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