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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution