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Shining Path Leader's Capture Offers Lima a Second Chance

By Corinne Schmidt
The Washington Post

LIMA, Peru

The capture of Abimael Guzman, the shadowy mastermind behind one of the world's most fanatical guerrilla movements who was seized late Saturday, was seen Sunday as a chance for the Peruvian government to gain the initiative in a war it seemed to be losing.

Political and security sources said the arrest was the most severe strike yet against the Maoist Shining Path in a war that has killed 25,000 people in the last 12 years. But they also warned it would not end the rebellion -- and could even lead to more violence, with Guzman's followers launching retaliatory bombings and assassinations.

Residents of Lima, who have lived recent months in fear of random car-bomb explosions, Sunday draped their houses with Peruvian flags to demonstrate their approval of Guzman's capture.

Gen. Antonio Vidal, leader of an elite anti-guerrilla police unit, said Guzman was captured along with seven other Shining Path leaders -- including the woman Vidal called the organization's "number two," Elvia Iparraguirre.

Guzman was captured in a house in the middle-class neighborhood of Surco on Saturday night at 9 p.m. Vidal said Guzman was unarmed and offered no resistance.

The capture was a political victory for President Alberto Fujimori, who seized decree powers in April with the support of the armed forces on the basis that corrupt politicians were impeding his war against the rebels. He has said they will be defeated by the end of his five-year term in 1995.

Although Guzman operated for years with seeming impunity, twice recently the security police came close to capturing him. In June, police did seize a leader of Peru's Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a group almost as fanatical as the Shining Path.

In the most recent near miss of Guzman, police found at his supposed safe house a videotape of Guzman, apparently drunk and dancing like Zorba the Greek. Fujimori addressed the nation at the time, making the point that the supposedly ascetic leader had human failings and hence could be caught.

Guzman is reported to be under heavy police and military guard. According to a new law passed by Fujimori's avowedly interim government in June, Guzman can be tried for treason in a military court. According to another decree Thursday, a summary trial could last no longer than 30 days, and should be completed in 10.

The government has established a system of anonymous judges who could try Guzman. The constitution was suspended in April, but its provision that forbids the death penalty apparently would remain in force and Guzman would face life imprisonment.

Guzman, 57, founded the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path as a breakaway political party during the late 1960s. Then a philosophy professor at the University of Huamanga in the impoverished highland region of Ayacucho, Guzman instilled a messianic Maoist vision in his followers.

After several years of open political proselytizing, Shining Path and Guzman went underground in 1979. In 1980, they launched their war to overthrow the Peruvian government, which that year had returned to democracy after 12 years of military rule.

Guzman's followers are estimated at up to 15,000, although only about a third of that number are fighters. They see him the leader of a worldwide, historically predetermined revolution, and an infallible prophet alongside Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong. His capture is seen as likely to demoralize the movement, especially if reports are confirmed that other members of Shining Path's Central Committee also were captured.

Gen. Vidal said the arrests followed a three-month intelligence campaign to locate Guzman. Another police source who asked not to be named said that while Vidal's unit had twice nearly captured Guzman since 1990, "it took us a long time to really get to know the enemy."

Despite frequent reports that ill health, which plagued Guzman since the 1960s, might have killed the shadowy leader, the unit continued trying to hunt him down. The police source explained that its counterinsurgency plan depended on decapitating the movement, rather than attacking its bases. He said, "Shining Path knows we fight clean, and they respect us for that."

The source said that earlier arrests of other Shining Path leaders had already created a crisis in the organization. But he warned against assuming that the captures would bring a quick end to the violence.

Shining Path's most recent offensive, in July, included 293 attacks nationwide and left 179 dead.

While Shining Path's immediate reaction to its leader's capture was not clear, the arrest was expected to boost the popularity of Fujimori. Shining Path's July offensive seemed to make a mockery of Fujimori's promise of a rapid end to the war. His popularity rating in polls dropped 10 points, to 60 percent. The capture was thought likely to boost him once again.