Counternarcotics In Peru: High Risk, Low Return
SUBJECT AREA National Military Strategy
Title: Counternarcotics in Peru: High Risk, Low Return
Author: Lieutenant Commander C.D. Bott, United States Navy
Thesis: The current U.S. national strategy of using the military
to fight narcotics trafficking in Peru risks undercutting Peruvi-
an President Fujimori, with little chance of long-term success;
our strategy should, instead, support Fujimori through assistance
in counterinsurgency training.
Background: The United States has sent military forces to Peru
as part of President Bush's Andean Initiative to stem the flow of
narcotics out of South America. This U.S. military strategy
seems to run counter to the broader American strategy of support-
ing and encouraging democratic nations, particularly those in
this hemisphere. Indeed, President Fujimori contends the coun-
ternarcotics effort is undermining his attempts at unifying the
divided nation. The situation is further complicated by the
brutal terrorist group known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining
Path. The Sendero emerged in 1980 as a result of centuries long
division between the classes of Peruvian society. Led by Abimael
Guzman, this group uses vicious tactics against all sectors of
Peruvian society to further their aim of the overthrow of the
government. Worse yet, Shining Path has developed a symbiotic
relationship with the coca growers of the Upper Huallaga Valley,
affording the group a share of the profits on narcotics smuggled
into the U.S. Finally, the Peruvian military is ill-equipped and
poorly led to fight the insurgency. Additionally, the military
has one of the world's worst records for human rights violations.
Worse yet, the military appears to also be supporting narcotraf-
Recommendation: The only U.S. military assistance to Peru that
makes sense, both at the tactical and strategic levels, is within
the realm of counterinsurgency. Aid should consist of training
and arming of units, preferably outside of the army, and should
be contingent on an improving record of respect for human rights.
COUNTERNARCOTICS IN PERU: HIGH RISK, LOW RETURN
Thesis statement: The current U.S. national strategy of using
the military to fight narcotics trafficking in Peru risks under-
cutting Peruvian President Fujimori with little chance of long-
term success; our strategy should, instead, support Fujimori
through assistance in counterinsurgency training.
I. Current economic, political and human rights issues
A. President Fujimori, a new face on the scene
B. Fujimori's economic damage control
C. Peruvian society cursed by a history conquest
II. Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path
A. One of the world's most brutal insurgencies
B. In 12 years: 25,000 deaths and $20 billion in damages
C. Sendero's critical vulnerabilities
1. Political and geographic isolation
2. Reliance of terrorism
3. Outgunned by the military
4. Reliance on a single leader
III. The Peruvian military
A. Designed around old, outdated threat
B. Poorly equipped to fight the insurgency
C. On the take?
IV. U.S. aid
C. The risks
V. A role for the U.S. military
A. It should support the U.S. national strategy -- encour-
age democracies throughout the world
B. Train and equip counterinsurgency forces
C. Encourage human rights reforms
COUNTERNARCOTICS IN PERU: HIGH RISK, LOW RETURN
by Lieutenant Commander Christopher D. Bott, United States Navy
Against the swirling backdrop of the nation of Peru coming
apart at the seams, the United States has sent military forces to
that country in an attempt to stem the flow of cocaine en route
to North America. This is the wrong way to use American military
power. The use of the military in Peru as part of the Bush
administration's Andean Initiative to combat the flow of narcot-
ics out of South America, has not met with success. Additional-
ly, the policy imperils Peruvian President Fujimori by isolating
him from a large segment of the country's population. It runs
contrary, in other words, to the widely held belief that the
democratically elected Fujimori government needs and deserves
continued U.S. assistance. Should the U.S. choose to continue
supporting Peru, then, it should be in consonance with the de-
sires of the Fujimori regime. Included in a broad package of
assistance should be the provision for training by the U.S.
military of forces fighting the vicious Peruvian insurgency known
as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. (4)
CURRENT ECONOMIC, POLITICAL AND HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES
The inauguration of Alberto Keinya Fujimori as President of
Peru on July 28, 1990, was something of a watershed for both Peru
and the Americas. The son of Japanese immigrants, Fujimori is
the first person of Japanese descent to lead an American repub-
An agricultural engineer by training, Fujimori later became
a professor and rector at the Peruvian National Agrarian Univer-
sity. His rise from political obscurity in thelate 1980s was
helped by the national recognition he received as the host of a
public affairs television talk show.
In succeeding Alan Garcia Perez, Fujimori inherited an
economy on the verge of collapse. Peru's Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) had fallen by twenty-eight percent and real wages by sixty
percent in the previous two years. Government expenditures
outpaced revenues three times. The annual inflation rate was at
thirty-five hundred percent. The foreign debt was at nearly $24
billion, while nearly $2 billion in International Monetary Fund
(IMF) loans had been defaulted on by Peru. (16: 61, 62)
Twelve days after his inauguration Fujimori imposed a pro-
gram of strict economic austerity measures. Known as a "paquetzo",
or violent package, the new program eliminated long-standing
price subsidies on food and gasoline, while charging much higher
prices for government services such as electricity. Fujimori's
aim was to balance expenditures with revenues. Inflation ini-
tially soared with the rate for the month of August at nearly
four hundred percent. (3: 117) But by 1991 the annual inflation
rate had been reduced to two hundred percent.
There are other signs that the Peruvian economy has stabi-
lized somewhat in the last eighteen months: loan payments have
resumed to the IMF; treasury reserves are now back in the black
by $1.3 billion; and foreign investment is up. (11: A51) The key
question is whether Fujimori will be able to pull the economy out
of its deep recession.
The election of President Fujimori in 1990 marked a decade
of democratically elected governments in Peru. During the twelve
years prior to 1980 the country was run by the military. Still,
Peruvians do not equally share the fruits of a democratic society
in the same way as the citizens of the northern republics.
Power, wealth and race are inseparable in Peruvian society.
The rich, white descendants of the Spanish conquistadors retain
most of the power in Peruvian society. Unlike the poor, the rich
do not live in fear of the police. The government bureaucracy,
including the courts, will work on behalf of the elite. While
the poor are victimized by their government, the rich live above
Peruvian society is cursed by a history, not of European
colonization, but of Spanish conquest. Led by Francisco Pizarro,
the Spaniards' mission was to extract as much of the wealth of
the Incas as they could, as rapidly as they could. The wealthy
Indians were enslaved in order to extract the mineral and agri-
cultural wealth of the land. This society of patron and serf
became the basis for the Peru of today: governmental corruption,
feudal economic patterns, apartheid-like class differences, and
the widespread use of violence by the government against the
underclass. (13: 79, 80)
As a result, while Fujimori presides over a democratically
elected government, the notion of Peruvian citizenship is still
elusive throughout most of society. Social reform and human
rights are a case in point. It is ironic, for example, that
during the years of military rule from 1968 to 1975, the govern-
ment was committed to redistributive social and economic reforms,
most notably during the reign of General Juan Velasco Alvarado
from 1968 to 1975. Ultimately, Velasco and later Bermudez would
fail in their attempts to reform society, primarily due to the
problems associated with the economic decline. But unlike the
other more repressive regimes of South America, and, more impor-
tantly, the subsequent democratically elected governments of
Peru, the human rights records during military rule were compara-
tively good. (1: 533)
A tangible consequence of the perceived dislocation by a
large portion of the population was the rise of leftist insurgen-
cies. Again another irony: the insurgencies arose and increased
in intensity soon after the transition to democratic elections.
As the insurgents intensified their campaigns in the early 1980s,
counterinsurgency operations intensified; with this came the
sharp increase in human rights violations by the government.
In December 1982, the government declared a state of emer-
gency in the Ayacucho department, essentially placing four prov-
inces and their civilian governments under military rule. As the
military stepped up counterinsurgency operations in the depart-
ment, allegations of systematic use of torture, disappearances,
and executions increased. The Peruvian attorney general acknowl-
edged that between 1982 and August 1989 over 3,200 cases of
enforced disappearances were reported. (1: 540) Out of the
1980s, then, came an increase in government brutality; this in
response to the brutality of one of the world's most violent
leftist guerrilla groups: Sendero Luminoso -- the Shining Path.
On October 23, 1991, a brown-eyed nine-year-old
named Jorge Mayta Suxo edged into a minefield at
the base of a high voltage tower near Lima. A
guerrilla from the group known as Sendero Luminoso
wanted to verify the existence of government-
planted mines around the tower. The guerrilla
sent Jorge, the son of a local peasant, to find
out. Jorge found a mine. He died of his wounds
the following day. Since 1980, over 1,000 Peruvi-
an children have died in the political violence of
the Peruvian insurgency. (13: 40)
There are several insurgency movements in Peru. By far the
largest and most vicious is Sendero Luminoso. The Senderos are a
Maoist terrorist group made up of as many as ten thousand fight-
ers led by Abimael Guzman, a former professor of philosophy.
Although formed in 1970, the group didn't surface as a political
force until May 17, 1980, when it conducted a series of attacks
on polling places during Peru's first democratic election follow-
ing the dozen years of military rule. (9: 4)
Sendero Luminoso is a movement which melds Maoist teachings
and Andean mysticism with the dark messianic vision of Guzman.
Its ultimate objectives include not only the overthrow of the
government in Lima, but a return to socialism based on the pre-
Columbian peasant society. Guzman claims to envision a greater
Andean nation, brought about by armed struggle, that includes the
Quechua-speaking peoples of Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Argenti-
na, and Chile.
The dozen years of Sendero's insurgency have resulted in
over twenty-five thousand deaths and $20 billion in damages. (12:
82 and 11: A51) Such is the nature of Guzman's vision for over-
throw of the state: violence is both the desired vehicle for
change and source of purification for the movement.
Sendero's radicalism is demonstrated not only by its brutal-
ity toward Peruvians, peasants included, but by its contempt for
other radical movements throughout the world. Like the Khmer
Rouge of Cambodia, the movement derides Cuba's Fidel Castro,
Nicaragua's Sandinistas and Columbia' s M-19 as mere middle-class
reformists. South American scholar Henry Dietz noted the com-
parison between Sendero and the Khmer Rouge and states, ". . . If
one is to take (Sendero Luminoso's) writings seriously, Peru
would suffer the same scale of destruction as did Cambodia under
Pol Pot were it ever to achieve power." (2: 132)
Guzman appears to have shifted Sendero strategy in recent
months. Instead of controlling shantytowns in the countryside
through execution and terror, the insurgents are attempting to
convert the populous through propaganda. (11: A51) Exploitation
of the deepening economic crisis is lucrative as the nation's
poor grow in number. The old tactics of simply murdering any who
oppose the insurgency may be seen as less efficacious. Instead,
it is now only the leaders of the government-sponsored self-
defense militias who are singled out for execution; the rest are
targets for conversion
And conversion may be a viable alternative to the peasants
who reside in the countryside or in the shantytowns that surround
Lima. In the Upper Huallaga Valley, for example, the Senderos
are able to offer protection to the peasant coca growers who
have, in the past, fallen victim to unscrupulous drug dealers, as
well as army and police officials on the take. In other areas
Fujimori has granted military officials emergency powers to
combat the insurgency. The resulting abuse by the military has
resulted in an alienation which can only make the Senderos appear
to be a lesser evil.
For the average rural Peruvian family, life is hard. In the
Ayacucho Department, for example, one in a hundred families has
electricity. Illiteracy is at nearly fifty percent for adults --
including city dwellers. Life expectancy is twenty years shorter
for Ayacucho residents than Peruvians living in Lima -- in part
due to the paucity of doctors and health clinics. (13: 83)
Sendero Luminoso's call for the destruction of the state might
make sense to the poor who feel victimized by the government.
