A War in the Family

Sendero Luminoso in Peru in Literature and Film





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Works Discussed:

Kamikaze Taxi, Matsuto Harada, Director, 1995
The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich, Director Nicholas Shakespeare, screenplay (2002)
La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y Sendero Luminoso, Santiago Roncagliolo (2007)
De puño y letra (In his own hand), Abimael Guzman, 2009
Tempestad en los Andes, Mikael Wilström, Director, 2015

A few weeks ago I watched Kamikaze Taxi, a 1995 Japanese yakuza film with a twist--a Japanese Peruvian whose family was destroyed by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas plays a prominent role. This week Maritza Garrido Lecca, the famous "dancer upstairs" was released from prison in Peru. Perhaps this is just evidence of Baader-Meinhof syndrome--the condition where you tend to notice discrete facts and imagine that coincidences are connections. Carl Jung called these coincidences synchronicity and didn't believe they were coincidences at all. These subjects need revisiting.
Santiago Roncagliolo's La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y Sendero Luminoso (The Fourth Sword: The Story of Abimael Guzman and the Shining Path) has unfortunately not been translated into English. His history of the war begins and ends with Guzman: his humble beginnings in Arequipa, a love affair with an upper class girl that ended in humiliation when her father discovered the pretensions of a young man who did not belong in upper class Peruvian society. No matter: Guzman became a philosophy professor and went to war against that society. High society sons and daughters abandoned their class in numbers and joined him. He even married one, Augusta de la Torre, who left her family to join him underground when he went to war. 
The Peru he imagined was the China of the Cultural Revolution or North Korea; perhaps Romania under Ceaucescu. Guzman started Shining Path's war in 1980. In the previous five years the Vietnamese had won what they call the American War, Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao; Cambodia's Khmer Rouge had renamed the country the Democratic People's Republic of Kampuchea. China was still Red, the Warsaw Pact often conducted maneuvers in East Germany in sight of the Wall. Even Panama had wrested its Canal from the United States. 
Peru was ripe for change. In 1989, while Guzman was waging Shining Path's war, I was told a story by a contact who was well-connected in Peru. He had offered asylum to one of the judge's accused in the FBI's investigation of the Miami judiciary, an operation called Court Broom. Raymond Takiff had been one of General Noriega's lawyers while simultaneously working as a government informant. The contact told me that only seventeen families control Peru. When Alan García became president, these seventeen families were concerned that Garcia might try to limit their influence. They needed to co-opt him. So they found a former Miss Chile and somehow arranged for the two of them to be together. Garcia soon neglected affairs of state so that he could pay attention to his new 19 year-old girlfriend. If I knew this, so did Guzman. 
But Shining Path lost the war. Guzman suffered from psoriasis and the police tracked down his safe house by examining garbage. No urban guerrilla is safe if his trash is monitored. At least, that is the story. It is also possible that he was betrayed. His followers displayed a fanatical and uncommon loyalty, an allegiance that persists even after his two-decade long imprisonment with no hope of release.
Guzman's capture meant the end of the Shining Path. Arrested with him were other member's of the movement's military general staff. The guerrilla army that was Shining Path collapsed. 
He almost won. Looking back at the history of the war, a war that today is almost forgotten, it is all too easy to overlook this fact. He lost because he paid too much attention to the status of Communist leaders after they had gained power and not enough to their status before achieving victory. Lenin was never alone; he had a Beria, a Trotsky and finally a Stalin. Mao Zedong had Chou En-Lai, Lin Biao and others. Ho Chi Minh had Nguyen Giap. In Russia, China and Vietnam, many prominent leaders were lost along the way. But Abimael Guzman had only himself, the cult of personality was just too strong, and when Guzmán was captured--by pure luck and shoe-leather police work--without its heady the body he had built just died. 
John Malkovich took Nicholas Shakespeare's novel about the capture of Guzman and made a film about it, titled, The Dancer Upstairs. The title is misleading. The dancer was downstairs. Maritza Garrido Lecca's ballet school was on the first floor of the safe house. Guzman hid on the second story. In the film he is only seen for a few minutes, as if both Malkovich and Shakespeare despaired of capturing the essence of the man. Both the film and the novel take liberties with the truth: the Lecca character becomes the love interest of the detective hunting Guzman. 
Ironically, those who chased Guzman ended up in prison themselves: the Japanese-Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, who vaingloriously took credit for Guzman's capture and for ending the war, Vladimir Montesinos, the shady Intelligence Chief who advised on the counter-insurgency, and even Benedicto Gimenez, the detective truly responsible for Guzman's capture.  
Roncagliolo may have been on to something: Guzman's story may well have been a love story, but a love story that is not well-known. Guzman took his upper class wife, Augusta de la Torre, into Sendero and underground. While living clandestinely, she died. The circumstances of her death are unknown. Guzman has never given an account of her death. He has not been silent about it, though. In 2009 Guzman published a curious book titled De puño y letra (In His Own Hand) which was neither an autobiography nor much of a defense. The book is dedicated to Comrade Miriam, nom de guerre of Elena Iparaguirre, who was also the compiler of the text. Iparaguirre later married Guzman and perhaps was Augusta's rival for his attentions. ]The book contains a chapter entitled "El amor en tiempos dificiles." In view of Guzman's silence regarding Augusta's death, I thought there might be clues. 
Guzmán writes,
Desde las sombras la muerte mordió tu corazón apagando su latido y el de tu pensamiento y voluntad que latieron siempre por la clase, el pueblo y los demás; catorce de noviembre, nueve de la mañana, mil novecientos ochentaocho, Lima. (From the shadows death bit your heart, halting its beating and your thought and the will that will always beat for the workers, the people and all the others; on the 14th of November, nine o'clock in the morning, 1988, Lima.)
In the next paragraph he mentions that he thought of the Marienbad Elegy. The Marienbad Elegy is a curious poem for one to remember a spouse with: a much younger woman rejected Goethe, and he was devastated. Augusta did not reject Abimael; she married him. Or was he asking her for something else? The reference is certainly curious if not wholly inappropriate.
He goes on to write, 
Imagenes incompletamente imprecisas cual producto de lente interferida o de insuficiente impresión, pero registro de hechos contundentes e irreversibles. (Images incomplete imprecise a product of an obstructed lens or an inadequate impression, but a record of overwhelming and irreversible acts.)
Which is to say, the facts are not clear. But then he turns away from poetry and is again the political leader:
Como usual y necesario, cuando fallece un dirigente, una Comisión dio su veredicto y llamó a convertir el dolor en fuerza, proceder a las exequias y honrar la memoria de la gran camarada. (As is customary and necessary, following the death of a leader, a Commission gave its verdict and a call to transform pain into force, followed by funeral services to honor the memory of the great comrade.)
It is not usual or necessary for an inquiry when a leader or anyone else dies of natural causes. How that death will be portrayed is another matter. The initial German pronouncements of Hitler’s suicide in 1945 had him killed while defending the Reich. This was, of course, pure propaganda. Sendero Luminoso--i.e., Abimael himself, might well have pondered how to make political capital out of Augusta's death, or at least limit the damage. But Abimael writes of none of that. His language speaks of an inquest, unless I am reading it completely wrong. Why was there a need for an inquest? As maximum leader, why did he not stop such an inquest?
We seek to hide what shames us. Abimael Guzman's silence about the death of Augusta is eloquent evidence against him and a strong suggestion of irregularity. The important point, if there was an inquest, even just a Shining Path inquest, is this: someone else knows about these matters. But thirty-five years on, they have remained silent. 
The following chapters degenerate into a collection of letters written to Iparaguirre and useless legal briefs arguing his case before the Peruvian courts. I have read dozens of letters and pleadings written by prisoners seeking their freedom. Abimael’s pleas are cut from the same cloth. For someone who went to war to change society, he now tries to play by that society's rules in a futile effort to gain his freedom. 
Ultimately Guzman's book is a terrible disappointment. I was looking for a spark, anything that would explain what caused thousands of people to follow him into war. There was no spark. Were he truly were a great person he would not be citing irrelevant legal precedent but would sit as a prisoner of war, someone to whom the regular criminal laws do not apply. Did you know that General Noriega was afforded all the comforts of a military general while incarcerated in the United States? The Red Cross insisted on it. But in Abimael’s texts I see none of this; no greatness. Today if you think of him at all you think of a cartoon character, a fat man in a silly striped prisoner's uniform shouting in a cage. 
Solitary confinement for prolonged periods is considered torture by the United Nations. For years Guzman was held in isolation. Perhaps affected his mind. 
In 2015 Mikael Wiström, a Swedish filmmaker, made a film called Tempestad en los Andes (Storm in the Andes). The film chronicles the return of Augusta's niece to Peru against the wishes of her family after years of living in exile in Sweden. The film is a poignant examination of the war and its devastation. Josefin visited the victims of Abimael's war and the film explores why the war took place. But far from being a dispassionate journal of historical events and their affects, Wiström's film personalizes the story and makes it what the history of Sendero perhaps always was: a family story.