El Comercio covered the death of Abimael Guzmán by focusing on his victims

By Jaime Bedoya

El Comercio

Lima, Peru


The terrorist action of Abimael Guzmán and his Shining Path group (also known as Sendero Luminoso) perpetrated the deepest and bloodiest wound in the history of contemporary Peru. This subversive group and its leader are credited with the death of at least 32,000 human beings. This genocide began in 1980 and lasted for 12 years.

Guzmán called himself “the fourth sword of Marxism,” declaring an open war on the Peruvian state and democracy that was stained with blood and atrocities; it wrote the most terrible pages in the history of this country. He was arrested in 1992, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He died in prison on September 11, 2021, after living 29 years under the protection of the human rights that he wanted to destroy.

His death triggered a moral crossroads: What should be the correct destination of his mortal remains? The greatest risk, as has happened in other totalitarian and genocidal movements, was that his grave would become a place of worship that would fuel the resurgence of terrorist insanity.

When Abimael Guzmán, perpetrator of a 12-year genocide, died, El Comercio took a thoughtful and bold approach to how it should be covered.
When Abimael Guzmán, perpetrator of a 12-year genocide, died, El Comercio took a thoughtful and bold approach to how it should be covered.

A difficult question

This dilemma might have been easy to resolve under other political circumstances. For example, in Europe in 1945, on the Allied side, there was no doubt the disappearance of Adolf Hitler’s body was a relief to the democratic and civilised world.

Likewise, in 2011, United States President Barack Obama did not hesitate to take measures in this regard once the terrorist Osama Bin Laden had been eliminated.

However, in Peru in 2021, a government with lurid ties to extremist tendencies made public a reckless lukewarmness with outlandish proposals as soon as the fact happened.

Members of the government endorsed the possibility of delivering Guzmán’s remains to his widow (also sentenced to prison). This generated an immediate alarm before the inevitable propaganda effect.

At the same time, there was an ominous silence from the president of Peru. It was the same exhibited previously by not responding to journalistic allegations regarding its proximity to political ramifications linked to Sendero Luminoso; it was an unacceptable situation.

A journalistic call to action

The journalistic responsibilities were clear. It was urgent to have a clear and powerful editorial voice noted regarding how to process this event and demand the primacy of the common good.

The journalistic work could not be limited to a registration issue or the simple act of reporting the event. It was necessary to put the social and political shockwave of this event into perspective, mobilising public opinion so the government could make a reasonable decision on the matter.

For this, it was urgent to remember Guzmán’s bloody legacy and analyse the latent danger of his ideology, as well as warn about the urgent need to condemn violent postulates. More than breaking the news, it was vital to explore all its implications. The task was to give the reader interpretive clarity by appealing to Guzmán’s memory and his historical indignation.

For the latter, it was essential to devise a quick and direct tribute to the victims of Sendero Luminoso. This was symbolised through a double page full of crosses, a gesture that symbolised “the corpses of innocents scattered everywhere,” in the words of Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa when referring to the deadly legacy of Abimael Guzmán.

It is difficult to establish “results” when evaluating the treatment of the news of the death of the leader of a genocide. But it is morally obligatory to mention two obligations that cannot be postponed: .

  1. To call for a unanimous and national condemnation regarding resorting to violence in the name of social change.
  2. To avoid at all costs the cult of the remains of a terrorist leader generates an ideological and propagandistic cult.

Both purposes were fully accomplished.

El Comercio is the reference newspaper in Peru. Its weekend editions have some of the highest readership and political impact in the nation. Six days after this content was published, and after a sustained editorial insistence on the issue, the government finally vindicated its initial uncertain lack of definition and enacted a law that allowed the cremation of Guzmán, disposing of his ashes in an undisclosed location.

Finally, thousands of victims — and their relatives and compatriots — could rest in peace.

About Jaime Bedoya

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