Peru will confront a frightening chapter of its history on Monday when it once again attempts to retry the imprisoned Shining Path leader whose messianic communist vision inspired a 12-year rebellion that left almost 70,000 people dead.
A secret military tribunal sentenced Abimael Guzman to life in prison in 1992, but Peru’s top court ruled the trial unconstitutional two years ago. A retrial last year ended in a chaotic mistrial after Guzman and his supporters chanted communist slogans and two of three judges stepped down.
Guzman’s lawyer says the 70-year-old former philosophy professor “is aware” that he will receive the same life sentence in the second attempt at a retrial starting Monday and wants the trial to end quickly.
“Abimael Guzman, in particular, doesn’t like to waste time,” the attorney, Manuel Fajardo, told a group of foreign correspondents.
But Marcos Ibazeta, president of the Lima Bar Association and a former anti-terrorism judge, said Guzman’s impatience should not be mistaken for that of a man resigned to his fate.
‘He continues to be a symbol’
Ibazeta said Guzman knows Peru will never release him, but his goal is to discredit the judicial system for an appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights aimed at freeing hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
“It’s not resignation,” Ibazeta said. “Like all leaders he is assuming responsibility so ... he continues to be a symbol.”
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Guzman was known to his followers as President Gonzalo, inspiring cultish obedience from a guerrilla army that grew to as many as 10,000 armed fighters before his capture in a Lima safehouse.
By the time he called for a peace talks a year after his capture — as part of a deal to obtain better prison conditions — guerrilla violence had displaced at least 600,000 people and caused an estimated $22 billion in damage.
The self-proclaimed “Fourth Sword of Marxism” after Marx, Lenin and Mao, Guzman preached a messianic vision of a classless utopia based on pure communism.
A government-appointed truth commission reported in 2003 that Shining Path was responsible for more than half of the nearly 70,000 deaths between 1980 and 2000.
The trial will be held in the same maximum security naval base where Guzman has been imprisoned since April 1993, and will reunite him with 11 of his top commanders, including his longtime jail mate, lover and second-in-command, Elena Iparraguirre.
Previous trial marred by chaos
Guzman went into solitary confinement last November and Iparraguirre was transferred to another prison as part of a crackdown that President Alejandro Toledo ordered days after their first retrial degenerated into chaos.
With fists raised, Guzman and Iparraguirre led four of their co-defendants in chants of “Long live Peru’s Communist Party! Glory to the party of Leninism, Maoism!” The trial collapsed days later when two of the three presiding judges stepped down under pressure, citing a conflict of interest.
“We are not going to give in to terrorists. We won’t send them gifts of birthday cakes or organize boat rides or romantic dinners,” Toledo said at the time, referring to perks used by the former administration to woo Guzman and Iparraguirre into calling for peace talks in 1993.
Guzman and Iparraguirre had reportedly been allowed to live as a couple, with her bringing him breakfast in bed, and them sharing much of their time together outside their cells.
For this trial, officials say they will stand firm behind a ban on cameras and tape recorders in the courtroom to deny Guzman another opportunity to turn the proceedings into Maoist political theater.
In the past four years, Peru has stood out in South America as a beacon of relative political stability and sustained economic growth. But rebel factions continue to operate in Peru’s coca-growing jungle region, where several hundred guerrillas provide protection for cocaine traffickers.
Toledo’s Cabinet chief, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, warned last week about a Shining Path “resurgence,” something the president was quick to deny.
Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2003 that the draconian military courts that sentenced Guzman were unconstitutional, and civilian prosecutors brought new charges against Guzman and other convicted rebels.