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Comparing Politics in Peru and Mexico Research Paper

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The rise of the Shining Path and the Zapatistas both derive from the social and economic deprivation and marginalization of the peasants and native indigenous people of the respective countries. While the former is a violent revolution, the latter is generally non-violent. However, both base their ideology on leftist and Marxist principles, particularly the Maoist kind seeking mass welfare through an armed class struggle. In addition to the economic and social deprivation of the aspiring people, other factors like an insensitive administration, racial and regional bias, etc have contributed to the growth of the movements. While the EZLN always seeks to achieve native or Indian social equality and advancement based from a distant rural countryside, the Shining Path seeks to capture power in the country through annihilation of all opposition and follow an autocratic hierarchical form of functioning. While the past and most recent past have seen the proliferation of various terrorist organizations in both Latin America and the whole world, for ruthlessness, the Shining Path seems second to none. Although the Peruvian government, mostly under Fujimori, appears to have dissolved the Shining Path, in recent years, the group seems to be regrouping and re-launching its armed struggle. It has already re-entered the drugs market, sought an alliance with other terrorist groups outside Peru, and seems to be really building up again. In contrast, the EZLN has always strived to attain a social structure without it entering any position of central power in Mexico. The study of the two groups of terrorist outfits is a study of the comparative politics in the two countries, Peru and Mexico. While there are some similarities, there are some glaring dissimilarities, also. This paper seeks to compare the political situation in the two countries, Peru and Mexico as seen from the rise of the terror outfits and the history of state retaliation against the same.


The origin of terror and insurgent movements in a country is influenced by various factors like social and economic deprivation, military, political or governmental repression, local and indigenous issues, etc. Latin America, comprising countries like Peru, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia has seen the rise of various guerilla and insurgent groups, primarily of a violent nature in their manner of struggle. There have been many external and internal factors that have helped originate and sustain such terror-related activities in a particular country, including in Peru and Mexico, two major Latin American countries. The political situations in the two countries have contributed in large measure to their blood-soiled past and present, and their major terrorist groups, the Shining Path of Peru and the Zapatistas of Mexico, constitute the subject of this comparative paper, as a particular case study between the political environments influencing such movements in Peru and Mexico. The former group is also called Sendero Luminoso or simply SL and has already been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States Department of State. The group is still active and primarily operates in rural Peru, mostly in the Apurimac Valley, the area around the Ene River, and the Huallaga Valley. Its activities include bombing campaigns, ambushes, and assassinations of selected government and political functionaries. In contrast, the Zapatistas, or the EZLN (short for Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), is now almost a pressure group rather than an armed struggle, although both the groups are driven by leftist or Marxist ideology and supposedly represent the aspirations of the indigenous people of their respective nations.

The Shining Path

The Sendero Luminoso (SL) or the Shining Path was founded by Abimael Guzman, a professor of the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho, Peru as a breakaway faction of the Communist Party of Peru in the year 1970. Guzman renamed his movement, based on the shining path originally propounded by José Carlos Mariátegui, as Partido Comunista del Perú or Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path later simply called the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path. In earlier times, Peru was primarily a rural landscape with mostly indigenous people. The Shining Path envisaged the advancement of the Peruvian social structure as a version of communism, deriving its origins from the Inca culture and geared to improve the impoverished and marginalized indigenous rural people. Although originally non-violent, and targeted to improving the livelihood of the Quechua Indians, the movement later became one of the most violent of all such movements in the world, with deaths in violence by the group becoming as high as 69,280 as per official count (TRC, 2003, p.316 ) It is notable that, Ayacucho, where the Shining Path first emerged, was one of the poorest, most remote, rural, and indigenous parts of Peru (Becker, M., p. 652). But the TRC notes that the violence fell unequally in different geographical areas and on different social strata in the country (p. 317).

