicates, Peru had experienced major cycles of violence at 100-year intervals since colonial times – 1780, 1880, 1980 – all mainly in the countryside and involving native peasants. Each grew out of a period of change, crisis, and dislocation after an era of peace and stability. In 1780 the great rebellions in the Andean high plains occurred after Bourbon Reforms attempted to strengthen royal control over the different regions of the Spanish empire. In 1884 a massive native uprising sounded the death knell for the Pax Andina, after Peru’s defeat in the War of the Pacific. In the decades before the third great explosion of violence, unleashed by Shining Path in 1980, the demographic explosion in the Andean regions could not be contained within their anachronistic, semi-feudal socio-economic systems. This stimulated a vast migratory movement from the region to the coast, displacing the human and economic epicenter and further deepening its marginalization.

“Taken together,” Klarén observes of these cycles,

these three powerful, one hundred year socio-political explosions represent the extent to which the indigenous population has historically remained outside, marginalized and excluded from the narrowly based, Limacentric and Europeanized nation state established precariously at the outset of independence in the early 19th century. For the history of modern Peru from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 21st century is the history of the failure of the country’s political and economic elites to construct a modern, integrated, democratic and developed nation. Seen from the opposite angle, it is also the tale of the inability of an alternative, more inclusive and truly national project to impose its vision on the Peruvian state. Why this has been the case forms the fundamental backdrop to the rise and fall of the Shining Path and Peru’s “time of troubles” during the last two decades of the twentieth century.
A close reading of the historiography of these three cycles, Klarén believes, illuminates a path toward explanation.

One, primarily historical, interpretation sees violence as perpetuated by ethnic conflict, political factionalism and racism as a legacy of conquest and colonization. Another more present oriented interpretation emphasizes the state and its uses of violence and repression to forge and perpetuate distinctly modern regimes of domination. Finally, a third, more locally centered, view focuses on violence, conflict, power and ethnicity in everyday life and work in the Andes, a culture of violence if you will at the local level where the gamonal until recently prevailed.

Carlos Iván Degregori has produced a distinguished corpus of research on how Andean societies reacted to change – demanding explanations from the State, organizing to access its benefits, denouncing its indifference. All these themes appear in his study of a dramatic episode, “Why Did Shining Path Appear in Ayacucho? The Development of Education and the Generation of ’69 in Ayacucho and Huanta” (Spanish version). These two main cities in the Andean province of Ayacucho (the city of Ayacucho is also called San Cristóbal de Huamanga) and their surrounding areas confronted the State for four months in 1969 as students, parents, and teachers struck in opposition to Lima’s plan to eliminate free education. Looking back, this “Andean May” of June 1969 had a number of intriguing aspects: the political effectiveness of the Maoists at San Cristóbal de Huamanga National University (UNSCH) and the appearance, among others, of professor Abimael Guzmán, who had taught there since 1964.

Drawing from Andean anthropology, history and geography Degregori paints the specific physical and human setting of the “Movement of ’69”: poor and marginalized regions in which a partially failed education reform nevertheless influenced peasants to invest heavily in their children’s education as the best way to improve their lot; and the striking emergence of the university, of colonial origin and re-founded in 1959, as one of the best in the country. Its surprising success conferred on its teaching staff – drawn from the mestiza (mixed-blood) provincial middle class – a prestige with the effects of a social earthquake in the region.

This was the context roiled by the government’s attempt to end free education. The student strike and parents’ protests grew into an angry mobilization that spread like an oil spill. Although Lima initially turned a deaf ear, the uprising in the region forced it to back down. To tell the story of those four dramatic months –rallies, street demonstrations, confrontations with army troops airlifted in to regain control of the situation–, the anthropologist appeals to the actors and witnesses. He shows how the mobilization assumed different profiles in Huanta and San Cristóbal de Huamanga; how each of the centers alternately took the initiative; how the students were able to overcome the differences between the two cities and work together; and finally, how for the first time radio played a role in the outcome.

Seen in longer perspective, the Movement of ’69 for free education reveals two new elements that put the Andean region back into the center of Peruvian history. The first is the leading role of the poor but politically motivated high school students, many from peasant families, whose political radicalism would be channeled by the Maoists in the UNSCH. The second is the Maoists’ success in infiltrating the Ayacucho uprising and asserting leadership of the Defense Front of the People (utilizing the same tactics successfully employed in the university against the State and local elites). The regional committee of the Partido Comunista del Perú Bandera Roja (Red Flag Communist Party of Peru; PCP, the Spanish acronym) had just irrupted on the political scene. A decade later its leader would unleash a bloody armed conflict that would largely determine the dynamics of the following 20 years.

