PERU PROCESSES THE DEATH OF ABIMAEL GUZMÁN ~ The New Yorker

What do you do with the body of a terrorist?

By Daniel Alarcón

September 19, 2021

Abimael Guzmn behind bars next to a security guard.
Abimael Guzmán, shown after his arrest, in 1992, spent twenty-nine years in prison before his death, on September 11th, at the age of eighty-six.Photograph by Hector Mata / AFP / Getty

A couple of weeks after Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of the terrorist group Shining Path, was arrested, in September, 1992, he was presented to Peru and the world in a cage, wearing an ill-fitting, black-and-white-striped jumpsuit that did little to flatter his stocky frame and middle-aged paunch. Aside from a 1978 mug shot, and a few videos found in a raid of a Shining Path safe house, this was the first time that the country had been able to lay eyes on its tormentor, now trapped and humiliated, on display like an animal in a zoo. Guzmán, then fifty-seven, had been, for the better part of a decade, the most wanted man in the country, the personification of a battered nation’s collective nightmare. That day, his scruffy beard was tinged with gray, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses, but his hair was still black and his voice, seething with rage, performed defiance. From behind the bars of his cage, he shook his fist and shouted at the gathered press. “Some think it’s a big defeat,” he bellowed. “They’re dreaming! We say to them, ‘Dream on’!” The television cameras rolled, photographs were taken, and then, after a few more minutes of Guzmán ranting, curtains were drawn over the prisoner, and the show was over. A year later, Guzmán publicly admitted defeat and asked for a peace treaty from the government of Alberto Fujimori, and Shining Path largely collapsed within a matter of months. As for Guzmán, he spent the next twenty-eight years in prison, until September 11th, when he died, at age eighty-six.

Among the many armed Latin-American insurgencies of the seventies and eighties, Shining Path was a totalitarian outlier, a Maoist cult of personality constructed to glorify Guzmán’s messianic fantasies, which sometimes appeared to have little to do with Peru. In 1980, as most Peruvians celebrated the return of democracy by voting in the country’s first elections in seventeen years, Shining Path militants burned ballot boxes in Chuschi, a small town in the department of Ayacucho. On the day after Christmas of that same year, while most Peruvians spent the holidays with their families, Shining Path members marked Mao’s birthday by killing street dogs in Lima and hanging them from street lamps in the colonial center. This macabre spectacle, ordered by Guzmán, was a protest against Deng Xiaoping’s revisionism, a gory act of cruelty that was perhaps more perplexing than terrifying to the average Peruvian.

Terror would come, of course, and, by the time of Guzmán’s capture, Shining Path had claimed tens of thousands of lives, primarily among the rural and indigenous poor for whom he claimed to be fighting. The terrorists had almost no public support, nor did they require it: their mystique was born of fear, which stemmed from their fanatical commitment to violence. In the early eighties, Shining Path focussed its savagery on the countryside, but by the middle of the decade it had shifted its campaign to Lima, the center of the country’s political and economic power, with car bombs, kidnappings, and attacks on police and military installations. An uncle of mine had the misfortune of living in an apartment whose windows overlooked a navy post, the walls of which had been painted with a warning: “No Stopping Under Penalty of Death.” My uncle and most of his neighbors in the building prepared for a car bomb by sticking electrical tape across their windows in a giant “X,” to protect against the shattered glass that they knew could come at any time.

In the final years before Guzmán’s arrest, Shining Path was responsible for more than nine hundred armed attacks in the city, while residents grew accustomed to power outages caused by bombings. Already Shining Path members had decimated the interior of the country, their terror sparking a brutal government response, which was characterized by a wanton disregard for the rule of law or basic human rights, and whose victims, once again, were primarily the rural and indigenous poor. By 1993, the year Guzmán admitted defeat, some six hundred thousand Peruvians had been displaced by the violence. According to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2001 to investigate the roots and consequences of the conflict, about seventy thousand Peruvians were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2000, with nearly half of those deaths directly attributable to Shining Path, and almost a third to the Peruvian military and police.

“If Guzmán had died a year ago, it wouldn’t have been so explosive,” Alberto Vergara, a political scientist and co-editor of “Politics After Violence,” told me. The leftist President Pedro Castillo has been in office for only a couple of months, after narrowly winning, in the second round of voting, by forty-four thousand votes. His rival for the Presidency, Keiko Fujimori, alleged fraud but failed to produce evidence, and eventually, after a weeks-long stalemate, conceded. Meanwhile, Castillo endured incessant attacks from sectors of the right, which accused him and his allies of being Shining Path sympathizers, a fairly common strategy, known in Peru as terruqueo, which is used to delegitimize all manner of leftists and progressives. In the case of Castillo, however, the accusations are not baseless. A member of his cabinet has ties to Shining Path dating back to the early nineteen-eighties, and his prime minister has made sympathetic remarks about the group, which is what makes the death of Guzmán now particularly fraught: What might Castillo’s handling of it reveal about the President and his administration? “What’s remarkable is not that we happen to have a leftist government at the moment,” Vergara said. “What’s remarkable is that we have a leftist government with members who appear to sympathize with Shining Path.”

