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NEWS ANALYSIS : Peru Rebel Leader's Image Crumbles; Fervor May Last : Guerrillas: There is still a strong potential for bloodshed despite Guzman's capture, experts say.

September 16, 1992|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — One of Lima's colorful tabloids said Tuesday that Abimael Guzman, guiding light of the fearsome Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, kept a private harem for his sexual amusement. Another said that Guzman, 57, was "drugged and drunk" when police captured him last weekend.

"The mythical man turned out to be a delinquent without dignity," concluded yet another tabloid daily.

On Peruvian newsstands, the larger-than-life image of Abimael Guzman crumbles like a sand sculpture in the surf. The legendary leader of Latin America's most ruthless revolutionaries, the iron-willed messiah of violence, is now portrayed as an overweight, myopic prisoner in a police holding cell.

But the revolutionary fervor that Guzman breathed into his Maoist movement is unlikely to suddenly fade away because of his capture, according to experts on political violence. And even if Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, were to change course or peter out, the experts say, the potential for continuing bloodshed is still alarmingly strong in Peru.

Carlos Reyna, a sociologist who does research on Sendero, said the most sensational information about Guzman in the tabloids is probably not true.

"Rather, I think they make it up," he said.

Still, he added, efforts to demystify the Guzman legend are a "totally legitimate and logical" part of the warfare that has plagued Peruvian society for 12 years. More than 26,000 Peruvians have died in political violence since Guzman began his bloody struggle for power in 1980.

He was the sole leader of Sendero, its ideologue, its strategist and its source of inspiration as well. His decisions were law and his policies were hallowed doctrine. And because he had no rivals for power, he has no heir apparent.

"Therefore, the blow is much harder than it would be for another guerrilla organization if it lost its leader," Reyna said. He and other analysts speculated in interviews about potential difficulties for Sendero without Guzman:

* Guzman and other captured leaders could provide authorities with information that they could use to cripple the organization with a chain reaction of raids and arrests.

* A leadership vacuum could set the stage for a violent power struggle and deep divisions within the organization. Sendero could fragment into smaller rebel groups that in turn might degenerate into desperate bands of bandits.

* Factions within Sendero could become entangled in greedy and disruptive disputes over the millions of dollars that the movement collects in "taxes" from cocaine trafficking in eastern Peru, the world's main source of raw cocaine.

* Lacking Guzman's violent zeal, new leaders could change Sendero into a more moderate movement, hoping to broaden its popular appeal but draining its vital force.

Reyna cautioned that such scenarios may be possible but are less than probable. He observed that Sendero is steeped in Guzman's "cult of violence," which may well serve as a bond to keep the movement together.

"The very identity of Sendero Luminoso is that religion of violence," Reyna said.

Historian Jaime Urrutia contended that fragmentation of Sendero is unlikely because Guzman and his lieutenants have molded it into an organization of strictly homogenous thinking.

"They have purged persons who had other opinions," Urrutia said, so it might be relatively easy for the organization to agree on new leadership.

Still, such a new leadership may lack needed imagination and decisiveness, according to sociologist Nelson Manrique.

"I have the impression that there is no one in Sendero Luminoso who can fill that vacuum," Manrique said. "I have the impression that Abimael Guzman had a central committee of people who didn't think but rather were transmission belts for his authority."

In the short run, there is little doubt that Sendero will continue to pose a serious threat of disruptive violence. It has an estimated 7,000 members who are still well-organized, disciplined and armed, observed a Western diplomat who monitors rebel activities.

"The question is, over the long term do they have the kind of leadership they need?" the diplomat said. That will depend in part, he said, on whether the group's cadres can figure out among themselves which Guzman disciple should interpret his doctrine and probable wishes on a day-to-day basis.

Sendero's long-term survival also will depend in part on how well the government can refine and carry out its policy for fighting the rebels. President Alberto Fujimori has asserted that Guzman's capture is proof of a successful government policy, but independent analysts say the credit is due largely to a special police anti-terrorist unit.

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