Peru:Into The Cross-Fire

Late last month 20 members of Peru's mysterious guerrilla group, Shining Path, stormed an experimental farm in Huaral, 50 miles north of Lima, the country's capital. They executed three visiting agronomists from Japan. They blew up research laboratories. Then they escaped. It seemed a senseless act, almost guaranteed to alienate the very peasants guerrillas normally court. But to Shining Path, the agronomists were imperialists propping up the "fascist" government of President Alberto Fujimori. The attack showed the rebels can strike freely near the capital. It was also intended to weaken Peru's links to Japan, which pledged to help Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants: since the attack, Japan has recalled 52 agricultural engineers.

Communism is finished in Eastern Europe and faltering in Cuba, but its alive and well, in Maoist form, in the soaring Andes of Peru. Shining Path, composed of anywhere from 36,000 to 10,000 fighters, has plunged the impoverished country into the most savage civil war in the Americas, an 11-year-old struggle that has cost almost 23,000 lives and $18 billion. The third civilian president to face the rebels, Fujimori has fought back with development aid--and acquiesced in counter terror by security forces in martial-law "emergency zones." But to little avail: Shining Path now operates in about half the country, and dominates some of the sprawling shantytowns in Lima itself.

On July 30, the State Department proposed to send 50 Americans Special Forces instructors to Peru as part of a $94 million anti-drug program. For the first time, U.S. forces would work directly with the Peruvian military, teaching them to fight the guerrillas, who are believed to have made $40 million from the drug trade themselves. "Our objective is antinarcotics," says U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters Melvin Levitsky. "But [Shining Path Guerrillas] are involved in narcotics trafficking, and if their power is degraded it would be good for our antinarcotics efforts." The new aid would escalate a quiet but longstanding U.S. presence in Peru: for two years, a visiting 15-man Special Forces unit has trained Peruvian police in jungle warfare, and for more than six years, armed Drug Enforcement Administration agents have operated in the upper Huallaga Valley, the Peruvian coca-growing heartland largely controlled by Shining Path. The administration has hesitated to increase aid to Peru's Army, because of Fujimori's qualms about "militarizing" the anti-drug battle, and congressional doubts about the military's human rights record. Now, however, Fujimori is willing to try anything, and the State Department says Peru has disciplined rights violators.

When the Green Berets arrive, they'll encounter guerrillas more inscrutable than the Viet Cong--and perhaps as indomitable. In a chaotic nation, Shining Path is the only political force that seems to have a plan for the future. It's a dark, messianic vision of rural-based insurrection, based on the sectarian Maoist writings of former philosophy teacher Abimael Guzman, who has been compared to Cambodia's Pol Pot but prefers the sobriquet "Chief of the Communist Party of Peru and of the World Revolution." Guzman's group emerged in 1980 with a series of bemusing acts, among them hanging dogs from lampposts wrapped in signs saying DENG HSIAO-PING, SON OF A BITCH. No one laughs now. Through assassinations and threats, Shining Path has forced thousands of Andean Indians to help its fighters, eliminating local government in 468 rural localities. This year it obliged Lima to scrap elections in "emergency" zones.

The 120,000-man Peruvian Army, burdened by bad morale, is barely holding its own. Poorly paid junior officers recently threatened to go on strike; senior officers have been asking for early retirement at a rate of one every day. "I don't think Shining Path is on the verge of victory," says security analyst Enrique Obando. "I would say that the state is on the verge of defeat. The armed forces could tumble down at any moment." The Army's tactics reflect its frustration. For four years in a row, human rights groups say, Peru has led the world in "disappearances," including 119 so far in 1991. On July 14, Peruvian television revealed a secret Army intelligence document concluding: "The best subversive; thus, no prisoners will be held." Defense Minister Jorge Torres Aciego verified the existence of the document, denying it represented Army policy. But Gen. Luis Perez Documet, the commander of Army forces in the central Andean highlands, says: "The State Department is defending the terrorists by talking about human rights."

Brutal tactics do produce temporary results. In the highlands of Peru's Ayacucho Department, where Guzman's forces began their revolution, the military has killed, tortured and "disappeared" thousands over the last decade. A soccer stadium in the town of Huanta, site of mass executions between 1983 and 1986, became known as Pinochet Stadium, after Chile's former military dictator. Bullet holes in its walls are still visible. Today Shining Path has largely been ousted from Huanta, giving way to Army-controlled rondas campesinas, or peasant patrols. Instead of torturing and killing peasants, the Army lets them live-as long as they inform on Shining Path and join the patrols.

Like his predecessors, Fujimori affirms that the best weapon against Shining Path is economic development. Yet even with U.S. aid, Fujimori's government will never have the funds to end Peru's profound rural poverty. No amount of U.S. crop-substitution money can compete with drug profits-much less terrorist intimidation. "The objective of a counterinsurgency war is not to win territory, but people," says Gen.Alberto Arciniega, who won popular support for the anti-guerilla fight in the upper Huallaga Valley two years ago by allowing people to grow coca-only to be ousted amid American charges he was on the traffickers' payroll. Yet U.S.-financed coca eradication has driven many peasants into the guerrillas' arms, leading the United States to demand Peru escalate military pressure.

The administration's aid proposal is being held up by congressional Democrats who want more proof that Peru's human rights record has really improved. Says Democratic Sen.Patrick Leahy of Vermont,"We all want to stop the flow of drugs into this country. But...we cannot ignore the deplorable human-rights situation in Peru today." Embattled Peru, which has an often brutal Army but also a functioning democracy with broad participation by everyone from conservatives to nonviolent Marxists, is not exactly "another El Salvador," as the administration's critics contend. But for American Special Forces, it won't be Kuwait revisited, either. It could follow another, tragic, model. Says Enrique Obando:"The future of Peru is Lebanon-a country so factionalized that no group is able to dominate the entire territory." And U.S. counterinsurgency manuals don't contain much proven advice about how to piece a broken country back together again.