Media reports of Guzmán’s death began to filter out on the morning of September 11th. The Minister of Health, Hernando Cevallos, who was visiting a covid-19 vaccination site in Lima, was asked by a reporter to comment on the passing of a man responsible for so much bloodshed. “It’s sad, like the death of anyone in the country,” Cevallos said. “No one can applaud anyone’s death, no matter their past.” Aside from this tin-eared response, there was no statement from Castillo’s administration for hours. The hashtag #SinCuerpoNoHayMuerto (Without a body, there is no dead man) popped up on social media to fill the vacuum, along with wild speculation that Guzmán hadn’t died at all but had been secretly released by Castillo. Finally, at 12:30 p.m. local time, there was something official: a blandly worded tweet from the President condemning terrorism and praising democracy. So underwhelming was the response that, on Sunday, a small group of congress members visited the morgue to see the body for themselves, and then held a press conference to confirm that Guzmán was indeed dead.

By then, another question had emerged: What to do with Guzmán’s body? Normally, after the death of an inmate, the body is turned over to the family or the next of kin. But the leader of the Shining Path, of course, is no ordinary inmate. According to Romy Chang, the director of the master’s program in criminal law at the Catholic University in Lima, the norms can be changed depending on the nature of the offense. “Drug trafficking and corruption are terrible crimes, but their motive is profit. Terrorism is different because at its core is an ideology,” she said. In any case, it wasn’t clear, initially, who would claim the body. Guzmán’s first wife, Augusta La Torre, second-in-command of Shining Path, died mysteriously, in 1988. In 2010, the imprisoned Guzmán was allowed to marry Elena Iparraguire, who had taken La Torre’s place, both as Guzmán’s partner and within the leadership hierarchy of Shining Path. Like Guzmán, she had been sentenced to life in prison for terrorism. But on Sunday the 12th another woman appeared at the morgue, with power of attorney from Iparraguire, to claim the body. Iris Yolanda Quiñónez Colchado, alias Comrade Bertha, was a former Shining Path militant, who had been convicted of the 1992 murder of a police officer but was later released. The authorities denied her request.

José Carlos Agüero is a historian and writer whose memoir, “Los Rendidos,” tells the story of his parents, Shining Path militants whose devotion to Guzmán led to their deaths. I asked Agüero if the death of Guzmán, a man who had been the direct cause of so much pain for him, brought any sense of satisfaction. It didn’t. “For those of us who are interested in democracy, he had already died,” Agüero said. “I understand why some people are celebrating, of course.” As to the question of the body: “The very idea that his tomb could become a pilgrimage site, that he could be reinterpreted as a martyr, is offensive,” Agüero said, but, despite these misgivings, he hoped the state would turn the body over to Guzmán’s family or its representatives. “Even if it scares us. That’s what it means to be a democrat, to be above the barbarism that they and others inflicted. Because in the end it isn’t the body that’s offensive. It’s the damage, the pain he caused, that offends. Shining Path’s victims are all around us.”

In a sense, Guzmán’s body has always been both a mystery and a matter of national security: for years, no one knew for certain if he was dead or alive, or where he might be hiding. As early as 1983, some speculated that he was living abroad, seeking treatment for a chronic kidney condition. Meanwhile, the militants believed in his mystical powers, and sacrificed accordingly: they sang war songs even as they died, while Guzmán directed Shining Path’s war on the Peruvian state from comfortable safe houses in middle-class Lima neighborhoods. The decision to present him in a cage after his arrest was perhaps a way of demystifying his body as well. This monster, who appeared in Shining Path prison murals as an all-seeing god, stood before the Peruvian people, his victims and his devotees alike, who could now see for themselves that Guzmán was just an ordinary man.

On Thursday afternoon, local media reported that a proposal to cremate the terrorist leader’s body had been discussed at a cabinet meeting, and the majority of Castillo’s ministers had voted against it. That night, Congress hastily passed a measure to allow the state to cremate the bodies of terrorists and those convicted of treason who die in custody. While there were a few abstentions, the majority of the parties voted in favor, except Castillo’s Perú Libre, which voted against. The President had fifteen days to sign the bill into law or send it back to Congress, but in the end, perhaps eager to move on from an uncomfortable topic and attend to the pressing concerns of the living, Castillo wasted little time pondering the decision. By Friday afternoon, the bill was signed. There are still exams and DNA tests pending, and Iparraguire, Guzmán’s widow, has filed a habeas corpus in a bid to delay the cremation, accusing the state of murdering her husband. According to the new law, when this is all cleared up, the Ministry of Justice will have twenty-four hours to cremate Guzmán’s body, dispersing his ashes as it sees fit.

