This article was published in Tropic, the now-defunct Sunday magazine of The Miami Herald in October 1994. It was the first magazine article I ever published and, rereading it now, Iâ€™m amazed by how much space you could get in the Herald in those days. The story is too long to be reprinted in its entirety in this format, so here are excerpts.
The story grew out of a two-week overland journey I made in April and May that year from Ayacucho to Huancavelica and Huancayo and finally back to Lima. I had help with the reporting from my Peruvian journalism colleagues Alejandro Coronado and Israel GalvÃ¡n and dear friend JosÃ© Tarrillo. To them, my belated but sincere thanks. RA
Peru’s army couldn’t defeat the Hemisphere’s bloodiest revolutionaries. For that, it took a ragtag collection of peasants who had grown tired of dying.
Story & Photos by Roger Atwood
With the knobby stumps that were once his fingers, Feliciano Rimachi strokes his rifle and gazes up into the mountains where he hopes Shining Path guerrillas will soon emerge so that he can have the pleasure of killing them.
“We will blow their heads off,” he says with a chilling grin.
Fortunately, he says, the Shining Path bomb that blew off most of his fingers left him with the most important digit, his trigger finger, which he swears he will use the next time Shining Path attacks CcarhuaurÃ¡n, his remote farming village in the Andean highlands of Ayacucho. The last attack was in January 1993, when the guerrillas killed 24 members of CcarhuaurÃ¡n’s Self-Defense Committee, the local peasant militia of which Rimachi is president. The guerrillas are sometimes called tucos, the word for a noctural owl with huge eyes and an eerie hoot. It can see in the dark and it moves about noiselessly, attacking its prey with stealthy, deadly precision.
“We heard a shot at dawn, and then we saw them running down the hills. They went house to house, hacking and shooting the people. All we had were sticks, slingshots, rocks, and we chased them out of town. But now,” he says, clutching the Mauser rifles that looks like something out of an old John Wayne movie, “now we’ll be ready.”
He and other militiamen propped their rifles against a mud-brick home and sprawled out on the grass of what was once the village square of a nearby community. The villagers were run off by guerrillas in the early 1980s, and their adobe shacks have stood abandoned ever since, a ghost town at the bottom of a deep, rocky valley where only owls and rabbits live. They lost their community, Rimachi says, because they were too slow to defend it. “That won’t happen to us. We’re tough,” he says.
With four Mausers and about 20 Winchester rifles donated by Peru’s army, Rimachi’s Self-Defense Committee and other ragtag rural militias across the Peruvian highlands are succeeding at what the army proved unable to do — defeating one of Latin America’s most ruthless and stubborn guerrilla movements, Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path. … In the barren highlands where it was born, where shepherds with burnished faces and wary eyes regard every stranger as a potential cattle rustler, an uneasy peace has settled over villages ravaged by a decade of terror.
About three daysâ€™ journey by foot, bus and truck north of CcarhuaurÃ¡n lies the town of Comas (pop. 3,000), perched on a narrow ridge above where the Tulumayo River thunders through a canyon to the Amazon. The mountainsides are vibrant green with a patchwork of potato, pea and corn plots, and the townâ€™s muddy streets are overrun now and then with sheeps and llamas, bits of bright yarn tied to their ears to indicate ownership.
Itâ€™s a remote, neglected but picturesque corner of the Andes, not really on the way to anywhere and cut off from the rest of Peru for days at a time when mudslides cut the only road through town. Until “the problems,” as people here call the Shining Path war, people rarely saw outsiders. So they were startled in 1988 when young male strangers began walking through town at night, wearing sweat shirts and toting semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. […] One evening the strangers attacked the police station, hounding the few hapless officers out of town. They raided the clinic, seized all the medicines and passed them out free to the townspeople. They “expropriated” large herds of livestock and distributed the animals to the poor.
Soon came the “peopleâ€™s assemblies.” At night the guerrillas went through town banging on doors and ordering everyone â€“ adults, children, the aged, the sick â€“ to the town plaza at gunpoint. Those who refused were often killed on the spot. With armed guerrillas watching by the light of gas lanterns, other guerrillas lectured the whole town for two or three hours on Mao, Lenin and the glories of the Cultural Revolution. Peasants and workers would rule Peru, they said, and they held up portraits of Mao, Marx and GuzmÃ¡n, the professor who called himself the Fourth Sword of Marxism. The Communist Party of Peru now governed Comas, and “the party has a thousand eyes and thousand ears,” they told them. […]
Comas proved more resistant than most towns to Shining Path, and things got bloodier. Bodies turned up everywhere â€“ on roadsides, in fields, in beds, at the bottom of a gorge. People werenâ€™t just shot, but tortured and mutilated in ways meant to make their bodies speak from the dead. Accused spies would be found with their eyes gouged out. Police informers would have their tongues cut out. Bodies were found with their intestines wrapped around the victimsâ€™ necks. Dogs dragged home human arms and legs. […] Shining Path, the group that had brought entire provinces under its control elsewhere through years of patient infiltration of schools, local governments and community groups, tried to speed it all up around Comas, reaching a coercive intensity that cowed the people and finally made them, as one resident said, “as timid as sheep.”
