FOR A DOZEN years from 1980, a malicious and invisible presence haunted Peru, becoming more and more threatening. Abimael Guzmán, a Marxist philosopher who created an obscure terrorist army called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), ordered massacres, murders, car bombs and the destruction of police stations. Yet he never appeared in public. His capture in 1992, thanks to some old-fashioned detective work, meant he spent the rest of his life in a maximum security prison. At the time of his death on September 11, at the age of 86, many Peruvians had few memories of him. His death leaves several questions unanswered.
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Sendero was unlike any other guerrilla movement in Latin America. Mr. Guzmán drew inspiration from Maoist China, which he visited twice during the Cultural Revolution, rather than Cuba. He founded Sendero as a shard of the Peruvian Communist Party in Ayacucho, the capital of a poor Andean region where he taught at university. He recruited his students, mostly women; many became teachers who, upon graduation, went to schools in towns and villages. As Peru returned to democracy, it launched its Maoist “protracted people’s war to encircle the rural towns”. To avoid relying on outsiders, Sendero’s weapons were machetes, stones, and dynamite, until they stole weapons from the security forces.
Mr. Guzmán, too, was unique. His moral dissonance makes him one of the last monsters of the twentieth century. He lived in an absolutist ideological bubble, sheltered from reality, including the cruelty and suffering he commanded. Sendero killed some 38,000 people, according to an investigation by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Yet Mr. Guzmán was also indirectly responsible for more than 30,000 murders committed by the armed forces and self-defense militias. The majority of the victims were Quechua-speaking villagers in the Andes – those on whose behalf his war was supposed to be waged.
He erected around him a cult of the absurd personality: he called himself President Gonzalo, the “fourth sword of Marxism”. Sendero’s ideology has become “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Gonzalo Thought”. When operations went wrong, officials were subjected to long and humiliating sessions of self-criticism at party meetings. He told his supporters that their deaths were glorious, playing on Andean millenarianism.
Its techniques foreshadowed those of jihadist terrorism. But Mr. Guzmán himself did not run any physical risk. He was not Che Guevara. Throughout the war he lived in safe houses in the more upscale neighborhoods of Lima. When the police broke in, he offered no resistance. He immediately called on his supporters to give up, turning Sendero into a non-violent political movement (called Movadef) whose goal was to campaign for his release.
This psychotic narcissism went hand in hand with extraordinary powers of persuasion. Psychiatrists could point to a complicated childhood to explain what made a theorist an indirect mass killer. Mr. Guzmán was the illegitimate son of an estate administrator and a poor mother who later abandoned him. Thanks to his mother-in-law, he acquired a university education – and an uncertain place in the social order.
In explaining Sendero’s bloody call, sociologists have noted Peru’s weaknesses. Many in the Andes hated abusive officials and police, and initially welcomed the Maoists until their totalitarian demands to restrict crops and recruit children sparked a rebellion. A fragile state, plagued by the debt crisis of the 1980s and hyperinflation, has failed in its response. The brutalized armed forces took far too long to realize that the peasants were allies and not enemies. Some Peruvians of high society, plagued by the guilt of the inequalities of their country, sympathized with Sendero.
“There is in Peruvian society a powerful capacity for hatred and destruction,” Alberto Flores Galindo, a historian, told Bello in Lima in 1989. Three decades later, this capacity was revealed in a bitterly polarized election and the victory, by a narrow margin, of Pedro Castillo, a leftist, a result that Sendero has long made unthinkable. The new president is a rural teacher, like many of Mr. Guzmán’s recruits, and has several allies linked to either Sendero or Movadef. Mr. Guzmán has taken the conviction of many Communists to the extreme that the end justifies the means. That such fanaticism still resonates in Peru should arouse self-criticism from those in power who are hesitant about the history of terror.
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the title “The Hidden Monster in the Suburbs”