The Origin

The Shining Path was the result of the factionalism in the Communist Party of Peru in the 1960s. At that time, conditions in Peru were also such that most of the rural populace was poor and marginalized while the small urban elite had access to all the cultural, political, and social growth benefits. The landholdings were unequal, in the hands of a few influential rich people, and the labor systems were archaic. There was increasing migration of people from undeveloped rural areas to urban areas, and from highlands to coastlands boasting of plantations. Guzman only attempted to achieve the aspirations of the indigenous and marginalized Peruvian populace, both urban and rural. The way to do this, he thought, was the formation of the breakaway Peru Communist Party-Shining Path or PCP-SL or Sendero Luminoso which could reinforce communist principles and help achieve integration of the marginalized, often landless people into the mainstream of Peruvian society and culture. Guzman essentially drew on the ideals of Mariátegui when he formed his Shining Path. However, while the archaic land tenure system was the initial basis for the evolution of the SL, it was in 1978, with the constitution of a civilian government following the rule of Velasco that the SL formally emerged as a terrorist force in Peru. The policies of the new regime ushered in unemployment, led to a decline in living standards and this gave way to open social and violent protests from a better-educated populace expecting more from the government. The Shining Path emerged by design, by the intent of its leaders to build a military option for achieving their aims in a social context then existing, and in which, the people had no viable or legal options to achieve their aspirations or demand reforms as promised by the civilian government. In essence, the movement was organized and built upon peoples’ disillusionment with the capitalistic tendencies of their rulers, by the communist leaders of the Shining Path. Guzman declared the start of an armed struggle in 1979 and in 1980, had an in-place armed unit for launching this struggle. From 1982 to 1985, the Shining Path resorted to the Marxist way of class warfare and was involved in bomb attacks, extortions, assassination attempts, etc which was often brutally countered by the military, resulting in many civilian casualties, particularly in the rural region. The military did not distinguish between combatants and ordinary civilians and hence there were unintended casualties and violations of human rights of a magnitude as never seen before. Although the movement of the Shining Path was mostly political, the military reprisals had unintended consequences. People became more aligned against the government and its machinery. Kay, C. (pp. 14-15) maintains that there were various reasons for the emergence and success of the Shining Path in Peruvian violent politics. In his view, the unresolved land issue of peasants, the continuing discrimination against indigenous people and their poverty, the destruction of oligarchic order and weakened political and social institutions, the increasingly opinionated, independent, and better-educated sons and daughters of peasants and teachers, the prowess of the original Shining Path leaders in the organization and ideological leadership, as also the indiscriminate and inhuman state and military retaliations contributed, to the rise and power of one of the most dreaded guerilla groups of all time, the Shining Path or the Sendero Luminoso.

The Ideology

The Shining Path was an organization that was based on communism and Inca tradition. It was envisaged by Guzman as the only means for the development of the Peruvian society, polity, and economy and was built upon Marxist and Maoist ideology. The ideology only attempted to bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots and to do away with capitalism and all its perceived evils. The idea was one of revolution and not of reform. In a reformist ideology, there is room for decentralization of power, for higher accountability to the populace and the organizational members. However, the leadership of the Shining Path was based upon autocracy and a hierarchical power structure that sought control of the country and its assets even if by violent means for establishing a so-called pro-poor and economically growing state. With the formation of a civilian government and less tolerance of the political establishment for such terrorist and communist principles, the form of Andean Maoism as propounded by Guzman via his Shining Path was further strengthened and allowed to flourish into greater anarchy and terrorism across the country. Guzman went to China where he was trained, and upon his return, he pronounced that the time had come to prepare the beginning of the “people’s war” in his native Peru—a country he described as semi-feudal, semi-colonial, and with a bureaucratic form of capitalism (Prof. Bolívar, A., p.5) By the 1980s., the violence became uncontrollable. In 1986, some SL prisoners kept in Lima prisons rioted leaving around 187 dead. This led to violence after violence. In 1990, popular leader and reformist María Elena Moyano was executed by the SL. In 1992, SL supporters planned car bombs in Lima which led to more deaths, and ultimately Guzman was arrested and imprisoned for life.

