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Last Updated: 01/09/2012
Shining Path: Peru’s State-Enemy and Teacher
Daniel Wong Diaz

Peruvian citizen and UPEACE graduate Daniel Wong Diaz offers the historical background of Peru's Shining Path insurgency from a socio-economic development perspective. Diaz argues that despite the violent legacy of the Shining Path, we "cannot merely condemn communism for the violent actions of its representatives. As an alternative, we must learn and extract the best out of it in order to generate sustainable, peaceful and inclusive development."

“Judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Simon Bolivar


Throughout the globe, violent insurgencies emerge for a variety of reasons and may affect a nation’s sovereignty. It is vital to understand the origins and demands of an insurgency in order to tackle the threat of violent uprisings. This paper analyzes the specific case of a Peruvian insurgency called Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), which shook Peru and provoked fear and hostilities throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. An analysis of the Shining Path’s background is presented in order to understand the motives behind the insurgency and its actions. In addition, we explore the insurrection and power imposition over occupied regions.

Shining Path

The U.S. Army doctrine provides a summary of the prerequisites for an insurgency’s emergence:

(1) A vulnerable population that hopes for change;

(2) Leadership from revolutionary groups;

(3) Lack of government control (U.S department of the army, 1986).

These prerequisites facilitate the understanding of an insurgency uprising and the feasibility of its emergence. Thus, they serve as a guide to facilitate critical analysis and understanding of the Shining Path.


The Shining Path began as a communist political party in the 1920s. It was founded in 1928 by Jose Carlos Mariategui and was originally called the ‘Socialist Peruvian Party of Mariategui’. The founder was a politician with Marxist-Leninist ideals, seeking justice for the proletariat and Peruvian people. Consequently, after Mariategui’s death in 1930, the party’s name changed to the ‘Peruvian Communist Party’. The Party was a united front until the 1960s when it grew divided over the distinction between two ideologies, Soviet and Maoist. Abimael Guzman, one of the main leaders of the communist party, began to guide the Maoist philosophy and initiated the ‘Peruvian Communist Party – Shining Path’ (PCP-SL for its initials in Spanish) (DeFronzo, 2006, p. 50). Guzman, later considered the fourth rider of the apocalypse by the political world, was a key individual for the future accomplishments of Shining Path. Within his role as a commander, he was a strategic navigator in the party’s political and military waters. Because of his vital role, Shining Path’s revolution was dependent on Guzman’s mindset and background. Therefore, in order to understand Shining Path’s insurrection, we must explore his background.


Abimael Guzman Reynoso, also known as President or comrade Gonzalo by PCP-SL, was born in 1934 as an illegitimate son of Abismael Guzman and Berenice Reynoso in Arequipa, Peru (Roncagliolo, 2006, p. 249). Raised as a high-class provincial citizen, his idea of life in his comfortable socio-economic panorama was not something he questioned as a youngster. Nonetheless, the influential chapter in his life was as a university student when he observed the dilapidating level of others’ living conditions outside his city walls. He acknowledged the socio-economic exclusion and poverty surrounding his city, and even more, his country. Additionally, as a university student he grew romanticized with communism; reading about it, discussing it and observing it within rebellions against social repression in Peru, as well as through watching Soviet films and studying their ideals. Worth mentioning, in reference to Roncagliolo’s La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso (2006), is the fact that Guzman’s focal motivation and adoption of his left-wing ideals were because of love. During his youth, he was prohibited from seeing his girlfriend, because despite the fact that he grew up as a high class citizen, he was still a bastard son and was not considered for heritage.[1] They never saw each other again.[2] As El Ché Guevara mentioned, “the real revolutionary is driven by great feelings of love...”

As a result, Guzman’s thoughts regarding communism were nurtured over the years. Consequently, he began spreading his political ideas in 1963 as a teacher at the Universidad San Cristobal de Huamango, and later on worked as Director of Students Affairs. As a result of these two positions, he was able to spread his ideals and acquire followers. Afterwards, empowered within the University, he was able to generate a vital recruiting point for Shining Path’s political and military divisions, in addition to the involvement of other universities such as Universidad de la Cantuta and Universidad de San Marcos, which also encompassed leftist ideals (Comision de la verdad, 2006, p.607). Benedicto Jimenez, the commander responsible for Guzman’s capture, wrote of Comrade Gonzalo’s first interrogation:

He is asked by a young sub-lieutenant, - ‘If I wanted to create a revolution, what would I have to do?’ - He responded, ‘You should take a look at my library. You should start reading the History of Dynnik’s Philosophy, which is not hard. Then, Marx’s complete collection and Lenin’s 57 volumes, of which I have two different editions. Then Stalin, which is easier, only 7 volumes. And finally, the four from Mao. There is a fifth one, but it was edited post mortem and is under revision. You can begin there’ (Roncagliolo, 2006, p 167; translated from the Spanish by Daniel Wong Jimenez).

