The Shining Path Movement: Origins of the Peru Civil War
Credit: Dan MacDuff

The Shining Path Movement began in the Ayacucho region of Peru.

The main goal of the Shining Path was to establish a united Indian democracy that would be free of foreign influence. Rural populations in Peru are primarily descendants of the country’s original inhabitants; the Incas. The Incan Empire extended through most of the Andean region including Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia and is considered one of the most powerful and advanced civilizations in South America before the European conquest. 

While the idea of uniting the descendants of this once great empire is impractical given the modern political situation in Latin America, it was nonetheless appealing to those who have been oppressed by the “European” government. The area of this democracy would ideally extend throughout the Andes region to unite the entire Quechua speaking population.[1] The movement was legitimized by the collective ethno-symbolism of the Quechua speaking population that views the Spanish conquest as illegitimate and therefore the modern government was illegitimate.

Origins of the Insurgency

The roots of the insurgency lie in the relationship between the ruling elite and its rural populations. Peru has a tradition of disunity between the elites in its capital of Lima, and the rural indigenous populations. Because of poor infrastructure and lack of efficient means of communication with the countryside, the state has a low level of administrative presence in the Andean areas.[2] This lack of state presence has diminished the legitimacy of the state within indigenous populations which have always relied on traditional law and mediators to maintain their social order.

Radicalization of Students

The disunity between the Andean population and the Peruvian government was felt the most by the increasingly radical students and professors in the rural University of San Cristobal de Huamanga in the province of Ayacucho. It was here that Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor, melded the ideology of the Shining Path movement from multiple sources including Marxism, Leninism, and most importantly Maoism.[3] It was universities such as this one that bred the leadership of the Shining Path insurgency.

Spreading the Ideology

During the 1960s, Guzman was able to spread his newly formed ideology to the already discontent peasant population. This was the first stage of a multi-stage effort aimed at gaining support and finally taking over the country through the use of force. The leadership of the Shining Path movement gained support by integrating themselves into the indigenous populations. They learned the native language of Quechua and spent long periods of time living and interacting with the populations in rural villages.[4] They acted as political advocates for these forgotten and divided indigenous populations.

Unrest in the Rural Regions

It was this political advocacy that contributed to insurgency. Governmental budget decisions were made on a political basis rather than efficiency and major industry faced massive cuts in spending because of opposition to unionization.[5] Thus the vast rural population was largely disregarded by the Peruvian government. Rather than looking to the state for economic and societal security, these rural populations looked to men such as Guzman with his radical Maoist ideology to create social order.

Failure of Structural Reforms

Structural reforms of the Peruvian government in the early 1970s eventually led to the insurgency of the 1980s. Prior to the election of prime minister Francisco Morales Bermúdez the first civilian leader after 12 years of military control, a massive reform gave the military a political and economic role.[6] As often happens with military-run states, mismanagement led to economic decline which was felt heavily in rural areas within indigenous populations.

The Outbreak of Violence

The second stage of the movement began with the implementation of terrorist attacks to loosen state control. The Shining Path began its struggle in 1980 with the election of a new Peruvian government led by Alberto Fujimore. Between 1980 and 1983, reports indicate that the Shining Path was responsible for 2,500 terrorist attacks resulting in 615 deaths and the destruction of various infrastructural, industrial, communications, and governmental targets.[7] With its rapid push towards violence, the Shining Path invoked a massive armed counterinsurgency movement led by Fujimore in an attempt to maintain national integrity by crushing the Shining Path.

The Tragedy

Despite the efforts of the government, the Shining Path movement was able to spread throughout the country. What began as a peasant revolt in the rural area of Ayacucho later spread to the shanty towns outside the capital of Lima. By the early 1990s, more half of the acts of political violence perpetrated in Peru occurred in Lima.[8] Unfortunately it was to Lima that many peasants had fled in order to escape the violence in the countryside. It was not until the Shining Path reached the capital that it legitimately threatened the existence of the Peruvian state and elicited the some of the worst human rights abuses in history.


[1] Manwaring, Max G. "Peru's Sendero Luminoso." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 541 (1995): 158.

[2] Mauceri, Philip. "State Reforms, Coalitions, and the Neo-Liberal Autogolpe in Peru." Latin American Research Review 30, no. 1 (1995): 10.

[3] McClintock, Cynthia. "Why Peasants Rebel: The Case of Peru's Sendero Luminoso." World Politics 37, no. 1 (1984): 51.

[4] McClintock, 51.

[5] Mauceri 1995, 12.

[6] Mauceri, Philip. "Military Politics and Counter-Insurgency in Peru." Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 33, no. 4 (1991): 85-86.

[7] McClintock 1984, 51-52.

[8] Kent, Robert B. "Geographical Dimensions of the Shining Path Insurgency in Peru." Geographical Review 83, no. 4 (1993): 451-452.