A Brief History of the Violence

The Shining Path espouses Maoist philosophy. It has conducted various violent attacks on the military, the police, and the government infrastructure. In the beginning, the movement operated in the rural areas of Peru. There, the SL leaders sought to build their movement through force and by silencing dissent through violent means. When their leaders felt that local people did not favor somebody, they simply beat or killed those persons, which included leaders of collective farms and rich merchants (Alexander, John, B., p. 26). The Sendero adopted guerilla tactics in the countryside They targeted government buildings and structures based in Lima, blowing up electrical transmission systems, assassinating political leaders, and even mass murder of villagers, in later years, so as to dictate their support from people. The TRC Report (2003) reckons that the most probable figure for victims who died in the violence is 69,280 individuals and that, these figures are greater than the number of human losses suffered by Peru in all of the foreign and civil wars that have occurred in its 182 years of independence (p. 316) Also, the TRC states that the internal armed conflict experienced by Peru between 1980 and 2000 constituted the most intense, extensive and prolonged episode of violence in the entire history of the Republic. It was also a conflict that revealed deep and painful divides and misunderstandings in Peruvian society (p. 316). The number of persons who died was around 69,280 individuals most of whom were Campesinos or peasants and 79% of whom lived in rural areas In addition massive destruction of economic and national infrastructure occurred (TRC, p. 316). The TRC also concludes that the PCP-SL deployed extreme violence and unusual cruelty, including torture and brutality as forms of punishing or setting intimidating examples within the population they sought to control (p. 317). Also, the TRC has established terrorist characteristics of the PCP-SL that were deployed from the beginning through brutally carried out ajusticiamientos [killings to bring to account], prohibition of burials, and other criminal acts, including the use of car bombs in the cities. It also finds potential for genocide in proclamations of the PCP-SL that call for “paying the blood toll” (1982), “inducing genocide” (1985) and that announce, “the triumph of the revolution will cost a million deaths” (1988). This is combined with conceptions of racism and superiority over indigenous peoples (p. 319).

Impact of the Movement in Peru and Rural Areas

The Shining Path propagated a Maoist ideology. It launched a continuous and seemingly popular war which included laying siege to Lima by their cadre based in the countryside. Ultimately, the rural countryside became part of the war zone. At the beginning of the 1990s, their program of violence including the launching of car bomb attacks on TV stations, banks and FIs, military structures, and trucks, the dynamiting of state electrical infrastructure, etc virtually terrorized the urban towns. The Shining Path responded violently to an attack on its militants in a high-security prison in Lima which killed 50 of its supporters, by launching a bomb attack targeting the middle class and elite class people of the Lima suburb of Mira Flores. The situation got out of control and the government had to, by 1992, impose emergency rule in almost half of the country. The period saw the death of around 25,000 civilians, displacing 2,50,000 farmers and causing around $ 24 million in property damages (See Appendix for demographic effects). During President Fujimori’s regime, more stringent action was taken against the movement. While the suppression of civil rights and legal remedies during emergency rule ultimately served to control the violence and diminish the influence of the SL following the arrest of Guzman, yet, the period saw a flagrant violation of human rights and later on led to the arrest of Fujimori by a recent Peruvian regime.

Another outcome of the SL movement was the conversion of the neighborhood peasant watch committees or Rondas, who originally oversaw the civilian defense against petty crimes, into an armed group for fighting the Shining Path guerillas in the early 1980s (Springer, N., p. 67). The military could not distinguish between these people and the SL combatants and often resorted to indiscriminate retaliatory actions which were resented by the local peasantry. However, in later years, these same Rondas went on to support the military against their action against the SL guerillas. Almost 6 lakhs of persons, 70% of the indigenous and native people, got displaced from their homes. These people faced social discrimination and repression from the authorities and became outcasts in an urban environment. They were even considered as Shining Path supporters and often arrested for suspected terrorist activities. The displaced persons mostly did not have any basic documents like birth certificates, election cards, or military cards which meant they could not participate in elections, nor avail of state-sponsored benefits. Also, they could not hold jobs, or partake in bank activities, nor even often get their children admitted to schools (As derived from Cohen, R. and Deng, F.M., pp. 1-25). Later on, some of these disparities were sought to be redressed and many unions and peasant associations were formed to help these people get their just dues and civil rights in the country.

