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Peru’s Defensoras

In 1999, a handful of Quechua-speaking women in Cusco, Peru banded together to support victims of domestic violence and those in dire need. Las Defensoras (defenders) handled complaints of domestic abuse and sexual harassment, offered counseling, helped file legal paperwork, and sought out whatever assistance was available for those living in extreme poverty. Most of the victims were (and continue to be) poor indigenous women and children trapped in the pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) around the city. It is here that the defensoras do battle on a daily basis, walking the dirt streets the tourists never see.


Prior to 2000 it was estimated that a third of Cusco’s residents lived in the slums and that up to 70% of the female Quechua population were sufferers of domestic abuse who never came forward. Many simply did not know they had the option.

at work in Cusco's pueblos jovenes (shantytowns)

At work in the pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) of Cusco

Today, Peru’s Defensorías Comunitarias (community defense) number over 35,000 women who have grown their volunteer organization to a national level. These remarkable ladies continue to provide a first line of defense, reaching out to those who do not yet know how to take that initial step in controlling their own lives.


first line of defense

Women of distinction


The Shining Path – Then and Now

“What a frightening thirst for vengeance devours me.”  Osmán Morote (Comrade Nicolas)

Abimael Guzmán dressed as he was when paraded through the streets of Lima in 1992

During the 80s, after an unknown philosophy professor by the name of Abimael Guzmán founded the Shining Path (“Marxism–Leninism is the shining path of the future”), there was a period when it seemed that the Maoist revolutionary movement might well take control of Peru.Inflation was rampant, as was corruption, and the indigenous Quechua population, along with many demoralized Peruvians, were more than ready for change.

But at what price?

Somehow Chairman Gonzalo (one of Guzman’s noms de guerre) was able to take that deep discontent and turn it into a full-fledged insurgency that lasted twelve years and killed, by modest estimates, 30,000 Peruvians. (Some estimates go as high as 70,000.)

The Cult of Shining Path

The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) were matched only by their Cambodian counterparts The Khmer Rouge for creative brutality and out-and-out atrocities. Stories of dogs hanging from lampposts in Lima, beheadings for civilian infractions such as adultery, and random bombings with explosives strapped to farm animals only touch upon what the Senderitsas were capable of.

Cult-like activities including free love (but absolutely not ‘love’) and members taking oaths (the cuota) agreeing to their own death once they had killed their share of soldiers and capitalists, only helped raise the Shining Path to a level of notoriety well above your average South American revolutionary group.

Bear in mind that Peruvian government forces battling the insurgents weren’t much better. Accounts of disparados (disappeared ones), political prisons, torture and the wholesale attack on the Quechua people in the Red Zone of the Andes are abundant and many Peruvians regarded the Shining Path as Robin Hoods in ski masks.

Somehow the Peruvian people lived through it all and on September 12, 1992, Abimael Guzmán, a man few people had ever actually seen, was arrested in a Shining Path safe house in Lima. And thus began the decline of the Shining Path.

President Alberto Fujimori (currently in prison for human rights abuses and bribery scandals) was given much of the credit for ending the dirty war. Many Peruvians are willing to forgive the methods he used.

Ironically both men on either side of the struggle are still in prison today.


In recent years the Shining Path’s numbers have dwindled to 100-300. The odd military-style attack has been carried out against soldiers and political leaders but the main effort has been to provide security for Peru’s drug cartels. It is said that a five percent fee is charged for ‘protecting’ cocaine shipments through the Huallaga Valley, where half the world’s cocaine comes from.


Last December Comrade Artemio, one of the last infamous old school terrucos, said the Shining Path were defeated. He requested the Peruvian government grant amnesty to imprisoned members and open talks with the remaining holdouts.


But on February 12 of this year Comrade Artemio was captured in a jungle basecamp. After two bullets were removed from his stomach, he too, is in prison.

So, finally—the end of the Shining Path?

Unfortunately, not yet. Just last April, Shining Path rebel leader Martin Palomino (Comrade Gabriel) took responsibility for the kidnapping of three dozen natural gas workers in the coca growing region.

The workers were ultimately set free but only after six soldiers were killed in a shootout.

Heart of Protest Runs Deep in Peru

Recent protests in Peru’s northern Cajamarca region over the development of the $5 billion Conga gold mining project have left three people dead and more than twenty wounded.

Despite police and military backlashes, and jeopardizing badly-needed jobs, protests are common in a country where mining is a major economic force.

Peru’s mining history is plagued with environmental wreckage, more than a few examples under the supervision of US mining companies. In 2009, the highland city of La Oroya was listed as one of the world’s ten most polluted places. Over 35,000 people were forced to breathe toxic waste from Missouri-based Doe Run’s smokestacks and drink lead-laced water from its smelting operations. Doe Run pleaded financial insolvency and had to be bailed out by Peruvian banks, despite having posted record profits only a few years earlier.

La Oroya After Doe Run

La Oroya after Doe Run

But the size of Doe Run’s operations pale in comparison to the Conga mine project, a joint venture involving US based Newmont Mining Corp, which will be the largest investment EVER in Peru.

Leading German environmental engineer Reinhard Seifert has called the Conga mine project an ‘environmental disaster’.

Peruvians are not shy to stand up and take to the streets when they see a threat to their environment and way of life—even with the economic and physical risks involved.

They should be commended for this.


Peru still haunted by the dirty war, decades later

An article in the NY Times regarding the legacy of Peru’s dirty war: Wounds of War – even today, much of the country is still deeply affected by atrocities committed by both the military and the Shining Path. Today the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) exists primarily as a mercenary force for the drug cartels, although small groups periodically take on government forces.

Peru Police Capture Shining Path Leader’s Successor

Readers of SENDERO frequently ask whether the Shining Path is still active or did I simply make all of this up. Well, it is called fiction but I believe I portrayed Sendero Luminoso as they are today–a small group of  holdouts involved primarily in narcoterrorism. And there have indeed been a resurgence of Shining Path attacks in Peru over the last couple of years although they are a far cry from the 80s and 90s during the height of the dirty war. This article shows recent activity over the arrest of the last known member of the central committee–Comrade Artemio–whose real name is Flores. Sound familiar readers?

Suspected Guerrilla Leader Captured in Peru

In SENDERO, rogue Shining Path members in the jungles of Peru take matters into their own hands. This recent article shows that Sendero Luminoso are still alive and well, functioning primarily as security for Peru’s narco traffickers. Suspected-Guerrilla-Leader-Captured-in-Peru