The Peruvian Government has been grappling for more than a year with a political phantom, an extremist offensive of bombings and attacks that has even leftist insiders puzzled.
In the past 16 months, there have been more than 850 explosions -- most of them minor -- involving molotov cocktails, blasting caps and firecrackers. The attacks started on July 28 last year, the day Fernando Belaunde was sworn in as President. That day, saboteurs blew up a pylon in the central sierra in an attempt to black out Lima during the inauguration celebrations.
Compounded by a billion-dollar cocaine trade and rising street crime, the political headache has already costs one interior minister his job.
On Oct. 27, Jose Maria de la Jara, a veteran politician of the ruling Popular Action Party, handed in his resignation. He had come under heavy attack from the right-wing press for his alleged lax handling of extremist threats. However, his biggest drawback was a speech impediment which kept him from calming an increasingly hysterical public and answering charges of incompetence in congress.
Mr. de la Jara was replaced by a retired air force general, Luis Gagliardi, a trusted associated of Mr. Belaunde.
The explosions have been labeled terrorism by the press. But they clearly do not fit a classic pattern of guerrilla warfare or urban terrorism and certainly are not of the scale of attacks in Argentina, Uruguay or Colombia during the 1970s. Until mid-October, there had been no intentional deaths, no kidnappings or assassinations.
Most of the incidents have been attributed to a small Maoist splinter group called Shining Path, named from a quotation from Peruvian thinker Jose Carlos Mariategui. Out of more than 50 Peruvian left wing factions, the Shining Path are the only ones endorsing immediate revolution through armed struggle. The group is trying to create a liberated zone in the Ayacucho mountains, almost their only base of support.
Over the past 20 years, Shining Path leaders have become increasingly isolated from the mainstream Marxist parties. In the 1978, 1980 and 1981 elections, they chose to boycott the polls. Left wing parties averaged a respectable 25 per cent of the national votes and have members in Congress and local governments.
In the mid-1060s, part of Peru's left, inspired by Fidel Castro's victory in Cuba, struck out on an improvised guerrilla war, with Ayacucho as one of their operation centers. The army wiped them out almost to a man. Since then, there has been no serious thought of armed revolution on the Peruvian left.
But the mystique of the guerrilla fighter has never died among militants, and left wing sources say that some of the bombings have been the work of activists from a wide range of parties operating freelance. This would in part explain the uncoordinated nature of the attacks.
Another theory voiced by the Marxists and supported by some U.S. officials is that some of the bombings are carried out by drug traffickers who would like to distract police from the cocaine trade in Ayacucho, which is one of the main coca-growing areas of Peru.
The Government has yet to come up with its version of the extremists activity or a response. Politicians do not want to overplay the problem for fear of frightening away tourists and foreign investment.
Mr. de la Jara's resignation came only a week after the Government took its most aggressive action against the bombers by declaring a state of emergency in Ayacucho for 60 days and rushing in police reinforcements.
What triggered the measures was the Oct. 11 assault on an isolated police post near Ayacucho. Three people, including a policeman, were killed and four others were wounded. The attackers, about 50 in all, carried, weapons, pistols, knives and clubs.
Police patrols, backed by helicopters and armed force vehicles are now sweeping through the barren, dry mountains of the region. More than 200 people have been arrested for questioning.
A Government insider says that the police have no uncovered any caches of sophisticated weapons, permanent bases or links with either left wing parties or foreign groups. However, a left wing source says Shining Path has in the past received financial assistance from a small Canadian Maoist party.
The most puzzling gap, according to this source, is that the police have been unable to link Shining Path's rural activities with the urban bombings that have troubled the Belaunde Government. The most notable incident occurred on Sept. 1 when almost simultaneously, six bombs shattered the exteriors of the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Ambassador's residence, the Bank of America and offices of three U.S. related companies.
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