The Zapatistas (Mexico)

The Zapatistas or the EZLN is an armed revolutionary group believing in Marxist ideology and was established in the year 1983 in Chiapas, As a revolutionary insurgent group, it emerged out of leftist principles that were against capitalism, globalization, and economic liberalization. The movement is native in origin but has been always against all Mexican governments, which have traditionally aligned with capitalistic countries like the US. As a political movement, the Zapatistas see the state as being run by elitists and feel the need to oversee a pass over of powers to a socialist and poor Mexican class of people that form a majority in the country. In Chiapas, Mexico, an armed uprising broke out on 1st Jan 1994, although it generally does not use bombs or weapons of destruction. This was the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and the movement was led by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) or Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The Non-violent Nature of the Movement

Unlike the Shining Path movement, the Mexican Zapatistas movement is predominantly non-violent and seeks a political expression for ushering in traditional socialistic and Marxist forms of government in a predominantly agrarian economy. The group has traditionally carried on the movement by organizing marches, launching manifestoes, and opinionating various proposals for adoption in the Mexican legislature. The armed conflict in 1994 was an aberration in the history of their struggle; it continued for 12 days after the group captured the municipalities of Ocosingo, Oxchuc, Chanal, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Huixtan, and Altamirano. The issue was resolved later through negotiations and the group which was led by Sub-commander Marcos Rafael Sebastián Guillén drew support from various leftist organizations of the world (Bolivar, A., p. 13). Although the group had formed the Frente Zapatista de Liberación Nacional–FZLN, as a civil, political, civil, and peaceful organization in 1996 (a front organization of EZLN, the same was dissolved in 2005 (Bolivar, A., p. 14). In recent times, and since the signing of the peace treaty in Mar 1994, Marcos has led the Zapatistas in a non-violent manner for improving human rights and asking for social change (Alexander, John, B., p. 64). The Mayan Indians form an important part of the organization which also derives support from the indigenous non-violent movement in the country. While the EZLN’s s formative tactics and rhetoric were revolutionary socialism in nature, it, later on, assumed an Indiana agenda or a more ethnic identity after the events of 1994 (Van Cott, D. Lee, p. 74).

