By Fontaine, Roger
The World and I , Vol. 12, No. 3
When an obscure guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru, stormed the Japanese ambassador's residence in a posh Lima suburb a week before Christmas and took 700 guests hostage, the first question asked was, how could this happen?
Still, no one should have been shocked, particularly Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's government, which has done much to reduce--but not yet eliminate--the rebel menace in Peru since armed leftist groups appeared in the early 1960s. The battle had been won, but the war was not over.
Over the last three decades, Peru has had the most exotic menagerie of guerrillas and terrorists in the hemisphere, possibly the world. Cheek by jowl, armed revolutionaries have claimed to be inspired by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Fidel Castro, to name only the most prominent. One claims to be the fourth sword of Marxism.
In all that time, this assortment of revolutionaries has succeeded only in spilling copious amounts of human blood while instigating a fierce repression from Peru's embattled security services. Interestingly, today's Tupac Amaru, formally known as the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru, or MRTA, is probably the least effective.
What is Tupac Amaru?
Like its older rival, the Maoist Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso), MRTA wished to be identified with the long-oppressed Indian masses. Hence the rebel group took the name Tupac Amaru, a favorite of a previous generation of Peruvian rebels.
In fact, there are two Tupac Amarus in Peru's history. The first was the last Inca ruler, who was captured and executed by the Spanish in 1571. Two centuries later, a lineal descendant, although baptized Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui and made a marquis, took the name Tupac Amaru and led a short-lived rebellion against his benefactor in a war that cost at least 90,000 lives, mostly Indian. With these sanguinary precedents, MRTA began operations in the early 1980s. The precise year is still in dispute, although the group's connections with Cuba are not.
Despite a spate of bank robberies, bombings, and assassinations--mostly in the capital, Lima--Tupac Amaru remained small, with no more than a thousand members at its peak. The group was very much in the shadow of its hated rival, Sendero Luminoso, which first gathered strength in the Indian highlands in the late 1970s. MRTA has never even matched now-forgotten Peruvian guerrilla chieftains such as Hugo Blanco and Hector Bejar, who were active in the mid 1960s, at the height of revolutionary romanticism in Latin America.
Sendero and MRTA do have one thing in common. They pretend to speak for the poor, although they have always been led by university intellectuals. Tupac Amaru, in particular, has never gone beyond its urban middle-class base, either in leadership or among its armed supporters and fellow travelers.
Neither group has hesitated to murder community leaders in urban slums or rural villages. It should come as no surprise, then, that these guerrilla and terrorist organizations have no support among Peru's poor. Indeed, the impoverished have openly welcomed President Fujimori's crackdown, which began shortly after his inauguration in 1990.
Fujimori boldly promised to defeat the guerrilla movements by 1995--just in time for his reelection. He nearly succeeded. With better-organized security forces and improved intelligence, Fujimori struck hard at Shining Path and MRTA, capturing most of their leaders in the bargain, including their supremos Abimael Guzman and Victor Polay, respectively.
But overconfidence and the distraction of a border war with Ecuador gave the rebels--the Senderos in particular, under their new leader Oscar Ramirez Durand--enough breathing space to reorganize. They lived off narcotics money in the coca-growing upper Huallaga Valley. MRTA has not fared as well, although it had enough strength to carry out random acts of terrorism. …