Most observers of Peru argue that a successful overthrow of
the government by Sendero is remote. Still, the insurgency has
continued to grow despite increased efforts by Fujimori to
strengthen the police and military. Ultimately, the best solu-
tion to the insurgency problem is strengthening the economy and
addressing Peru's social ills. But in the near term there appear
to be vulnerabilities within the insurgency that may be exploit-
RAND analyst Gordon McCormick has identified several possi-
ble critical vulnerabilities that may be exploited by counterin-
surgency forces. (9: 17-20) First, the Senderos remain isolated
by choice from other movements either inside or outside of Peru.
As a result, no united front has formed within Peru against the
government and little outside aid in the form of money or weapons
currently flows to Sendero. The only exception is the alliance
with the coca producers which probably nets the Senderos ten
percent of the exporters' profits.
A second critical vulnerability may be Guzman's reliance on
terrorism as a primary tool in advancing the movement. While
effective in demonstrating government weakness and in forcing the
government to overreact, the violence has been even more severe
against Sendero's own constituency. This may lead to a further
isolation of the insurgency from the rest of Peruvian society and
make recruitment more difficult.
Third, Sendero remains outgunned by the military. This is
both a reflection of the group's geographic and ideological
isolation, and of the lack of expertise in modern weapons except
small arms and dynamite. This gap may close over time, however,
as Sendero's drug alliance revenues increase. Indeed, narcotraf-
fickers are becoming as sophisticated as modern law enforcement
agencies in weapons, communications equipment, and doctrine.
Finally, the insurgency is classically organized along
highly compartmentalized cellular lines with Abimael Guzman
retaining ultimate authority in the group's operations and ideol-
ogy. As a result, the group is both difficult to control due to
its geographic dispersion and vulnerable to Guzman's eventual
Sendero Luminoso will not be easily defeated by the Peruvi-
ans, with or without U.S. assistance. But there are inherent
weaknesses in the group that, if attacked, could lead to the its
eventual demise. Of concern is how to encourage the Peruvian
military and police to conduct the counterinsurgency according to
standards of common human decency.
THE PERUVIAN MILITARY
The traditional focus for the military has been on the
rugged regions along the borders with Ecuador, Bolivia, and
Chile. These borders have often been the subject of disputes
between Peru and her neighbors. As a result the military has
been equipped and trained for conventional border security roles,
rather than for counterinsurgency or counternarcotics operations.
At 75,000 the Peruvian Army is the second largest in South
America, second only to Brazil. The army is divided into five
military regions. The Peruvian terrain which includes dense
jungle, mountains and rivers argues for an emphasis on light
infantry. But, like many Third World nations, Peru purchased
heavier, more prestigious weapons, including enough Soviet
T-54/T-55 battle tanks and French AMX-13 light tanks to equip two
Like the army, the Peruvian Air Force is probably larger and
better equipped than is warranted by any potential threat to the
nation's sovereignty. For example, the Peruvians field nine
fighter squadrons, including a squadron of French-built Mirage
2000 fighters. Purchases from a wide variety of countries such
as France, the Soviet Union and the U.S. have given Peru a fairly
capable air force by 1970s' standards. But with the demise of
the Soviet Union and budgetary constraints at home, the Peruvian
Air Force is aging with little prospect for follow-on airframes
or evenreplacement parts.
The focus of the Peruvian Navy is coastal and resources
defense, with an overemphasis on submarine/antisubmarine warfare.
The Peruvian Navy owns eleven conventionally-powered submarines,
including six Casma Class boats, originally built by West Germany
under the Type 209 design. Within the Navy organization are a
Naval Air Wing and a single brigade of Marines.
Like his predecessors in the early 1980s, Fujimori has given
increased authority to the military in the conduct of counterin-
surgency operations against Sendero Luminoso. Many Peruvians now
live in one of the country's "emergency zones" where the military
retains civil authority. And in 1991, the president issued a
decree which strengthened military control of civil liberties,
private property, and the overall strategy in fighting the insur-
gency. (11: A58) Without strong civilian oversight this strategy
has been largely to kill as many insurgents as possible, regard-
less of the toll on civilians.
