'Red Sun' still shines over rural Peru: It will take more than the arrest of their leader to crush the Maoist guerrillas in the countryside, writes Colin Harding

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AS NIGHT falls over the bleak, windswept moorlands to the north of Ayacucho, high in the south-central Andes, soldiers of the Peruvian army's 41st Motorised Infantry Battalion drive back to their barracks in the city. Until dawn the road and countryside are in the hands of shadowy gunmen (and women) who come down from the high peaks to mount ambushes and set up road-blocks. They are rebels of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), who first took up arms in this wild country more than 12 years ago.

Further along the same road, over two high passes and down into the hot valley of the Apurimac river, east of the mountains, there is a different kind of gun law. Here the ronderos - peasant militias armed and trained by the army to act as front-line troops in the war against Shining Path - call the shots. Many local farmers and tribal Indians have been only too willing to fight against the ruthless guerrillas, whom they see as a threat to their lives and livelihoods. The army, for its part, has been happy to let the irregulars bear the brunt of the casualties. Now they are demanding something in return. There are about 30,000 ronderos in the valleys of the Apurimac, Ene and Tambo rivers. To all intents and purposes their word is law.

To complicate matters further, the Apurimac valley, which is part of the Amazon system, is an important coca-producing area, and where there are drugs there are guns and Colombian gunmen. An unwary traveller in this region could come up against four different lots of armed men in rapid succession: Shining Path, ronderos, drug traffickers and the army. All are competing for a share of the profits from the cocaine trade. Produce the wrong safe-conduct pass at a roadblock, or drop an unwelcome name in a small-town hotel, and you could be in serious trouble.

Further north, in the Upper Huallaga valley, which is Peru's biggest source of the raw material for cocaine, there are also Peruvian anti-narcotics police and US Drug Enforcement Agency agents, many of them former special forces officers.

The government accuses Shining Path of running the drug business, while critics say the army is also involved and the government will turn a blind eye as long as the dollars keep rolling in. The upshot of 12 years of warfare is that much of the interior of Peru, a vast country of about 22 million people, has reverted to a state of lawlessness and insecurity reminiscent of the last century, when local caudillos and their armed retainers ran their own fiefdoms.

There are guns everywhere, and it is getting worse. Local Shining Path commanders are coming to resemble local warlords, since the party's chairman, Abimael Guzman, was captured by anti-terrorist police in Lima on 12 September. Because of its highly developed cellular structure, local Shining Path forces may be able to continue functioning as fighting units for years, even in the absence of the tight, centralised leadership imposed by Guzman, and without the fundamentalist Maoist ideology he imposed. But for the moment he remains the focus of their actions: the city of Ayacucho was paralysed by an 'armed strike' on 5 December to mark Guzman's 58th birthday.

The army has been taking the war to the guerrillas since Guzman's capture, and their inexorable advance may have been halted in some parts of the country, half of which is under a state of emergency. With solid support from President Alberto Fujimori, the military has hit Shining Path hard, rounding up regional leaders and bombing what is said to be one of its main camps at Viscatan, in Ayacucho department, and scoring impressive victories over the other guerrilla army, the MRTA, in the Middle Huallaga valley.

But such successes are patchy: in the Upper Huallaga, both the MRTA and Shining Path control territory on the eastern bank of the river, and seem to be holding their own in a vicious war that has taken a remorseless toll on peasants caught in the crossfire. More than 25,000 people have died in 12 years of fighting, which has been marked by atrocities as chilling as anything seen in Bosnia.

The picture is different in the big coastal cities, where a majority of Peruvians live. Shining Path's urban apparatus has been seriously weakened by Guzman's fall. Although they detonated a huge car-bomb in a smart suburb just before last month's elections, the guerrillas failed to disrupt the voting as they had sworn to do, and tension has eased in Lima.

The most plausible explanation for this is that the urban network was already weak - which accounts for the ease with which Guzman was trapped by the under-manned and under-financed anti-terrorist police - and has virtually fallen to pieces since Guzman and some of his closest associates were arrested. Guzman's most original contribution to revolutionary theory was his insistence on developing an urban strategy at an early stage of the 'people's war'. But this was regarded as heresy by more orthodox Maoists in the leadership, who insist on the priority of developing 'peasant support bases'. Guzman, known as Puka Inti, or Red Sun, in the Quechua-speaking highlands, seems to have been increasingly isolated in his Lima hide-outs as the noose tightened.

But President Fujimori's progress with 'pacification' is as likely to win recruits for the guerrillas as capture the hearts and minds of the local population. Many people believe Shining Path could still pose a political threat to the government, even with its leader behind bars for life. Hernando de Soto, a former adviser to Mr Fujimori, said: 'All that Shining Path has to do is start behaving sensibly. If they set out to win over the local peasants rather than terrorise them, they could be in business. The conditions that gave rise to them are still there.'

There is also the small matter of the ronderos, thousands of them, who are becoming increasingly assertive. Mr de Soto has no doubts: 'These people are tough, efficient and prepared to die. They are the future of Peru.'