Guzman’s interrogation is a significant indicator of the fundamental basis of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist philosophies of Shining Path’s politics and revolution. PCP-SL alleged to be the true and only political party with these ideals in Peru, despite the fact that more than 50 communist political parties existed in Peru at that time. The group’s communist position envisioned a condemnation against capitalism and was inspired from ideas of social justice and equitable distribution (Decker, 1986, p. 3). Therefore, an uprising against the ruling government was Shining Path’s objective in order to take down capitalism.

The Shining Path resembles the controversial story of Prometheus, where the God rebelled against the ruling order of Zeus by providing fire to the humans; a powerful tool for development and opportunities. In this metaphor, we can envision the ruling order of the Greek Gods as the Peruvian businessmen and the humans in the story as Peru’s proletariat.

A study conducted in 1989 within Peruvian jails demonstrates Shining Path’s inspiration regarding equitable distribution and prosperity for the working classes. In that year, the convicts sentenced for participating in “terrorism”[3] made up 57.4% of total prisoners. Their ages ranged from 18 to 25 and they demonstrated superior education compared to the average citizen. The most significant fact is that nearly 90% of the insurgent convicts were from Peru’s poorest areas. Therefore, we can reflect that within a dilapidating socio-economic situation, Shining Path’s members and objectives were not only geared toward revolution, but additionally to enhance the livelihood and opportunities of impoverished citizens (OIT / CINTERFOR, 2009). Thus, to reflect on the reasons behind the insurgency, Paul Collier, author of the book The Bottom Billion, notes the following justification for rebel groups and their members: “Rebel movements themselves justify their actions in terms of a catalogue of grievances: repression, exploitation, exclusion” (2007).

The Insurrection

Shining Path’s first endeavor was carried out in Ayacucho (Southeast of Lima) the day of the 1980 presidential election, the 17th of May. Five members of the group killed the electoral guardian and burned the register book with the intention of boycotting the elections. However, the attack was not significant enough for the group to gain notoriety, and it prompted very marginal media coverage of only a few lines in a Peruvian journal. In addition, the insurgency’s first violent attempts were directed at banks, police stations, public establishments and the Embassy of China. These establishments were targeted because of their connection with the government and capitalism. Additionally, the Embassy of China was targeted due to the political transition of the government of China after Mao’s death, were Deng Xiao Ping became the highest representative of China (Guzman idolized Mao and detested Deng for his approach to capitalism).

The attacks were not complex in terms of weaponry technology or strategy due to the group’s lack of resources and knowledge of such affairs. The tools utilized in these attacks included weaponry such as stolen dynamite from mines, knives, and eventually, firearms stolen from police. In an attempt to cause chaos, the Shining Path did not establish a solid base and was not able to disperse their message throughout Peru (Comision de la verdad Part II, 2003, p. 29).

Shining Path

In order to create a revolution, insurgencies cannot expect simple acts to produce change. They are obligated to be radical in their stance against government -- a colossus in terms of economic and military resources when compared to insurgencies. Therefore, on December 26, 1980, by decorating downtown Lima with dead dogs hanging on light poles, the Shining Path officially announced the initiation of guerrilla warfare. The continuation of this act was a campaign of deadly blows against authorities and civilians with the justification of the “blood quota”[4] (Comision de la verdad Part II, 2003, p. 29). From this instance on, the Shining Path launched a campaign with a firm political and military projection and left behind its previous weak campaign. An example of this was in 1983 in Lucanamarca, Ayacucho, where the Shining Path retaliated following the execution of group member Olegario Curitomay by citizens of Lucanamarca. The insurgency responded by brutally murdering more than 80 people (Guzman, as cited in Comision de la verdad Part VII, 2003, pp. 43-44). This was just the beginning of Shining Path’s threatening existence.

The Shining Path acknowledged that in order to become an influential movement and take a strong stand against the government, they could not demonstrate any sort of weakness or retreat, internally or externally. The members were instructed to never acknowledge failure in order to prevent doubts or fears and avoid possible internal disorder and disintegration; instead, they needed to display solidity and strength. Generally, insurgent leaders are required to demonstrate progress in order to generate further motivation and engagement among members. It is indispensable that rebels intimidate the government in order to cause uncertainty and fear in terms of economics, politics, psychology and the military (Trinquier, 1964, p. 5). Trinquier, a former French Army officer and author of the book Modern Warfare, states that these factors play an imperative role in overthrowing the ruling regime:

Warfare is now an interlocking system of actions—political, economic, psychological, military—that aim at the overthrow of the established authority in a country and its replacement by another regime. To achieve this end, the aggressor tries to exploit the internal tensions of the country attacked—ideological, social, religious, economic—any conflict liable to have a profound influence on the population to be conquered.

Taking the previous statement into account, it is clear that insurgencies are required to take multifaceted actions in order to obtain power and control of the targeted location. The Shining Path did not consider elections as an option; instead, its single alternative was to overthrow the ruling government by means of revolution. As Guzman constantly insisted, politics plays an imperative role in terms of control and domain; therefore, the insurgency sought to create a new government by installing political, economic and military operations throughout Peruvian lands. The group identified greater opportunities in further exposed regions in order to generate desired settlements and recognition. Furthermore, with significant support from various populations and cities, Shining Path had powerful prospects in terms of expanding its human resources and power (Gonzalez, as cited in Roncagliolo, 2006, p. 113).

