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Searching for the "Shining Path" to Peru's future, from 1980 to the mid-90s, the revolutionary group Sendero Luminoso held Peru in the grip of a conflict that crippled governments and the economy and saw human rights abuses committed by all sides.
Fighting what it considered a Marxist revolutionary war, Sendero Luminoso first formed in the 1960s under the guidance of philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán. Yet it was not until 1980, when democracy returned to Peru after 12 years of military rule, that the Sendero officially launched its "revolutionary war." Refusing to take part in the 1980 elections, the first revolutionary act of Sendero Luminoso was to burn ballot boxes in Ayacucho. By late 1981 the country was in a state of emergency.
Sendero's philosophy was a form of extreme Marxism. Based in the countryside, with its stronghold in the highlands around Ayacucho, it aimed to replace the country's political structure with a peasant revolutionary regime. Sendero carried out assassinations of political figures, planted bombs in Lima, and spread fear throughout the country through macabre techniques such as hanging dead dogs from lampposts, with signs around their necks spreading the Sendero message.
Claiming to fight for Peru's peasant communities, Sendero instead committed more atrocities against those it purported to represent than it did against its enemies. Villages in the Peruvian highlands under Sendero control were purged, after "people's trials" of anyone connected with capitalist economy such as trade unionists, civic leaders, and managers of farming collectives. Brutality soon became associated with the Sendero's "shining" path.
As Sendero gained more territory, the government response to the violence was no better. The military was given arbitrary powers and human rights violations and massacres committed by the military against the peasant population are well documented. The government also armed various groups, called rondas, within peasant communities in an effort to get them to fight the Sendero themselves, all of which contributed to the escalation of brutal violence.
In a report released by the Truth and Reconciliation commission in 2003, nearly 70,000 people were found to have been murdered or "disappeared" during the conflict. Approximately half the victims were attributed to Sendero, and one third to government security forces.
The Dancer Upstairs, a film directed by John Malkovich, is a fascinating look at the search for, and capture of, Sendero leader Guzmán, who was captured in 1992. With his arrest, Sendero's struggle largely ended, although there have been random actions carried out as recently as 2005.
In an odd twist of fate, joining Guzmán in jail is former President Alberto Fujimori, who spearheaded the fight against Sendero. After many years of seeking his extradition from Chile, in 2007 the Peruvian government was finally able to bring Fujimori back to Peru to stand trial on corruption and human rights charges. The former president is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
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