Left-Wing Unions Prove Tough Adversary for Peru’s Maoist Guerrilla Movement

Times Staff Writer

The most radical left-wing labor movement in Latin America is proving to be one of the few successful weapons in Peru’s struggle against the Maoist guerrilla group known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.

The rebels have scored advances on other fronts against a weak government and fragmented society. But in bitter and sometimes bloody conflict, the unions have so far fended off Sendero Luminoso’s two-year attempt to infiltrate and seize control of organized labor, according to Peruvian analysts and union leaders.

Some argue that the trade unions and other groups in Peru’s democratic left form the popular front line against Sendero, parrying its challenge to win over grass-roots organizations that are built on leftist sympathies but committed to democratic methods.

For the well-entrenched democratic left, Sendero’s threat is immediate and real. Having failed to take over the unions, the rebels have switched to coercion and terror, targeting the left as often as they do the government and the military.


At least 51 union leaders, representing Latin America’s most radical left-wing labor movement, have been slain by Sendero so far this year. Leftist political parties, peasant groups and student movements have also become victims of Sendero violence. Despite the losses, the groups have largely withstood the assault.

At the same time, the unions are under attack by the centrist government and conservative business leaders, who accuse them of helping the insurgency by carrying out strikes and making other demands during Peru’s worst economic crisis. The police regularly break up union protests, and alleged right-wing death squads are said to have begun targeting union leaders.

Given their success in denying Sendero any support on the left, many union leaders argue that the government campaign is dangerously counterproductive. Undermining the unions and imprecisely branding them part of the terrorist movement, they say, risks alienating those still on the side of democracy who are themselves terrorized by the guerrillas.

Only True Communist Force

Sendero regards itself as the only true Communist force in Peru. It dismisses the rest of the left as “revisionist.” At least 14,000 people have been killed in Sendero’s nine-year war to overthrow the political and social order and impose an authoritarian Maoist system.

The movement emerged in the highlands in 1980 and in its early years concentrated on rural areas, but in 1987 and 1988 it expanded to the cities, principally Lima, the capital. The goal was to seize control of unions, student groups and other social organizations.

“Sendero Luminoso tried to infiltrate us, but they are able to advance only where there is no organized left,” said Pablo Checa, vice president of the General Confederation of Labor of Peru and a member of the traditional Communist Party. “When Sendero Luminoso encounters the opposition of the masses, they find it much more difficult. And that has happened in the worker movement.

“Sendero Luminoso captured the leadership of five unions last year. I won’t identify them. But by the start of this year, they had lost them all. The people threw them out.”


‘Anonymous Threats’

Such setbacks prompted the guerrillas to switch to terror and intimidation.

“We have received anonymous threats, phone calls saying that we must withdraw or they will act ‘without contemplation'--that they will kill us,” said Pedro Huillca, general secretary of the 300,000-member construction workers’ union, the largest in Peru. “Sometimes the threats come in envelopes. But if we enter into fear, then they have won.”

The construction workers’ union launched a national strike in July, demanding better pay but also a range of public works projects to provide jobs in an industry that, like most in Peru, has withered by 30% since austerity measures began in September.


Other strikes, by medical workers, electrical workers and a host of smaller unions, has brought the total number of strikers to about 800,000 so far this year, or a third of the work force. Most strikes aim to recoup some of the 50% in lost buying power brought on by the crisis.

The strikes have resulted in unprecedented government pressure on the unions, including the accusation that strikes amount to economic terrorism.

Huillca led a strikers’ march through downtown Lima in mid-July that ended with the police firing on the strikers, killing a union member. Huillca said: “We are between two fires, the repression and Sendero Luminoso.”

Bitter Strike


Saul Cantoral, the leader of the miners’ union, was slain in February in Lima in the course of a bitter 84-day strike. Many union leaders believe that his death was the work of a right-wing death squad.

Huillca agrees that the right wing probably killed Cantoral, but he said the guerrillas may have done the killing “because the mining strike displaced Sendero Luminoso. . . . It showed that the struggle is not through terrorism but through the unions.”

