Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Abimael Guzmán, 1934–2021 

The Shining Path founder had a simple doctrine: kill the capitalists, distribute their wealth.

When Alberto Fujimori was inaugurated as Peru’s president on July 29, 1990, his socialist predecessors’ hyperinflation (a wheelbarrow of banknotes for a meal) had emptied out the vast presidential palace. No civil servant could feed his family for two days with the monthly salary. They were all out trying to earn something, somehow. Hence only some naval-infantry officers and NCOs remained to serve the new president, often in the dark. The Sendero Luminoso guerillas of Abimael Guzmán had reached the capital and were blowing up electricity pylons.

While Fujimori was isolated—the Lima elite scorned him as a poor scholarship boy, having rooted for his opponent, the world-renowned upper-class novelist Mario Vargas Llosa—Abimael Guzmán was at the top of his game, and deservedly so. The podgy professor of philosophy (i.e. German idealism from Hegel to Marx, as in all Latin American universities at the time), born the bastard of a merchant who refused to marry his mother but paid for his education, hardened himself to walk vigorously on high-altitude mountain paths. To lead Andean mountaineers to fight for the victory of his own brand of communism, Guzmán had learned the native Quechua language as well.

Lazily described as a Maoist, when in fact he was a Leninist whose policies were rooted in local realities, Guzmán had a simple and winning formula: kill the capitalists, distribute their wealth. That can only increase poverty once the loot is used up, but not in Peru, not in 1990. Fujimori’s predecessor, President Alan García, had manufactured an entire class of fake industrialists by implementing the catastrophic policies recommended by Latin America’s greatest economics guru, Raul Prebisch. Hugely admired by U.S. academics, funded by the Ford Foundation, and officially enthroned as director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, no less, Prebisch explained that rich countries imported cheap raw materials from Latin America and then sold them back as expensive finished goods, keeping Latin Americans forever poor. His remedy was “import substitution.” High tariffs would enable local capitalists to invest in plants that could profitably manufacture what was previously imported. 

Lima’s rich families responded with enthusiasm, very quickly setting up factories that made everything from Toyota cars to sewing needles. This astonishing miracle of instant industrialization without years of prior investment in skills and plants was easily achieved: the Peruvian car “manufacturer” imported complete cars disassembled for him into kit form, which were then quickly reassembled with a few screwdrivers for sale as “made in Peru” at a very impressive mark-up. 

Once García went full Prebisch on the humble products needed by Peru’s already very poor Quechua-speaking peasants, they were further immiserated by the high prices of everything from needles to shovels that enriched the fake manufacturers who imported low-tariff components in bulk, as they could not. In 1990 Peru, capitalists empowered by socialists generated poverty, not wealth, making Guzmán’s revolutionary solution of killing them all perfectly logical and very appealing. His Sendero Luminoso, “the Shining Path,” alluded to the Inca empire’s paths from Bolivia to Colombia marked out by paving stones that messengers could follow even at night. Guzmán’s revolutionary war was duly powered by nativism as well as desperate poverty aggravated by academic perversity. 

As for the Peruvian army, its useless remedy was to send infantry units on futile “search and destroy” marches in full daylight that guerillas on higher slopes could easily spot from miles away, then proceed to avoid combat or prepare ambushes as best suited them. 

Everything favored Guzmán, but Fujimori also had his advantages. First, the United States, which had favored Mario Vargas Llosa, did not offer its military aid, namely the swarms of helicopters that guerillas can hear while they are still miles away. Nor did it send its Ph.D. generals with their “counterinsurgency” theories that contradict the methods of every successful empire in history and the practices that had just achieved the one and only U.S. victory over guerillas—Ronald Reagan’s El Salvador war that finally drove the beleaguered Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front leaders to give up their weapons altogether to try the ballot box instead. With no U.S. forces present to dabble at counterinsurgency and U.S. military advisors also strictly limited by Congress, it was private contractors who enabled the El Salvador victory with such simple remedies as the distribution of old, cheap, light, and handy M1 carbines to village defenders after training them to fight off anyone who wanted their land, whether it was former landlords unsatisfied by their land reform payouts or the communist guerillas for their envisaged Soviet-style collective farms (just like today’s American socialists, they were undeterred by the colossal failures of Soviet and Mao’s collectivizations).   

Spared from the military malpractice of U.S.-style “counterinsurgency warfare,” Fujimori turned to experts recruited by Peru’s truly eminent policy intellectual Hernando de Soto, the man who discovered that slum dwellers given property titles would quickly build real houses, turning slums into suburbs. The present writer, once active in El Salvador, was thus proposed by de Soto to serve as Fujimori’s advisor.

