International Relations Shining Path
Dennis Jett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0145


Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, is a Maoist revolutionary movement in Peru that was one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the Western Hemisphere. Founded in 1970 by members of the Communist Party of Peru, it was led by Abimael Guzmán, a charismatic former philosophy professor. Guzmán spent the next decade strengthening the organization and modeled its philosophy after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, Stalinist Russia, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Sendero Luminoso (SL) began its campaign of terrorism in 1980 in the Andean highlands by burning ballot boxes and hanging dogs from street lamps. It rapidly escalated to carrying out assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings throughout rural Peru and in urban areas, including Lima, the country’s capital. It also became heavily involved in narcotics trafficking to finance its operations. SL gained some popular support among Peru’s indigenous population by proclaiming itself as the way to reduce poverty and income inequality. Guzmán promised a classless utopia but delivered only violence and intimidation, which provoked repressive tactics by the Peruvian military. Guzmán was captured in Lima in 1992, giving a great boost to the popularity of the president, Alberto Fujimori. Although SL continues some operations in the most remote regions in the mid-2010s, its capacity was greatly reduced with Guzmán’s arrest. He was given a life sentence and remains in prison. Even though SL continues to be a minor threat in the mid-2010s, at its height it reduced all of Peru to a state of fear. Security forces committed many abuses, and democracy suffered as the vast majority of the general public was willing to trade assurances about security for the protection of civil liberties and human rights. In that sense, Peru in the 1980s and 1990s was not unlike post-9/11 America.

General Overviews

The impact of the violence created by SL and the Peruvian government’s reaction to it was felt throughout the country, but especially in the rural highlands. Forty percent of the deaths and disappearances occurred in the Ayacucho Region alone. Reporting on SL after Guzmán’s arrest in 1992 decreased as significantly as its level of activity. Many of the accounts and assessments are therefore at least two decades old, but they are still useful in understanding how such a violent movement can threaten the established political and economic order of a country. In 2000, a truth and reconciliation commission was created and given a mandate to investigate assassinations, torture, disappearances, terrorism, and other crimes committed by the government, SL, and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, another terrorist organization, between 1980 and 2000. The commission delivered its 8,000-page report in 2003. It estimated 70,000 people had died during the two decades in question with a majority of the deaths caused by SL. SL never completely disappeared, and two separate factions of it continue to operate in some remote rural areas. Since 2006, it has had somewhat of resurgence as it has tried to develop a legitimate political party under the name of the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (MOVADEF). Whether it succeeds, either politically or militarily, will depend on the ability of the Peruvian government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Peru has benefited from high growth and low inflation since the time of Fujimori, and there has been a significant reduction in poverty in recent years. As American ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999, I saw a country that was still traumatized by SL even though the threat posed by it has been almost eliminated. I once visited a Catholic priest who ran a program for former guerillas. By giving them a small plot of land and the skills to grow crops for export on it, the priest turned them into budding capitalists. Instead of trying to overthrow the existing political and economic order, they suddenly had a stake in it and a future with hope. If the Peruvian government can do for all Peruvians what the priest did for those in his program, it is SL that will have no future.

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