“At first everyone supported them, or almost everyone. They came here and ordered us all to the peopleâ€™s assemblies and told us, ‘You’re a forgotten, worthless town. The people in power donâ€™t care about you. Your schools have no books, your stores have no food, you don’t even have electricity.â€™ And you know what? It was the truth. They said, ‘Weâ€™re in charge now, and weâ€™re fighting for you.’ And the people went along,” said LÃ¡zaro Ponce.
Ponce runs the closest thing in Comas to a general store. In his dusty old emporium, residents buy whatever they canâ€™t grow â€“ aspirin, flashlights, cooking oil â€“ and chat about politics, the potato harvest, the soccer championships a world away in Lima. From behind his counter, no one else in Comas is as privy as Ponce to the town gossip, and that position made him an immediate focus of Shining Pathâ€™s attentions.
Armed young men and women would ask him about the people who frequented his store, what they were saying, where they had been, whom they had spoken to. When he refused to cooperate, they would call him reactionary scum, take things from his shelves and leave. They would return, sometimes joined by neighborhood boys and girls as young as 10 or 11, who strutted around with rifles and spouted half-learned Marxist phrases. He would give them evasive answers, or no answers at all, telling them once that Shining Path wanted “to make us work like mules and eat like pigs.” Soon they had emptied the store shelves. For some reason, they didn’t kill him.
“Every time they came to town, they would call us to assembly and kill people. Theyâ€™d come again and kill more people, and more people. Did they think we were animals to be slaughtering us so much? If they hadn’t killed so much, people would still be with them, and Abimael GuzmÃ¡n would be in the presidential palace right now,” said Ponce, a man in his 50s whose eyes bulged with intensity as he spoke.
But it wasn’t just the killings that finally turned the community against Shining Path. Sometime in 1989 the guerrillas ordered residents of Comas and nearby towns to stop selling their farm products. Farmers were told to grow for subsistence or barter their goods with other growers. They were also to grow a share for the guerrillas. The market economy was now dead, a relic of bourgeois capitalism interred by the heroic actions of the peasantry led by the glorious Communist Party of Peru. […] “They told us, ‘You have to stop selling this food because it only goes to feed the rich people in the cities.’ Then it was clear to everyone, they wanted us to die of hunger,” Evaristo Cotera, a potato and bean farmer, told me.
To enforce the rule, the guerrillas blew up the bridges between Comas and the main highway to Lima and the rest of Peru. Now it was impossible for growers to sell their produce. Except by foot, the town was cut off from the rest of the world. The final humiliation came when several people who tried secretly to ship produce out of town were killed.
“That was it. Then the people said enough. And we started to organize,” said Cotera.
Peasant militias, known as rondas campesinas, had patrolled the countryside against thieves and rustlers for years before Shining Path took up arms against the Peruvian state in 1980. Some of these militias were pressed into service by the army against Shining Path, and others were formed voluntarily by the people themselves. When Shining Path came across the militias, it would deal with them — and still deals with them — with the kind of ruthlessness that gave the group a dark, enduring celebrity. Thirty peasants killed in this village, 20 hacked to death in another, 40 in yet another -â€“ the news from Peru was depressingly familiar in the 1980s, usually involving peasants armed with sticks, slingshots and machetes fighting a pathetic struggle against guerrillas with pistols and submachine guns, usually stolen from the police or army.
[…]According to villagers in Comas, 20-odd guerrillas escaped the massacre in Andamarca and fled into the hills, pursued by villagers with sticks and slingshots. The guerrillas took refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, and people from Comas, Andamarca and other nearby towns rushed to the scene. As the guerrillas tried to flee, peasants rained rocks and sticks on them. They sicked their dogs on them and attacked them mercilessly with slingshots and huaracas, a kind of lasso used to fling stones. Surrounded and low on ammunition, some of the senderistas managed to escape, but between 10 and 20 were stoned and beaten to death. […] The peasants decapitated the dead guerrillas, placed their heads in boxes and took them to the army base in Huancayo as war trophies.
“The soliders thought Comas was a senderista town. When we saw them, they would say, ‘Someday we’re going to blow your town sky-high; youâ€™re all subversives.’ So we sent them the heads to prove that we were fighting against Sendero, and that we were winning,” Ponce said. Evaristo Cotera, president of the areaâ€™s militias from 1991 to 1993, said there were many other beheadings. “Their heads are disgusting. Full of lice,” he said.
[I asked,] how many guerrillas have the peasants decapitated over the years?
“Not many. Forty or 50 or so.”