In order to continue the revolution, Shining Path expanded its domain by attacking key cities and towns, such as the states of: Ayacucho in the South-Central part of the country; Huanuco, San Martin and Uyacali in the Northeast; and Junin and Pasco in the central region. Their new strategy to gain further power was to attack vulnerable cities and behead its power base by executing the rich and powerful people and any other possible threat (Gonzalez, as cited in Roncagliolo, 2006, p. 113). By destroying the political and economic authorities in the conquered locations, the group obtained the power needed to install its political and military settlements.

After establishing themselves as rulers of conquered territories, Shining Path leaders established rules that would prevent the communities from betraying the group or relapsing back to the conditions previously set by the government. Their system of rules was similar to that of the Incan Empire, the trilogy set of rules: 1. Ama Sua- do not steal; 2. Ama Llulla- do not lie, and 3. Ama K’ella- do not be lethargic. Shining Path’s members penalized these sins by punishing guilty individuals with physical pain for a greater crime, or shaving their heads for a minor crime (Decker, 1986, p. 3). Through this conquering approach, the rebels expanded their control from Ayacucho to the North and cultivated their sovereignty among various locations. The following map shows the territory expansion of the Shining Path.


Source: Roncagliolo, 2007


A phenomenon like the Shining Path is an undeniably serious case to deal with. Activities carried out by the group and the counterinsurgency campaign by the Peruvian government resulted in approximately 70,000 casualties and the loss of $30 billion in US dollars, which delayed Peru’s development over five years (Comision de la verdad, 2003; Lembcke, 2010). Nevertheless, we cannot merely condemn communism for the violent actions of its representatives. As an alternative, we must learn and extract the best out of it in order to generate sustainable, peaceful and inclusive development. As the Dalai Lama mentions, “They (our enemies) are the ones that cause more troubles. Therefore, if we truly want to learn, we should observe our enemies as our best teachers” (Tenzin (Dalai Lama)).

By analyzing this quote, it is clear that the Shining Path’s demands could not be ignored. In order to understand the actions behind the insurgency, we must feel the pain, trepidation, and most importantly, the shocking situation of the historical socio-economic scene in Peru; moreover, we must think like a senderista.[5] The voices of the impoverished citizens cannot be silenced; instead, they must be heard and responded to by the Peruvian government and the world. Furthermore, we must observe, hear and understand that behind every insurgency there is a motive. Regardless of judgment on correct or incorrect methods, the Shining Path presented a solid argument to the Peruvian government regarding the socio-economic exclusion of impoverished rural populations.

Terry Jones’ wrote, “[...] apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, pubic order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” (Jones, 1979). We can analyze that our political system (capitalism) provides us development and many benefits and opportunities, but also creates inequalities and discrimination because those benefits and opportunities are not possible for everyone within the capitalist system. Additionally, benefits must be interconnected. For example, what is education worth if there are no jobs? What is public health worth if there is no human security? Therefore, in order to solve the issue of insurgency in a case like the Shining Path, we can determine that the greatest solution would be sustainable and inclusive development in all areas and regions. This would generate more acquisitive power among all populations and therefore create greater economic development.

[1] For further information, see Roncagliolo, 2006.

[2] Have not found any document mentioning they saw each other again.

[3] Terrorism is a word created by the political world in order to gain support in the fight against it and to establish insurgencies as enemies. Its proper name should be insurgency or violent insurgency.

[4] Blood quota is the pretext that Guzman and Shining Path utilized in order to execute individuals and, therefore, to increase the chances for the revolution’s success. Without sacrifice, nothing is possible.

[5] Senderista is the Spanish word referring to a member of the Shining Path


Collier, Paul. (2007). The Bottom Billion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 18

Comision de la verdad. (2003) “Final Report.” Retrieved May 25, 2010 from

Decker, Carlos (1986) PARTIDO COMUNISTA DEL PERÚ “Por el Sendero Luminoso de José Carlos Mariátegui”, Retrieved on June 2nd, 2010,

DeFronzo, James. (2006) Peruvian Shining Path. In Revolutionary Movements in World History, From 1750 to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 650-59

Lembcke, Gustavo (2010) In person Interview with the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassy of Peru in Costa Rica (Conducted by Daniel Wong, May 28, 2010)

OIT / CINTERFOR, (2009), Jovenes, formacion y empleo, International labor organization, Retrieved on May 25th 2009,

Roncagliolo, Santiago. (2007) La cuarta espada- la historia de Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso, Editorial Sudamericana S.A., Lima

Tenzin, Gyatzo (His holiness, the Dalai Lama), Compassion and the individual, Retrieved on May,

Trinquier, Roger. (1964) Modern Warfare, a French View of Counterinsurgency, Praeger Security International, London

U.S department of the army (1986), Field Manual No.90-8 Counterguerrilla Operations, section 2, Retrieved on May 28th 2009,

Daniel Wong Diaz is a Peruvian citizen and Masters graduate of the University for Peace of Costa Rica. He coordinates the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program and Global Reporting Initiative for a Peruvian mining company.