LIMA—Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path terrorists who nearly toppled the Peruvian state in a bloody Maoist revolution, died on Saturday while in prison and following several weeks of poor health, the government said. He was 86.
Guzman was captured in 1992 in Lima and jailed for the rest of his life after being convicted as a terrorist. He died one day before the anniversary of his capture, when he was paraded in front of the press in a striped white and black uniform that is not normally used in Peru.
Susana Silva, head of Peru’s prison system, told RPP radio on Saturday that Guzman had been ill in recent months and had been released from a hospital in early August.
She said his health condition worsened in the past two days, without elaborating further, adding Guzman was set to receive more medical attention on Saturday but died in his cell around 6:40 a.m. local time. Defense minister Walter Ayala said Guzman had died of a “generalized infection.”
“The terrorist leader Abimael Guzman has died, responsible for the loss of an uncountable number of lives” President Pedro Castillo wrote on Twitter. “Our position condemning terrorism is firm and unwavering. Only in democracy will we build a just Peru.”
A former philosophy professor, Guzman was a lifelong communist who traveled to China in the late 1960s. He decided to bring Mao Zedong’s brand of communism to Peru through a class war that he launched in 1980 on the day that Peru held its first democratic elections following over a decade of military dictatorship.
Guzman founded the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, from a band of peasants and students. An estimated 69,000 people, mostly in Peru’s poor interior, were killed between 1980 and 2000 in the internal conflict launched by the Shining Path, mostly in indigenous Andean communities.
In 1980, after years of preparation, Guzman led a band of supporters into the Andes Mountains outside the town of Ayacucho.
Armed with shotguns, dynamite, and machetes, they began attacking security forces, elected officials, and peasants who resisted their indoctrination with a fervor and ruthlessness never seen in a Latin American terrorist group.
Fanning out from the southern city of Ayacucho, the Shining Path recruited thousands more terrorists from poor peasant communities and universities.
People in the capital city of Lima got their first taste of the Shining Path in 1981 when guerrillas hung dozens of dead dogs from lampposts—”the dogs of capitalism,” said signs pinned to the animals.
By the late 1980s, the group had become such a threat to the state that two-thirds of Peruvians lived in areas under emergency rule—essentially, martial law.
His followers called Guzman the Fourth Sword of Marxism, after Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and idolized him in chants, songs, posters, and literature.
But the first image most Peruvians saw of Guzman was anything but revolutionary. Apparently drunk, he danced to the main tune of the film “Zorba the Greek” and posed for snapshots with supporters in a Shining Path video captured by police in 1990 and shown on television.
The video made it clear he was alive and still in charge, but it punctured his reputation for austerity and demoralized Shining Path terrorists.
Nevertheless, their attacks intensified, leading then-President Alberto Fujimori to seize near-dictatorial powers, in what he said was an attempt to crush the revolt.
After Guzman was captured by police at a spacious safe house in a middle class neighborhood of Lima in 1992, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Shining Path largely collapsed as a military threat, although remnants remain to this day. Authorities say that terrorists claiming to belong to a dissident faction of the Shining Path killed 16 people in a remote jungle area just this year.
In 2018, Guzman was given a second life sentence for a 1992 Lima car bomb attack that killed 25 people.
Guzman’s first wife, Augusta La Torre, died in mysterious circumstances in the late 1980s. In 2010, he married his longtime girlfriend, Elena Iparraguirre, who, like Guzman, is serving a life sentence. Both women were Shining Path leaders.
By Marcelo Rochabrun