To make matters worse, some in the Peruvian military appear
to be actively engaged in protecting coca growers and traffick-
ers. A "Newsweek" reporter recently visited a tiny outpost along
the Huallaga River known as Uchiza. (5: 41) There Brook Larmer
found a village virtually cut off from the rest of Peru, capable
of cultivating nearly 62,000 acres of former jungle, and immune
to both Peruvian counternarcotics forces (the police assisted by
U.S. DEA agents) and Sendero Luminoso. This is due to the pro-
tection afforded by the presence of the Peruvian Army. (The
resignation of Fujimori's chief advisor on the counternarcotics,
Hernando de Soto, in January 1992, as a protest against wide-
spread corruption in the counternarcotics forces of the army and
police, seems to corroborate Larmer's findings.)
UNITED STATES AID
The bulk of U.S. aid to Peru is in the form of economic
assistance. (Today nearly one in six Peruvians is fed by the
United States.) But economic assistance comes from another
source: the fund associated with the Andean Strategy. Andean
strategy, narcotics-related funding is divided into economic,
military, law enforcement and DEA support. (14: 143)
In 1991, the U.S. budgeted $94 million in economic and
military aid. Approximately $10 million was to go to the army,
in part to train the three Peruvian army counterinsurgency bat-
talions. Included would be training by U.S. soldiers. The U.S.
Congress canceled the $10 million portion of the package last
fall, however, because of continued concerns about human rights
abuses by the Peruvian Army. Counternarcotics operations by the
army will continue to receive U.S. support (approximately $24
million), and the United States has reportedly sent Green Berets
to assist in targeting cocaine production as part of the aid
package. (12: 84 and 6: 29)
The Green Berets are symbolic of the larger role played by
the U.S. Department of Defense which has been assigned as the
lead agency in detecting and tracking narcotraffickers. Forces
such as U.S. Army Green Berets and Marines have been assigned
missions in Latin America of counternarcotics training, intelli-
gence collection and analysis, and interdiction.
The press has focused on Operation Support Justice which is
reportedly part of the Andean Initiative. (7: 18, 19) Targeted
in Peru are the regions of the Upper Huallaga Valley where Coca
leaves are grown. Military forces under U.S. Southern Command
control, working with U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency personnel, may
be providing Peruvian counternarcotics and riverine training,
while participating in interdiction operations. In addition, air
tracking radars and intelligence analysts in and around Peru have
reportedly attempted to detect and track the northbound movement
of coca by air.
The U.S. counternarcotics effort in Peru is not without
risks. On January 12, 1992, a U.S. helicopter on a counternar-
cotics mission crashed in the Upper Huallaga Valley near Madre
Mia, killing three Americans civilians and a Peruvian police
officer. Although details on the crash are incomplete, the heli-
copter was probably downed by Sendero Luminoso guerrillas operat-
ing in the region. The Huey helicopter was flying out of the
heavily fortified, U.S.-built base at Santa Lucia. (10: A12)
The United States was a direct target later in the year when
a bomb was placed outside the U.S. embassy compound in Lima on
February 12, 1992. Sendero Luminoso claimed responsibility for
the bombing which killed several Peruvian security personnel.
The U.S.-aided campaign against Peruvian coca producers will
have a far-reaching impact on much of Peruvian society. Prior to
1980, farmers in the Upper Huallaga Valley produced several crops
for local consumption, including corn, rice cocoa, coffee, and
coca. Contact with the outside world, let alone rest of Peru,
was limited, due to the region's isolation on the eastern slopes
of the Andes.
After 1980, however, the old way of life in the Upper Hual-
laga was forever changed. That was when the U.S. market for
cocaine took off and outsiders became interested in the coca
leaves of the Huallaga. Today nearly three percent of the Peru-
vian population is directly support by coca. (8:35) (Interest-
ingly, less than three percent of the U.S. population is involved
in agriculture.) The farmers in the Upper Huallaga are today
completely dependent on the production and sale of coca leaves,
cocaine paste and cocaine hydrochloride to outside narcotraffick-
ers, mostly in Colombia. This is the region's sole source of
A ROLE FOR THE U.S. MILITARY
One of the objectives of the U.S. national strategy is to
foster and encourage democracies throughout the world. While far
from ideal, the government of Peru is a fledgling democracy. The
greatest threat to Peru is not from the growth of coca. It is,
rather, from the long neglected internal contradictions of Peru-
vian society which have resulted in the birth of the Senderos.
