National Agenda : Grim Hunt for a Rebel Leader : Peru's president has vowed to 'liquidate' weakened Maoists. But the biggest prize eludes capture.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oscar Ramirez Martinez, now a retired Peruvian general, had high hopes for his boy when he sent him to study in a Catholic school run by Franciscan monks, then to the National Engineering University.

But his son, Oscar Ramirez Durand, went far astray.

Today, he is the guerrilla commander of Peru's Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, infamous as the most savage rebel organization in South American history.

Known to his followers as "Comrade Feliciano," Ramirez Durand took over Sendero after founder-leader Abimael Guzman was captured in September, 1992, and the organization went into decline.

As the once-terrifying strength of Peru's Sendero Luminoso has faded, Feliciano has drawn more anxious attention here in the capital. More than anyone now, he symbolizes the fierce, uncompromising spirit of a revolutionary movement that once caused Peruvians to cower.

Feliciano fights on. Abandoned by comrades and pursued by government troops, he manages to maintain a low-intensity guerrilla and terrorist campaign with scattered bands of die-hard rebels.

Sendero documents captured recently refer to Feliciano as "Big Brother," a recognition of his predominant position but also an indication that he has not formally replaced Guzman, known as "Chairman Gonzalo."

While Feliciano's faction does not directly denounce Gonzalo, its documents have called the Sendero patriarch's call for peace a government trick.

Feliciano is not as charismatic as Gonzalo but he is regarded as a tough military leader.

"As an organizer, he is not in the same league as Guzman, but he is showing a certain capacity," said Enrique Obando, a military analyst in an independent Lima think tank.

True to Sendero tradition, Feliciano is dogmatic and ruthless, Obando added.

"He is a cold-blooded man," he said. "He has no problem with setting off a bomb where both saints and sinners will die."

President Alberto Fujimori has vowed that Sendero Luminoso will be "liquidated" by July 28--the end of his first term as president. Feliciano, 41, is expected to do everything in his power to prevent that.

The guerrilla chieftain was born in a middle-class home in Arequipa, a provincial capital and Peru's second-largest city. Like his father, he studied there at the Colegio San Francisco. His Franciscan education, his father recalled in an interview, emphasized "humanist ideas" and "helping the poor."

In 1971, Ramirez Durand enrolled in the National Engineering University in Lima. While he was still at the university, his father was assigned to Bolivia as a military attache, and the son veered sharply left.

According to some accounts of Feliciano's student days, he became the leader of some bearded, beret-wearing friends who named their group after Ernesto (Che) Guevara, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary hero.

But Ramirez Durand soon outgrew his youthful enthusiasm for Che. In one version, he met Margie Clavo, a follower of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, and became a Maoist.

When Gen. Ramirez returned from Bolivia after two years, his son was "a different person."

He noted the young man grew aggressive in discussions. "He told me that I belonged to the forces of repression," the father recalled. "He said there was going to be a revolution in Peru no matter what, and it was necessary to eliminate the 'forces of repression.' "

That was in 1975. Ramirez Martinez said he then told his son: "If destiny puts us face to face, you had better shoot first because I would not want to kill you."

The discussion ended.

"He got up and said adios, " the father said. "I never heard from him again."

In six years at the university, Ramirez Durand's youthful enthusiasm for radical politics had taken him over the radical edge.

He moved to the Andean city of Ayacucho, where Guzman, a philosophy professor, was forging a Maoist movement called the Communist Party of Peru-Sendero Luminoso. Scholars and political analysts say Feliciano was among the first young cadres trained to serve as Guzman's trusted lieutenants. In 1979, he was elevated to the party's elite, the Central Committee.

Guzman instilled his cadres with a fundamentalist zeal that glorified hardship, warfare, bloodshed and death.

Ramirez Durand took the harsh doctrine to heart and quickly became one of Sendero's leading field commanders.

