LIMA, Sept. 11 (Reuters) – Shining Path rebel leader Abimael Guzman who nearly overthrew the Peruvian state in a bloody Maoist revolution, died in prison on Saturday, the government said. He was 86 years old.
Guzman was captured in Lima in 1992 and jailed for the rest of his life after being convicted of a terrorist.
Susana Silva, head of Peru’s prison system, told RPP radio on Saturday that Guzman had been ill in recent months and was released from a hospital in early August.
She said her health had worsened over the past two days, without giving further details, adding that Guzman was due for more medical treatment on Saturday but died in his cell around 6:40 a.m. local time (11:40 GMT).
A former philosophy professor, Guzman was a longtime Communist who traveled to China in the late 1960s and was impressed by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He decided to bring Mao’s mark of communism to Peru through a class war he launched in 1980.
Guzman founded the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, transforming it from a motley group of radical peasants and students into the most stubborn guerrilla force in Latin America. An estimated 69,000 people, mostly in the poor interior of Peru, were killed between 1980 and 2000 in the internal conflict launched by the Shining Path.
The Shining Path’s daring and perfectly planned attacks, its informant and spy networks, and Guzman’s uncanny ability to evade arrest have earned him the almost legendary reputation of appearing to be everywhere at once.
During years of fighting he was said to be dead, seriously ill or living a comfortable life in Europe.
In 1980, after years of preparation, Guzman, a former university professor, led a group of supporters into the Andes outside the town of Ayacucho.
Armed with shotguns, dynamite and machetes, they began to attack security forces, elected officials and peasants who resisted their indoctrination with a fervor and cruelty never seen in a Latin American rebel group.
Starting in Ayacucho, the Shining Path drew thousands of other activists from poor farming communities and universities.
Residents of the capital Lima got their first glimpse of the Shining Path in 1981 when guerrillas hung dozens of dead dogs from lampposts – “the dogs of capitalism,” signs pinned to the animals said.
By the late 1980s, the group had become such a threat to the state that two-thirds of Peruvians lived in areas under a state of emergency – essentially, martial law.
His followers called Guzman the fourth sword of Marxism, after Marx, Lenin and Mao, and idolized him in revolutionary songs, songs, posters and literature.
His few writings, although little esteemed by Marxist scholars, have become like mantras for Shining Path followers who have repeated his words as if they were Bible truths.
The Shining Path propaganda posters showed a bespectacled Guzman towering over the peasant masses and guerrilla armies, pointing with one hand and holding Mao’s revolutionary “Little Red Book” in the other.
But the first image most Peruvians saw of Guzman was anything but revolutionary. Apparently drunk, he danced and posed for snaps with supporters in a Shining Path video captured by police in 1990 and broadcast on television.
The video made it clear that he was alive and still in charge, but it tarnished his reputation for austerity and demoralized Shining Path activists.
Nonetheless, their attacks intensified, leading then-President Alberto Fujimori to seize quasi-dictatorial powers in an attempt to crush the revolt.
After Guzman was captured by police in a spacious secure house in Lima in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment, Shining Path largely collapsed as a military threat, although remains of it remain. nowadays. In 2018, Guzman was sentenced to a second life sentence for a car bomb in Lima in 1992 that left 25 people dead.
Guzman’s first wife, Augusta La Torre, died under mysterious circumstances in the late 1980s. In 2010, he married his longtime girlfriend, Elena Iparraguirre, who, like Guzman, is serving a prison sentence for life. Both women were leaders of the Shining Path.
Report by Marcelo Rochabrun; Edited by Rosalba O’Brien and Diane Craft
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