While this insurgency movement will not likely succeed in
its stated goal of overthrowing the government, it has wrought
great death and destruction on the people of Peru. And with this
weakening of the social fabric comes the very real possibility of
a return to military rule of the country. Not surprisingly, the
insurgency has capitalized on the U.S. involvement in counternar-
cotics operations in Peru as yet another example of the govern-
ment's abuse of the Peruvian underclass.
The U.S. military counternarcotics mission is a high risk,
potentially open-ended operation. Success will be difficult to
gauge, but will be closely evaluated over time by critics of the
military. To date, U.S. military involvement in the nation's
counternarcotics effort has not led to a discernible decline on
the availability of cocaine on the streets at home. (7: 18)
Regardless of Sendero propaganda, the U.S. risks alienating
itself from Peruvians by siding with the extremely unpopular
military in eradication of a crop that in many regions of Peru is
the sole source of subsistence. President Fujimori stated as
much during a recent visit to San Antonio with other Latin Ameri-
can leaders discussing ways to interdict the flow of drugs. (4)
The U.S. military is trained and equipped to fight enemy
combatants, not civilians. It would be inconceivable for a U.S.
soldier to engage in a long-term counternarcotics campaign
against American citizens on U.S. soil. Fighting such a war
violates the basic tenets of armed conflict. Therefore, U.S.
soldiers engaged in a counternarcotics campaign against South
Americans does not make good military sense either.
There are good reasons for the U.S. to stay engaged with
Peru -- providing tacit support to a fragile democracy for one.
The consequences of our not attempting to help Peru are dire for
Peruvians as well as the other nations of North and South Ameri-
ca. And this is where a role for the U.S. military may lie: in
helping to stabilize Peru in the near term, so that long-term
reform may begin.
The U.S. military should focus on training and equipping
Peru's counterinsurgency forces. Preferably, these forces would
be police rather than the military which remains ill-equipped for
the task Fujimori himself states that Sendero is an internal
problem. Internal problems are best solved by police, rather
than military forces.
As discussed earlier, one of the insurgency's vulnerabili-
ties appears to be a shortage of firearms. That will probably
change as revenues increase from the drug trade. Accordingly,
foreign military sales or grants should focus on weaponry best
suited for counterinsurgency operations -- not high priced, high
status items such as A-37 jets. It has even been proposed that
some funds be used to offer cash to Peru's citizenry for guns,
thus making it more difficult for the Senderos to obtain them.
Finally, the U.S. military should act as a role model to the
Peruvian military and police. With counterinsurgency training
should also come basic training in the notions of citizenship and
President Fujimori believes the best way to stem the produc-
tion of coca in his country is by offering the 250,000 coca gro-
wers an economically viable alternative crop. His plan will be
extremely difficult to devise, however, since a coca crop will
generally earn a farmer ten times more than any other alternative
crop. Still Fujimori sees himself as a man of the people, a
unifying force. The primary obstacle in his path is Sendero
Luminoso. The role of the U.S. military in Peru, then, clearly
lies in the realm of counterinsurgency assistance against Sendero
and not in counternarcotics. The United States must look inward
for a solution to the country's demand for cocaine, rather than
outward to the hills of the Upper Huallaga Valley. Indeed, on
the day the U.S. kicks its cocaine habit, Peru's narcotics prob-
lem will largely be solved and its government free to focus on
the internal problems that destabilize that fledgling democracy.
1. Cornell, Angela and Kenneth Roberts. "Democracy, Counter-
insurgency, and Human Rights: The Case of Peru." Human
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3. Guillermoprieto, Alma. "Letter From Lima." The New Yorker,
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4. Krauss, Charles. Interview with President Alberto Fujimori.
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5. Larmer, Brook. "The Gateway to Heaven, A Trip Inside Peru's
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