Shining Path Reemerges in Peru

The law of unintended consequences is playing new havoc with the US drug war in the Andes. As the Americans and their local allies in Bogota apply pressure on the Colombian cocaine and heroin business, the red flag of Maoist insurrection waves once more in Peru, boosted by the arrival of Colombian narco-entrepreneurs looking for friendlier territory and bizarrely held aloft by profits generated by the piratical pure capitalism of the black-market drug trade.

Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) plunged Peru into a vicious guerrilla war beginning in 1980, as millenarian Inca peasants led by provincial radicals under the banner of Presidente Gonzalo (nom de guerre of party leader Abimael Guzman) seized control of vast swatches of the Andean highlands and carried the war into the capital city, Lima, itself in the name of Marx-Lenin-Mao-Gonzalo Thought. During the period when the insurrection was at its strongest, Shining Path made a fortune and found a mass political base protecting coca-growing peasants from US-backed Peruvian government efforts to eradicate their crops and ensuring that peasants got fair prices from the usually Colombian middle-men who bought their harvests.

Thanks to an also-brutal counterinsurgency campaign led by now disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori and his sinister eminence grise, Vladimiro Montesinos, the Peruvian state broke the back of the insurgency, most spectacularly with the 1992 capture of Gonzalo/Guzman, who remains a prisoner for life in Peru. But the guerrilla war cost some 30,000 lives, and the guerrillas themselves were never completely eradicated.

Now, with coffee and cocoa prices at rock bottom, the heat on in Colombia and Bolivia, and renewed reports of widespread coca and opium poppy plantings, Shining Path is back, according to police officials in Peru cited by the Washington Post and the Independent (UK) newspaper.

According to the Independent, police in the Upper Huallaga Valley, Peru's traditional coca heartland, say that Shining Path guerrillas have reemerged, ambushing police and military forces and imposing their rough order on the drug trade. But there's a new twist. Instead of coca fields, the Maoists are protecting poppy fields and getting protection money from opium farmers and traffickers.

Peruvian police told the Independent that a confluence of events have brought Colombian heroin traffickers into Peru. US drug eradication campaigns in Colombia, while directed primarily at coca, made Colombian traffickers eager to find new locations. When the Peruvian Air Force last spring blasted a plane carrying American missionaries out of the sky over the Amazon, the resulting ban on the US any longer assisting in the aerial shoot-to-kill policy left huge gaps in the counter-narcotics surveillance scheme, which the Colombians were quick to exploit. And when, after September 11, the globally-dominant Afghan heroin industry fell into shambles, the Colombians saw an opportunity to use their existing cocaine trafficking channels to Europe to win a larger share of the lucrative European heroin market.

The Colombians reportedly supplied farmers in the Upper Huallaga and other highland regions of central Peru with poppy seeds, start-up credits, and weapons to protect the lucrative new crops, which gain farmers twice what they could make growing coca.

US authorities were aware of the new development as early as August. In testimony before Congress then, Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement and Narcotics Affairs Rand Beers acknowledged that poppies were on the move. "We're finding it in high altitudes in Peru," he said. "The traffickers understand that more is better than less and that different products are better than a single product," he explained.

At the same time, the US Agency for International Development was reporting on its web site "rapid increases in cultivation of the opium poppy in Peru" as traffickers looked for "geographic regions that are outside of the current target areas."

Similarly, coca production is reported on the increase in Peru. Although the US cited a 70% fall in coca production from 1996 to 2000, local experts scoff. "It is absolutely false that coca production has fallen since mid-1998 and the United States and the Peruvian government know that very well," Hugo Cabieses of the Peruvian Center for Social Studies told the Philadelphia Inquirer in October. Cabieses estimated that 2001 coca cultivation was 173,000 acres, more than double the 1996 figure.

The first of the new round of Shining Path attacks occurred last summer, when guerrillas killed four rural policemen in an ambush. In October, "Yanks Out of Afghanistan" graffiti and flyers bearing the heavy-handed imprint of Shining Path propagandists appeared, and Peruvian intelligence officials claimed to have thwarted a Shining Path plot to blow up the US Embassy in Lima.

Peruvian police are responding with a hundred new police outposts in former Shining Path territory, a Peruvian anti-narcotics officer told the Washington Post. "The guerrillas are trying to capitalize on new strategies to expand the reach of their subversion," said Luis Cruzado. "The Shining Path is at the very least maintaining its size and expanding its presence."

Sendero Luminoso's resurgence poses a real nightmare scenario for US drug warriors -- and anyone concerned about peace and human rights in the region. At its heyday, Shining Path's dogmatic brutality made guerrilla organizations like the Colombian FARC seem like a troop of girl scouts out on a picnic. Now, the Shining Path is reinvigorated, if Peruvian officials are to be believed -- they have self-serving reasons to hype the Senderista threat -- and it is growing strong on the black market profits generated by the drug war. If war is the health of the state, drug prohibition is the health of the insurgency.

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