The History of Peru’s Shining Path

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The Communist Party of Peru, otherwise known as the Shining Path - via Wikipedia

Shining Path, also known by the Spanish name Sendero Luminoso, is a Maoist revolutionary organization that has operated in Peru for more than 40 years. At the time of its founding, the group intended to instigate a cultural revolution and hoped to install a communist dictatorship to replace what it referred to as Peru’s “bourgeois democracy”.

Sendero Luminoso had high hopes and believed that by overthrowing the government it could spark a worldwide communist revolution.  Since its founding, the organization has developed a dastardly reputation for its violent acts, which have affected Peruvian politicians, union leaders, soldiers and civilians.

During its existence, a number of leaders have overseen the group. Most ended their reign after being arrested or killed by government forces. While its terrorist tactics remain, Sendero Luminoso has modified its intentions in recent years. Today, the Peruvian government continues to fight the group as terrorists, but the organization has also become a target in the United States government’s War on Drugs.


The name Sendero Luminoso comes from a statement made by the founder of the Peruvian Communist Party, Jose Carlos Mariategui: “el Marxismo-Leninismo abrira el sendero luminoso hacia la revolucion,” which translates to, “Marxism–Leninism will open the shining path to revolution.”

Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor at Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga, founded Sendero Luminoso in 1969 in opposition to the country’s political hierarchy. Guzman’s followers practiced Marxism and looked up to Fidel Castro as a hero of Latin American revolution.

From the beginning, Guzman advocated the use of guerrilla tactics to overthrow Peru’s leadership. He enlisted his first followers at the university and the group quickly gained power throughout the institution.

Guzman’s message resonated with many disenchanted Peruvians and he eventually built an army that number in the thousands. His followers referred to him as Presidente Gonzalo and he preferred to remain autonomous, resisting support from other South American leftist organizations and communist foreign powers.

During its early years, Sendero Luminoso took control of student councils at a number of universities and established significant power at the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria in Lima. As time wore on, Guzman lost support at the schools, so he shifted recruitment efforts toward peasants in rural areas.

Throughout the 1980s, Sendero Luminoso held a series of secret meetings in Ayacucho, an Andean town located 500 kilometers from Lima. The group formed a revolutionary leadership board, which instructed members to forcibly take control of areas throughout the country. To further their goals, a military school was established, where fighters learned about weaponry and military tactics.


Sendero Luminoso’s tactics have landed the organization on government terrorist lists in Peru, Canada, the United States and the European Union.

Sendero Luminoso’s initial strategy was to kill small-town mayors, police officers and select bureaucrats in order to assert their strength and create chaos. But their tactics changed in the 1980s, when they began targeting department-level officials and wealthy landowners. During their long struggle with the Peruvian government, an estimated 11,000 civilians died as a direct or indirect consequence of the conflict.

The group wanted to disrupt all aspects of Peruvian society, including the economy, but also wanted to destroy Peru’s international reputation in order to topple the democratic establishment. Guerilla cells carried out missions throughout the country, attacking military convoys, burning ballot boxes at polling stations and detonating car bombs in cities.

Throughout the 1970s, the Peruvian government barely responded to the Sendero Luminoso threat. Leaders were reluctant to use strong force against the organization, fearing social and political catastrophe.

After guerrillas gained control of large areas of the country, the government finally took action. In December 1981, the government declared three departments emergency zones; Apurimac, Ayacucho and Huancavelica. Government forces were given the power to detain any person they deemed suspicious, which led to hundreds of arrests and human right violations.

Peruvian soldiers donned dark masks to hide their identities and enlisted peasants to help fight the guerrillas. Sendero Luminoso militias retaliated by taking over small towns, often killing residents they deemed supporters of the state. People in the Andes found themselves trapped by violence perpetrated by both sides of the conflict.

Alberto Fujimori

In the spring of 1992, then-President Alberto Fujimori orchestrated a coup within the Peruvian government, after which he dismantled the legal system and dissolved the Congress.

Fujimori assumed complete control of the national government and ordered security forces to hunt down and capture or kill anyone his administration considered an enemy of the state, particularly those involved with Sendero Liminoso. His actions alienated the country and the United States cut off all humanitarian assistance and government aid to Peru.

Guzman’s Capture

The Peruvian military captured Abimael Guzman and other Sendero Luminoso leaders in 1992. The group had been hiding in plain sight in Lima, but the police had been monitoring the apartment in which they lived.

After Guzman’s capture, Sendero Luminoso fell into disarray and its members scattered, taking refuge in the jungle regions of the Apurimac, Haunuco and Ayacucho regions. Guzman was convicted on terrorism and murder charges and is today serving a life sentence at a prison in Callao.

Guzman helped organize a peace deal a few years after his capture, but Sendero Luminoso’s members were divided by the agreement. Some decided to lay down their weapons, while others chose to continue fighting. Nevertheless, the organization’s membership dwindled and only small groups of fighters remained active in their isolated hideouts.


While fringe groups of Sendero Luminoso remained active for years, their attacks became less frequent. However, in recent years the organization has managed to recruit more followers.

In 2002, Sendero Luminoso exploded a car bomb near the U.S. embassy in Lima. In 2008, the organization attacked a military convoy, but missed their intended targets, sending a bus filled with civilians careening over a cliff.

Today, Sendero Luminoso are viewed more as narcotrafickers than a political movement. They operate cocaine labs in jungle regions and remain elusive.

In February 2012, Sendero Luminoso’s most recent leader, known as Comrade Artemio, was badly injured and captured during a firefight with Peruvian troops. After Artemio’s arrest, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala declared the organization defeated. However, only time will tell if Sendero Luminoso will live on.


The rebel leaders and public figures involved in the Sendero Luminoso conflict are forever woven into the historical fabric of Peru. Former president Alberto Fujimori was tried for human right abuses committed by his security forces. A Peruvian court sentenced him to 25 years in prison and he remains incarcerated today. However, Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Sofía Fujimori Higuchi, ran for president of Peru in 2011, narrowly losing to Ollanta Humala in a runoff election.

President Humala served in the Peruvian Army, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, and fought to rid the country of the Sendero Luminoso threat. In 2000, Humala led an unsuccessful uprising against then-President Alberto Fujimori, after which he lived in hiding until Fujimori’s impeachment later that year.

Humala’s brother, Antauro, also served in the Peruvian Army and fought against Sendero Luminoso. In 2005, Antauro led an uprising against then-President Alejandro Toledo, a former political opponent of Alberto Fujimori. During the conflict, Antauro’s followers captured a rural police station, killing four police officers. In 2009, Antauro Humala was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison for the siege and subsequent deaths.

Today, Peru is among the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The country is home to almost one dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Machu Picchu and Manu National Park. While the Sendero Luminoso conflict remains in the minds’ of many Peruvians, the country has moved on from the past and thrives in its unique cultural glory.

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