Shining Path's resurgence has got the Peruvian government worried

The group's leaders won't rule out a return to violence “should the conditions present themselves”.

The handmade birthday card, from the leader of Peru’s brutal terrorist insurgency to his longtime lover and lieutenant, had a small Shining Path flag painted on the front. Sent from the underground jail cell where he has been imprisoned for twenty years, Abimael Guzman wrote: “My love, my only, forever. Congratulations. From he who lives in you, Abimael.”

Guzman and his wife, Elena Iparraguirre, remain devoted to each other and their communist cause despite spending more than two decades in jail for their roles leading the Shining Path, a communist revolutionary organisation which terrorized Peru during the 1980s and 90s. Now, the resurgence of the group, which killed more than 40,000 Peruvians in its attempt to overthrow the state, has got the government worried.

The man who delivered the recent birthday card is Alfredo Crespo, the pair’s lawyer and the leader of Movadef, the Shining Path’s political arm which has recently started gaining ground. The group are pushing for Guzman and Iparraguierre’s release, alongside a general amnesty for all Shining Path members and the defense of the “fundamental rights of the people”.

Movadef’s calls to reject neoliberalism, help the poor and protect access to natural resources have struck a note with Peruvians disillusioned by President Ollanta Humala’s shift to a conservative economic stance since his election on a leftist platform last year. The group recently gathered more than 370,000 signatures demanding they be allowed to enter the political process – a request that the government denied. But Movadef “continues to grow in strength and numbers every day,” according to Crespo, with thousands of members spread across 16 national bases.

Its gains in popularity have prompted the government to draft a severe new law seeking to jail for four to eight years anyone who “denies, minimizes or justifies” the atrocities carried out by Shining Path. For many Peruvians the law, which the government openly admits aims to control how people think, is a chilling echo of the terrorist witchhunt of the 1990s, in which thousands of people were jailed and tortured after being falsely accused of links to the Shining Path.

It will remain legal to deny or justify the kilings and human rights abuses carried out by government forces during the war, leading to accusations the state is trying to rewrite history. Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2003 that the government had been responsible for roughly a third of the war’s 69,000 deaths, and former President Alberto Fujimori was jailed for 25 years in 2009 for his role in death squads and forced disappearances.

The government says the law is necessary to protect people who may be susceptible to the “terrorist lies” propogated by Movadef and Guzman, the self-pronounced “fourth sword of communism” after Marx, Lenin and Mao, whose cult of personality inspires a fanatic zeal among his followers.

“If they sympathize, they should go to prison,” says Julio Galindo, the country’s anti-terrorism prosecutor and the law’s main proponent. “You have the right to your opinion, but I am going to limit your opinion if you are putting other Peruvians at risk that want to live in a democracy.”

Despite reaching the 20th anniversary of his incarceration last week, all of which has been spent in solitary confinement, Guzman remains intellectually sharp and deeply in love with Iparraguierre, according to Crespo, who visits them both each week. The pair, who communicate with letters, paintings and poems, were granted the right to marry in jail in 2010 after going on hunger strike.

Both had been married before – Iparraguierre to a man she abandoned alongside two children to devote herself to the Shining Path’s Maoist militancy in 1976. “I rebelled against the roles society imposes on women, tied my heart with my guts and left without looking back,” she once told a Spanish news agency.

Iparraguierre was a good friend of Augusta la Torre, Guzman’s first wife who was instrumental in the founding of the Shining Path and served as its second-in-command until her death in mysterious circumstances in 1989. Guzman said she died from heart problems, while other Shining Path members said she had committed suicide; but it’s rumored that Iparraguierre murdered la Torre after a love triangle developed. She immediately took over la Torre’s position, overseeing brutal massacres of peasants in a militant strategy compared to the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” in Cambodia.

Guzman, who once told his followers that “blood does not drown the revolution, but irrigates it,” called for them to lay down their arms in favour of peaceful political struggle following his capture in 1992. But neither he nor Movadef will rule out a return to violence in the future, “should the conditions present themselves,” according to Crespo.

Miriam Wells is a freelance journalist based in Colombia

Abimael Guzman in 1992. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here