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PERU: Tactical success, strategic failure?

A major combined operation in the Vizcatán area of the VRAEM led to the seizure of several camps of the Sendero Luminoso (SL) unit led by the Quispe Palomino clan, including what appears to have been the group’s logistical hub. It did not, however, succeed in capturing or killing the group’s third-ranking leader, who had been based there when the operation began.

When intelligence gathered by the national police pointed to the possible location of one of the key guerrilla camps in the mountainous Vizcatán area of Huanta, Ayacucho, plans for a major combined operation were drawn up. Codenamed Ocaso Rojo (‘Red Sundown’), involving more than 300 soldiers and police officers and supported by 12 helicopters, it was launched on 23 February. The ground force did not go in until after air force attack aircraft fired rockets at six locations, and army helicopters followed suit.

On 26 February police sources announced that at one camp in the Ayahuanco district of Huanta they had killed two ‘third-echelon’ SL members and ‘Camarada Carmen’, common-law wife of ‘Camarada Alipio’ (Orlando Alejandro Borda Casafranca) — reputed ‘military commander’ of the SL units that operate in the VRAEM.

Three days later came the announcement that the combined forces had located and raided the camp of ‘Camarada Raúl’ (Jorge Luis Quispe Palomino), third-ranking SL leader in the VRAEM and, to judge by the documents and equipment seized in the camp, the man who handled their logistics. Raúl was not found at the camp, but the attackers found the body of ‘Camarada Luisa’, a member of the ‘women’s detachment’ that served as Raúl’s inner security circle. They also found blood trails which suggested that perhaps as many as five SL fighters had been wounded or killed in the raid.

Raúl’s camp showed every sign of being a permanent installation, with a roofed structure up to 20 metres long, underground storage silos, and kitchens skilfully camouflaged so as to prevent the smoke giving away their location. Stored in the camp were communications equipment, solar panels, a range of explosives and ammunition, and a hoard of documents.

Admiral José Cueto, head of the joint command of the armed forces, said on 5 March that the documents would help ‘generate a series of actions to capture people who are in collusion with [the SL] and to plan further operations.’ Cueto said that there were probably about 200 guerrillas in the VRAEM. All told, Ocaso Rojo had located six SL camps and, according to the antidrugs prosecution service of Ayacucho, ‘several’ drug-processing labs.

Jaime Antezana, a much-cited ‘Senderologist’, noted that Ocaso Rojo was comparable in size and results with Operación Excelencia, conducted in the Vizcatán area between August and December 2008, and concludes that it may have been a tactical success but not a strategic one. Looking at it from a different angle another ‘Senderologist’, Pedro Yaranga, notes that the police and military had missed the opportunity of killing or capturing the entire SL leadership which — he claims — they knew had been in the area since January. He too describes the operation as a strategic failure.

On 4 March an army corporal was killed in an SL attack on the antiterrorist base of Unión Mantaro, in Llochegua, Huanta. On 14 March a marine and a police officer were injured in an a clash in Mazángaro, in Satipo, Junín.

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