Making Peru’s Sendero Luminoso: The Mega Niño of 1982-3

By Javier Puente

In 1980, as Peru returned to democracy after more than a decade of military rule, both the state and civil society faced an unparalleled challenge.[*] Sendero Luminoso – an Ayacucho-based, Maoist party led by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán – declared an armed struggle against the “reactionary state” and the “bureaucratic-terrateniente dictatorship” embedded within the nascent nominal democracy.[1] Throughout nearly two decades of violence, which slowly escalated into widespread civil warfare, the clash of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces produced close to 70,000 casualties. Besides providing a precise figure of the human scale of the conflict, the Informe Final of the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR) also highlighted the uneven impact of violence, socioeconomically and geographically.[2] Approximately two thirds of the victims of the Internal Armed Conflict – a label coined by the CVR–came from the most impoverished rural areas of the agrarian countryside. Another vast majority had Quechua, Aymara, or a language other than Spanish as their primary one. More importantly, nearly all victims of the conflict subsisted on extremely socially vulnerable and economically fragile rural livelihoods. With this texturized overview of political violence in hand, geographic and territorial understandings of conflict dynamics placed the southern-central Andean region as the focal point of the beginning (1980-1983) and militarization (1983-1986) of multilayered conflagrations.

In the early years of the conflict, President Fernando Belaúnde dismissed the extent of escalating violence, allegedly referring to the then fairly unknown senderistas as abigeos – mere cattle thieves and rural rustlers. Belaúnde faced considerable political pressures. His re-election was haunted by his first administration (1962-1968), which left a legacy of inefficiency and corruption and ended abruptly in the October coup led by General Juan Velasco. Abigeato, cattle rustling, and other forms of everyday violence in rural provinces had been more prevalent in recent years, largely nourished by the deterioration of the social tissue of campesino communities, whose autonomy had been undermined due to militarily enforced agrarian cooperativization promoted by the 1969 agrarian reform.[3] Whether Belaúnde genuinely believed early manifestations of political violence were acts of abigeato remains uncertain. However, besides a number of symbolic acts – including the infamous attack against Chuschi’s electoral post and the gruesome hanging of dogs in the streets of Lima– the Internal Armed Conflict lingered as a low-intensity conflagration until 1982.[4]

Sea surface temperature for December, January, February, average and ENSO anomaly.
Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) for December/January/February (DJF), average and ENSO anomaly. Image from the Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Two events converged at the dawn of the summer of 1982. On the one hand, after increased reports of senderista activities dominating regional politics in Ayacucho and expanding into the southern and central sierra, President Belaúnde decided to dispatch Peruvian marines to fight Sendero Luminoso. This inaugurated the “militarization of the armed conflict” with the establishment of the first Comando Político-Militar in Ayacucho, transferring governmental powers to the military forces in response to a seemingly overwhelming emergency. At the same time, early reports on an unusual increase in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean along the Peruvian coastline were promptly followed by massive precipitation on the northern provinces and major floods in the central sierra. In spite of a consolidating scientific knowledge about the upcoming of El Niño events, and the colossal devastation left behind by the 1972-1973 El Niño, preparations for the 1982-1983 Mega Niño were scarce and inefficient. Early destruction carried by the summer rainfalls of 1982-1983 made clear that El Niño’s enduring consequences could challenge the economic, political, legal, and technocratic foundations of the Peruvian state in the midst of escalating civil warfare.

Drought and Conflict

In parallel with the coastal rainfall, a drought struck the southern Andes in 1982, critically affecting the departments of Cusco, Apurímac, Arequipa, and Ayacucho. Further north, in the central sierra, flash floods triggered major landslides – known as huaicos – which damaged the Mantaro valley agricultural production, interrupting a major exchange network of staple items and isolating pivotal geopolitical provinces. Images of huaicos were also a powerful symbol of environmental and ecological dislocation and destruction. The sierra melted over Lima.

Rainfalls, droughts, and huaicos meant a drastic reduction of the national agricultural production and the GNP.[5] Economically, the effects were disastrous. Most of the infrastructure devoted to production and services were severely damaged if not completely destroyed. Major roads that connected market and production centers suffered from the strength of the rains. The northern portion of the Pan-American Highway was completely in ruins as were other minor roads elsewhere in the countryside.  Without roads, commercial exchange was increasingly restricted, further aggravating despair and subsistence crisis. Households did not provide any shelter. Rains and huaicos devastated houses and domestic infrastructure, particularly water and sewage systems. Rural populations faced almost total obliteration. By October 1982, during the Southern Hemisphere spring, it was clear that drought conditions were going to intensify.[6] The little precipitation of the traditional Andean wet season – November through March – proved to be insufficient to grow essential crops and staples such as potatoes, quinoa and maize. By April, the rainfall shortage had translated into a hydrological drought, as the shores of the Titicaca contracted, affecting the livelihood of sheep and camelid herders. Material conditions worsened as families faced a major ecological collapse. In the words of César Caviedes,“[u]nable to maintain their weakened animals, some peasants sold them at extremely low prices, while other families, pushed to the limits of need and despair, sold children to better off families.”[7]

Even before ecological crisis unfolded and agrarian productivity contracted, senderista violence targeted collapsing means of production and subsistence for rural livelihoods. In August 1982, months before the dispatch of Peruvian marines to Ayacucho, senderistas assaulted the Allpachaca hacienda, property of the San Cristobal de Huamanga University (UNSACH). This hacienda had been serving as a laboratory for the development of Andean crops and studies on livestock. Senderistas destroyed the deposits of the hacienda, burned most of the equipment, and – remarkably significant – killed all the livestock. In response to economic pauperization and social deterioration, rural grassroots organizations successfully organized an agrarian national strike in November 1982. Mobilization did not suffice in years of material starvation, and major displacements followed suit. Reports in mainstream media accounted for a major “exodus” occurring in a countryside engulfed by sociopolitical violence and environmental devastation.[8] Political violence alone cannot account for a massive abandonment of the capital of Ayacucho and its neighboring provinces. As César Caviedes documented, ecological disruption threatened the basic foundations of campesino livelihood and lowered the already slight possibility of resolving it via migration. The militarization of the Internal Armed Conflict built upon environmental crisis for carrying an unprecedented polarization.[9]

In the next post (coming Wednesday), I will explore how the dynamics of climate change triggered by the Mega Niño of 1982-1983, particularly the southern sierra drought, converged with ongoing sociopolitical conflict creating a geography and ecology of civil warfare, bringing the Internal Armed Conflict to an unforeseeable magnitude.

Javier Puente serves as Assistant Professor in the Instituto de Historia at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is currently completing a book manuscript titled The Nature of Conflict: Rural Struggles of Campesinos and Comunidades in Peru, 1900-1990. You can follow him on Twitter @puentevaldivia.


[*] I would like to acknowledge the valuable input of Jorge Lossio, who read a preliminary draft of this piece. Jonathan Graham assisted me in creating the map that showcases the convergence of drought and civil warfare in Peru. John McNeill pushed me in exploring the links between climate and conflict.

[1] Abimael Guzmán, “Entrevista del siglo. Presidente Gonzalo rompe el silencio. Entrevista en la clandestinidad.” El Diario. Lima: July 24, 1988.

[2] Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Informe Final.

[3] On the impact of cooperativization and campesino politics, see Cynthia McClintock, Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru. On the deterioration of social relations inside campesino communities facing cooperativization, see Enrique Mayer, Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform.

[4] According to the CVR, the demographic distribution of casualties throughout the Internal Armed Conflict was far from even. Between 1980 and 1982, the conflict produced X,XXX victims, representing XX% of the total casualties. See Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Informe Final, volume I, chapter 3.

[5] The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics estimate the contraction of the GNP in -12%, constituting the worst economic crisis since the crack of 1929. See Antonio Zapata and Juan Carlos Sueiro. Naturaleza y Política, p. 10.

[6] César Caviedes. “El Niño 1982-1983”, in: Geographical Review, 74: 3, July 1984, p. 288-289.

[7] Idem. Caviedes also explains how the hydrological regime of the Titicaca Lake affects the central sierra inasmuch, so the Altiplano and the central sierra could be considered an ecological unit for the purposes of analyzing drought impacts triggered by El Niño. See César Caviedes, El Niño in History: Storming through the Ages, p. 96.

[8] “Éxodo hacia Lima”, in: La República, July 24, 1983.

[9] César Caviedes. El Niño in History: Storming through the Ages, p. 98.

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