Return of Marxist Shining Path guerillas stalks Peru's polarising election

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Peru's presidential candidates Castillo and Fujimori in their last debate ahead of the June 6 run-off election, in Arequipa, Peru - Reuters
Peru's presidential candidates Castillo and Fujimori in their last debate ahead of the June 6 run-off election, in Arequipa, Peru - Reuters

Peruvians vote on Sunday for a new president after a polarising hard-Left versus hard-Right campaign dominated by the bloody reemergence of remnants of the Shining Path Marxist terrorists.

Pedro Castillo, a radical teachers union leader, faces off against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, in an election that has left many in the pandemic-ravaged Andean nation in despair. The most recent polls had the pair in a statistical dead heat.

Castillo, 51, began the runoff race with a 20-point lead. But Ms Fujimori, 46, has steadily hauled him in, helped by what critics regarded as Castillo’s erratic, amateur campaign and the backlash to a massacre of 16 people in a remote coca-growing valley where the last surviving members of the Shining Path are now cornered.

The terrorists shot up two rickety, open air bars on May 23, before vanishing back into the jungle. They left behind a pamphlet bearing the hammer and sickle and warning Peruvians not to vote for Ms Fujimori.

The attack is the group’s bloodiest in more than a decade and has been seized on by Ms. Fujimori’s supporters, who warn of Castillo’s alleged terrorist sympathies.

The portraits of two of the victims of a recent massacre by suspected members of the Shining Path guerilla group
The portraits of two of the victims of a recent massacre by suspected members of the Shining Path guerilla group

Alberto Fujimori remains revered by some in Peru for presiding over the crushing of the Shining Path, who slaughtered nearly 40,000 people, most of them from impoverished indigenous communities in the Andes and Amazon.

But his government collapsed amid accusations of grand-scale corruption and he is currently serving a 25-year jail sentence for ordering the extrajudicial killings of suspected subversives, most of whom turned out to have nothing to do with Shining Path.

Deeply unpopular among many, Ms Fujimori now faces a trial of her own for allegedly laundering $17 million. The case will be postponed, should she win, until she steps down in 2026.

Nevertheless, she scraped into the runoff by taking just 13 per cent, in a field of 18 candidates, to Castillo’s 19 per cent. “Keiko’s only possibility of growing her support was to create a monster, and she has been extremely successful,” says Giovana Peñaflor, of Imasen pollsters.

Although Castillo has run on an explicitly Marxist platform, there is no evidence to link him to the terrorists. He has also been a member of the ronderos, rural militias who some historians credit with defeating the Shining Path more than Fujimori.

Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman and his wife and second leader Elena Iparraguirre attend a trial during sentence of a 1992 Shining Path car bomb case
Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman and his wife and second leader Elena Iparraguirre attend a trial during sentence of a 1992 Shining Path car bomb case

Security expert Jaime Antezana believes the massacre may actually have been motivated by a desire to help Ms Fujimori and thus preempt a crackdown on the cocaine trade.

The Shining Path remnants long ago switched their focus from revolution to providing security to the traffickers. Castillo is a social conservative who takes a dim view of drugs while the Fujimori family, despite promising an “iron fist” to tackle crime, has been linked numerous times to the cartels.

Ms Fujimori narrowly lost the 2016 election after it emerged that the US Drug Enforcement Administration was investigating her party. Antezana warns that if she wins Peru will become a “narco-republic”.

Peru, with a population of 33 million, last week revised up its Covid-19 death toll to 180,000, giving it the world's worst per capita death toll.

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