TINGO MARIA, PeruI recently witnessed the beginning of a police operation that led to the death of a top member of Shining Path, the terrorist organization that has been active in this country since 1980, and the capture of another. Both were key players in the security squad of Artemio, the nom de guerre of the groups leader in the Alto Huallaga region in Perus northern jungle.
After interviewing President Alan Garcia in connection with a documentary series for an American TV network, I flew to Alto Huallaga to talk to some coca growers who are resisting government efforts to eradicate coca plantations. Gen. Edwin Palomino, the man in charge of the Huallaga Police Front, happened to be involved in a crucial mission to gather intelligence on the Shining Path leader. He invited me to join him and Col. Luis Valencia. We flew in a Russian-made MIL helicopter to Aucayacu, deep in the forest. In a swift move designed to avoid an attack on the helicopter, we picked up 30 heavily armed men who had been dropped off in that same spot the day before and whose faces reflected the tension of the last 24 hours.
After I had moved on a day later, the same team, acting on the intelligence these same men had picked up on the mission I observed, confirming that Artemios two closest lieutenants were in the area, successfully moved in on some of Shining Paths most wanted terrorists. The blow has left the organization severely weakened.
Artemio is the leader one of Shining Paths two factions still active in Peru, numbering a few dozen people. The other one, led by a rebel who also goes by a nom de guerre, Alipio, operates in the southern jungle. Unlike Alipio, Artemio is loyal to Abimael Guzman, the founder and longtime leader of the organization whose capture dealt a devastating blow to Shining Path in 1992.
Shining Path is only a shadow of what it used to be, but the possibility of a comeback cannot be ruled out. The main reason for this is an alliance between the Maoist insurgents and drug traffickers. Artemio obtains money from cocaine dealers who buy their coca in the Monzon Valley, three hours from Tingo Maria. Alipio, for his part, is directly involved in narco-trafficking, replicating the situation in Colombia where terrorist groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are heavily involved in the drug business.
The good news, Palomino explained to me, is that Shining Paths cadres are no longer ideologically motivated. Artemio recruits his men by offering them money and promising them small plots of land, which he is able to control through extortion. His mens commitment is much weaker than in the times of Abimael Guzman. They are 18-year-old kids doing it for money. That makes it much easier for us to penetrate his guard.
The bad news is that drug trafficking is providing Shining Paths remaining members with enough support to keep them alive. The result is an increasing impatience on the part of many Peruvians who want to militarize the states response. That would be a very dangerous course of action. In the 1980s, after a series of massacres carried out by Shining Path, Perus government decided to cede political control of certain areas of the country to military leaders. The result, eventually, was the collapse of democratic government and its replacement by a corrupt dictatorial regime whose members are currently being tried for human rights abuses.
The military is already partially involved in the fight against Shining Path, often carrying out joint missions with the police. But so far the police remain in charge. Militarizing the countrys response to Shining Path would open a Pandoras box. Whenever the military is given the responsibility of fighting domestic wars against criminals, two things happen: corruption and human rights abuses. Those who are understandably desperate to get rid of Artemio and Alipio need to take into account the lessons of the recentand traumaticpast. And they should remember that it was not the military but a group of clever policemen who caught Guzman in the 1990s.
Neither Artemio nor Alipio poses the kind of challenge that Guzmans terrorists once posed for the country. The recent success of Palomino and Valencia in the Alto Huallaga proves that law enforcement should be carried out by those who are trained to fight the enemy through the use of intelligence rather than indiscriminate extermination.