Peruvian Guerrilla War Begins

The communist revolutionary movement known as the Shining Path sought to overthrow the central government of Peru by force, enlisting members of the largely Indian peasantry for armed attacks, but the movement ultimately failed.

Summary of Event

From the time it achieved independence from Spain in 1824, the Republic of Peru has had difficulty in maintaining political and economic stability. The majority of Peru’s population is American Indian, and many Peruvians speak native dialects rather than the country’s official language, Spanish. Shining Path
Revolutions and coups;Peru
[kw]Peruvian Guerrilla War Begins (1976)
[kw]Guerrilla War Begins, Peruvian (1976)
[kw]War Begins, Peruvian Guerrilla (1976)
Shining Path
Revolutions and coups;Peru
[g]South America;1976: Peruvian Guerrilla War Begins[02250]
[g]Peru;1976: Peruvian Guerrilla War Begins[02250]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1976: Peruvian Guerrilla War Begins[02250]
Guzmán, Abimael
Fujimori, Alberto
Belaúnde Terry, Fernando
García Pérez, Alan

In 1959, the San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University, in the Peruvian region of Ayacucho, reopened its doors after having been closed since 1885. The university was the only school of higher education in the remote region, and it was at this institution that the Peruvian Communist Party, soon called the Shining Path, got its start.

Ayacucho, one of Peru’s poorest areas, had experienced severe economic reversals during the second half of the twentieth century. Devoted primarily to farming and grazing, the region had received little support from Peru’s central government in distant Lima, the capital. Government plans for a reformation of landholdings had done little to settle conflicts with the area’s peasants over property rights, despite the cancellation of the four-century-old hacienda system that had been in place from the time of European arrival. Ayacucho’s rural population remained restive as a result. In the city of Ayacucho itself, some 25 percent of the population attended secondary and university schools.

The Shining Path was headed by a Huamanga University professor, Abimael Guzmán, who organized the movement according to the dictates of Maoist (Chinese) communism. Power was held in the hands of the organization’s leader, who determined the strategy that the group would follow. The Shining Path’s goals were to educate and motivate the rural lower classes and to lead them in an armed revolution against Peru’s central authority.

Initially, the Shining Path made substantial progress in organizing the area’s peasantry. Members of the movement assassinated local leaders from the central government who had exploited the peasantry. Moreover, in a commitment to the concept of moralism, the movement eliminated drunkards, prostitutes, and drug peddlers from the general society. At the beginning of the revolutionaries’ campaign, the local citizens approved of these actions.

In May of 1980, student adherents of the Shining Path attacked an outpost of the central government itself by breaking into the town hall of a small Andean community, Chuschi. They took the ballots and voting lists designed for an impending national presidential election and burned them publicly, in the town square. This action was the beginning of a series of attacks by the revolutionary group against the officials and property of the central government in Lima. At first, Peru’s president, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, paid little notice to the Shining Path’s activities because they were taking place in the remote regions of Ayacucho and Apurímac. It took the central government several years to realize the threat represented by the Shining Path and to begin a counterattack against the communities where the revolutionaries’ power was concentrated.

Although the peasantry at first supported the Shining Path because its actions benefited them, once the government launched military action against the revolutionaries, the peasants found themselves in the middle as the Shining Path troops retreated into the hills and left the peasantry to face the army. Both the government troops and the revolutionaries sought to impose their will on the peasantry. Conflict between the government and the rebels increased during the presidential administration of Alan García Pérez, which followed Belaúnde Terry’s. The Shining Path caused the central government increasing political and economic problems by blowing up bridges and electrical towers.

The highly moralistic attitude evinced by the Shining Path during its initial overtures to the peasantry gave way to expediency when the need arose. When faced with a more determined effort by the military to move into rural areas, the Shining Path increased its attempts to win over the coca growers in the upper Huallaga Valley. The revolutionaries aided the growers in marketing their coca crop and coca paste to neighboring Colombia. They set up scores of hidden landing strips to aid in the transfer of these products, and, in return, the valley’s growers paid taxes to the Shining Path in an amount estimated to be between $20 million and $100 million annually.

Under heavy security, the Peruvian government moved captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán (inside cage) to a maximum security prison in early 1993. To make Guzmán look foolish, the government clothed him in a comical striped prison suit.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Abimael Guzmán proved to be intractable as a leader. He refused to recognize the existence of other organizations seeking to aid Peru’s lower classes, including the separately led Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and powerful labor unions such as the Confederation of Peruvian Workers and the Trade Union of Education Workers. Following his Maoist principle of leadership by one man at the top, he denied such organizations the right to participate in the Shining Path revolution.

The appeal of the Shining Path’s revolutionary movement dropped precipitously following the election of a nontraditional presidential candidate, Alberto Fujimori, in 1990. Fujimori improved Peru’s total economy and sought to win the support of the peasantry by working to solve their land disputes and by carrying out an aggressive military campaign against the Shining Path. During their campaigns, the communist revolutionaries had caused the deaths of more than thirty thousand as well as losses in production and direct property damage estimated at $24 billion.

Guzmán was captured by the government in September, 1992, and later that year he was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court. That verdict was thrown out by Peruvian legal authorities in 2003, but Guzmán was retried in 2005 and his life sentence was confirmed. The strength of the Shining Path declined rapidly after Guzmán’s capture, a reflection of the movement’s overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of one leader. Many of those who had been in Guzmán’s inner circle had also been captured, tried, and sent to prison.


The Shining Path movement reflected the discontent of Peru’s lower classes, which the group sought to exploit by enlisting them in an armed revolutionary campaign to overthrow the country’s central government. Although it was true that the lower classes, especially the Indians living in the country’s mountainous regions, were suffering from neglect by the central government, the Shining Path could not maintain its momentum after it tried to repeat its initial successes in the country’s more mountainous and remote regions in the country’s center. The development of Peru’s new leadership under Alberto Fujimori resulted in the defeat of the revolutionary movement by 1992. Fujimori himself later went into exile when he failed in an attempt to engineer his reelection for a third term as president in 2000, in violation of the Peruvian constitution. Shining Path
Revolutions and coups;Peru

Further Reading

  • Alegría, Claribel, and Darwin Flakoll. Tunnel to Canto Grande. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 1996. Presents the story of the escape of forty-eight members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, competitors of the Shining Path for leadership in the Peruvian revolutionary movement in the 1980’s, from the Canto Grande maximum-security prison near Lima, Peru.
  • Gorriti, Gustavo. The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru. Translated by Robin Kirk. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Authoritative account of the Guzmán leadership by an investigative journalist who was forced out of Peru during the Fujimori administration. Draws on the central archives of the Shining Path, which were seized at the time of Guzmán’s capture.
  • Palmer, David Scott, ed. The Shining Path of Peru. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Collection of thirteen essays by a variety of authorities from both the United States and Peru provides insights into the Shining Path movement from a number of different points of view.

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