Foggy reports in the Lima newspapers of beheadings by the militias are starting to embarrass the military. When asked about the beheadings in Comas, the army commander in Huancayo, Gen. David Jaime Sobrevilla, noted [to me] that he was not in the area at the time and had no firsthand knowledge. But then he suddenly changed his tone and such deeds “could not have happened.”
No one doubts that Comas is fighting Sendero now. In all, 48 towns and villages in the area have formed militias, known collectively as the Self-Defense Committees of the Upper Tulumayo. They no longer carry sticks. They have rifles â€“ Winchesters, Mausers, several hundred weapon, most of them given by the army. “Everyone in this town knows how to use a rifle now, even the women,” said Cotera.
[…]Leaving Comas and heading west, one ascends a 15,000-foot high plateau, a bleak and windswept place of icy alpine lakes, flocks of wild geese and jagged, snow-dusted peaks. The road climbs a ride and begins a steep descent into the flat, fertile Mantaro river valley. In a country of soaring mountains, impenetrable jungle and lunar landscape deserts, the Mantaro valley is an almost banal contrast â€“ gently rolling hills, neat farm plots and inviting old towns with tidy plazas and whitewashed churches. Since Spanish colonial times, this well-watered basin has been Peruâ€™s primary source of food. And thus the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in the country’s convulsive history.
Into this rich land came the Shining Path in the late 1980s. The senderistas told villagers that guerrillas needed to control the valley to starve out the rich of Lima who lived like parasites off the peasants’ labor. The valley was the linchpin of the Shining Pathâ€™s Maoist strategy to take power by controlling the countryside and gradually encircling the cities and choking off their food supply.
In town after town across the valley, the guerrillas killed mayors, ran off police and instructed cowed farmers not to send crops to market. With Shining Path threatening to take control of the nationâ€™s breadbasket, the Peruvian state was fighting for its life. The security forces fiercely counterattacked. Throughout the valley purported guerrilla sympathizers were “disappeared.” Later, their bodies turned up showing signs of torture. Army patrols swept into villages, rounded up suspicious-looking young men and carried them off. Freed detainees spoke of beatings and atrocities. These army “pacification” campaigns evoked comparisons with Argentinaâ€™s “dirty war” of the late 1970s. […]
In the space of a few years the Mantaro valleyâ€™s towns organized neighborhood spy networks and rural patrols that rooted out and crushed Shining Path. Stone-faced farm boys clutching rifles now guard the village, demanding identity documents before letting anyone in, while militiamen patrol the hills at night, Mausers at the ready. It has been over a year since Shining Path last carried out a major attack in the Mantaro valley. President Fujimori visits the valley now and then, passing out weapons, cutting ribbons at new clinics and donning local peasant dress. “As you can see, the valley is in peace now, thanks to the ronderos and also thanks to the army,” he told me during a recent visit to open a new school. His appreciation for the militias is mutual. Up and down the Andes, peasants speak rapturously of him as the man who swoops into remote villages in a helicopter and smiles as he distributes rifles. […] Yet the perils of turning the war over to the militias are becoming clearer. In some places they are little more than petty vigilante squads, shooting up rival villages and extorting money from travelers. They kill guerrilla suspects without trial or the barest semblance of due process. In the Apurimac River valley, some militias are said to be in league with coca leaf growers who have armed them with Uzis and AK-47s. The army insists it controls the militias, but travelers in the highlands are struck by how much the militias control things. To go from the [city of] Huancayo to Comas, one must pass now fewer than six barriers where armed militiamen check documents and “suspicious” people.
The militias control town governments and have virtually taken over the role of the police, acting as judge, jury and often executioner.
The Call of the Bugle It’s been about two years since the guerrillas last attacked Comas. But in January, a Shining Path spy came dressed as a woman, residents say. The spy wore a traditional peasant dress with petticoats and bright shawls and a wide-brimmed hat, and carried a straw basket with bread inside. As the “woman” got off the bus and milled about in the town square one of the townspeople noticed a man’s neck, a man’s ankles, a husky voice. Militia men seized him and found an assault rifle under the bread, plus a map of the town with X’s to show the police station and the home of Cotera, whose militia leadership is well known.
“We arrested him and subjected him to a peopleâ€™s trial,” said Cotera.
The verdict? He drew a finger across his throat and laughed. “If we let him go, someday heâ€™ll come back and kill us. These senderistas, they must know by now that Comas has declared the death penalty for them. They are suicidal to come here.”
Armed patrols now scan the hillsides, day and night. Villagers know the drill â€“ one loud, long bugle call means an attack is imminent, and all militia members must rush to their stations. Prominent citizens are proud but a touch resentful that they ran off the Shining Path without the armyâ€™s help. “By the time the police came back and the army came in, it was all over,” said Ponce. “With our slingshots and rocks and sticks, we killed them. We owe nothing to the army.”