Lima, Peru – Ignacio Tacas was 13 when he learned how his family was massacred. The details reached him, piece by piece, over an entire month of fragmentary television and newspaper reports.
Members of the Shining Path killed his father, three sisters and brother – aged four to nine – maternal grandparents and two uncles in their remote Andean village, Lucanamarca, on April 3, 1983, while he studied at a state school on Peru’s coast.
They were among 69 people, including 18 children, slaughtered in what remains the most infamous of the atrocities committed by the Maoist hardline group. Many of the victims were killed with blades and blunt instruments.
The bloodbath, which Peru’s official Truth and Reconciliation Report described as “demented”, was revenge for locals rebelling weeks earlier against Shining Path and killing one of its commanders.
According to that same report (PDF), the Shining Path was responsible for killing at least 28,000 people, most of them from impoverished rural communities, between 1980 and 2000, as the group sought to build a proletarian utopia.
Now, decades later, memories of the group have been once again rocking Peru after President Pedro Castillo appointed figures accused of being Shining Path sympathisers to the highest levels of his new left-wing government. The appointments prompted such a severe backlash that Castillo was forced this week to change a large chunk of his cabinet just two months into his five-year term.
“It’s a great concern,” Tacas, now 50, told Al Jazeera in an interview before the reshuffle.
“Ordinary Peruvians have been hoodwinked by these personalities, who identify with the terrorists,” he said, about the ministers who had been in Castillo’s government. “These people are taking advantage of democracy and presenting themselves as representatives of the people, of the poorest, but they are not saying what they really think.”
One of the principal sources of controversy was outgoing Prime Minister Guido Bellido, a hardline Marxist who repeatedly undermined Castillo in recent weeks, including calling for the nationalisation of Peru’s natural gas reserves just as the president was trying to drum up confidence from international investors, and attacking him in leaked WhatsApp chats.
Bellido had quoted Shining Path’s late founder Abimael Guzman on his Facebook account as recently as 2019. In the same post, Bellido also quoted Jose Carlos Mariategui, the father of Peruvian communism: “I am for violence, for authority, for discipline. I accept them en bloc, with all the horrors, without cowardly reservations.”
The other figure at the heart of the storm is outgoing Labour Minister Iber Maravi, who was, according to testimony from Shining Path members, not just a member of the group in the early 1980s, but one of its bombmakers.
Maravi, who was facing impeachment by Congress until Castillo belatedly sacked him, denies the accusations. But he has also been implicated in the founding of a pro-Shining Path faction of a teacher’s union in the early 2000s by other union members.
Castillo has not himself been accused of supporting Shining Path, remnants of which still operate in one remote, heavily forested area of the eastern Andes where they now are dedicated to providing protection to cocaine traffickers.
But the president, who rarely speaks in public and has avoided news conferences and media interviews since taking office in July, backed Maravi for weeks, initially refusing to accept his resignation and then suggesting that his minister had been “stained by things he never did”.
Further, as a union leader during a 2017 teachers’ strike, Castillo relied on the support of Movadef, a group seeking an amnesty for convicted “terrorists” and which the Peruvian state accuses of being a front for Shining Path.
An honest assessment
But several factors have prevented an honest discussion about the group’s horrific legacy in Peru.
Some on the Peruvian left have flirted with pro-Shining Path messaging, while right-wing politicians and their supporters have so frequently used the word “terrorist” to falsely target their political opponents that the smear tactic has its own verb in Peru, “terruquear”.
Further, a brutal crackdown launched by former President Alberto Fujimori – father of failed presidential-hopeful Keiko Fujimori, who was defeated by Castillo – against suspected subversives actually targeted many who had nothing to do with “terrorism”.
Fujimori was convicted of running death squads, while under his guidance and that of the two presidents who preceded him, the Peruvian military and police routinely committed serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial executions, as they sought to crush the Maoist rebels.
The issue has become so controversial that teachers now rarely even go near it in the classroom, afraid of being criticised by parents or politicians and even losing their jobs, resulting in generations of young Peruvians being unaware of the trauma once suffered by their parents.
“The right in Peru and even some centrist parties have failed to take an honest look at Peru’s recent past,” said Joe-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University who has studied Peru’s internal conflict for decades.
“They continue to promote this narrative that Shining Path was the work of a monster [Abimael Guzman], someone who could have been an extraterrestrial. There is no acknowledgement that the people in this movement were Peruvians, that they felt such despair that this call to arms made sense to them.”
The state’s torture of suspected Shining Path members also calls into question the veracity of their testimony, including against Maravi, the former labour minister. Yet in his case, what may be more problematic than any alleged participation in the group’s activities in his youth, is his defence of it two decades later as a union leader.
“Many of the people who joined Shining Path were very young,” said Maria Eugenia Ulfe, an anthropologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “That is not to say they were not responsible for their actions, but it needs to be understood how and why they made this mistake. But why were you still defending it 20 years later?”
For Tacas, who still works as a subsistence farmer, like his father, in Lucanamarca in the country’s southern region of Ayacucho, the last few months have brought up painful memories. The village, he said, remains as poor as it ever was. Like much of Peru’s rural hinterland, it largely has been abandoned by successive national governments in Lima, a two-day drive away.
“That is the irony. This poverty is what led to Shining Path, but then they turned on the poor. It was the poor that they were killing,” Tacas said. “Peru’s a rich country. It has so many resources. But they don’t reach the people. There’s so much corruption. We are isolated and abandoned.”