Media reports of Guzmán’s death began to filter out on the morning of September 11th. The Minister of Health, Hernando Cevallos, who was visiting a covid-19 vaccination site in Lima, was asked by a reporter to comment on the passing of a man responsible for so much bloodshed. “It’s sad, like the death of anyone in the country,” Cevallos said. “No one can applaud anyone’s death, no matter their past.” Aside from this tin-eared response, there was no statement from Castillo’s administration for hours. The hashtag #SinCuerpoNoHayMuerto (Without a body, there is no dead man) popped up on social media to fill the vacuum, along with wild speculation that Guzmán hadn’t died at all but had been secretly released by Castillo. Finally, at 12:30 p.m. local time, there was something official: a blandly worded tweet from the President condemning terrorism and praising democracy. So underwhelming was the response that, on Sunday, a small group of congress members visited the morgue to see the body for themselves, and then held a press conference to confirm that Guzmán was indeed dead.

By then, another question had emerged: What to do with Guzmán’s body? Normally, after the death of an inmate, the body is turned over to the family or the next of kin. But the leader of the Shining Path, of course, is no ordinary inmate. According to Romy Chang, the director of the master’s program in criminal law at the Catholic University in Lima, the norms can be changed depending on the nature of the offense. “Drug trafficking and corruption are terrible crimes, but their motive is profit. Terrorism is different because at its core is an ideology,” she said. In any case, it wasn’t clear, initially, who would claim the body. Guzmán’s first wife, Augusta La Torre, second-in-command of Shining Path, died mysteriously, in 1988. In 2010, the imprisoned Guzmán was allowed to marry Elena Iparraguire, who had taken La Torre’s place, both as Guzmán’s partner and within the leadership hierarchy of Shining Path. Like Guzmán, she had been sentenced to life in prison for terrorism. But on Sunday the 12th another woman appeared at the morgue, with power of attorney from Iparraguire, to claim the body. Iris Yolanda Quiñónez Colchado, alias Comrade Bertha, was a former Shining Path militant, who had been convicted of the 1992 murder of a police officer but was later released. The authorities denied her request.

José Carlos Agüero is a historian and writer whose memoir, “Los Rendidos,” tells the story of his parents, Shining Path militants whose devotion to Guzmán led to their deaths. I asked Agüero if the death of Guzmán, a man who had been the direct cause of so much pain for him, brought any sense of satisfaction. It didn’t. “For those of us who are interested in democracy, he had already died,” Agüero said. “I understand why some people are celebrating, of course.” As to the question of the body: “The very idea that his tomb could become a pilgrimage site, that he could be reinterpreted as a martyr, is offensive,” Agüero said, but, despite these misgivings, he hoped the state would turn the body over to Guzmán’s family or its representatives. “Even if it scares us. That’s what it means to be a democrat, to be above the barbarism that they and others inflicted. Because in the end it isn’t the body that’s offensive. It’s the damage, the pain he caused, that offends. Shining Path’s victims are all around us.”

In a sense, Guzmán’s body has always been both a mystery and a matter of national security: for years, no one knew for certain if he was dead or alive, or where he might be hiding. As early as 1983, some speculated that he was living abroad, seeking treatment for a chronic kidney condition. Meanwhile, the militants believed in his mystical powers, and sacrificed accordingly: they sang war songs even as they died, while Guzmán directed Shining Path’s war on the Peruvian state from comfortable safe houses in middle-class Lima neighborhoods. The decision to present him in a cage after his arrest was perhaps a way of demystifying his body as well. This monster, who appeared in Shining Path prison murals as an all-seeing god, stood before the Peruvian people, his victims and his devotees alike, who could now see for themselves that Guzmán was just an ordinary man.ADVERTISEMENT

On Thursday afternoon, local media reported that a proposal to cremate the terrorist leader’s body had been discussed at a cabinet meeting, and the majority of Castillo’s ministers had voted against it. That night, Congress hastily passed a measure to allow the state to cremate the bodies of terrorists and those convicted of treason who die in custody. While there were a few abstentions, the majority of the parties voted in favor, except Castillo’s Perú Libre, which voted against. The President had fifteen days to sign the bill into law or send it back to Congress, but in the end, perhaps eager to move on from an uncomfortable topic and attend to the pressing concerns of the living, Castillo wasted little time pondering the decision. By Friday afternoon, the bill was signed. There are still exams and DNA tests pending, and Iparraguire, Guzmán’s widow, has filed a habeas corpus in a bid to delay the cremation, accusing the state of murdering her husband. According to the new law, when this is all cleared up, the Ministry of Justice will have twenty-four hours to cremate Guzmán’s body, dispersing his ashes as it sees fit.


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