Fernando Rospigliosi, a political analyst at the Center for Peruvian Studies, said Sendero has entered a new phase in which all leftist organizations suffer from its brutality. Between 30 and 35 members of the leftist Unified Mariateguista Party (PUM) and several Communist Party members have been killed in recent months, he said.

At the same time, he noted, the left is being undermined by the government. In February, eight peasant leaders of the PUM, leading a rice growers’ strike, were shot and killed in a rural protest. Forty-three workers have been blinded by police buckshot during demonstrations, the labor federation says.


Such tactics prevent the formation of a logical alliance between the centrist government and the democratic left in countering Sendero. Such an alliance has proved to be effective in the southwestern city of Puno. There the population worked with the police to track down and eliminate a rebel column that had killed an elected leftist mayor.

Employed Open Terror

During the mining strike, Sendero employed open terror, killing five union activists, including one who was assassinated on the podium during a union assembly.

“Sendero Luminoso doesn’t advance because it has won the hearts of the people,” Rospigliosi said, “but because it has terrorized them. People know that the police can’t defend them.”


Largely because of leftist and union opposition, Sendero’s one-day “armed strike” in late July failed to paralyze the Peruvian capital. Although many buses were idle, workers streamed to their jobs on foot, defying the strike call.

In such armed strikes, whole regions are often shut down for a day or more. The order filters down from an invisible command structure, and those who defy the strike call risk being executed.

Compliance is greatest in poor rural areas, where the left is not well organized and the military is inefficient.

Javier Mujica, an adviser to several major trade unions, said that where Sendero has attempted to infiltrate unions, “they found the space already occupied, so they used a terrorist approach, and it was counterproductive.


“The union movement was jealous of its democratic traditions, its assemblies, congresses,” he said. “Sendero Luminoso tried to interrupt that process, with its authoritarian, vertical approach--that workers must fall in line with the leaders. The workers were not just indifferent, they rejected it outright.”

Braking Force

Mujica said the left “is the only force that can act as a brake on Sendero Luminoso in this country” and added, “The only way to avoid a total militarization in this country is through the left.”

Unions remain fragmented--employees of the state electricity company, for example, are represented by 11 unions--and small shops cannot be unionized because those with fewer than 20 employees are exempt. For that reason, the unionized work force numbers just 1.5 million out of about 7 million employable people, more than half of whom are peasants or self-employed, mainly as street vendors.


The labor federation wants one-year contracts negotiated on an industrywide basis, but the mining industry and others have refused to give in on this demand. Sendero seeks three-month contracts, which Mujica said “would amount to a permanent strike.”

Most of Sendero’s infiltration effort has taken place on the strategic Central Highway, which runs through an industrial zone between coastal Lima and the Andes Mountains. In factories and shantytowns the organized democratic left, in some cases armed through self-defense committees, has answered the Sendero initiative.

“We support the development of self-government by the masses, to organize the people democratically, while Sendero Luminoso uses authoritarian methods,” the labor confederation’s Checa said. “Their mechanism of the armed strike has nothing to do with assemblies. They don’t consult anybody.”

Terror Tactics


Checa said Sendero’s terror tactics worked against the unions in another way as well: “It gave the police the pretext for confusing the measures of workers’ struggle with the measures of terrorism, and to repress us as if we were terrorists.”

That has emboldened the most radical labor activists at the expense of the traditional, relatively moderate Communist leadership in some unions. The younger radicals criticize Checa’s federation as weak and unsupportive.

As Jorge Quesada, Cantoral’s successor as head of the mining union, put it, the federation is “unwilling to commit itself to the popular struggle and the development of the masses.”

Under Quesada, of the Mariateguista party, the union resolved to call another national strike starting Aug. 14, only a few months after the previous strike that cost Peru about $300 million in lost export earnings. The union is more radical than ever after the leadership shake-up caused by Cantoral’s death.


“But we do not accept that political ideas can be imposed on us,” Quesada said, as when Sendero “imposes armed strikes and then uses terrorism against those who resist.”