Civil War: Peru (1980-1996)

Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Sendero Luminoso’s civil war in Peru marked a sixteen-year period of increasing terror for civilians and havoc for the Peruvian government. The bulk of this dispute showcased how an internal war of attrition can undermine legitimate government, the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics, and the ineffectiveness of many counterinsurgency techniques. It also demonstrated the power that one charismatic individual can have on a conflict and on its chances for peace. This chapter explains the path taken by the Peruvian conflict, its underlying causes, its intractability, and the way in which it finally ended.

Country Background

Peru gained independence from Spain in 1824 and subsequently fell into a number of armed disputes with its Latin American neighbors. Despite serious border disputes with both Ecuador and Chile, Peru was not troubled by serious internal conflict until the 1980s. The Shining Path insurgency (or Sendero Luminoso) constitutes the greatest internal challenge Peru has faced since independence.

In the decades preceding the Sendero Luminoso civil war, Peru experienced two dramatic changes in regime type. The 1950s and early 1960s were marked by increasing levels of democracy (moving from 4 to 5 on the Polity scale). However, in 1968 the country changed course when General Juan Velasco Alvarado assumed power through an armed coup d’état. In 1975, Alvarado was removed from power in a second coup, led by General Morales Bermudez, who ruled through a military government until 1980, when the country returned to civilian rule and democracy. Former President Fernando Belaundé was reelected to the position in 1980. This oscillation between democracy and military rule set the stage for insurgency in the countryside and eventual civil war. In addition to the return to democracy, 1980 also marked the beginning of the long and bloody Sendero Luminoso civil war.

Somewhat remarkably, Peru remained democratic throughout most of the Sendero Luminoso civil war. Between 1980 and 1991, Peru functioned as a democratic polity, even increasing its level of democracy over time. However, in 1991, President Alberto Fujimori returned the country once again to military rule. President Fujimori abandoned democracy and succeeded in taking control of the government. The tenure of Fujimori’s military rule outlasted the Sendero Luminoso civil war, which lost momentum in the mid-1990s. Fujimori eventually went into self-imposed exile, and in 2001 Peru once again became a democracy.

In addition to the tumultuous changes in regime type, alternating between democracy and military rule, Peru’s economy experienced major swings before and during the course of this conflict. Macroeconomic indicators show that the state of Peru’s economy worsened in the five years before the war. Beginning in 1975, prior to the outbreak of war, Peru’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) declined steadily. The overall wealth of the nation was decreasing year by year. Moreover, in the years preceding the war, the military government attempted to implement major land reforms. These reforms were designed to alleviate inequality between landholders and peasants but were unable to make significant headway (McClintock 1984). The reforms did not provide substantial benefits to much of the peasant class and did little to ease the effects of the mounting economic crisis (see Mason 1998 for a discussion of the reasons these reforms were ineffective).

In the wake of economic downturn and land reform, there was a slight economic recovery in 1981, but this was followed by the subsequent plummeting of national wealth (measured by GDP) in 1983. The El Niño weather phenomenon contributed significantly to the hardship through its effect on crop growth. The country saw another economic high point in 1987, where it appeared that the economy had recovered to levels like those reached in the 1981 recovery (based on comparable GDP levels). However, there was another dramatic drop in economic performance between 1987 and 1990, where national GDP reached a 30-year low at $3,584 per capita (measured in 1996 U.S. dollars). From 1991 on, the road to economic recovery was steady, if bumpy; nevertheless, by the year 2000 Peru had still not reached its prewar level of prosperity (Gleditsch 2002).

Prewar Peru was characterized by volatility in terms of both its economy and its government. The instability of both government and economic performance were exacerbated by the conflict during the subsequent sixteen years of fighting.

Conflict Background

Although the Sendero Luminoso war posed the largest threat to Peru in recent history, the country faced three other significant militarized conflicts during the Sendero civil war. Peru engaged in two minor armed conflicts with Ecuador and simultaneously dealt with an insurgency led by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Both conflicts with Ecuador (in 1981 and 1995) were border disputes and were resolved relatively quickly with international involvement (United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile facilitated the end of the disputes). The MRTA movement (a Marxist insurgency) was active between 1983 and 1993. The group used terrorist tactics aimed at ridding the country of imperialism and establishing a Marxist regime (Gleditsch, Wallensteen, Eriksson, and Hårvard 2002). The MRTA movement gained notoriety with a number of terrorist acts, the most famous of which was the 1996 attack on the Japanese ambassador’s residence and the subsequent hostage situation. However, the influence of this movement was largely overshadowed by the scope of damage caused by the Sendero war.

The Sendero Luminoso war was first and foremost an ideological dispute. The rebels’ primary aim was the overthrow of the state, which they envisioned would then be replaced by a peasant revolutionary regime (Gleditsch, et al. 2002). The armed conflict began in early 1980 and lasted until the mid-1990s; by 1996 it had lost significant momentum. Although the rebels clearly identified with communism internationally and with Maoism specifically, they followed their own brand of ideological thinking. They wanted to understand communism in the Peruvian context, and this isolated the group somewhat from other such movements around the world, particularly after the death of Mao (Palmer 1986). Sendero maintained connections with China and international Communist organizations at the early stages of the conflict but tended to view other Communist organizations as revisionist, especially after the end of the Cold War.

This immensely violent conflict began with few deaths but spiraled out of control in the mid- and late 1980s. At the initial stages of the struggle, conflict-related deaths numbered less than 100 a year, with a sharp jump to nearly 2,000 deaths in 1983, when Sendero engaged in more intense and far-reaching operations. A decade into the conflict, an estimated 20,000 had been killed in Peru in political violence. This estimate reached approximately 28,000 by 1996, when the conflict finally petered out (Gleditsch, et al. 2002; Mason 1998). These initial estimates of the death toll were eclipsed, however, by the report of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2003 (see sidebar, “The Unknown Magnitude of the Conflict”). After years of investigation, the TRC estimated the total number of lost lives between 1980 and 2000 at 69,280 people (TRC 2003).

During the conflict, the Peruvian military was made up of 264,000 troops (Doyle and Sambanis 2000). Government troops fought the Sendero Luminoso fighters with both conventional military units and sinchis, which were specially trained paramilitaries (Mason 1998, 222). By 1991, the Sendero Luminoso fighters numbered as many as 15,000 by some estimates and as few as 3,000 by others (Mason 1998, 223).

The Insurgents

Although the Sendero Luminoso armed struggle began in earnest in 1980, its foundations were laid in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of severe economic challenges for the peasant and indigenous populations of Peru. Sendero Luminoso was founded by Abimael Guzmán in the 1960s, but the organization only began its People’s War, with the goal of complete overthrow of the Peruvian state, in 1980. The movement began at the National University of San Cristobal de Humanga in the Ayacucha department in the mountains of Peru. Guzmán’s initial political organizing included recruiting students and founding an outreach program in the community surrounding the university. The Sendero ideology developed from Guzmán’s synthesis of Maoist thought and the work of Mariategui (a Peruvian intellectual and founder of the Communist Party of Peru). From its early stages, the Sendero movement was designed to be a long-term program for social change, one that involved the destruction of the contemporary state through civil war and its eventual replacement with a peasant-based revolutionary regime.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Gleditsch 2002 ; Gleditsch et al. 2002 ; Marshall and Jaggers 2003; McClintock 1984
War: Sendero Luminoso vs. government
Dates: May 1980-1996
Casualties: 69,280
Regime type prior to war: 3 (polity 2 variable in Polity IV data ranging from -10 to 10)
Regime type after war: 1 (polity 2 variable in Polity IV data ranging from -10 to 10)
GDP per capita year war began: US $4,831 (constant 1996 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $4,589 in 2000 (constant 1996 dollars)
Insurgents: Partido Comunista del Peru en el Sendero Luminoso de Mariategui (Communist Party of Peru in the Shining Path of Mariategui), known as Sendero Luminoso
Issue: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Drugs and looting
Role of geography: Rebels developed and operated in an extremely remote part of the country.
Role of resources: Coca production and related economic activity funded rebels.
Immediate outcome: Government victory though capturing rebel leader and rooting out the remaining rebels
Outcome after 5 years: Military government
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: 200,000 IDPs; no indication of large-scale repatriation
Prospects for peace: Favorable since Peru’s return to democracy in 2001
Table 1: Civil War in Peru

Sendero Luminoso was made up primarily of educated mestistos who were recruited from universities. They also drew from the indigenous population in Ayacucho, where the movement was based. The Ayacucho department is inland from the coast and was extremely isolated from the rest of the country due to the difficulty of travel on underdeveloped roads. The majority of peasants in Ayacucho lived and worked communally in indigenous communities.