A Comparison of the Shining Path and the Zapatistas

The Shining Path is one of the most ruthless insurgent organizations existing in entire Latin America. Unlike the Zapatistas, the Shining Path is a violent movement. Although both the movements are leftist and decidedly Marxist by nature and also seek to achieve social rights and economic advancement of the native indigenous people in their different countries, while the Shining Path is driven by the desire to assume power across Peru, the Zapatistas do not seek to assume such power in Mexico. Unlike the Sendero who destroy all impediments to their accession to power, ostensibly for deriving the native Indian peasants their rightful dues from the government and the landed urban elite classes, the Zapatistas do not wish to take control of the Mexican polity nor seek the establishment of a social state. The movement of the EZLN unlike that of the Sendero does not extend countrywide but rather confines itself to the rural and underdeveloped Chiapas from where the movement originated. The EZLN is against the neoliberalism, globalization, and economic policy of capitalism as followed by successive Mexican regimes. It protests the NAFTA and the amendment to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and seeks the continuance of the agrarian reforms, including continuance of land distribution, stopping of cheap food imports from the US and Canada, and the revival of the government scheme of subsidies credit and technical assistance for the peasant sectorIn short, the rebellion in Chiapas is fuelled by the exclusionary impact of Mexico’s agricultural modernization on the peasants and by fears of Mexico’s integration into NAFTA which would further marginalize them (Kay, C., p. 30). Also unlike the Shining Path, the EZLN movement is purely political, except for a violent uprising in 1994, the very day that NAFTA was signed. The EZLN wants the conversion of the Mexican economy into a social leftist one with the actual power passing over from the control of select elite persons to mass poverty-ridden classes of indigenous peasants. The situation in which the two organizations emerged in their respective countries is also a notable factor in shaping their nature and evolution as insurgency organizations and also a decisive factor in the direction that events took in those countries over the years. The Peruvian political situation was one of turbulence during the 1960s right through to the present times. The country faces a persistent and serious problem in drug trafficking. Also, most of the population lives in the rural areas with only a selected urban elite residing in the major towns including the capital Lima. The majority of the people belonged to the peasant community and had little education, economic resources, or participation in governance. The indigenous people were discriminated against and marginalized. Against this backdrop, and in those areas beyond the control of the state and its military authorities, such a violent movement like that of the Sendero took root. The Sendero espoused a markedly Maoist brand of Marxism which justified taking to arms in a struggle for delivering power to the deprived native masses of people. In contrast, the Mexican economy was relatively well off until the downturn of 1994 when the violent protest of the normally peaceful Zapatistas suddenly manifested. However, it is evident that both the movements leaned towards a leftist indigenous and mass-based ideology seeking to deliver power to the masses and bring in a social revolution. The difference was that while the EZLN wished to adopt a non-violent brand of socialism without their actual participation in state power, and only wished to influence real change in the social and political structure of the country, the Sendero wished to assume state control and justified violence as the means for doing so. The Sendero adopted a top-down and autocratic hierarchical structure.

The Peruvian Government

The Peruvian government has been a reflection of the political instability and violence existing in the country. Thus it is seen that, over the years, various regimes have been in power in Lima and adopted diverse policies, particularly with regards to social and economic reforms and the means of dealing with a terrorist outfit like the Shining Path. When General Juan Velasco Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces assumed power in 1968, he had the Agrarian Reform Law promulgated (1969). However, with the assumption of power by Terry in 1980, the Shining Path formally launched its armed struggle. The government then declared an emergency in Ayacucho, declared terrorism as a special crime, and also helped create rural patrols or rondas campesinas in the southern highlands in order to combat the Shining Path (1983). In 1985, with the state power being assumed by President Alán García, who ultimately became very unpopular among the people owing to military atrocities resulting from action against the Shining Path ordered by García The next ruler was Fujimori who in 1990 became the President of Peru. Fujimori launched severe austerity measures by removing consumer price subsidies and privatizing public enterprises for attracting foreign capital. In 1992, Fujimori succeeded in capturing Guzman which action ultimately broke the back of the revolution. However, Fujimori himself, later on, got arrested and tried for his human rights abuses and atrocities committed while in power once Toledo became the Peruvian President in 2001.

The Political Elites in Lima and their View of the Shining Path

The political elite including the persons in power at Lima, the country capital, belonged to the landed urban class, both from the middle and upper classes. The state followed a capitalistic, liberal and global economic policy over the years. This was in sharp contrast with the rural impoverished indigenous community who were also marginalized peasants, depending on agrarian reforms, protectionist measures, subsidies, and technological support from the government. The ruling class, as well as the urban elite The Peruvian military and social elite, did not understand the doctrine, strategy, and objectives of the Sendero (Bolivar, p. 6). In general in Latin America, as Yashar, D., J., maintains, the military and economic elites did not necessarily accept the rising power of class (including peasant) federations, and economic constraints made it difficult for states to sustain social programs that had extended the host of social programs associated with the corporatist citizenship regimes (p. 16). Till the end of the 1990s, the military and political elites were racially and regionally biased, an Indian aspiration for joining the national mainstream was unthinkable and remote, the people of the vast and remote rural countryside were far removed from the upper class and middle-class elite of urban Peru (Lima) and the peasants comprising the Shining Path were not intelligent or capable of posing a threat to the present dispensation at the center (McCormick, G., H., pp. 33-34). Before Fujimori, therefore, the Peruvian elite or ruling people in Lima were clearly unprepared or incapable of fully tackling the menace of the Shining Path.

