A no-win battle

Many claim to have won the battle against Shining Path (SL), a terrorist group that in the 1980s and 1990s of the past century triggered a time of violence that led to the deaths of nearly seventy thousand Peruvians, according to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In reality, a conflict won by those who do not claim victory: the rural militias, who at times outnumbered the Peruvian Army, by far in bravery, ability and strategy.

One of the worst affected ethnic groups due to the conflict, besides the Andean Quechua-speaking communities, have been the Ashaninkas, who live on the outskirts of the Ene, Tambo, Perené Rivers and their effluents in the central jungle region. Nearly four thousand Ashaninka women, children and adolescents were enslaved and murdered by SL by 1996. That year I met Gedeón Charrete, military leader of the Chichireni Alto Native Community.

After his military service, at the age of eighteen, Gedeón Charrete convened his own family and fifteen other members of the Soma Beni Community on the Ene River, to protect themselves from the armed conflict on the Chichireni River in the highlands of Pangoa. Soma Beni had been attacked many times by SL, with the kidnapping of women and their children and adolescents. The members of SL would always take their crops and the few belongings of families.

The ordeal for the Charrete family begins in 1985, when SL kidnaps the two older sons of David and Julia, Gedeóns parents. David was an Evangelical Pastor in Soma Beni and most of his children were named after great biblical warriors. Luis Charrete,[1] the eldest son, and Pablo, the second son were kidnapped as adolescents. When they were wounded during combat with the Army, where they served as cannon fodder, the Senderistas, who had no compassion for the wounded and sick, killed them. Later in 1987, SL enters the house of Isaías Charrete, their brother, founder of the Ocare Ashaninka Guild (Organización Campa[2] del Río Ene). Isaías would not fight SL, but would neither cooperate with them and therefore he was beheaded.

As the Peruvian Army was not able -to this day- to win the fight against SL militarily and as the Government is incapable of fighting extreme poverty, breathing ground for SL, the Ashaninka leaders decided to form an army of five thousand Ashaninka men. This led to the withdrawal of SL from some community land after years of conflict.

Gedeón organized a score of men, his brothers and community members, and took them to a higher zone to defend themselves from assaults by SL. The Chichireni Alto Community received the sixteen families and it transformed into what seemed a military base. Nobody would leave the community without a man armed with a Mauser breech-loading rifle provided by the Army for their battle. Furthermore, the small Ashaninka Army -whose members had been trained during their Military Service, but had the warrior’s blood of the Ashaninkas- would patrol the forests on the other riverbank weekly, that was the barrier between them and SL territory.

At the end of 1996, a short but intense friendship began between Gedeón and myself. We agreed to go out together in pursuit of SL, as we knew a group of his was patrolling the Community. I felt the imperative need to document how these heroes, ignored by the corrupt Government of Alberto Fujimori, where winning the battle against the terrorists throughout the country, at the expense of their own blood and their lives. Four Ashaninka leaders had already been killed in the region during the past years. I knew that both the Caretas magazine of Peru and Der Spiegel of Germany were willing to publish this report.

Chichireni is located at the foot of the Andes Mountains, in the upper jungle. There are no roads and the landscape goes down millions of small ravines and streams that we used as trails. We lived on maggots and worms, small monkeys and plants. The forest, for those who have been there, is a pantry.

We walked for days without coming into contact with SL, but we did destroy one of their camps. They were near, we could feel them, but Gedeón had such a reputation that they would not dare to confront him. That was until the fateful day on November 9th 1999. SL wanted to attack Chichireni and the Peruvian Army, led by Gedeóns patrollers, went to face them, in the same forest we had combed through three years before. Gedeón who was in the forefront lost his life due to eight gunshot wounds from a high-caliber weapon.

Seven days after, on November 16th of the same year, in a similar raid, Jhonatan Charrete, Gedeóns youngest brother, stepped on an anti-personnel mine planted by SL, and lost a leg.

Julia, the Grandmother who raises her orphans, hoped that all they had done together with the Community to face SL, would help her grandchildren to have a future in a less violent world, but the central jungle that appears to be a real natural paradise is also called the Vraem (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro).

At present, the Vraem is the zone with the largest production of cocaine in Peru. Here the war continues; communities are still being affected by SL and drug trafficking that work together. Peasant rounds continue to fight against them relentlessly,[3] as the Army once again -with eighty military bases and10 thousand soldiers in the Vraem- is not able to end this war, nor win a battle. They tried to eliminate the Ashaninka rounds by disarming 428 militias at the national level and seizing 1,500 Mauser rifles.

Now the internal security of the country is in charge of the National Police of Peru.[4] What an illusion! The Ashaninka Self-defense Committees are without the weapons they were given, and are now armed with their bows and arrows with Curare, a deadly poison.

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[1] See: Alto Chichireni, information from the Centro de Documentación e Investigación del LUM

[2] Campa was the old name for the Ashaninka.

[3] See: “Junín: sobrevivientes de matanza de 9 trabajadores acusan a indígenas ashaninkas” (2013)

[4] See: “Ministro de Defensa anuncia mejores bases en el Vraem” (2016)