By Martin De Angelis for Global Risk Insights
Twenty-three years after the death of Shining Path’s founder, Abimael Guzman, the Maoist insurgency has lost much of the ideological foundations that once made it the most significant existential threat to the Peruvian state. Fifteen years have passed since the end of a gruesome civil war that left nearly 70.000 people dead.
Currently, the Communist-Maoist Guerrilla ‘Sendero Luminoso’ (Shining Path) is believed to have some 350 strong men in its ranks, significantly less than its 4000 members when at its zenith, yet enough to cause concern.
Shining Path was considered to have been eradicated in the early 2000s. However, Latin American insurgencies do not evaporate. Their columns and blocs mutate into smaller operating cells which turn into autonomous profit-seeking organizations.
Shining Path remnants are now led by Víctor y Jorge and the Quispe Palomino brothers, who have turned the guerrillas into a criminal gang proficient in money laundering techniques. Recently, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has included the Shining-Path in its black list of ‘terrorist-financing organizations.’
The US Government will seize the assets and properties related to money laundering activities connected to Shining-Path as stated in a communiqué: “Since its founding over three decades ago, the Shining Path has evolved from a militant terrorist group to a criminal narco-terrorist organization responsible for trafficking cocaine throughout South America.”
Peruvian Minister of Defense, Jakke Valakivi, has openly recognized that Shining Path still operates in the eastern Peruvian region of VRAEM. This is a thickly forested area between the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers which is known to have some of the most dense coca plantations in Peru that offer large yields due to the unparalleled alkaloid levels of its leafs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world’s top coca producer, with some 50.000 hectares of coca plantations, 40% in the VRAEM region alone.
Nearly 300 tons of cocaine are produced in the VRAEM a year and nearly 50% of it is transported by air to neighboring countries. The UN estimates 80 clandestine airfields in VRAEM alone, making it a hub for illegal goods distribution.
Shining Path has also been diversifying its revenue sources, from coca plantations to more labor-intense industries such as unauthorized timber and gold mining. These industries, unlike the cocaine alkaloids, provide products that can easily be slipped into the legal market, making it easier for unlawful groups to blend into formal businesses.
Not yet extinct
Shining Path’s operation in this coca hub is a major cause of concern for Peru, and events this summer indicate that the organization, thought to be extinct, is still very much operational.
First, on July 5, 54 hostages – 33 children and 21 adults – were released from the hands of Shining Path by an Army operation. On July 28, another 39 hostages were released, but nearly 200 people are still held under captivity by the guerrillas.
The same week, an army raid into the VRAEM forest produced a ‘cocaine hydrochloric kitchen,’ with over 155 kilograms of alkaloids and heavy weaponry that allegedly belonged to Shining Path. Shining Path did not hesitate to retaliate. On August 5, a guerrilla surprise assault on a Peruvian Army base left one soldier dead and two wounded.
Consequently, the Peruvian Army captured two top-ranking Shining Path commanders. The recently-arrested militants have been accused of assassinating police officers, sabotaging energy infrastructure, IED detonations and mining fields along the VRAEM region.
Although the Shining Path is not nearly the security risk as it once was, it is still very capable of posing a threat to the development of some regions in Peru. Security breaches in the Peruvian, Bolivian and Argentine airspace due the low level of air radar controls, plus the absence of a ‘take-down law’ to enforce it, grants illegal groups the possibility of trafficking drugs and gold and transporting cash with low risk of interception.