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Rebel Mastermind's Arrest May Be Peru Turning Point

September 14, 1992|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

LIMA, Peru — The arrest of Abimael Guzman, shadowy mastermind of Peru's Maoist revolutionary movement, puts behind bars the most fanatical Latin American guerrilla leader since Fidel Castro, experts said Sunday.

The depredations of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), Guzman's underground terrorist organization, have set a major part of the political agenda in this country through the administrations of three presidents. All have directed failed campaigns to end the violence.

Peru's top journalistic expert on Guzman and his movement, Editor Enrique Zileri of the weekly magazine Caretas, said after the rebel chieftain's arrest: "He is very, very important. This is Mao Tse-tung himself."

Guzman, 57, a former philosophy professor known to his followers as "Presidente Gonzalo," and seven others were captured in a raid late Saturday in the Lima suburb of Surco.

Police burst in on the group after learning that a meeting of Guzman's Central Committee had been planned in Lima for the weekend, authorities said.

The Interior Ministry said the eight were taken by surprise without gunfire.

Those jailed besides Guzman included Elena Iparraguirre, considered by anti-terrorism police to be the No. 2 leader of Sendero Luminoso; Elvia Zanabria, Guzman's personal secretary, and another top leader, Laura Zambrano.

Authorities believe the arrests could be a turning point in Peru's 12-year battle to crush the Maoist insurgency. Zileri called the capture of Guzman "a huge blow to Sendero Luminoso."

But political leaders and terrorism experts cautioned that an early end to the rebellion is unlikely and could even lead to more bloodshed because of Guzman's fanatical following.

The government blames Sendero Luminoso for more than $22 billion in economic damage since the group took up arms in 1980--an amount equal to the country's foreign debt.

More than 25,000 people have died in political violence involving Guzman's organization and a smaller, pro-Cuban group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, active since 1984. Tupac Amaru's leader, Victor Polay, was captured less than three months ago.

Guzman is expected to be tried by a military court for treason and, if convicted, faces a life sentence without parole.

Guzman was a lifelong Communist who traveled to China in the late 1960s and was awed by Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. He resolved to bring Mao's brand of communism to Peru through class war.

Following Mao's writings, Guzman formed a splinter group of Peru's Communist Party in 1970 and began indoctrinating peasants in the remote valleys of Peru's Andean Mountains.

Guzman once taught philosophy at the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho, an impoverished Andean region 230 miles southeast of Lima.

Since 1980, his movement has conducted a terrifying campaign to create a peasant-worker state in this country, a campaign that coincided with national economic decline after years of government mismanagement.

Sendero Luminoso espouses a communism so orthodox that it hailed the collapse of the Soviet Union, which it said was led by traitors to pure communism. It also believes the current Chinese leadership has failed.

Sendero Luminoso has shown no mercy toward anyone it suspects of opposing its aims.

Many of those who have died since the guerrillas took up arms were Andean peasants caught in cross-fire between government troops and rebels.

President Alberto Fujimori has vowed to end the insurgency before his five-year term ends in July, 1995.

He imposed military-backed one-man rule here in April, asserting that corruption was blocking his efforts to combat the guerrillas.

Since Guzman's guerrillas began their campaign of violence, they have launched attacks in the Andes, in the jungles of eastern Peru, in coastal cities and in this capital, where nowadays blackouts and other disruptions caused by Sendero Luminoso bombings are frequent.

So far this year, about 1,500 people have died in more than 800 bombings and other assaults.

Sendero Luminoso has also intensified political indoctrination during the past year, especially among the residents of Lima's shantytowns, where half of the capital city's 7 million people reside.

"The immense masses of the shantytowns are like belts of steel that lock in the enemy and hold back his reactionary forces," Guzman has written.

The fiercest wave of attacks in Lima this year occurred in July, when the Maoist rebels tried to shut down transport here and set off a flurry of car bombings that killed at least 45 people.

Enrique Bernales, a former senator who studies ways to deal with the insurgency, said in the wake of Guzman's arrest that the government should brace for an "aggressive and hard reaction" from his followers.

Carlos Tapia, a sociologist and expert on Sendero Luminoso, speculated that the guerrillas might regroup under a less dogmatic leader and widen their appeal.

Guzman worked to create a mythical image of himself as invincible. He has allowed himself to be seen by only a small inner circle of collaborators, and many of his followers call him the "fourth sword of Marxism."

He was nearly captured at a safehouse in Lima in June, 1990, but slipped away before police broke in. They found his reading glasses and medication.

In January, 1991, in another raid in Lima, police found a videotape showing a bearded and overweight Guzman and other rebel leaders mourning at the funeral of Guzman's wife, Augusta la Torre. It was the first fresh image of him since 1978.

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