Remnants of the Maoist rebel group once focused on overthrowing the government have turned to drug trafficking.
At least four soldiers and two alleged members of the Shining Path rebel group have been killed in a clash in a region of Peru known for coca production.
In a statement on Monday, the Peruvian army said that a group of soldiers was attacked in the early morning hours by rebels in the province of Huanta, part of the Andean region of Ayacucho.
“During the confrontation, the security forces managed to kill two terrorist criminals, who fell with their long-range weapons,” the army said in a press release.
“Unfortunately, during this action, four brave members of the armed forces died, whose remains will be transferred shortly to the city of Huamanga.” The army said three wounded soldiers were also transferred to a nearby hospital.
Peruvian President Dina Boluarte paid tribute to the soldiers shortly afterwards on social media.
“My deepest condolences to the families of the four courageous members of the Peruvian army who died in Putis, Ayacucho, during a confrontation with narcoterrorists,” Boluarte wrote.
The deadly skirmish underscores fighting between the military and armed groups seeking control of the lucrative drug trade in Peru, the second-largest coca leaf producer in the world after neighbouring Colombia.
✅ Presidenta Dina Boluarte: “Mis más sentidas condolencias a los familiares de los cuatro valerosos miembros del @EjercitoPeru fallecidos en Putis, Ayacucho, durante un enfrentamiento con narcoterroristas”. (1/2)
— Presidencia del Perú 🇵🇪 (@presidenciaperu) September 4, 2023
Monday’s violence took place in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers, known in Spanish by the acronym VRAEM.
Known for high levels of poverty, the VRAEM region has become infamous as a centre for cocaine production. A 2021 government report estimated that 69.3 percent of the country’s total coca leaf production came from the valley during the preceding year.
The region has also gained a reputation as the last remaining outpost for the Shining Path, a Maoist rebel group that emerged in Peru in the 1980s. Authorities say the group often collaborates with local drug traffickers, offering them armed security.
Monday’s violence is the second major confrontation in the VRAEM this year. In February, seven law enforcement officers were also killed in the area, in what Peru’s Interior Ministry called the deadliest single attack on police in a decade.
“My government has ordered a frontal fight against this alliance of terrorism and drug trafficking in the VRAEM and throughout the nation’s territory,” Boluarte said at the time. “We will not allow more deaths, more violence.”
The Shining Path played a prominent role in Peru’s internal conflict, particularly in the 1980s, when it launched a “people’s war” to violently overthrow the government and restructure society.
The government mounted a brutal counterinsurgency to stamp out the group. Over the next two decades of fighting, an estimated 70,000 people were killed. Widespread human rights violations were committed by both the rebels and the military, according to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Poor, rural regions of the country such as Ayacucho, home to a large Indigenous population, bore the brunt of the suffering. The conflict largely ended in the 1990s with the death or imprisonment of most of the Shining Path leadership.
But remnants of the group have remained active, with several hundred fighters estimated to live in the VRAEM.
Ayacucho was a hotspot for protests against the Boluarte government after the 2022 impeachment of former President Pedro Castillo.
A report by rights group Amnesty International accused the armed forces of employing deadly force at higher rates in regions like Ayacucho, showing “a blatant disregard for human life” that disproportionately targeted poor, rural and Indigenous protesters.