Late on 23 May, 16 people including at least two children were killed in an attack attributed to the remnant group of the Shining Path (SL) Maoist terrorist group. The attack took place in the remote Vizcatan district (Junin) in an area known as the VRAEM (in allusion to the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro river valley). Although this was the most serious terrorist incident in over a decade, under normal circumstances its political implications would probably be limited. What remains of the SL, or the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (MPCP) as it is also known, does not pose a serious threat beyond the VRAEM. However, the attack took place two weeks before the 6 June presidential run-off vote and amid existing scrutiny into Pedro Castillo’s possible links to the SL. Pamphlets left at the scene called for an election boycott, and specifically described voting for Keiko Fujimori as treasonous.
As previously discussed, Castillo’s alleged links to the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef), which is SL’s political wing, represent one of the candidate’s principal weaknesses. Movadef is not the same as the MPCP, and SL and the MPCP are estranged. However, these internal divisions will be lost on many voters worried by Leftist extremism. Also, a congressman-elect from Castillo’s Peru Libre (PL) party, Guillermo Bermejo, is under investigation over possible links to the Quispe Palomino clan that runs the MPCP. Bermejo has gained new notoriety in recent days following the release of (undated) audiotapes in which he is apparently heard to say that if PL wins power, the party does not intend to relinquish it.
On paper, Fujimori stands to benefit from the situation. It allows her to remind voters of her father Alberto Fujimori’s success against SL in the 1990s, while reaffirming her law-and-order credentials and cultivating the support of the security establishment, where there are serious reservations about Castillo. The situation also highlights Castillo’s complete absence of policy proposals to tackle drug-trafficking and terrorism in the VRAEM. Fujimori at least has a plan (even if eradicating the MPCP in six months looks unrealistic) and an experienced former interior minister, Fernando Rospigliosi, as her point man on the SL/MPCP issue. Fujimori could also broaden her attacks by highlighting what may be an even more troubling aspect of Castillo’s candidacy: his links to another extremist of a different political complexion: Antauro Humala (currently serving a 19-year sentence for rebellion, homicide, and aggravated kidnap) who espouses a brand of ethnic nationalism known as Etnocacerismo.
On the other hand, it may be difficult for Fujimori to turn the situation into something game changing given all her other electoral and personal flaws. Recent polls suggest Castillo has extended his lead again after Fujimori appeared to be gaining on her rival. Many voters will see the SL issue as confined to the VRAEM. Others could interpret the situation as yet another example of an absent, Lima-centric state that Castillo – who condemned the recent attack – promises to redress. The upcoming candidates’ debate on 30 May offers Fujimori her main chance to exploit Castillo’s weakness on the SL issue, though gauging her success will be difficult given the poll blackout will be in force by then.