In “Thought, Praxis, and Political Foundations of the Sendero Luminoso Movement, (1964-1983)” (Spanish version), Nelson Manrique attempts to explain the political formation that the Shining path aimed to impart by examining its political thought, actions, and adherents. His study encompasses its first 20 years, from the rise of its Maoist nucleus and leader in Ayacucho in 1964 to the moment that, with the army’s arrival in the Andean region, it turned its violence against the peasant communities of its “guerrilla zones.” Manrique analyzes the successive splits, expulsions, and reforms of the Maoist wing of the PCP through the various texts produced by Guzmán and his followers through the period. He finds a textbook Marxism (in line with the authoritarian tradition of Peruvian pedagogy, as he points out) in which a mania for doctrinal purification marched in step with Guzmán’s absolutist megalomania, finally arriving at the elimination of all potential dissidents and the re-centering of all doctrine in a single person: “Gonzalo thought.”

Manrique then traces the Shining Path’s evolution during the first three years of armed conflict by comparing words with actions and the strategic plans of each campaign with its outcome. Guzmán’s rereading of Shining Path’s line after his capture in 1992 is of special interest (Manrique was one of the CVR representatives in charge of interrogating the jailed leader): sometimes Guzmán mechanically reiterates his position of the 1980s, sometimes he revises it substantially. He also mentions his surprise in discovering how easily his group could launch its first armed offensive (1980) in the vacuum left by the State in the high plateau.

Among the CVR archives Manrique has drawn from testimonies of former Shining Path combatants, then in prison, who were heard by the commission. They prove a rich source to understand both why Shining Path initially attracted recruits and later alienated its potential social base. The discourse of the Maoist group (“very open and simple”) was novel and attractive, and young followers were given responsibilities and opportunities to challenge existing authorities in the family and peasant communities. When the armed forces entered Ayacucho, it produced a crucial point of inflection in Shining Path’s strategy, Manrique establishes, for the provinces of Ayacucho, Huancayo and Apurímac, from which the ex-senderistas came. To resist the military, Shining Path saw the communities as a mass to maneuver to obtain what they needed in people and resources. They failed to understand that peasants’ spirits could change. When demands were made for something peasants had no enthusiasm to give, Shining Path began to lose its legitimacy and became increasingly brutal toward communities that were becoming more and more reluctant. Then, as Manrique notes, “The rebellion against Shining Path was not long in coming” [emphasis added].

“After fifteen years of war, Sendero Luminoso is no longer a threat to the country and democratic stability. […] It is isolated and without social foundations,” wrote Ponciano del Pino in his first version of 1995 of “Family, Culture, and Revolution: Everyday Life with Sendero Luminoso” (Spanish version). “This isolation is not new,” the author continued, “in some areas of the country the peasants had begun to quit collaborating as of 1984. And, since 1984 […] the peasants had improved their ability to resist by organizing Civilian Self-Defense Committees.” Del Pino’s article describes how peasant communities passed from brutal servitude to resistance against the SL, or fled to escape the rising tide of terror, and weighs the costs and effects of these peasant strategies from the late 1980s into the 90s.

Del Pino did his research on three Senderista “bases of support” in the central jungle area of northern Ayacucho – Sello de Oro, Viscatán and the Ené river valley – that he knew first hand.

The communities were engulfed by violence in the late 1980’s, when Shining Path made them captive populations. Del Pino describes “concentration camps in the midst of absolute terror and the power of total domination.” Yet these same peasants, he shows, were able to overcome their fear and stand up to Shining Path (at the initiative, in some areas, of the women). Patterns of resistance were complex, often varying with specific geographic circumstances. When resistance from the valley peasants forced Shining Path to withdraw from one area, for example, more remote communities to which they retreated suffered. Overall Shining Path’s movements were hardly the “unstoppable advance” of which it boasted. Its cruelty toward the peasants it did dominate reflected its expulsion from other communities or peasant flight from areas formerly under its control.

Working in a humanitarian mission to Asháninka indigenous communities in Selva de Oro, in July 1993 Del Pino witnessed the rescue of two hundred people who had accepted government pledges that they would not be persecuted and fled a Senderista zone. He was deeply affected by the consequences of SL control:

Freed a few days ago, the population was made up of 160 Asháninkas and 40 settlers. Their miserable state was comparable to that of concentration camp prisoners. All of them had been under Sendero’s power since 1988 or 1989. […] 80% were children and women, all of whom were malnourished and ill.
“University Youth and Political Violence in Peru: The Murder of Students in La Cantuta and Their Memory, 1992-2000” (Spanish version), by Pablo Sandoval, takes us to another terrain of violence, the urban centers of the coast where Shining Path’s watchword was “guerra popular.” Lima was first: in July 1992 nine students and one professor at the La Cantuta community university were massacred and their bodies carried away. As would be discovered later, those responsible were a military-linked death squad known as “Colina.” This was an era in which the army’s secret services operated at the margins of the law and with complete freedom in the universities, which they saw as “hotbeds of subversion.”

