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On the Trail of Abimael Guzmán

by Uki Goñi - Buenos Aires - Sunday, 17 April 1994

By the time of his arrest in September 1992, terrorist Abimael Guzmán, the leader of Sendero Luminoso, was responsible for 12 years of violence which had cost 27,000 lives in Peru. A former professor of philosophy at Ayacucho University, Guzmán had been in hiding for 22 years, masterminding a cruel and bizarre brew of Maoist theory and Inca myths which brutally attacked the very indian population it claimed to represent. Many "Senderologists'' have tried to explain the Shinning Path movement in terms of the inhuman conditions a large part of the Peruvian population lives in.

    Author Nicholas Shakespeare - who after living some years in Argentina went to Peru during the 1980s where his father was posted as a British diplomat - went one step further and followed the weak trail left by the real but elusive Guzmán after having written a novel drawing a fictional portrait of the guerrilla leader. Shakespeare never found Guzmán, but he did find frightening leads which led him to the lair of the man behind the terrorist throne, the man Shakespeare calls "the king-maker''. That search was so dangerous that now Shakespeare travels to Peru only under an assumed name. He left on such a trip after granting this interview, asking for it not to be published until he was back out again. Word has since arrived that he is safe back home in London.


    How did your search for Abimael Guzmán start?
    "I was asked by Granta (a British literary magazine) to do an investigation into Guzmán, the real leader of Sendero Luminoso. Since I had finished the draft of my novel I knew that this real leader could not contaminate my fiction. But when I came to do the research for the Granta article I couldn't find anything. The trail just vanished and he seemed to be a person made of straw. There's a myth that he is a brilliant philosopher but I read his thesis and it is pedestrian and inaccurate. I spoke to the people who taught him, to the doctor who was present at his birth. I was completely naive because Sendero had killed many journalists who had tried to follow his trail. But I wasn't trying to meet Guzmán, because you if you met him that would be it, they would kill you afterwards. I just wanted to piece him together in my mind because nobody seemed to have done any work on him. It was fascinating, a philosopher who had rigorously planned a revolution and disappeared from sight and no one knew if he was dead or alive. But it became clear he was alive and also that he was incredibly boring. The only thing that I could find out about him is that he didn't like Porgy and Bess and that he had drunk mineral water on his honeymoon. He was absolutely without character. And yet this movement had character, there was definitely a presiding spirit over it. In the end everything pointed to the man who recruited Guzmán at Ayacucho university, a man called Dr. Efrain Morote Best, an eminent anthropologist, whose three children were prominent Senderistas. One of them was in prison, another was on the run as the head of Sendero's military wing. I tracked him down to what I felt was like a hideaway, north of Lima. He agreed to an interview, which he taped. Then I realized I'd met the king-maker, the person who had created Guzmán.''

    I've heard you say that this was the first truly evil man you ever met.
    "I understood then what evil was. I had always gone along with that meek 'banality of evil' kind of thing, but evil is incredibly intelligent and it's without emotion. He had cauterized all sentimentality from his way of thinking so there's a ruthlessness there. In order to effect a revolution, or probably to effect anything, you have to be ruthless with the things that make the rest of us human beings. So I don't think now evil is banal, I'm afraid. We were in this room surrounded by books and classical records drinking coffee, which I didn't touch, and I was sweating. We talked about three hours and he logically explained the reasons behind the inevitability of Sendero's existence and future: 'When a tree gives bad fruit it must be cut down ... ' It was all Marxist-Maoist dogma.''

    What is Sendero about?
    "If one knew one would be a bit further along the path of knowledge. The essential leaders are university middle-class professors who have hijacked the 400-year-old animosity towards the white outsider and utilized the myths of messianism and the Inca religions. When it suits them they use the pistaco myth to turn the people against outsiders. When I began research into Sendero Luminoso I went to Ayacucho and women said something as I passed. And I heard the same thing again. And again: 'pistaco'. I was being mistaken for this monster who is white and tall and comes to murder Indians for their grease. He distills their bodies into fat which will lubricate our machines in the West. The space shuttle Challenger blew up because it lacked this 'aceite humano'. They believed this and I arrived in Ayacucho at the time that this myth had erupted, they had killed the last white man one week before (Luis CalderĀ¢n, a commercial traveller from Huancayo) and I was next. One man said that the pistaco sold the blood to blood banks, the oil to Western industry. He said the pistacos were Argentinian. Another said they were Swiss. I mentioned this myth to (deceased British author Bruce) Chatwin who said: 'What I like about the pistaco myth is that it's essentially true'. Also, where it suits them, Sendero can strum the chords of the Tupac Amaru myth. The last Inca, Tupac Amaru II, in 1781 was captured by the Spanish, his body was torn apart in Cuzco on the main square and taken by donkey to various parts of the country and buried underground so that there could be no more myth about him. Well, they've created a myth that in fact his body has been slowly regrowing underground until the day comes when he will rise up from the earth to liberate his people. It's no coincidence that Sendero's first action in Chuschi in 1980 took place on the exact day of his death almost 200 years on.''

    Is the violence in Peru that strange? You mentioned the death of Tupac Amaru II. That highly traumatic event was only 200 years ago - a short time in Ulster terms. In Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne 100 years earlier is almost recent history and still the root of much bitterness. Is the violence, the animosity to the white man, therefore surprising in Peru today?
    "I've never been to a more racist country, they don't even want to know about the Indians, and yet the Indians account for over 45 percent of the population. The Indians have 400 years of being systematically raped, being used and abused. And most of the peasants have never heard of Mao. I went to Albania recently where lots of the Sendero had gone. Morote Best had been in Albania, and it is the most primitive society I've ever seen. This was going to be the 'New Peru'. The only two countries Morote Best had nice words for were China and Albania, because they had been the most faithful to the Maoist cause. But Albania is the most horrific country. You can't buy even a Coca-Cola or a glass of water in the capital, there are no cars, there's a famine there, and we are talking about a European country.''

    Do you see a change in Peru now that Guzmán is in jail?
    "It's improved but Sendero's still strong. They've gone on killing people. And you've got an incredibly corrupt government, the army is up to its neck in cocaine-dealing. The BBC recently did three reports there, interviews with army generals, and it was just devastating the way cocaine-dealing goes as far up as the president's advisor. And geographically its a problem, you've got enormous distances, roads are bad, how do you make this country work? The Incas in the jungle, the mountain people, the coastal people. I hate Peru and I love it and feel doomed to go back there. I don't think you have the right to say you hate a country until you love it. I feel properly alive there. I did a programme for the BBC which is coming out in America about this ice festival near Cuzco. There's a pilgrimage to this glacier 17,000 feet up and it's been going on since Inca times. The Catholic church, a bit like Sendero with Mao and the Inca myths, has superimposed its religion on top. There's human sacrifice every year, they have fights on the glacier and somebody dies and they worship the sun, including Catholic priests, and it's one of the most extraordinary sights I've ever seen.''

    Isn't it a sick fascination you have with the mental heat that results from undernourishment and poor education? Sacrifices? Sun-worshipers? A Maoist millennium?
    "You would need an ethnographer to answer that one. You could argue that Margaret Thatcher was sacrificed by the Conservative Party. That was as much a sacrifice as an Aztec sacrifice. The inquisition, for god's sake! I think it's part of any society. Christianity dates itself from the year zero, is that any more sophisticated than the Maoist millennium? Civilized societies all have the same pattern of sacrifice. In a curious way a war is a sacrifice, you're shedding blood in order to give value back to life, you're defending your territory in order to realize its importance. I'm sure if you looked at Argentina you'd find an equivalent. You had the 'Dirty War' where 19,000 people were sacrificed. In Peru it's just an old tradition that they worship the mountain and every year somebody dies and it's taken as a propitiation to the mountain. I don't think that's any less sophisticated than two 11-year-old children killing a two-year-old in England. They possibly come from the same river, I don't know. And Christ was a sacrifice.''

    You have lived in Argentina, Brazil and Peru and of these three countries you chose to write about Peru in your first novel. Why?
    "We were in Argentina during the 70s and after Argentina we went to live in Portugal. In about 1980 I was in a town where one night it was the end of term and all the students were running drunk through the streets. One of them stopped me with his black-coloured gown and pointed up at a convent on a hill where there is a light and said: "Do you realize that the last surviving witness of the miracle of Fatima is still alive there?'' It was extraordinary because I knew about Fatima - the virgin appearing to three young peasant girls and warning them about the dangers of communism in 1917. I just had an image of this woman at the end of her life having been incarcerated by the church for having been inflicted with the knowledge of god. Here she was listening to all these drunken young boys and girls running through the streets. And I had this image of her thinking: 'Has it been worth the candle? Wouldn't it have been better not to have seen a vision? To have fallen in love? To have had a family?' I wanted her to be much younger and escape the convent and elope with the man she'd been in love with. I was going to set this novel in Argentina because I was here at the time of the guerra sucia. On the campo where I worked as a peón, police would come to the boliches and I was arrested quite a lot because I had long hair. I had friends who had disappeared and I felt contaminated by my ignorance of what had happened. I felt implicated by my own presence here and my ignorance of it. I wanted to come and exorcise that, so I had thought of having this as an Argentine nun leaving the convent and looking for her lover who had become a Montonero. When I began, it was set up in Córdoba the first chapter or so. But then we were posted to Lima just at the time of Sendero Luminoso beginning and I realized this was a far more interesting political movement because it was almost identical to a vision. Shinning Path in itself is a kind of religious image. I knew that some of the Shinning leaders had wanted to become priests before they became terrorists. They issued no manifesto, no one knew who they were. In a sense they were even better than the image of the desaparecidos. It also locked in lots of Andean myths which the Montoneros didn't. What was exciting about Sendero is that they spoke for the indigenous population. So I decided to set the novel in Peru.''


First published Buenos Aires Herald 17 April 1994.

Copyright © UkiNet 1994

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