Peru Struggles to Prosecute Key Guerrilla

Times Staff Writer

Abimael Guzman, the founder of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, took his seat quietly in the courtroom Friday morning. Ninety minutes later, he stood up, turned to look at the press gallery and gave a broad, satisfied smile.

The man who preached chaos as a means to his revolutionary end had once again seen his trial on charges of “terrorist crimes against the public tranquillity” descend into farcical disorder.

One member of the three-judge panel overseeing his case suddenly quit. Then two government attorneys launched into long speeches demanding that the presiding judge, Dante Terrel, quit too.

Terrel, raising his voice to a shout and seemingly on the brink of tears, said he would not.


Last week, it was Guzman’s outburst -- a raised fist and a series of shouts of “Viva!” -- that brought the trial to a halt after less than an hour.

Some people here are now openly wondering whether the Peruvian justice system is up to the task of trying Guzman, once feared as one of Latin America’s most dangerous terrorists, and his comrades.

“This doesn’t look like a trial against our clients anymore,” said Miguel Armando Yaganqui, an attorney for one of Guzman’s alleged co-conspirators. “It seems more like the court itself is on trial.”

About 69,000 people were killed in the two decades of violence set off by the Shining Path uprising that began in 1980 in the overwhelmingly Indian highlands of southern Peru.

The case focuses on the group’s very first acts of rebellion. Guzman and 15 co-defendants are being tried in a special courtroom built on a military base in this Lima suburb. They are charged with using a college preparatory school to recruit rebel fighters and to raise funds for the insurgency.

The trial began nearly two years after Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal overturned more than 2,000 terrorism convictions. The high court found that the military tribunals that had tried the rebels during the height of the civil war in the 1990s had violated the defendants’ rights to due process.

Guzman was tried by such a tribunal and sentenced to life in prison after his arrest in 1992. The proceedings were held in secret, with hooded judges.

His new trial was to be broadcast and reported by Lima’s boisterous press corps.


When Guzman stepped into the courtroom on Nov. 5, it was his first public appearance in 12 years. Last seen as a bearded man in a striped prison suit ranting Marxist slogans, he was now a clean-shaven, avuncular 69-year-old.

A crush of photographers and cameramen pressed against the courtroom’s bulletproof glass windows, some banging on the glass to get Guzman’s attention. The accused terrorist obliged them by raising his fist in the air.

Guzman and some of the other defendants embraced one another -- it was the first time they had met in more than a decade.

“It was like a family reunion,” one reporter said.


Terrel called for order, ringing the bell that judges here use in lieu of a gavel. But there were no police inside the courtroom. When Terrel called on the photographers to be removed from the gallery, Guzman and the other defendants began shouting revolutionary slogans.

“Long live the Communist Party of Peru!” they called out, using the Shining Path’s formal name. “Glory to Marxism, Leninism, Maoism!”

Terrel called the proceedings to an abrupt halt.

The next day, President Alejandro Toledo referred to the scenes as a “shameful spectacle” that offended the memory of those who had died at the hands of the Shining Path.


Toledo said he would appoint a new state’s attorney for the case who would seek to sanction the judges for their failure to control the courtroom.

The trial is taking place amid political uncertainty in Peru. Small units of the Shining Path, once thought vanquished, have reappeared in remote jungle outposts in the last year.

On the day of Guzman’s court outburst, dozens of the movement’s red hammer-and-sickle flags reportedly appeared in one village.

Toledo, meanwhile, remains a largely unpopular president, with approval ratings below 10%.


On Friday, new state’s attorney Guillermo Cabala called for Terrel’s removal, as did Edgar Chirinos, the state prosecutor. Both said Terrel should be disqualified because in the 1990s he was a defense attorney for a suspected Shining Path member.

“When you were an attorney, you defended terrorists,” Cabala said.

Chirinos said that Terrel had lost control of his courtroom and that he had been forced to suspend the proceedings because another judge on the three-judge panel had walked out of the courtroom in disgust.

Terrel denied that he had lost control of the case.


“I have taken an oath by God to defend the law,” Terrel said. “I will not break that oath to please public opinion, or the press, or because the defendants begin shouting.”

One of the three judges, Carlos Manrique, said Friday that he would recuse himself from the case because he had taken part in other trials of rebels and his impartiality could be questioned.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday. Many here suspect that it may be Terrel’s last day on the case.

“Once a trial has this kind of atmosphere, it’s very hard to continue moving forward,” said Pablo Talavera, a supervising judge of Peru’s anti-terrorism courts.