Sendero initially caught national attention with extremist rhetoric and strange tactics, such as hanging dogs in public streets. Later, it spread terror with assassinations of rural leaders and massacres of peasants who refused to join its struggle.

In the 1980s, Feliciano headed the Principal Regional Committee, responsible for the districts of Ayacucho, Huanuco and Apurimac--the main theater in Sendero's war.

Sendero had its ups and downs. Many of its cadres were captured. A daring jailbreak carried out in 1982 by a Sendero column freed 60 prisoners. By some accounts, Feliciano led that action.

But little is known for sure about Feliciano's exploits.

He is believed to have been wounded in battle because of reports that he walks with a limp. On Aug. 4, 1990, he was detained in the province of Huaraz, but a police report said he was released after four hours for lack of evidence that he belonged to Sendero.

Feliciano is said to have been married for a time to another Sendero cadre, Nelly Gamarra, now in prison. They led guerrilla forces in the Andean department of Huancayo.

In 1991, investigators on Guzman's trail raided a Sendero safehouse in Lima. They found a videotape of a 1988-89 Sendero "Congress," meetings attended by the movement's top leaders. On the tape, a chubby-cheeked man with a receding hairline and dark-rimmed glasses appeared constantly near Chairman Gonzalo. Police identified him as Oscar Ramirez Durand--Feliciano.

At that meeting, Feliciano was appointed to Sendero's all-important "Permanent Committee." Its members were Guzman, his lover Elena Iparraguirre ("Comrade Miriam") and Feliciano. They were responsible for the day-to-day leadership of the national movement, which by then was spread over most of Peru and was preparing to concentrate its violent action on Lima.

Guzman's strategy of focusing the war on the capital seemed to be working in 1992.

Assassinations of community leaders, political action in surrounding slums and deadly terrorist bombs in commercial and administrative centers put Peru on edge. The economy languished; the future looked bleak. But in April, 1992, Fujimori shut down Congress with army support and issued decrees permitting tough action against terrorists.

Sendero responded with an intensified bomb campaign in Lima's most affluent districts. Then, in September, a long investigation by Peru's anti-terrorist police bureau paid off with the capture of Guzman, Iparraguirre and other top Sendero leaders. The head had been chopped from the rebel body.

Fujimori claimed that 90% of the movement's leadership structure had been dismantled, and that its final defeat in 1995 was assured. Since June, 1994, at least half a dozen important cadres have fallen.

In the country's rural interior where Sendero had operated for years, peasants grew weary of terrorism and guerrilla war. With army help, villages organized self-defense committees that have become a key to reducing Sendero influence.

Fujimori's 1992 decrees allowed arresting and holding terrorist suspects on less evidence, and for summary trials by anonymous judges. As a result, more than 2,700 people are in jail today--some of them on unjust charges, human rights advocates say.

Meanwhile, a decree providing pardons for rebels who turn themselves in and give information about other subversives has also undermined Sendero's strength. By Nov. 1, 1994, the deadline for "repentance," about 6,000 people had turned themselves in.

A devastating blow to Sendero's combative spirit was delivered by Guzman himself.

The jailed leader, apparently under pressure from his captors, issued letters and recorded statements in 1993 calling for peace negotiations. Guzman loyalists out of jail have laid down their arms; jailed leaders have called Feliciano a revisionist traitor. Some reportedly have snitched on his followers.

Feliciano's warring faction, which some Senderologists call Sendero Rojo, or Red Path, reportedly has been reduced to a few combat groups in isolated mountain and jungle areas of the interior and to small cores of terrorists and other militants in the cities.

As sporadic violence by the Sendero Rojo has continued, authorities have intensified the hunt for Feliciano. A business organization called The Force of the Law has offered a $100,000 reward for his capture.

Most analysts agree that Sendero's bloody drive for power is a lost cause whether Feliciano falls or not. Still, they caution that residual violence by Sendero could continue for years.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Declining Toll

As the Sendero Luminoso movement has waned, so has the level of violence.

(Deaths casued by political violence in Peru)

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