It was in that capacity that I studied Guzmán, as well as the tactical modus operandi of his followers. His nativism was strictly synthetic. He would have been called Quyllur or perhaps Sinchiyachiq instead of his Hebrew name Abimael had he been a Quechua. But when foreign journalists tried to reach him, no doubt to give him the Yasser Arafat treatment (whereby a violent mediocrity is turned into a Nobel Prize winner by interposed media glorification), Guzmán let them know that they would be killed if they reached him, as befits a proper nativist indifferent to foreign opinion. Actually killed at his orders were the leaders of the competing urban radical-chic Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and of other communist and far-left groups, demonstrating his Leninist clarity. Lenin, himself very persuasive in calling for revolutionary unity, turned to his famous Red Latvian riflemen to execute any remaining skeptics. Guzmán likewise had his mountaineers to do his killings, and both enjoyed them so much that they were soon eager to kill again. 

And then there were the bombings. On July 16, 1992, I was visiting when several car bombs (single car bombings were so passé) exploded in Lima’s wealthy Miraflores district, killing forty, wounding many more, and destroying much. That inaugurated a long series of car bombings at banks, hotels, restaurants, police stations, shops, even schools, as well as the destruction of two bridges used to export copper for badly needed revenues. 

It was no doubt at his alma mater, the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín in Arequipa—named for Saint Augustine, the most lucidly logical of Church fathers—that Guzmán acquired his intellectual clarity. Even that could not help him when Fujimori copied the winning El Salvador village-defense model with his rondas campesinas that were even tougher than the Senderistas, while his drastic economic liberalization achieved a miraculous uplift in the actual standard of living of the poorest Peruvians.

Contrary to the neo-communist, academically favored policies then prevalent in Latin America, now weirdly resurgent in the U.S. itself, Fujimori drastically reduced government interference in the economy, cutting most subsidies, eliminating all exchange controls, and drastically reducing import tariffs. Suddenly peasants could buy shovels again. Above all, he stopped García’s printing press that daily enriched the propertied rich and starved the poor with runaway hyperinflation. In July 1990, the last month of García rule, monthly inflation hit 63.23 percent. No longer having to enrich tariff-made “manufacturers” or inflation speculators, Peru’s peasants could eat and hope again. They duly flocked to the rondas campesinas to stop any further socialist experiments at their expense.

Fujimori’s economic and military policies were vehemently disliked by almost all Americans who bothered with Peru, including the counterinsurgency-fixated U.S. Southern Command, which supplied hundreds of helicopters to the Colombian Army, thereby ensuring that guerillas could never be caught (as I myself discovered, one can hear helicopters coming even before hearing their engines because noisy birds go quiet and quiet birds become noisy, hence the colossal idiocy of sending them by the hundred to especially bird-rich Colombia).

By contrast, Peru’s soldiers needed only common trucks to reach and jump off surreptitiously at their nightly ambush positions, into which Senderistas on the move might blunder, and those were fights that the troops could win even if outnumbered. It was much better to spend many an empty night with nothing achieved than to run into Sendero ambushes when looking for them. Gradually Sendero casualties mounted up. American officials and the CIA especially (it favored and funded a crooked lawyer who posed as Peru’s James Bond) disliked Fujimori’s reliance on a few locals to do his intelligence work, as well as a few foreign experts (one an Israeli ex-sergeant) instead of their sublime counterinsurgency expertise—recently demonstrated in Afghanistan once again.

Guzmán’s admirable Augustinian education prepared him well for revolutionary strategizing but did not extend to mere military tactics, and it was tactically that the Senderistas were being defeated night after night while Fujimori’s free-market policies truly helped Peru’s poor, denying them new recruits. Peruvian peasants had learned to spurn Socialist policies and voted for Fujimori in all his three elections, then voted for his daughter Keiko as late as April of this year, giving her 13.41 percent to the winner’s 18.92 percent (there were 17 candidates).

From the day of Fujimori’s inauguration, Guzmán remained at liberty for two years, one month, and two weeks before his capture on September 12, 1992. Driven from the countryside by the increasing success of the army’s ambushes and into the neat Lima house of a solitary female sympathizer, Guzmán was detected by Fujimori’s police intelligence unit, set up by another of his foreign consultants, which noticed that the garbage was excessive for just one person. Thus, one exceptional character, Alberto Fujimori, now himself in prison since 2005 because of his multiple constitutional illegalities, defeated another. What each thought of the other during their overlapping prison years we can only guess.

Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian.