In December, startling news emerged from Peru that after more than 20 years and the deaths of around 70,000 people, the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, was on the verge of abandoning its armed uprising. One of its leaders, Comrade Artemio, suggested that the group was ready to engage in dialogue with the Peruvian authorities and to call a unilateral ceasefire.
Peru is a large country with a population of around 30 million people, 45 per cent of whom are described as Amerindian and 37 per cent Mestizo (of mixed European and indigenous parentage). The remainder is classified as being white, black and other minority communities. Around 85 per cent speak Spanish, but there is a significant minority (13 per cent) that speaks the indigenous Quechua as its first language.
Bordering Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil, Peru is similar in size to South Africa and composed of distinct coastal, jungle and mountainous regions. Economically, it has depended on exports such as copper, zinc, fish products and textiles. During the 1990s, the government promoted foreign direct investment and market liberalisation in an attempt to improve trading relations with major markets, especially the USA, China and South American neighbours such as Brazil.
Tourism and manufacturing play an important part in Peru's economy, with Western and Chinese tourists, in particular, attracted to Inca sites such as Machu Picchu and Cuzco. Peru is the world's second-largest producer of coca leaf after Colombia, and its drugs trade is thought to account for about a fifth of its GDP.
Although Peru gained independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821, its recent political history has been dominated by military regimes, democratic instability and cycles of violence. When Shining Path emerged in 1980, its aim was to replace what it described as a bourgeois democracy with a Maoist communist government and a 'new democracy'. Its charismatic leader, Abimael Guzman, a professor of philosophy, mobilised support among university students, particularly in the city of Ayacucho.
After failing to cause any significant disruption to the country's elections that year, Shining Path escalated its campaign, attacking community leaders, journalists, academics, politicians and anyone else it considered to be involved with bourgeois democracy. Its summary methods of justice were popular in the country's more remote and poor regions, where most of its support lay.