LIMA (Reuters) - The political arm of Peru's brutal Shining Path insurgency was largely dormant for two decades but it is now rebuilding, hoping it can take advantage of disappointment on the left over President Ollanta Humala's swing to the right.
To recruit new members to the Maoist group, Movadef, as the political wing is known, is organizing in poor neighborhoods, holding rallies, performing theater, and forming clubs at universities.
According to more than a dozen people interviewed by Reuters, from former police detectives to former rebels, Movadef is pursuing a two-pronged strategy to broaden its base: pushing for the release of Shining Path's founder, Abimael Guzman, 77, who was jailed for life in 1992, and radicalizing unions to undermine Humala's free-market policies.
Though Movadef and its allies represent an isolated minority, the government is worried.
To prevent Movadef's growth, officials have blocked it from registering as a political party and Humala has proposed a muzzle law that would jail anyone who denies the Shining Path's role in a civil war that it started in 1980 and that killed 69,000 people.
Shining Path was defeated militarily after Guzman's capture but now - through Movadef - it is showing a boisterous public face. And it has made some inroads. A dissident union group that shares members with Movadef has helped pressure Congress to address poor pay for teachers.
It is not clear, however, if the radicals could again take up weapons; even though most Shining Path rebels have disarmed, they have not renounced violence.
"What's appropriate for today is a political fight without arms. We don't think this is the right moment for an armed fight," Alfredo Crespo, Guzman's lawyer and a Movadef leader, told Reuters at a rally in July at the prison holding the messianic former philosophy professor.
Asked if he had sworn off violence, Crespo said: "This (unarmed) moment could last for quite a while. Besides, violence has always existed in Peru. Look at who applies violence now - the state!"
His comments echoed an ominous message Guzman shouted after his arrest. "Some think this is the big defeat," he said. "This is a bend in the road. Nothing more!"
A "truth commission" blamed Shining Path rebels for most of the killing in one of Latin America's bloodiest civil wars, but said the army caused a third of the deaths. The man who led the crackdown, former President Alberto Fujimori, is in jail too, for corruption and running death squads.
Guzman proposed a truce from prison, ordering his followers to stop fighting while organizing politically for a comeback.
That upset a band of Shining Path rebels in a bundle of jungle valleys known as the VRAE in southeastern Peru. They split with Guzman and continue to ambush soldiers in the cocaine-trafficking regions they guard. Movadef has distanced itself from the VRAE rebels.
Guzman, whose is revered by followers with the zeal of religious converts, called himself the fourth sword of Communism after Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
He thought Mao's tactic of organizing peasants for a "people's war" was more applicable to Peru than a focus on urban workers and imposed his movement on the countryside. Indigenous people comprised 75 percent of the war's victims, the truth commission found.
Academics say the rebels remain committed to revolution.
"They still believe in Guzman's ideas, that violence and terror are necessary but not for now - perhaps because he is still in prison," said Gonzalo Portocarrero, a professor at Lima's Catholic University. Movadef activists recently shouted him down while he gave a talk on "Prophets of Hate," his book about Shining Path.
"This has left them stuck in a contradiction," he said. They want amnesty for Guzman though most Peruvians want him to die in jail, and are forced to cloak their real identity through groups that do not carry Shining Path's stain, Portocarrero said.
Although viewed as pariahs in a society still horrified by the war, people linked to Movadef and Shining Path have set up hardline factions in labor unions.
The head of the national teachers union Rene Ramirez, a member of the communist Patria Roja party that is a historic rival of the Shining Path, said people linked to Movadef have formed a rogue group called Conare to push him out.
"We have detected this infiltration. (Conare) is a front group that acts on the sidelines of the teachers union," Ramirez said.
Conare leader Efrain Condori denied taking orders from Movadef. "We reject the perverse, noxious accusations that we are Movadef. The state and the yellow press want to disqualify us by linking us to Shining Path."
But Condori, like Movadef, supports allowing teachers who served sentences for terrorism back into the classroom, a stance Ramirez calls irresponsible.