The Role of President Fujimori in Tackling the Shining Path

It was President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) who recognized the internal security problem as being as important as an economic one. Thus, the Sendero defeat owes much for its success to Fujimori’s political decision to tackle the issue in an integrated way, a doctrinal shift in action orientation by the Peruvian Armed Forces, the implementation of enabling legal structure, the reorganization of systems of Peruvian intelligence in the 1990s, and the regular organization of civil defense committees of Rondas Campesinas in the Peruvian countryside to help fight the Shining Path insurgents. Fujimori assumed dictatorial powers in 1992 when he closed the congress and the judicial system, removed computer subsidy measures, privatized public enterprises, and even suspended the constitution. He succeeded in 1992 in having Guzman arrested which action effectively broke the back of the Shining Path. Although Fujimori gained public support, he soon implemented some draconian anti-terrorism measures which facilitated anonymous trials of both known Shining Path supporters and suspected supporters, most only innocent civilians. After re-election in 1995, Fujimori became synonymous with corruption and abuse of power as an also flagrant violation of human rights which ultimately forced him to resign and later on led to his arrest.

The Threat in the View of the Government

The potential threat in the view of the government from the Shining Path revolution appeared to be that of fear of loss of power by the ruling elite and the perks of office as ushered in by neoliberalism and capitalism. Thus right from Terry to Fujimori and then to Toledo, all successive regimes had only sought to suppress all opposition by the use of military force, least concerned for or aware of the aspirations and needs of the rural peasantry and the indigenous natives. The regimes were also ill-prepared to fight a terrorist organization like the Shining Path. However, increasingly the terrorist organizations are building trans-border linkages with other similar organizations for sharing intelligence and other technological inputs for furthering their violent aims more effectively and massively. The movement also relates to the drug problems which give a criminal and social character altogether different from the situation prevalent in other countries also facing terrorist threats. The Shining Path is back in business with the release of its imprisoned leaders and also, the movement is again into the drug business. The Shining Path has proved very resilient and is back to its old violent form again and may become a serious threat soon.

The Present Relationship between the Shining Path and Government

The present government is as much intolerant of the Shining Path as Fujimori’s was previously. While the organization is regrouping into a violent force again, it already has rejoined the illicit drugs trade. As before, the government is fearful of a potential terrorist threat against its infrastructure and elite people. However, the present government is as intolerant and power-driven as Fujimori’s was previously. In any case, the future could see further violent attacks like those resorted to previously by the Shining Path. However, it is a guess as to what the common peasants and native population would perceive as a rebuilt Shining Path.


The Terrorist threat has assumed trans-border and global proportions and needs to be tackled by the leading powers and governments collectively and collaboratively. Violence can never be justified in any civil society. However, even after so many decades of civilization, the actions of a modern state like those of Peru or Mexico, still leave much to be desired in so far as transparency, civil rights, socialist ideals, and good governance are concerned. While the violent means are to be eschewed for achieving even any relevant social and political objectives, yet, it does not need re-emphasizing that justice, in addition to being done, also needs to be seen to be done.


Figure 1

Types of Crimes Committed and Demographics by Perpetrators

Types of Crimes Committed and Demographics by Perpetrators
Figure 1. Types of Crimes Committed and Demographics by Perpetrators

* as a percentage of observed

( Source: Castillo, M. and Petrie, R., p. 10, Table 2, Descriptive Statistics, Discrimination in the Workplace: Evidence from a Civil War in Peru), 2007)

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