Between 1980 and 1982, Sendero Luminoso engaged in numerous attacks against the state, in particular against government functionaries. This strategy aimed at delegitimizing the state by forcing individual government members to abandon their duties or be killed. In 1983, the group progressed to the next stage of their revolutionary plan: generalizing violence to a larger population and with greater intensity.

Sendero gained initial support within the local population by providing benefits to them, such as education, farming, and medical services. However, the generalization of violence extended Sendero’s attack to the indigenous and local communities in Ayacucho as well as to a geographically larger area. Peasants were subject to attacks from both the government sinchis (paramilitaries) and the Sendero Luminoso’s senderistas (fighters). These opposing pressures on peasants collided to create drastically increasing death tolls throughout the conflict area.

In the mid-1980s, Sendero Luminoso expanded geographically to the Huallaga River Valley, which had become a primary location for coca growing. Coca farming and the exploitation of producers constituted the major source of revenue for the group. Sendero’s profits from the exploitation of drug production were estimated to be between US $20 million per year to US $550 million per year (McClintock, 1998, 72). Coca was grown and processed into paste in Peru, but transported out of the country for the final production of cocaine. Much of these Sendero profits came from charging drug runners to use Sendero-controlled airstrips in the region (McClintock 1998, 72).

The greatest strength—and subsequently the greatest weakness—of the Sendero Luminoso movement was the singular importance of Abimael Guzmán. The founder and leader of Sendero was revered as godlike by many of his followers. He was called both the Fourth Sword of Marxism (the other three being Marx, Lenin, and Mao) by party members and Doctor Puka Inti (Red Sun) by the Ayacucho indigenous communities (McClintock 1998, 63). Not only did Guzmán dominate the movement as a quasispiritual-ideological leader, he dominated nearly every aspect of planning and tactical decision making throughout the war.

Guzmán’s primacy in Sendero allowed the movement to be one of the most cohesive and efficient rebel organizations in the world. The organization was strictly hierarchical, with Guzmán as the head. Guzmán personally oversaw the allocation of nearly all of the organization’s funds (McClintock 1998, 72). Sendero scholars and historians identify only one major instance of dissension within his party during Guzmán’s tenure. This took place in 1988, when Guzmán made the executive decision to expand the guerrilla campaign into the Peruvian capital, Lima. Guzmán’s wife (a member of his inner circle and an important party functionary), as well as several top Sendero officers, believed this move to be premature and openly opposed it in the 1988 Sendero conference (McClintock 1989, 66). Guzmán prevailed, and the expansion to Lima went forward.

Ironically, it was at his safe house in Lima that Guzmán was finally caught in 1992. Following his capture, the organization split into two factions. This split is identified by many historians as the beginning of the group’s downfall. One faction remained loyal to Guzmán and became known as the pacifists—so named because they supported Guzmán’s plea for a cease-fire and a peace agreement, which he made from prison. The second faction rejected Guzmán’s promotion of peace and was known as the hardliners (sometimes referred to as Sendero Rojo). Oscar Ramírez Durand (alias Feliciano) led the hardliners from the time of their break with the Guzmán supporters in 1994 through the rest of the insurgency. He was captured in 1999 (Gleditsch, et al. 2002).


The Sendero Luminoso movement began in the remote and isolated Ayacucho department, located in the southern Sierra region of the country. The country is divided into twenty-four departments and one constitutional province. Approximately 47 percent of the country is covered by mountainous terrain, and Ayacucho lies within this area (Fearon and Laitin 2003). Although eastern Peru is heavily forested, the Ayacucho region is not densely forested (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations n.d.).

The two most important geographical features of the conflict are the isolation of Ayacucho and the people’s reliance on subsistence agriculture in the department. As mentioned above, the relative isolation of the region allowed Guzmán to develop the movement over time with little interference from the state. Once Sendero began its campaign for domination within the Ayacucho regional base, government forces had difficulty reestablishing control in the remote region.

The second important feature of Ayacucho’s geography is the effect of mountainous terrain on the livelihood of the peasants. The land in Ayacucho and the surrounding regions was not suitable for traditional agriculture (McClintock 1984, 59). Most peasants in the mountainous Sierra region relied on subsistence agricultural production for their livelihood. This reliance on subsistence agriculture was a product of several things: the terrain, the structure of the communal farming culture, and the encroachment of hacienda farming on the better lands (Mason 1998, 209-210). The limited options for food and commercial activity in Ayacucho meant that the peasants were vulnerable to a subsistence crisis, which began in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s, when the El Niño caused a drought in the southern Sierras (McClintock 1984, 61). The tenuous position of rural peasants in Ayacucho proved a fertile and protected ground for Sendero activists to recruit members and set up a base of operations. Peasant dissatisfaction with the government, both for the failure of the land reforms of the 1970s and neglect during an ongoing subsistence crisis, provided an opportunity for Sendero to make significant inroads in the community.


Sendero Luminoso engaged primarily in guerrilla tactics during the armed struggle from 1980 to 1996. Sendero’s overall revolutionary strategy was comprised of six planned stages, only four of which were accomplished (Manwaring 1995). Prior to the initiation of armed conflict in 1980, Sendero engaged in stage one, which included the political organization of the movement. Following this initial stage, Sendero engaged in stages two through four successively. These were (2) moving into offensive combat, (3) generalization of violence to a wider population, and (4) consolidation of control in geographic areas of expansion. Each of these three stages was achieved through guerrilla violence and broad terror campaigns. Stage five included attacks on cities to bring about the fall of the government, and stage six entailed engendering state collapse and preparation for world revolution (Manwaring 1995, 163). Although Guzmán initiated stage five by expanding their campaign of violence to Lima, the group never successfully consolidated power in major cities.

Sendero relied almost exclusively on guerrilla tactics and seldom mounted large-scale operations. They attacked a variety of targets and locations, focusing on government and commerce. Sendero was able to engage in a number of attacks with a minimum of equipment and weapons. Many of their supplies were obtained though raids on government facilities and commercial mining projects (Gorriti Ellenbogen 1990, 108-109). An example of one of the larger operations that Sendero completed was an attack on a prison facility. This attack was aimed at gaining arms for future operations and freeing Sendero prisoners. Sendero’s goal was to obtain just enough weapons to carry out the guerrilla campaign, not to amass arms for any conventional war (Gorriti Ellenbogen 1990, 108). Additionally, some arms were purchased, including G3 and FAL automatic rifles and U.S.-made hand grenades (McClintock 1998, 73).

During the course of the conflict, the change in Sendero’s tactics—in particular, increasing the scope of targets attacked—had an important effect on their ability to maintain support for their movement. Although the movement started with a strong base of supporters in the peasant community of Ayacucho, the progression of strategy to stage two (the generalization of violence) alienated and killed many people originally sympathetic to the movement. Any individuals who opposed Sendero as the sole legitimate authority were punished or eliminated. One Sendero member is quoted as saying, “This is a revolution, and anyone who opposes it will be crushed like an insect” (McClintock 1998, 68). In fact, the vast majority of those targeted for violence between 1980 and 1992 were peasants, followed by urban residents, then government officials. Additionally, within this time-frame a large number of teachers, businessmen, and social activists were killed by Sendero, as well as several aid workers and clergy (McClintock 1998, 63).

Sendero Luminoso also looked to the future of the movement by training children and youth members, desensitizing them to killing at an early age. For example, children were taught to kill chickens at an early age to prepare them for the violent nature of the movement. Among the more vindictive and horrific acts aimed at limiting all other social organization among the population was the murder of grassroots leader Maria Elena Moyano, whose body was later blown up in front of her children (McClintock 1998, 63-68). In addition to targeting the government officials, Sendero also targeted leftist politicians working within the legal system in order to prevent a moderate leftist movement from gaining mass appeal. Guzmán, who argued that his path was the only legitimate course for change, branded Peru’s legal leftist parties as “revisionist” (Gorriti Ellenbogen 1990, 123). Moreover, Sendero came into direct armed conflict with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a more moderate leftist insurgency group (National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism 2006).

The Peruvian government’s response to Sendero attacks tended to be incoherent and somewhat indiscriminate in its reprisals during most of the conflict. In 1982, President Belaundé conceded that the rebellion in Ayacucho was indeed out of their control and called for military penetration into the area. Belaundé declared a “military emergency zone” in Ayacucho as well as a number of provinces into which Sendero had expanded, which limited the freedoms of civilians in these areas (McClintock 1984, 52).

The government used specially trained paramilitaries (sinchis) to route out senderistas. Initially, only 1,500 sinchis were sent to Ayacucho, but this number was quickly increased to 7,000 (McClintock 1998). Government troops had difficulty engaging the senderistas, given the nature of Sendero’s tactics (small guerrilla attacks) and the group’s organization (members worked in cells of three to four individuals). Moreover, it was difficult to distinguish senderistas from members of the local population—a fact that led to an incredible number of civilian deaths. The government carried out systematic campaigns, attacking villages and individuals suspected of collaboration with Sendero. This strategy had the detrimental by-product of alienating any local support for the government in Sendero-controlled regions, even in the face of increasing violence from Sendero as well. Recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the government’s use of sinchis “led to an increase in human rights violations, generated resentment and distanced the police from the population” (TRC 2003, Item 43). This strategy undermined the ability of the government to gain support, and possibly information on Sendero, from the peasant population, which itself was coming under increasing scrutiny from Sendero. Moreover, the disunity among government forces exacerbated the potential for human rights violations perpetrated against peasants. In the first half of the 1980s, three separate police organizations engaged in counterinsurgency operations without well-coordinated sharing of information about the local populations (TRC 2003).

In 1989, the government forces began to shift their strategy from somewhat indiscriminate hunting for Sendero supporters and operatives to attempting to discern friendly, neutral, and enemy populations. The government also shifted its focus to the capture of key leaders in the movement in order to decapitate the organization (TRC 2003). The strategy paid off immensely when Guzmán was captured in Lima in 1992. Guzmán’s capture and subsequent treatment in custody may have been the single most important action the state took to end the war. Guzmán’s position as the logistical and ideological leader of Sendero exposed the movement to a power vacuum after his capture. Initially, Guzmán argued from prison that the movement would continue on its course without his individual contribution. However, Guzmán later called for an end to the conflict, leading to the first major split in Sendero and a weakening of the movement. One of the most politically savvy tactics the government pursued was to demonstrate publicly that Guzmán was in fact an ordinary and vulnerable person. They did this in an effort to deconstruct his revered persona among his followers. After his capture, Guzmán was displayed in black-and-white-striped pajamas in his jail cell carrying out ordinary tasks. Footage of Guzmán following guard’s orders was also released to the public, which further contributed to the deconstruction of Guzmán’s public persona (McClintock 1998).

Causes of the War

Understanding the emergence and relative success of Sendero Luminoso can be broken down into two interrelated questions: Why did this organization begin the war, and why did the peasant population support them? To understand the causes of this conflict, we need to understand both the choice to begin an armed insurgency and the ability of that insurgency to thrive among the Peruvian population. Thus, we need to examine the motivation of the organization and leaders like Abimael Guzmán, as well as reasons for large-scale support from the population during the beginning of the conflict.

The Sendero Luminoso conflict was first and foremost an ideological battle for the rebel organization and its leaders. When Sendero began the conflict, they were not attempting a quick overthrow of the government. The civil war was a long-term strategy designed to change Peruvian society by toppling the government and replacing it with a Communist state. The Sendero rebels were trying not simply to take gain control of the government, but to change the regime (or type of government) in Peru. Abimael Guzmán was motivated by the Communist thinkers Mao and Mariategui. He relied upon the work of these men to develop his own views that communism was the only legitimate form of government. His own rigid adherence to Maoism is generally accounted for by personal proclivities; however, a number of changes that took place in Peru are likely to have made communism more attractive to intellectuals and activists (McClintock 1998).

The social, economic, and political conditions in Peru prior to the Sendero war created a fertile ground for the insurgency. The Peruvian government’s vacillation between military rule and democracy could easily be interpreted as a failure of both types of governance. When Peru transitioned back to democracy in the late 1970s, there was a large amount of support both from political elites and from the populace for legitimate leftist political parties. The primary leftist parties garnered more than 29 percent of the vote in 1978 constituent assembly elections (trailing the victorious center party, with 35 percent). Yet, the legitimate (or legal) leftist parties were unable to maintain popular support. After the reinstatement of democracy, the parties of the left were mired in infighting and fractionalization (Roberts 1996). Due to their inability to consolidate power, the legal organizations representing the political left (or more socialist-oriented parties) lost momentum. Leftist intellectuals were confronted, on one hand, with the inability of the legal leftist parties to capitalize on strong popular support and, on the other hand, with the incredibly cohesive and disciplined Sendero organization. Sendero Luminoso had a clear, if more radically leftist, mission and a concrete logistical plan. Given this comparison, Sendero was a clear and viable option for pursing political change for many young political elites.

Although the appeals of communism and of Sendero as a political entity were likely to attract educated elites seeking social change, Sendero could not have developed or succeeded without its base of support in Ayacucho. Sendero Luminoso grew to a substantial size (estimated between 3,000 and 15,000 members), but it began as a small collective of intellectuals seeking to change the way Peru was governed. Instrumental to Sendero’s campaign was their ability to draw members and cooperative support from the peasant population and to secure a base in the Ayacucho region.

Peasants in this region provided a fertile ground for Sendero for several reasons. First, the relatively impoverished population suffered from a history of neglect and experienced a subsistence crisis during Sendero’s organizing stage. Most of the peasants in the Ayacucho region worked the land communally for subsistence farming and leased out additional labor to hacienda owners. The haciendas typically used the best land in the area and benefited more substantially from the land reform of the 1970s (Roberts 1996). The ability of individuals to sustain their livelihood dictates, in part, the moral view of peasants about the legitimacy of governance (Scott 1976). When peasants are able to provide for themselves, they are unlikely to rebel or, in this case, support the Sendero insurgency. Gurr (1970) also argues that economic hardship is an incentive to rebel. It is clear that there were significant decreases in the ability of rural peasants in Ayacucho to provide for themselves and their families at the time that Sendero became active in the region. Moreover, Sendero provided important relief and social services to the peasant population at the outset of the movement. In contrast, the government was largely unable or unwilling to help the peasant population.

A number of scholars argue that, in addition to the role of economic grievance, perception of relative wealth is an important factor in the decision to rebel (Hechter 1975). People will be more likely to rebel not when they are destitute, but when they are disadvantaged relative to other people (Gurr 1970). McClintock reports that living conditions in the Ayacucho area fell to lower levels than other regions throughout the country in the years leading up to the civil war (McClintock 1984, 59-60). Moreover, although the Ayacucho compared unfavorably to nearly all other regions, it was particularly less well off than the coastal regions in which the capital was located. The relative deprivation of the Ayacucho people may have played an additional role in their willingness to support the Sendero movement and ultimately contributed to the success of the insurgency.


Conflict Status

The war did not decisively end with a treaty or military victory, although by 1994 the rebels had split into two factions, and approximately 6,000 Sendero rebels had surrendered (TRC 2003). After the split in 1994 between the pacifists and the hardliners, the number of Sendero attacks decreased steadily. Oscar Ramirez Durand continued to lead the hardliners until 1999, when he was captured. However, Sendero’s level of activity was so low that some estimates place the war’s end in 1996. The government forces were able to capture many of the Sendero leadership after the arrest of Guzmán, and this appears to have been the blow that pushed the rebels into a downward spiral.

Duration Tactics

The extreme length of the war (approximately sixteen years) can be attributed to two general issues: an inability of either side to achieve military victory and the unwillingness of either side to pursue negotiated settlement. The rebels’ guerrilla war tactics and their ability to loot resources from the cocaine trade made Sendero a difficult target with reliable and lucrative funding. Moreover, the inability of the government to effectively combat the guerrilla war allowed the rebels’ campaign to delegitimize the government to succeed in large measure, weakening the government (and possibly contributing to the collapse of democracy in 1992).

The guerrilla nature of this conflict meant that the Peruvian military never faced the rebel troops in a conventional battle and in fact needed to combat the group on several fronts— violent attacks on all types of targets, thefts of supplies from mines and government installations, and territorial expansion of the group. The primary objective of the government, therefore, was to capture or eliminate Sendero operatives and leaders, not necessarily to engage the group during any specific attack. This was a difficult feat for the government for three reasons. First, the Sendero movement was based in a geographically strategic area. Government troops could not mount a quick-response offensive deep into the mountains. Second, the Sendero rebels were extremely well organized and secretive. The small-cell structure of the group allowed senderistas to operate knowing only a few other members. When the government succeeded in capturing one rebel, he or she was unlikely to lead to many others. Third, the relative secrecy of the organization necessitated that the government use information from the rural population, who would know which individuals were active in the movement from the rebels’ work in the community or connections to family and friends. However, the government’s strategy of indiscriminate attacks and killing of civilians turned the population against the state.

Moreover, Sendero did not prepare for or attempt to win the war through military victory. Sendero’s strategy from the outset of the conflict was to delegitimize the state and cause it to collapse. Guzmán and the Sendero elites were not looking to gain control of the government but to create a wholly different political entity based on Communist ideals. Only after the government had lost control and credibility would Sendero step into the power vacuum left by the government’s fall. The Sendero strategy was one of attrition—the slow wearing down of one’s enemy— that necessitates a long war. Sendero planned for a long conflict and was careful not to overstep its reach throughout the dispute. As noted before, the group sought to acquire only the military means necessary to inflict terror and disrupt the ability of the Peruvian administration to govern. Sendero fought a war to delegitimize the government, not to cripple it strategically. The turning point of the war was the capture of Guzmán, which reestablished, to some extent, the effectiveness of the government.

In addition to a military victory, the conflict could have ended with a negotiated settlement. However, the likelihood of a successful treaty being signed was low for two reasons. First, parties at war will be likely to settle through negotiations when there is little else to gain through fighting. Yet the rebels in this conflict saw both present and future gains in fighting. They engaged in violence not to obtain any particular goods or concessions from the state but to decrease its effectiveness and perceived competence.

Second, parties to the conflict will sign a settlement when they are relatively certain that they cannot get a better deal by continuing to fight a while longer. One critical way parties to a civil war assess this is by learning from the battlefield (Smith and Stam, 2004). However, the Sendero Luminoso civil war never produced large-scale battles between rebel and government forces. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru finds that “… the limitations of the police intelligence services hindered their ability to adequately understand what was occurring. This, along with the lack of knowledge of the nature of the PCP-SL [Sendero], caused them to underestimate the magnitude of the developing phenomenon” (TRC 2003). The tit-for-tat nature of Sendero attacks and government reprisals did not reveal a great deal of information to either side about how the conflict was likely to develop and who was likely to get the upper hand in the future.

External Military Intervention

There was no direct military intervention on the side of the Peruvian government or Sendero Luminoso during the conflict. The United States put pressure on the government to curtail coca production, as they did with a number of Latin American countries during the American War on Drugs. It is not clear that this pressure had any impact on the conflict.

Conflict Management Efforts

There were no mediation or conflict management efforts from the international community or external states.


The conflict in Peru between the government and Sendero Luminoso proved to be the most devastating time period in the country’s history. More people died in this war than in all other conflicts in Peru since independence (TRC 2003). However, the potential for renewed conflict is low for several reasons. First, Sendero as a political and military organization has been significantly dismantled. Second, the general population is likely to be more resistant to the appeals of such movements as a result of experience with this war. Finally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced a detailed account of the factors that allowed the insurgency to reach such destructive levels and has proposed a plan for reparations to those most affected by the conflict. The likelihood of a return to conflict will decrease further if Peru can implement the recommended steps for reconciliation. However, there are significant challenges to this, both in terms of bringing the perpetrators and planners of violence to justice (particularly those on the government side) and in terms of distributing adequate reparations to victims.

One major policy implication to be derived from this conflict is that governments challenged by rural insurgencies need to go to great lengths to differentiate rebels from civilians in their efforts to combat the challenge. This policy is central to both the minimization of violence and effectiveness of counterinsurgency. Only after the Peruvian troops changed their strategy to minimize attacks on innocents and focused on locating the Sendero leadership did they succeed in their counterinsurgency efforts.

There are also two important general lessons from this conflict, both for Peru and for other nations. The first lesson is that there are significant risks to neglecting entire segments of a population. The destitution and isolation of Ayacucho peasants, many of whom were ethnically distinct form the majority of Peruvians, had serious consequences for the country as a whole. This lesson has become a prominent issue for American politics today as concern grows about the terrorist and insurgency organizations developing in failed states and regions outside of government control in other countries.

The second lesson that we should draw from Peru’s experience is one that has reappeared time and time again. The neglect and persecution of a small population should concern the majority of the population in a country. One of the TRC’s general findings was that many Peruvians outside the main conflict zone felt disconnected from the conflict; educated and urban citizens in particular were indifferent to the struggle while it was confined to the mountains. However, the conflict had enormous implications for all Peruvians, including its contribution to the failure of democracy and the 1992 coup. Popular complacency regarding the suffering of minority populations has led to disastrous outcomes in the past, such as the Jewish holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and is likely to do so in similar situations in the future.