Conare also engages in tough tactics. It recently held walkouts across southern Peru, tried to take over an airport and blocked roads to voice its demands, which include doubling the average teacher's salary of 1,200 soles ($460) a month.
Three dead dogs dragged onto a road during a protest brought back memories of 1980, when Shining Path hanged dogs from lamp-posts to protest market-oriented reforms in China after Mao's death.
Patria Roja and other peaceful leftist parties have long criticized the Shining Path's tactics - yet they all dislike Peru's pro-business economic model, now championed by Humala, a former soldier who fought the rebels in the 1990s.
While Humala at first promised statist economic policies to lift up the poor, he later embraced foreign investment.
"The government has renounced its initial promises and united with the reactionary right and businessmen who have always denied rights for workers," said Ramirez.
Leftist parties are competing with Movadef for followers among Peruvians who feel disenfranchised.
"Conare moves in agitated waters to find followers," Ramirez said. "With an ineffective government, groups like the Shining Path are selling its radical ideology to resentful, disappointed people and promising them salvation."
Around 60 percent of Peruvians are still poor in rural areas, where the state has little presence.
"I think what could be a danger is if Movadef is able to become attractive to people who voted for Humala before he changed," researcher Portocarrero said.
While the government is mainly concerned about Movadef and Conare, it also worries about Patria Roja and small parties like Tierra y Libertad - not because they would take up arms, but because they could organize debilitating protests.
Security documents reviewed by Reuters show the armed forces think Movadef and leftist groups have stepped up protests to sow disorder as part of a "common goal: vacating the presidency through a coup by the masses," like demonstrations that brought down leaders in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina over the last decade.
But that appears far-fetched. Peru's left is riddled by bitter rivalries, Humala has strong support from the military and business community, and his 40 percent approval rating makes him the most popular president in years.
What's more, an economy growing 6 percent a year continues to benefit people in cities. The overall poverty rate fell by half to 27 percent in the last decade.
But rural areas have largely been left behind, helping fuel anti-mining protests. The most high-profile conflict, over Newmont Mining's $5 billion gold project in Cajamarca, left five protesters dead and forced Humala to reshuffle his cabinet twice before succumbing to pressure to shelve the project.
One leader of the protests, Gregorio Santos, who belongs to the socialist party MAS and is expected to run for national office, urged Humala's "removal" in a June speech, though he backtracked after critics called him a coup monger.
Prosecutors say they are most focused on Movadef and call jailed rebels unrepentant terrorists who cannot be trusted. Movadef says they are political prisoners who fought to liberate the poor.
Up to 20,000 people with alleged ties to Shining Path or the smaller Tupac Amaru insurgency were detained. Most were released; 654 remain behind bars.
"I'm convinced they want to (eventually) resume the armed fight," public prosecutor Julio Galindo said.
In 1983, Shining Path carried out its most infamous massacre - killing 69 men, women and children in the town of Lucanamarca with hatchets, pick axes and boiling water. Guzman said he wanted to show the town, which had resisted Shining Path's totalitarian ways, that his group was "tough as bone."
The government says Movadef is filling its ranks with young people who never knew the violence that once roiled Peru.
Benedicto Jimenez, a former detective instrumental in catching Guzman, said authorities inadvertently created a rallying cry for Movadef by rejecting the 335,000 signatures it submitted to form a party.
"Movadef as a party wouldn't have had much appeal. It would have been a good gesture. But maybe the state got scared," he said.
Peru's reconciliation process was aborted almost from the start - mainly because the rebels never apologized. Politicians risk vilification if they suggest resocializing former rebels or their families.
"When I was 11, my dad, mom and uncle were jailed for belonging to the Shining Path. They are 14 years into an 18 year sentence," Joel Alejandro Canahualpa, 25, said at a Movadef rally.
"I want an amnesty to free my parents," he said. "I think my dad's fight was a just one and I believe in Guzman's ideas."
Additional reporting by Patricia Velez; Editing by Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham