The Devolution of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso: From Hybrid
Maoists to Narco-Traffickers?
Daniel M. Masterson*
United States Naval Academy
This History Compass article examines the ideological transformation of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso
insurgency from its immediate origins in the 1960s in the remote province of Ayacucho to its
devolution to small armed bands of drug traffickers in the nation’s remote central Andean regions.
Originally, Sendero claimed allegiance to the peasant-based Marxism of Jose´ Carlos Maria´tegui, the
founder of Peru’s Socialist Party. In reality, however, much of its ideology and revolutionary strategy
was based on Maoist theory. As, Sendero’s Maoism was largely based on its leader’s experience
in China in the mid-1960s, the party felt compelled to rabidly defend ‘orthodox’ Maoism as
China moved away this ideology in the late 1970s. Maoism with a Peruvian radical stamp,
nevertheless, failed to win over the peasantry in the 1980s. Sendero’s leadership then violated basic
Maoist strategy and began an urban terror campaign which exposed its leadership to eventual
capture in late 1992. Since then, Sendero has survived only as a force fortified by drug revenues
and isolated by rugged mountain terrain. We can only speculate about its future. But an estimated
66,000 deaths caused by its insurgency are stark evidence of its destructive potential.
Before Sendero Luminoso Peru has witnessed many Andean resistance movements from the
Taki Onqoy sect in the 1560s to the Hugo Blanco led hacienda invasions of the early
1960s. But only the Tupac Amaru II uprising in the 1780s can compare in violence and
in scope with the self-styled ‘peoples war’ of Partido Comunista del Peru´ en el Sendero
Luminoso de Jose´ Carlos Maria´tegui (Communist Party of Peru in the Shining Path of Jose´
Carlos Maria´tegui). Referred to commonly as Sendero or SL, this movement had little to
do with the communal Marxist theories of Maria´tegui, who based many of his key ideas
on more than 1000 years of Andean traditions.1 Instead, SL was a hybrid mix of Stalinism,
Maoism, and the thoughts of Gu´zman. This mishmash of ideologies came to be
called by Gu´zman, who adopted the nom de guerre Presidente Gonzalo, ‘Gonzalo thought’.
Much like the teachings of Peru’s most prominent political figure, Vı´ctor Raul Haya de
la Torre, SL’s ideology remained an opaque assemblage of revolutionary thought poorly
understood by low-ranking Senderistas, academics, and Peruvian counter-insurgency
Sendero’s emergence was made possible by the weakness of the Peruvian Left. The
traditional Moscow-linked Communist Party was driven underground during the early
Cold War as was the nationalist, but increasingly conservative, APRA party. Clearly, the
insurgency was not primarily peasant-based as many earlier commentators believed.
Rather, like in Mao’s China, it was seen as a tool of the revolution to be manipulated,
intimidated, and at time brutalized to conform to ‘Gonzalo Thought’. In the end, the
Peruvian peasantry came to loath Sendero and mobilize effectively against this terrorist
History Compass 8/1 (2010): 51–60, 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2009.00656.x
Journal Compilation ª 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
No claim to original US government works