Tucked away in the Andes mountain range, the small city of Ayacucho was the birth place of the notorious Maoist insurgent group, the Shining Path (SP). The movement began in the 1960s and 70s in the University of Huamanga, and then spread out into the surrounding communities in the early 1980s. At first, the ideas and ideals of the Shining Path revolution were attractive to many Ayacuchans, the majority of whom were quechua-speakers campesinos (farmers or peasants), who as a population had been historically excluded from full participation – economic, democratic, and social – in the Peruvian nation. Slowly, however, as rural communities began to witness SP’s use of violence as a tool for discipline, punishment, and social control, many began to turn their backs on the group. In some villages ronderos (civilian guards) were formed as a mechanism of defense against the Shining Path. The rondero groups were themselves notoriously violent, especially those which allied with Peruvian armed forces. The Peruvian military itself was also heavily complicit in violence that constituted violations of human rights; in its desperation to rid the country of leftist “terrorists,” it massacred and “disappeared” civilians throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
This last point was driven home for me in no uncertain terms when, upon arrival in Ayacucho, I visited Los Cabitos, a former military base in the desert just outside of city limits. Hundreds of people were said to have entered the base and never been seen or heard from again. These accounts were confirmed when the Specialized Forensic Team (an entity of the Peruvian judicial branch), exhumed more than one hundred dead bodies from impromptu graves in a small valley behind the base. The entire area is still today covered in the grids left behind from the forensic archaeological excavations (pictured). Perhaps even more haunting was the infamous Cabitos oven, which was eventually installed by the military to burn bodies and dispose of remains more effectively. During the excavation, calcined bone fragments, especially teeth, were said to have been found under the site of the oven and scattered around the perimeter of the property. Although it is possible to extract DNA from bone, the charring and calcificaiton of remains greatly reduces this prospect and limits forensic investigators’ ability to identify remains and accurately estimate the number of people killed at Los Cabitos. Continue reading