Abimael Guzmn, the founder and leader of the Bright Way guerrilla movement, which spread terror in much of Peru during the 1980s and 1990s, died on Saturday. He was 86 years old.
Mr Guzmn died in a maximum security prison at Peru’s Callao naval base, where he was serving a life sentence, prison officials said. They said he died of health complications, but they did not specify an exact cause.
About 70,000 Peruvians were killed during the ten-year peak of the Bright Path uprising, at least a third at the hands of guerrillas. The Bright Road advocated a violent reorganization of society away from the vices of urban life. Its leaders echoed the Cambodian Khmer Rouge with warnings that rivers of blood would flow after their victory and that up to a million Peruvians could be sentenced to death.
The Road to Splendor was almost entirely Mr. Guzmns’s conception, and for a time he seemed ready to take power in one of Latin America’s most important countries. His Maoist movement was one of the most radical in modern hemisphere history, and his prolific mind and extraordinary powers of persuasion laid the foundation for a strong cult of personality.
Like many of his generation in Latin America, Mr. Guzmn was thrilled with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary victory in Cuba in 1959. However, later, however, he came to despise Castro, the Soviet Union, and even the moderate factions in China.
Mr. Guzmn visited China several times. He came up with the vision of a Peruvian without money, banking, industry or foreign trade, where everyone would be a small landowner and live off the exchange.
Peru’s two main communist parties expelled him, but he established a committed society of students and professors.
He was a very charismatic teacher, with a fiery rhetorical style that really attracted students, said political scientist David Scott Palmer in 2013. He became so strong partly because of 17 years of preparation, and partly because government mistakes created the conditions favorable to the revolution.
(Professor Palmer, who as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s shared an office at San Agustn National University with Mr. Guzmn, a faculty member, died in 2018.)
In 1980 the Illumination Street carried out the first violent acts, including the bombing of polling stations and the takeover of town municipalities in remote villages. One morning in December, people in Lima, the capital, woke up to the sight of dead dogs hanging from dozens of candles. Around each neck was a banner with a slogan referring to factional warfare within the Chinese Communist Party.
This was the first sign of phantasmagoric savagery that was about to land in Peru. Mr. Guzmn, calling himself President Gonzalo, proclaimed himself the Fourth Sword of Communism, after Marx, Lenin and Mao. He preached the Gonzalo Thought, which he said would bring the world to a higher stage of Marxism.
When the Bright Road took up arms, the attempt seemed a doomed attempt to graft the Chinese experience into completely different Peruvian culture, wrote Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti. To most people in Peru, including the legal left, the movement seemed like a crazy sect, hopelessly separated from reality.
But Mr. Guzmns’s fighters waged a spectacularly successful military campaign that brought large parts of the country under their control. Terror and murder were preferred tactics. The conflict spread from rural areas to Lima, where water supply, electricity and food became insecure.
Bombs exploded in cinemas, restaurants and police stations. The kidnappings were rampant. Notices appeared on the walls warning civilians to flee. Thousands did. The economy, already in dire straits due to weak political leadership, plunged into chaos.
The Bright Way tried to find a base among the indigenous people, whose needs had long been ignored by the Peruvian elite, although many indigenous people were also victims of the uprising. Part of Mr. Guzmns’s strategy was to draw the army into bloody revenge, revealing its fascist guts.
The military repression was really harsh. Soldiers killed many civilians and terrorized the indigenous regions, forcing villagers to support the rebels.
After a few years, the government changed course. He withdrew several abusive units, gave soldiers rudimentary human rights training, and launched civic action programs.
Two figures linked to the campaign against the Bright Way, President Alberto Fujimori and his director of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, were later sentenced to long prison terms after being convicted of involvement in corruption and sponsorship of death squads.
On September 12, 1992, members of a special police unit dedicated to pursuing Bright Road leaders locked themselves in a house in a wealthy Lima neighborhood and arrested Mr. Guzmn. He appeared in a military court wearing a prisoner uniform with black and white stripes. Hooded judges found him guilty of terrorist crimes and sentenced him to life in prison.
In 1993, Mr. Guzmn appeared several times on Peruvian television and called on the Bright Way fighters to give up their weapons. Most did, and the rebellion faded.
Manuel Rubn Abimael Guzmn Reynoso was born on December 3, 1934, in the town of Mollendo on the southern coast of Peru. His father, who had six children with three wives, won a prize in the national lottery and sent him to a Roman Catholic high school and college.
After earning degrees in law and philosophy, Mr. Guzmn joined the faculty at San Agustn National University in the mountain town of Arequipa. He became the director of his teacher training program, which attracted students from indigenous villages.
Mr. Guzmn is not known to have had children. As a young man, he married Augusta La Torre, the daughter of a Communist Party leader in Ayacucho. Known as Comrade Norah, she became second in command of the Bright Way. She died in 1988 under mysterious circumstances.
In 2004, when Mr. Guzmn was 75 years old, the authorities gave him permission to marry Elena Iparraguirre, who had replaced comrade Norah as the leader Nr. 2 of Bright Road and was also serving a life sentence on terrorism charges. They continued to be held in separate prisons.
Mr Guzmn was given a second trial, before a civilian court, after his military trial was declared unconstitutional. In 2006 he pleaded guilty to aggravated terrorism and murder and upheld his life sentence. At trial, he shouted what may have been his last public words.
Long live the Communist Party of Peru! he cried, waving a fist over his head. Glory to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism! Glory to the Peruvian people! Long live the war heroes of the peoples!
Julie Turkewitz, Elda Cant and Mitra Taj contributed to the report.
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