Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla leader dies at 86

Abimael Guzmán

The leader and founder of Peru’s Shining Path rebel group, Abimael Guzmán, has died at the age of 86.

A former philosophy professor, he had been serving a life sentence for terrorism and treason since 1992.

In July he suffered health problems and was transferred from a maximum security prison to a hospital.

Almost 70,000 people died or disappeared in more than a decade of conflict between the Maoist guerrilla group and the Peruvian state.

Guzmán’s arrest hit the group hard, but a few of its members are still active in the coca-producing region.

Abimael Guzmán was born on Peru’s southern coast near the town of Mollendo in December 1934 to a wealthy merchant who raised him after Guzmán’s mother died.

The future rebel leader had a privileged upbringing. He attended a private Catholic secondary school and later the university in Arequipa, where one of his dissertations was on German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

While at university he became interested in Marxism. By 1962 he had earned a place as professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University in the central city of Ayacucho.

During a trip to China in 1965 Guzmán was inspired by Communist leader Mao Zedong and upon his return to Peru he encouraged like-minded academics to join him at the university in Ayacucho.

In 1969, he and 11 others founded the Shining Path – Sendero Luminoso in Spanish. The name was chosen as a nod to Peruvian communist José Carlos Mariátegui who said that “Marxism-Leninism is the shining path of the future”.

line Inspired by Maoism, the guerrilla group tried to lead a “people’s war” to overthrow Peru’s “bourgeois democracy” and establish a communist state.

An offshoot of the Communist Party of Peru, the group did not engage in armed struggle at first. But that soon changed.

The atrocities committed by the military in its fight against the rebels drove some people, especially in rural areas, to side with the Shining Path.

The insurgency effectively came to an end in September 1992, when Peruvian intelligence finally captured Guzmán above a dance studio in Lima.

The authorities had long suspected rebels were hiding in apartments in the capital and became suspicious of one owned by ballerina Maritza Garrido Lecca.

Although she claimed to live alone, the apartment generated far too much rubbish for just one person.

When the agents searched through it, they found medicine to treat psoriasis – a skin condition Guzmán was known to suffer from.

Officers arrested Guzmán inside, along with his second wife, Elena Iparraguirre, and a number of other revolutionaries. He was reportedly watching the boxing on television when he was arrested. He was sent to be held at an offshore naval base on San Lorenzo island.

In October 1993, the Maoist rebel appeared on television and publicly called on his followers to “fight for peace”. Following his statement, about 6,000 members of the Shining Path surrendered under a government amnesty programme.

A number of senior members of the Shining Path have been captured since Guzmán’s arrest and the group has been largely dismantled. Only small remnants remain active in the Andes regions where they engage mainly in drug-trafficking.

Guzmán underwent another, longer trial in 2004, after President Fujimori’s authoritarian measures were repealed. Restrictions on the media were tight, preventing reporters from following the proceedings.

He was convicted of aggravated terrorism and murder in October 2006, and again received a life sentence.

Guzmán spent his remaining years in solitary confinement at a naval prison in El Callao, west of Lima. He was allowed to marry his fellow Shining Path guerrilla Elena Iparraguirre behind bars in 2010.