Re-emergence of Shining Path as Drug Syndicate Paints New Peruvian President Humala Into a Corner

I’ve spent the last week or so preparing for an interview with the British travel writer Michael Jacobs. In the process, I plowed through his wonderful recent book Andes, an account of Jacobs’ journey along the Andean spine of South America. A beautiful mix of history and first-person observation, Andes above all showcases Jacobs’ talent for dialogue, as he conveys tidbits of talks with academics, politicians, artists and regular Joes.

In one scene, Jacobs relates his chance encounter on a bus journey with a witness to the mid-1980s slaying of German couple at the hands of the Shining Path in Peru, a story that shocked Westerners into awareness of the violent civil war that devastated the country throughout significant chunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. The tale—as terrifying as it is sad—takes place “at around this time of year, on a bus owned like this one by the Molina Union.”

A group of Sendero Luminoso terrorists, some little more than young boys, had blocked the road with boulders. We all had to get out of the bus. They took everything we had, even though most of us were as poor as they were…The Germans of course did not really know what was going on. I told them there was nothing to worry about. But they weren’t stupid. Many people around them were sobbing and moaning.

Eventually we were all told we could get back on the bus. The Germans were on the point of stepping in through the door. A young man, the leader of the terrorists, held them back. “Not you!” he shouted. I pleaded with him to let the Germans go. I said they have done nothing…” They are traitors,” he replied. “All foreigners are traitors.”

The Germans asked me to repeat what had been said. Strangely, they did not seem frightened any more. It was if they suddenly knew they were going to do, and that there was nothing that they could do about it. I just told them that everything was going to be alright. They held hands tightly and looked into each other’s watery eyes. They obviously were very much in love. I was shoved onto the bus. I could hear the gunshots as we pulled away.

I was reminded of this story by the news this week that Peruvian intelligence officers had arrested Elisa Monica Culantres Cordova, partner of Shining Path leader “Comrade Artemio,” who was nabbed outside Lima seven months pregnant. Besides being a direct connection to the most powerful surviving member of the once-revolutionary movement, Cordova had been wanted for numerous acts of terrorism that left dozens dead, including eleven national police officers.

This may not seem like a big deal: the conventional wisdom holds that the Shining Path has been reduced to a skeleton of its former self, and poses no serious threat to Peruvian state security. As it so often happens, however, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

One of the perverse effects of the American-led war on drugs in South America—largely under the umbrella of Plan Colombia—has been the so-called balloon phenomenon, where drug production has been pushed out of Colombia and spread around to its neighbours in the continent’s south and east. New market opportunities produced exploding profits seized by armed factions associated with traditional coca farming families, chief among them the Shining Path.

Like the FARC in Colombia, elements of the Shining Path have switched gears from Marxist revolution to the trafficking of drugs in an attempt to maintain relevance and a measure of political power. According to InSight,

The new reach of the Shining Path has also allowed the rebels to diversify the routes they use to smuggle cocaine out of the Peruvian highlands on their way down to the Pacific Coast, where shipments are bought by the Mexican drug cartels and smuggled northwards through the Pacific…Shining Path rebels escort shipments across stretches of Peru, charging drug traffickers up to $30 a kilo. The rebel columns are not only marching through the mountainous terrain but have access to vehicles and are able to cover large distances quickly.

Recently elected president Ollanta Humala made the war on drugs a priority concern in his successful bid for the country’s highest office, but there’s reason enough to be skeptical of his ability to follow through successfully. As government attention to the drug trade intensifies, and becomes increasingly violent, Shining Path traffickers have invested their booming proceeds in outfitting the movement’s foot soldiers with the latest in military technology. Again, Insight:

Another effect of the army offensives against the rebels has been to force them to better arm and equip themselves, using the proceeds from drug trafficking to buy weapons on the black market. Police intelligence sources are cited tracking more than 100 rifles (mostly AKMs, the upgrade of the basic AK-47 Kalashnikovs produced in the 1960s) and some rocket-propelled grenades used to target military helicopters, one of which was hit in 2009 in Santo Domingo de Acobamba (Huancayo province).

But the bigger threat may reside in Humala’s constituent base made up in part by the country’s powerful coca growers union, the leadership of which has demonstrated ties to the Shining Path. If Humala institutes aggressive policies that threaten coca production generally and leave behind piles of bodies, his political future will be cast in serious doubt. On the other hand, if the Shining Path is permitted to reconstitute itself in any guise—political movement or trafficking outfit—Humala will almost certainly guarantee himself a legacy of failure. Meanwhile, the country’s conservative forces, who have demonstrated no qualms about instituting human-rights abusing mano dura policies to squash threats to the state—will be primed to recapture the mantle of political leadership.