Peru rebel brothers lead retooled Shining Path
LIMA, Peru—An outlaw band headed by three crafty brothers has badly shaken Peru's government by mounting hit-and-run attacks that leave little doubt: A retooled and well-disciplined Shining Path rebel force has taken firm root in the world's leading cocaine-producing valley.
The Quispe Palomino brothers, who command about 500 combatants, solidified their reputation with last month's abduction of 36 construction workers near Peru's main natural gas fields. The guerrillas then killed eight soldiers and police sent to rescue the workers in a fiasco that cost the defense and interior ministers their jobs.
"The Quispe Palomino band remains a very potent, violent, mobile and resilient force," said analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos, with the IHS-Jane's Information Group in London.
The very idea of a well-armed, resurgent Shining Path, fortified by cocaine wealth, stirs deep-seated fears in Peruvians who endured the terror of the once-powerful movement two decades ago.
While analysts don't believe the rebel band represents an existential danger to the central government in far-off Lima, where the old Shining Path had bombed civilians, they doubt the group can be defeated militarily.
Since 2008, when then-President Alan Garcia set up army bases in the region where the rebels are active, the renegade band has widened the scope of its attacks on police and soldiers, killing more than 70 with ambushes, sniper attacks and land mines.
"There have only been defeats, not a single victory" for the government, said Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister.
Pedro Yaranga, a leading Peruvian authority on the rebels, said the guerrillas "know how to move around, how to make homemade bombs, mortars and booby traps." The military, by contrast, "hasn't changed its behavior in 32 years," he said.
A poll released Sunday found 70 percent of Peruvians think the Shining Path is winning the war against the government. The survey by polling company GfK had a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points.
President Ollanta Humala, whose popularity has been hurt by last month's fiasco, said afterward that a military approach alone won't work against the rebel band.
The former army lieutenant colonel, who fought the original Shining Path in the 1990s, announced that the government would invest in roads, sewage systems and schools in the remote, long-neglected region where scarcities begin with electricity.
The new Shining Path's muscle-flexing deeply troubles Peruvians, especially after the February capture in the Upper Huallaga valley coca-growing region of "Comrade Artemio," leader of the other, far weaker, Shining Path remnant.
Operating from thick jungles and rugged hills in the Apurimac and Ene river valley of Peru's southeast, the Quispe Palominos have remade a movement once rejected by Peru's rural poor for its fanatical violence.
By taxing a largely unchecked local cocaine trade, the group has been able to bestow largesse on the peasantry, moving freely through the valley, known as the VRAE, which the United Nations says is the source of 55 percent of Peru's cocaine.
One witness cited in court papers seen by The Associated Press quoted the wife of Jorge Quispe Palomino, also known as "Comrade Raul" and the eldest of the brothers, as saying the band taxed cocaine traffickers $3 per kilogram that moved through the region. Other witnesses said traffickers sometimes paid the Quispe Palominos with weapons. Prosecutors say the band even has coca plots of its own and produces unrefined coca base.
The group's arsenal includes "explosives, AK-series assault rifles, heavy machine guns, FN rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-personnel mines, handguns and machetes," said Moya-Ocampos, as well as two-way radios and mobile solar panels.
Peru's drug czar Carmen Masias said the band has become a major obstacle to government plans to reduce the country's coca crop by 30 percent by 2016.
The Quispe Palominos carefully portray themselves as distinct from the fanatical Maoist movement that largely disappeared after police caught the Shining Path's messianic founding leader Abimael Guzman in 1992. The capture was seen as a triumph for then-President Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year prison term for crimes including killings of noncombatants.
When the Shining Path's last leader, "Comrade Feliciano," was captured in 1999, the Quispe Palominos didn't quit. They branded Guzman a traitor for seeking peace with the government, named their splinter group The Communist Party of Peru and patiently built their new version of the guerrilla group.
"We had acted as criminals, as terrorists, but today we are not terrorists," Jorge Quispe Palomino, 53, told a Peruvian journalist in 2010. No longer would they kill civilians or blow up electricity towers.
Víctor Quispe Palomino, 51, told a journalist in 2009 that the rebels had gone from village to village asking people's forgiveness.
Both Jorge and Victor have admitted taking part in one of Peru's worst massacres, the April 1983 slaughter of 69 men, women and children with machetes, hatchets and knives in the highlands town of Lucanamarca in retribution for a rebel's slaying.
The rebels call themselves Maoist champions of the poor, resisting imperialists they say exploit the country. Their ultimate goal is the overthrow the state but they acknowledge they are a small, localized group in a long struggle. They appear to receive no international support and call the United States their principal enemy.
While the Quispe Palominos may court civilians, including by paying double the normal price for chickens or goats, survivors of their ambushes say they have shown no pity for wounded soldiers. Survivors say children have been among rebels they saw kill wounded comrades with shots to the head.
Videotapes taken at Shining Path camps show children between the ages of 8 and 11 in ideological instruction.
Indeed, for the Quispe Palominos, the Shining Path is a family affair.
The brothers' parents were also in the group, and Jorge said angry peasants killed his father Martin Quispe two decades ago. Four of their eight children would carry on as insurgents, including sister Melania, a member of the band about which little is known.
To ensure loyalty and ward off infiltrators, the Quispe Palominos have been carefully breeding their own future combatants, Yaranga and other authorities say, with male insurgents often impregnating young women they have apparently kidnapped for that purpose.
The government has presented several such women publicly in recent years, and says the band kidnaps children as young as 8 years old.
Jorge is widely considered the brains of the outfit, although brother Victor has a $5 million bounty out for his capture and is the group's titular head.
Jorge gained fame for cunning after his arrest in 1999. He cooperated with the army but double-crossed his handlers by falsely claiming Victor and another top rebel wanted to surrender. His fellow rebels killed four officers on a government helicopter as it dropped into the jungle for the rendezvous. Jorge, who was not on the chopper, fled.
The youngest of the three rebel brothers, known as "Comrade Gabriel," appears to have led April's Camisea raid. His fighters then shot down a police helicopter after the rebels freed the construction workers and inflicted government casualties while apparently suffering none of their own.
"You tell me," Comrade Gabriel, whose given name is unclear, told reporters at the scene. "Who is defeating whom?"
Adding to the military's humiliation, the father of one slain police officer had to hike into the jungle himself to personally retrieve his son's corpse.
And while the military brass has delivered inadequate body armor and some expired rations to troops in the VRAE, the rebels appear to be thriving.
The public got a first glimpse into the scope of their wealth when businessman Alex Gutierrez Mantari was arrested on April 12 for allegedly laundering at least $100 million of the Quispe Palomino's cash.
Gutierrez, 31, would deliver food and gasoline to rebel camps on the Mantaro River and leave with backpacks full of cash, according to the testimony by rebel deserters. He built up a chain of gas stations and car dealerships in the city of Ica, just south of Lima on the central coast, prosecutors say.
They believe Gutierrez was only one of several Quispe Palomino money launderers and hold with those who believe the way to defeat the rebels is through police work, not a military approach. That, after all, is how Comrade Artemio was captured.
"The police have very competent people, but they are not in these operations," said former Interior Minister Remigio Hernani. "Or if they are, they lack resources and the ability to move around."