Sandoval investigates the aftermath of this event in the 1990s: what the massacre meant for the three following student generations in the changing political context of the times. “In particular, how the deterioration of the Fujimori regime from 1996 until the flashpoint of 2000 allowed new stories to emerge about the past that were attuned to the political expectations that opened up in the transition to democracy.”

Since the author was a student at La Cantuta in those years his research presents an autobiographical dimension and challenge. “What happens,” he wonders, “when it is our living experience we try to explain as historian and anthropologist?”

Around 1990, SL managed to control part of the university administration and the important schools of La Cantuta. There student Senderismo ruled, removed from the political claims of the traditional left. Surprisingly, as Sandoval shows, the massacre had little impact on Senderista students at the time. “The murders were just one more act within an avalanche of violence unleashed by the guerra popular.” The SL mystique taught its followers to disdain the deaths of their fellow activists (many of whom were killed in those times) and to believe in the party, no matter what. When Guzmán and other terrorist leaders were captured shortly thereafter, however, the movement collapsed. The succeeding student generation had nothing to do with Senderismo: “we are students, not terrorists,” they proclaimed. Largely apolitical, they initially accepted much of the government’s propaganda presenting Fujimori as the nation’s savior.

After 1993 new developments changed this. The names of those responsible began to be known, as was the place the bodies were buried. Broadcast in the media, the images of these corpses reshaped collective representations of the event and led to demonstrations repudiating Fujimori and his acolyte Montesinos in 1997 - 1998. The memory of the 1992 massacre was now transformed by the political demands of the moment. It was not yet linked, according to Sandoval, to the memories of the grieving families still largely locked within their pain.

This section about Peru’s 20 years of violence concludes with a path-breaking account about its remarkable movement for human rights. It is a story of the courage and resistance of the organizations of victims and their families, which, along with human rights groups and important elements within the Catholic Church, learned to defy fear and danger, denounce crimes – and build a national network of more than 50 associations throughout the length and breadth of the country. This is the history of la Coordinadora, an organization unique in the world, told by Coletta Youngers in her work “In Search for Truth and Justice: The History of the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos del Perú” (Spanish version) (from a condensed version of Violencia política y sociedad civil en el Perú: historia de la Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, Lima: IEP, 2003 [“Political Violence and Civilian Society in Peru: The History of the National ‘Coordinadora’ for Human Rights in Peru”].

Historians will recognize this as an important work from the first historiographic generation addressing the recent past. Youngers writes out of some 20 years of passionate advocacy for human rights in Peru and conveys the knowledge of people, situations, institutions, and events of that long involvement. Like others in a first historiographic generation, she transmits some of her collective memory (and that of colleagues) while taking a certain distance to try to explain what happened. Her work is among a relative handful to use the human rights movement – and the documentation it generated – as a way to illuminate the political violence of the recent past.

Youngers identifies several turning points in the history of the Coordinadora, linked to the organization’s need to rethink strategies in changing political contexts. The first and perhaps most crucial of these was its decision to reject violence from any source and to denounce abuses committed by the guerrillas as well as by the military. The government continued to regard them as apologists and accomplices of terrorism, while the left, trying to deal with its own romantic vision of armed conflict, remained suspicious. And Shining Path began to make human rights activists their targets.

Youngers also reveals the Coordinadora’s pragmatism in not hesitating to reconsider its strategy in the light of the changing facts. Or in giving its members freedom of action in regions in which it was possible for groups to work with local State agencies such as the police – even when policies and legislation in Lima showed contempt for human rights standards.

Another major decision by the Coordinadora – to document human rights violations by the Shining Path as well as government forces – also had far-reaching consequences. (International human rights treaties and conventions formally apply only to the reporting of the State’s abuse of its citizens, whereas the terrorist violence that Peru knew at that point was within the realm of humanitarian law.) This decision gradually won over initially skeptical public opinion and eventually made the Coordinadora into a major actor in Peru’s transition to democracy. Youngers shows that its moral authority and experience – together with imaginative communications campaigns for human rights – allowed it to speak credibly for civil society and to contribute decisively to reconstructing a constitutional order (2001 - 2002) and supporting needed institutional reforms while still maintaining its autonomy.



Translation by Lea Fletcher
Universidad Alberto Hurtado | Centro de Ética | © 2007 Anne Pérotin-Dumon > Todos los derechos reservados | All rights reserved Créditos