Mario Vargas Llosa would never have written Conversation in the Cathedral in the 80s of the last century because everyone then knew when Peru was screwed: when Sendero Luminoso, along with the FARC the worst terrorist organisation America has ever suffered, started killing.
We could even precisely date the advent of pure horror: 17 May 1980, when a group of Sendero Luminoso members smashed and burned the ballot boxes in a small village in the Andes. But since the tiny Chuschi was finally able to vote the next day, in the first elections held in Peru after eleven years of leftist military dictatorship, neither the press nor society paid much attention to this declaration of popular war. In December things changed: on Christmas Eve a Sendero Luminoso party assassinated a landowner (Benigno Medina) and one of his assistants (“surnamed Morales”, as the Truth Commission tried to put it), and on the 26th Lima dawned with dogs hanging from lampposts and posters around their necks reading: “Teng Xiaoping, son of a bitch”. Sendero Luminoso venerated Mao Zedong and therefore abhorred the revisionist who had just begun to subjugate a martyred China.
Things changed, yes, but not too much. At first, the authorities did not attach much importance to this, despite its name (“Marxism-Leninism will open the luminous path to the revolution”), obscure ultra-leftist group that operated mainly in Ayacucho, one of the most inhospitable areas of the country, a circumstance that the criminals took advantage of to become strong and gain members (200-300 already in the 1980s) and followers; For the latter, they opted for justicierism, a form of vigilantes, by killing people with a terrible reputation in that Andean hell where life expectancy was around 45 years and infant mortality reached 20%, like abusive landowners and cattle rustlers. So the Maoist ball grew formidably and the 200 dead it took in 1982 became 2,000 in 1983.
“The triumph of the Revolution will cost a million dead”, Guzman – Peru then had 19 million inhabitants – seems to have predicted. On this principle, the Maoists were dedicated to eliminating all symbols of a detested social and political order.
(El libro negro del comunismo, VVAA, Planeta-Espasa, 1998, p. 757).
The full name of the prophet of this uber-death was Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso and his henchmen called him Presidente Gonzalo or the Fourth Sword of Marxism – the others being Marx himself, Lenin and Mao -. He was the supreme, undisputed, deified leader of Sendero Luminoso, and had previously been a professor of philosophy at the San Cristóbal de Huamanga National University in Ayacucho. He was a murderer in the mould of Mao and Pol Pot who wanted for Peru what they wanted for China and Cambodia, respectively. Devastation. He knew full well that his compatriots would never willingly follow him, so he unleashed the most ruthless terror: his henchmen slit the throats of, burned alive, blew up their victims; they cut off their ears, their tongues, gouged out their eyes; they often subjected them to Dantesque popular trials that humiliated and – most importantly – terrified those who witnessed them. In the areas they subjugated,
prostitutes had their hair shorn, adulterous husbands and drunks were flogged, rebels had a hammer and sickle cut into their scalps, and festivals deemed unhealthy were banned. The communities were directed by popular committees headed by five political commissars (…) No hint of disobedience was tolerated, and the slightest riot was punished [with] immediate death.
(Ob. cit., p. 758).
Like Pol Pot, Guzmán wanted to eradicate from Peru every vestige of capitalism and modernity, hence Sendero destroyed bridges, power stations, tractors, dams, experimental farms, and tried to isolate the countryside from the cities. Like Lenin, they set up forced labour camps in the Amazon (“In December 1987, 300 starving women, children and old people managed to escape from that Peruvian gulag”). Stalin-like, he put practically everyone in his paranoid sights, which is why so many Peruvians from all walks of life fell: political and trade union leaders, community leaders, Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, policemen, soldiers, merchants, landowners, schoolteachers, businessmen; the listing is not the purpose here, because Sendero was targeting the whole of Peru. “Its victims were in 99% of cases humble peasants”, wrote Mario Vargas Llosa in 1993, in a text very illustrative of the delirious atmosphere that his country endured in those times, of a sinister luminosity.
When the state woke up to the terrible reality of the Sendero Luminoso’s terror, Peru ended up sinking into one of the worst moments of its very long history. “The forces of law and order, the so-called forces of order, responded with a very similar savagery”, said Nobel laureate Vargas. The so-called “internal armed conflict” that ravaged the country between 1980 and 2000 ended up claiming between 61,007 and 77,552 lives, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s dreadful tally. Of these, Sendero claimed between 24,823 and 37,840, the “State agents” between 17,023 and 20,893 and the “Others” (peasant self-defence groups, paramilitary groups, guerrillas…) between 11,858 and 20,076. The department of Ayacucho was Ground Zero in this carnage: between 22,000 and 30,000 people were massacred there (the CVR gives an estimate of 26,259). Ayacucho, by the way, means in Quechua “The Corner of the Dead”.
(Ayacucho, by the way, was the scene of the final defeat of the Spanish forces against the pro-independence forces – 1824 – and is the place chosen by the rabidly anti-Spanish Pedro Castillo, a communist like Sendero Luminoso, for his “symbolic swearing-in” as the new president of Peru).