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
Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit