Before he became an author and a professor of political philosophy at DePaul, Bill Martin was just another Maoist longhair working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. One night in 1982 business was dead; he was killing time at the counter leafing through a copy of Soldier of Fortune and stopped at an article titled “Weird Warriors of Peru.” It was about a small band of commie guerrillas called the “Shining Path,” and though the writer described them with a kind of grudging respect, he hoped somebody would go down to Peru and wipe them out. But he cautioned all gung-ho mercenaries to proceed carefully. They may be weird, but they are warriors, he said. Bill Martin had never heard of the Shining Path, but he kept the article. Ten years later, he was still a long-haired communist, still had the article, and the weird warriors were in control of a large portion of Peru.
Martin was no mercenary and he’d never been to Peru, but when the Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru formed in 1986 to provide aid and comfort to the Shining Path, Martin joined right up. Officially called the Communist Party of Peru, Shining Path is probably the most feared and despised group of communists in the world. Any external support they’ve gotten, even on the left, has been marginal. They’ve been accused of coercion and terrorism, of planting car bombs and blowing up public buildings. They’re said to be financed by international cocaine smugglers who get safe passage in return. Some say the group’s leader, Abimael Guzman, also called Presidente Gonzalo, is a megalomaniac who encourages a cult of personality. The world has been warned that should the Shining Path triumph in Peru their legacy would be death in numbers to rival those of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
It’s no surprise that conservatives are against the Shining Path, whether the charges are true or not, but the group is spurned by the left as well. Some of the charges are, at least in part, undeniably true. Innocents have died. Bombs have been ignited in popular areas. The Shining Path says it’s fighting a “people’s war.” Which people?
Martin is not in favor of the death of noncombatants, but, he argues, the Shining Path is fighting a war. He says the left is ambivalent because the Shining Path is “a Maoist party and people on the left think that’s over with. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union there’s been a narrowing and lowering of vision among people on the left. They’re intellectuals. They aren’t actually doing anything.” He adds, “It’s a misconception to put the Shining Path in with the Soviets anyway.” The name “Shining Path” comes from a book written in the 30s by Jose Carlos Mariategui (founder of the Communist Party of Peru) called Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality: “The road to communism is a shining path.” Martin says, “The book is pre-Mao, but it anticipates him.” One of Mao’s best-known essays is one called “Combat Liberalism.”
Peru is a poor country that should be rich. Writing in Granta about his 1990 campaign for president, Mario Vargas Llosa quoted a 19th-century naturalist, Antonio Raimondi, who described Peru as “a beggar sitting on a bench made of gold.” In Puria, where Vargas Llosa lived as a child, the soil is fertile, there is offshore oil. “Why should an area with these resources die of starvation?” Vargas Llosa asked. His solution was liberal reform and a free market economy. He lost the election.
The winner, Alberto Fujimori, became president in June of 1990. In April of 1992, in what observers called a “self-coup,” Fujimori suspended the constitution and eliminated the judiciary, replacing the justice system with military courts. In May the army attacked a prison, the Canto Grande, killing 40 and wounding many more. Canto Grande was also known as Shining Path central; though not everyone incarcerated there was a member, the group ran the place. The army didn’t kill all the prisoners; they just wanted to teach them a lesson. The Shining Path stepped up its attacks throughout Peru.
Then in late September the news said the Peruvian government had captured Abimael Guzman, aka Presidente Gonzalo. Guzman had been a philosophy professor before he founded the Shining Path, which announced its existence with an attack on an election headquarters in 1980. Peru’s public enemy number one, he’d never met with the world press before his arrest. Their introduction was pretty theatrical. Reporters were led into a room dominated by a large draped object surrounded by soldiers carrying submachine guns. The curtain covering the object dropped to the floor revealing a cage containing Guzman. Alone, he paced, talking rapidly. Cameras rolled and flashes flashed. The soldiers sang the Peruvian national anthem to drown him out. Guzman sang the “Internationale.” He wouldn’t shut up. The curtain went up. The press was ushered out. It was a little like the unveiling of King Kong.
An umbrella organization based in London called the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, which Martin describes as the “Maoist international,” drafted members from its 14 subgroups to form a 15th called the International Emergency Committee. It sent lawyers to Peru for Guzman’s trial before a naval court, which at the end of the trial’s sixth day handed Guzman a life sentence. The committee’s lawyers protested that the naval court had rigged the verdict. Though there’s no death penalty in Peru, they figured that his life in prison wouldn’t last much longer than his trial. They wrote letters and articles. Guzman’s lawyer Alfredo Crespo contacted Amnesty International, who responded with a public letter expressing concern, but that was all. Crespo never heard back. A second international group was quickly assembled and Bill Martin volunteered to be in it.
Martin had to hustle. He got tickets for a plane leaving the next day, October 26, at 8 PM. He didn’t have a passport, he’d never needed one. The only time he’d been out of the U.S. was on a car trip to Montreal. An internationalist, he didn’t believe in them anyway. He went downtown to the passport office at 8:30 the morning of the 26th and was issued a passport at 1:30 that afternoon.
Martin taught for the rest of the day, spent 15 minutes talking to his wife, then hopped the el to O’Hare. The plane left on time. He’d only had about three hours’ sleep, but that was normal for him–he’d kept graveyard-shift hours for years. He was up for most of the flight. He and the two other American committee members arrived in Lima at 7:30 the next morning. By 9:30 they’d reached their hotel, the Lima Sheraton, and met the other members of their group, two Italians and a German who’d arrived from Europe the day before. The Europeans had already made arrangements to hold a press conference in a banquet room at another hotel, La Hacienda, in the Miraflores district, at three that afternoon. Miraflores is the fancy part of Lima, a little like Beverly Hills in that it supports its own private police force. It wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Guzman support. But the group had decided to hold the press conference there, both as a symbolic gesture, and also because at La Hacienda a banquet room large enough for all the expected press was only 75 bucks for an hour.
When the committee got to the hotel, the conference room was full. Each member of the group gave a speech denouncing the trial, the government of Peru, and President Fujimori. Bill Martin went last.
He’s pretty sure it wasn’t something he’d said, but as he spoke the owner of the hotel started yelling. Martin can read Spanish, but he can’t speak it or understand it, spoken or yelled. He could tell the guy was upset, though. He continued speaking calmly, trying to ignore the disruption. He is a teacher, after all. But when eight officers of the Peruvian national police burst into the room with guns drawn, it was his turn to get upset. They arrested the committee, hustled them outside, and jammed them into two tiny cars; Martin thinks they were Renaults. They split up, four cops and three committee members to each. They whipped through town, and after a couple of minutes pulled up at a police station. Inside, they were held in two separate rooms, men in one, women in the other. The Italian who’d rented the room, who also spoke Spanish, asked why they’d been arrested. The police said it was for creating a disturbance.
Three hours later they were reunited at the headquarters of the DINCOTE, the Peruvian secret police. They sat on a bench talking and waiting to find out what would happen next. A guard informed them that Guzman had sat on the same bench when they’d arrested him. They didn’t know exactly what to make of that.
Though they thought their arrest could have been a setup, they realized it might have just been a misunderstanding. When the owner of the hotel realized they were communists, he might have created the disturbance just to get the cops to the hotel to get rid of them. (After all, he already had their deposit.)
Over the next two days Martin was interrogated by 30 different people. He had few answers for them. None of the interrogators spoke English, and the only interpreter was the Italian committee member. One of the few questions he understood on his own was “Who paid you?” It was the most frequently asked question. They didn’t believe his answer. Nobody.
Every interrogator went through Martin’s briefcase, and every one of them found and reported the same things: a bunch of papers and a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills from Osco. Martin pantomimed sleeping and they allowed him to keep the pills, which came in handy.
For the most part the group just sat. Guards stood over them, some wearing army uniforms, some wearing police uniforms, and some wearing the nonuniform of the army irregulars. These were the most worrisome of all to the group, 16- and 17-year-old boys playing soldier with real live firepower. One of them, bored, played air guitar on his submachine gun. They were led by a 20-year-old who’d rigged himself up in a stylish-looking ensemble of black turtleneck and green khaki pants. Martin thought he looked like MacGyver. Martin had never actually seen the show, but he recognized the look from commercials. MacGyver watched over them only briefly, as the group was transferred again after six hours at the DINCOTE. They took a midnight stroll to the Tourist and Immigration Station, which was in a different building in the same compound.
They sat tight. Martin tried to sleep. He took one of the Osco pills, but it wasn’t enough to blot out the glare of the fluorescent lights. He took off his tie and wrapped it around his eyes. That worked for a couple of hours. More lights shined on them through the window, lights from TV cameras. A guard said they had a larger group of press following them than Julio Iglesias did when he was in town. They were relieved. They felt relatively certain that they wouldn’t wind up dead in an “accident.” No one was hit, or starved, or tortured.
They had reason to be worried though. Another guard told them they might be charged with “apology for terrorism,” a serious crime. Martin said he “broke that law proudly.” But at the time conviction as an “apologist for terrorism” in Peru carried with it a sentence that could range from six months to 12 years in prison.
About two that morning one of the three generals who’d interrogated them picked up a phone. Martin only heard the general’s half of the conversation. He kept hearing the word “presidente.” He figured the general wasn’t talking to Gonzalo, or the president of Union Carbide; the general could only be talking to the president of Peru. He was glad. They had Fujimori worried.
It made sense that he would be. The group might be wild-eyed supporters of a radical Maoist guerrilla movement, but they were also citizens of wealthy democratic countries, and for all Fujimori knew they might even be prominent citizens. Fujimori is a diminutive millionaire businessman who ran for president in 1990 on his own funds, promising an austerity program to reduce the national debt and heading a party of which he was the only candidate. Sound familiar? The Perot of Peru.
After he won, Fujimori instituted the austerity program, and though it helped to pay interest on the debt, most of which is owed to U.S. and European banks, it also pushed the poor deeper into abject misery. Peru is paying interest estimated at about $90 million a day. Despite the support this group of foreigners was lending to the enemy, as a businessman, Fujimori knew he had to be careful with them. Mess up, create an international incident, and the political fallout might make it difficult for the Peruvian government to borrow any more money or might endanger aid from the U.S. Crespo the lawyer said even Guzman’s prison uniform carried the “Made in USA” label. Fujimori had already ripped up the constitution and declared martial law. Certainly most of the world was on his side, but for how long?
Martin has read practically everything that’s printed in English about Peru and the Shining Path–from emergency screeds in the Revolutionary Worker to pragmatic bludgeonry in reports from the Rand Corporation, the corporate think tank–and he calls the charges bullshit. “Even the last report from Rand said “Let’s cut the shit on this drugs-and-terrorism stuff and do something about the situation down there, or the Shining Path is gonna win,”‘ he says. He’s sure that the pictures of devastated, shot-up mountain villages released by the government are put-up jobs, that Peruvian army irregulars are the ones doing most of the killing and devastating. It annoys him that so many people on the left buy the government line. “Hey, the bloodier the Fujimori government wants to make things, the bloodier they get.” He thinks it’s absurd to believe that the group are involved with international drug smugglers–they’re opposed to the capitalist drug trade, they’re communists. “In the base areas where [the Shining Path are] in control they eliminate coca, and in other areas where it’s the only cash crop, they tax coca farmers. They’re not financed by smugglers.”
Contradicting those who call them terrorists, he explains, “They have a strong line against retribution–judges who’ve sent members of the Shining Path to jail haven’t been attacked in any way. They believe revenge doesn’t advance the struggle. They target things, sure, but they don’t go around randomly blowing things up–not like the Baader-Meinhof gang or the IRA.
“Maoism says that contradictions among the people are not to be dealt with by violent means. I don’t think you can compare the movement in Peru with the Soviet Union, or with the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge fucked up royally, but look at what the U.S. did. The U.S. went into Cambodia with napalm and Agent Orange, destroyed the agriculture in that country, and blamed everything that happened afterwards on the Khmer Rouge. Capitalism creates the worst possible conditions. The Khmer Rouge used desperate and somewhat misguided measures; they were some kind of combination of quasi-Maoists with a strong nationalistic aspect. Maybe they thought the people would starve anyway if they didn’t do what they did.”
Martin says the Shining Path is completely different, that they’re truly an “emancipatory” movement. “It may seem romantic, but I think they’re redeeming the unknown lives of generations of exploited Peruvian peasants.” Like in the poem by Bertolt Brecht “Who Built the Pyramids?” “No movement can win popular support by terrorizing the populace,” he argues. But do they have that support? It’s possible.
Back in 1984 an American film crew went to Peru to make a documentary about the Shining Path. The filmmakers interviewed scores of people, were shot at by Peruvian irregulars, and returned home with cans of footage of farmers talking about things like their cows and the weather, anything but politics. The interpreter they’d taken with them understood somewhat less Spanish than she’d said she did. She had certainly known enough to say “Sendero Luminoso,” but not a single person interviewed returned any comment about the group. In 1992, however, a BBC television crew shot a half-hour special called The People of the Shining Path. Hundreds appeared in the documentary declaring their membership and support. Two people masked their identities, wearing kerchiefs over their faces, but the rest showed little fear of being shown supporting the Shining Path. They seemed to think that they might win, and soon. The documentary was made before Guzman’s arrest. No one talked about cows, though they slaughtered a steer on camera.
After the committee had been held for 32 hours the U.S. consul came to the station to talk with them. Martin expected him to be cold to them, but he says the consul was cool, mellow even. He wore his silver gray hair in a ponytail. He told the group they were about to be expelled from the country, that the American embassy would send a van to take them to the airport. He mentioned that the van was considered a part of the embassy, and that while they were in it they were in effect in the U.S.
On the way to the airport, the committee pooled their money to bribe the guard. They wanted to read the Lima papers, find out what was being said about them. They gathered up $45.
Martin worried about being in the embassy van. What if they were attacked by the Shining Path? “What if we’re killed by friendly fire?” he wondered. “What if they pick now to bomb the embassy, or shoot up the embassy’s van? Now that would be weird.” The van took them directly to the plane, bypassing terminals and gates. After they boarded the guard brought back five Lima dailies. Every one of them had articles about the committee: the nicest thing they were called was “lawyers.” Martin thought the papers had confused them with the first group, the lawyers who’d come down for the trial. There was one lawyer in this group, but he wasn’t there as a lawyer, nor had he done anything particularly legal.
But Martin was happy with the coverage anyway. “At least we got some,” he says. “I hope it helps to keep Gonzalo alive.” He finished the articles before the plane took off. As they headed for Miami, where he’d change planes for O’Hare, Martin took another Osco sleeping pill and watched Batman Returns. He was wide awake.
In the time since Martin’s trip, a third delegation of the IEC was convened. They visited Peru during its elections in November. Fujimori won a second term in an election boycotted by most of the opposition; soon after, he responded to criticism from the Peruvian equivalent of the Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados) by disbanding and outlawing it. The third delegation didn’t announce its presence, but met with Alfredo Crespo, Guzman’s lawyer. Though Peruvian authorities expected Shining Path activity to diminish in the wake of Guzman’s arrest, it hasn’t. The Shining Path conducted as many military assaults between September and December as they had between April and the arrest. On New Year’s Eve they cut power to a main highway out of Lima, and two weeks ago they set off bombs at the Chinese and Japanese embassies. Crespo was arrested by DINCOTE on January 11 and has been detained since. He hasn’t yet been formally charged, though Reuters and a Lima paper, El Expreso, have reported that he may be charged with possession of “subversive propaganda material,” a crime in Peru. Or it may be “apology for terrorism,” which now carries a mandatory life sentence. The Fujimori government has scheduled a national referendum to reinstate the death penalty, to be held on January 29.
The IEC took out a full-page ad in the Village Voice of January 6 that included a partial listing of what they said were thousands of people who’d signed a petition protesting the trial, its verdict, and the possibility of Guzman’s execution. Among those listed were Ramsey Clark, Larry Heinemann, and Sinead O’Connor. And Bill Martin. During the press conference on October 11, Guzman had remarked that his arrest was a minor setback, “a bend in the road, nothing more.” Martin liked that characterization. Guzman has not been seen or heard from since.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.