LIMA, Peru — The massacre of 16 people in a remote corner of Peru’s cocaine country by a Shining Path splinter group is the extremists’ bloodiest atrocity in more than a decade.
The slaughter happened on Sunday at around 10pm when between three to five men dressed in black began shooting without warning into two ramshackle open-air bars in the Valleys of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantauro Rivers, a region known as the VRAEM.
The men stole money and other valuables from their victims and broke into a pair of jukeboxes to ransack the coins. They then torched the remains of the dead, including two children aged one and three.
Before fleeing, the gunmen left a pamphlet bearing the hammer and sickle and calling on Peruvians to boycott the country’s presidential runoff election on June 6. The attack comes at a politically explosive point in the campaign and could add fuel to opponents’ allegations that Pedro Castillo, the leftist frontrunner, has terrorist sympathies.
According to local media, the pamphlet also urged voters to oppose Castillo’s hard right opponent, Keiko Fujimori, and claimed that the group was “cleaning” the area of “brothels”, “degenerate homosexuals” and “informers.”
“We thought it was a fight between drunks, but they kept shooting more and more,” one injured survivor told Peruvian news portal OjoPublico. “There was no exchange of words, not even to ask them to spare our lives. Nothing, nothing. They shot the kids, everyone, even those who were outside.”
Word of the killing in the densely forested Andean foothills did not reach the outside world until Monday. Peru’s armed forces joint command attributed the attack to a small dissident faction of the Shining Path, the Maoist extremists who waged a bloody war against the state in the 1980s and 1990s.
Led by Victor Quispe-Palomino, who uses the alias “Comrade José,” the group has been cornered in the VRAEM for years and long ago gave up the notion of revolution, instead providing protection to the booming cocaine business and occasionally attacking cops and soldiers.
“I don’t even call them Shining Path anymore. They’re not terrorists. Narcos is all they are now,” Jaime Antezana, a sociologist who tracks the group, told VICE World News.
Some 28,000 hectares of the VRAEM are planted with coca, just over half of Peru’s total of 54,655 hectares, according to DEVIDA, the country’s anti-narcotics agency, making it the largest cocaine-producing zone in the world.
Most of the growers are subsistence farmers living in grinding poverty for whom coca, which has three harvests per year in Peru, is the only viable cash crop. Buyers turn up in pickup trucks once or twice a week and purchase all the available leaves, regardless of quality, no questions asked.
As specialist army and police patrols trained in jungle warfare fanned out into the rugged, dense jungle in search of the killers, President Francisco Sagasti vowed to “eradicate terrorism.”
The slaughter has heightened tensions amid the polarizing presidential race in which Keiko Fujimori’s supporters have sought to create a climate of fear of “terrorism” and “communism” around Castillo’s campaign.
Castillo, a radical teachers’ union leader, leads in the polls against Fujimori, daughter of the jailed 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori who presided over the crushing of the original Shining Path a quarter of a century ago.
Her supporters often falsely accuse Castillo of sympathizing with the rebels. The practice is so commonly used in Peru to dismiss anyone who disagrees with the Fujimoristas’ ultraconservative worldview that it even has its own word, “terruquear,” from the indigenous Quechua word for terrorist, “terruco.”
It is also loaded with racial and class baggage. Most of Shining Path’s victims, like those in the latest attack, were poor, rural and dark-skinned. Yet it is often members of Lima’s white elite who accuse others of terrorist sympathies, especially mestizo outsiders, like Castillo.
There is no record of Castillo, 51, supporting the Shining Path, and he is also a member of the “ronderos,” rural militias that helped defeat the Shining Path back in the 1990s.
“If we have to confront terrorism, then we have to do it, wherever it comes from,” Castillo said on Tuesday as he expressed his condolences to the victims’ families.
Still, two congressmen-elect from Castillo’s Free Peru party have faced criminal investigations over their possible earlier links with Shining Path. They both deny having been members.
Founded by the philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, Shining Path launched one of Latin America’s cruelest civil wars, in which 69,280 people died, 54% at the hands of the Shining Path, according to Peru’s official Truth and Reconciliation Report
For all Guzmán’s rhetoric about building a Marxist utopia out of the “ashes” and “bones” of bourgeois society, the overwhelming majority of the group’s victims were indigenous Peruvians in impoverished communities in the mountains and jungle.
Despite that, Shining Path has sometimes been idolized by radicals outside of Peru. Rage Against the Machine were at one point reported to support the group, with guitarist Tom Morello even featuring a Shining Path sticker on his Fender.
But the group’s military operations began winding down after Guzmán’s arrest in 1992. Shortly afterwards, he declared a cease-fire, one which was respected by most of Shining Path’s militants — except the splinter group now led by Quispe-Palomino.
Antezana believes that the killers were actually trying to boost Keiko Fujimori’s campaign, which he said is allied with the drug trade.
Castillo is assumed to favor the coca growers, who like most of Peru’s rural poor are expected to vote for him overwhelmingly. But he remains silent on the issue of counter narcotics. “I have spoken with Castillo and he is extremely worried by the drug trade,” says Antezana. “He doesn’t like it, but is not taking a public position because he doesn’t want to lose voters.”
Keiko Fujimori, meanwhile, is promising an iron fist to deal with crime. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt her commitment.
She is facing trial for allegedly laundering $17 million, with prosecutors demanding a 31-year sentence. If she becomes president, the case would be put on hold until the end of her term in 2026 — unless she were to control the courts, like her father once did, and shut down the case.
Her 2016 presidential bid failed after last-minute revelations that the U.S.Drug Enforcement Administration was investigating one of her party’s principal financiers.
One former drug kingpin has claimed that Alberto Fujimori’s government used to transport cocaine for him. Meanwhile, Keiko’s brother Kenji faces a trial of his own after 100 kilograms of cocaine were found at a warehouse he co-owns. He says the drugs were “planted.”
On Tuesday, Keiko Fujimori rejected any links to the bloodbath in the VRAEM, stressing that: “Fujimorismo defeated terrorism.”
“It looks like Mr. Castillo is nervous and desperate,” she added. “He has no team, no plans, no proposals and I think that what he needs to do is look in the mirror, because it’s him and his group that is accused of being close to and linked with terrorism.”