Former head of Peru's Maoist rebels dies in prison: Lawyer

Abimael Guzman, the historic leader of Peru's Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, died at the age of 86, on Sept 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

LIMA (AFP) - Abimael Guzman, the historic leader of Peru's Maoist Shining Path guerrillas - blamed for one of the bloodiest insurgencies in Latin America - died on Saturday (Sept 11) in a military prison at the age of 86.

Guzman had been serving a life sentence in the maximum security prison at the Callao naval base near Lima.

His lawyer, Mr Alfredo Crespo, said the navy had confirmed the death and informed Guzman's wife, Elena Iparraguirre, who herself is serving a life sentence for terrorism in a different Lima prison. Guzman was captured in 1992.

A prison statement said he died early on Saturday from "complications in the state of his health". It provided no details.

"Terrorist leader Abimael Guzman has died, responsible for the loss of countless lives of our fellow citizens," President Pedro Castillo said in a tweet.

Guzman, a former philosophy professor, was considered the intellectual architect behind the Maoist group's brutal, 20-year attempt to overthrow the Peruvian government from 1980-2000.

That conflict - in which Guzman hoped to impose the Marxist model of his icon, Mao Zedong, on Peru - claimed 70,000 lives, either dead or disappeared, according to the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Guzman, Peru's most famous prisoner, had been due to be transferred to a civilian prison in the coming months.

He embraced not just Maoism but also the brutal methods of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, earning a reputation as a hardened revolutionary prepared to order the massacre of an Andean village to punish it for refusing to support him.

That massacre in 1984 in a village called Soras left 117 people dead.

In a 2006 trial, a different side of Guzman was revealed when his erstwhile lieutenant Oscar Ramirez accused him of being a "coward", unable to pull the trigger of a gun.

"A coward, an alcoholic and a crybaby," said Ramirez, whose radical faction of the Shining Path continued fighting even after Guzman's capture.

In the 1960s, Guzman left his philosophy chair at San Cristobal de Huamanga University, in Ayacucho, to create his own party.

Guzman developed a fanatical following, particularly in poverty-stricken parts of the Andes, committed to his brutal brand of Marxism.

In 1979, he went into hiding and announced that conditions were ripe for revolution.

On May 17, 1980, he traded his books for dynamite - symbolically setting fire to ballot boxes in an Andean town on the eve of the country's first democratic election after 12 years of military rule.

The Shining Path, while never fully defeated, is now believed to consist of just a few hundred members.

Out on the streets of Lima, some welcomed the news of Guzman's death.

"To be honest, I am pleased, because how many people died at his hands?" Ms Nelida Carbajal, who runs a street stall, told Agence France-Presse.

"It is good news because paying for his upkeep all this time means Peru is spending money on someone who has done so much harm," she said.

Mr Bryan Fermin, 31, said: "I am not sad that he has died."

He added: "Let us hope that his death at least puts to rest this way of thinking that he led, which brought so much malice to this country."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.