LIMA, Peru (AP) — The capture of the Shining Path's last remaining ideologue may be a blow to the once-potent guerrilla group but is unlikely to diminish the illicit cocaine trade that financed it, Peruvian analysts said Monday.
Comrade Artemio, whose authorities say was captured Sunday, had lived more than two decades as a fugitive, leading one of two remnants of the fanatical Maoist-oriented Shining Path.
The 50-year-old rebel, a self-described Marxist whose given name is Florindo Flores, was said by a spokesman for the chief prosecutor's office on Sunday to have suffered two bullet wounds to the abdomen three days earlier in circumstances authorities have yet to explain.
He was flown to Lima on Sunday and there was no word on his condition after an operation he was said to have had to remove two bullets.
Unanswered Monday was whether anyone would receive the reward of up to $5 million the United States, which bankrolls Peru's coca eradication program, had offered for information leading to Artemio's arrest.
Attacks by Artemio's 150-man column had diminished in recent years, as he lost several key lieutenants who authorities captured or killed, but he continued to extort legitimate businesses in the Upper Huallaga Valley and to tax drug traffickers, authorities say,
Defense Minister Alberto Otarola said in a radio interview Monday that Artemio's capture had freed the Huallaga of "terror" and would permit a climate of peace.
Peruvians have hailed President Ollanta Humala for the rebel leader's capture, but analysts say Artemio could easily be replaced.
Drug trafficking expert Jaime Antezana said Artemio's capture means only that the biggest armed group in the valley has been dismantled.
Artemio could easily be replaced by leaders of the hundreds of gunmen in the service of cocaine traffickers who protect drug labs and serve as armed escorts for the "backpackers" who haul cocaine up over the Andes ridge for export, he said.
Artemio's column was primarily an armed band in the service of traffickers but also got directly involved in 2006 in buying and selling cocaine, said Antezana.
He said the group had killed at least 29 people since 2004, mostly police who had made cocaine seizures. Peru's chief prosecutor said Sunday that Artemio could be sentenced to life in prison for crimes including drug trafficking and terrorism.
Peru is the world's No. 2 producer after Colombia of coca, the basis for cocaine, although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it has just surpassed its Andean neighbor in potential cocaine production.
One strongman who could fill the vacuum created by Artemio's capture is the leader of the other Shining Path remnant, Victor Quispe Palomino, known as Comrade Jose.
His faction operates in another coca-growing region, the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, or VRAE, south of the Upper Huallaga. Unlike the Upper Huallaga, the late 19th-century cradle of Peru's cocaine trade, no coca crop eradication has ever been done in the VRAE.
Comrade Jose leads a group that Artemio has called simple mercenaries with no ideological affinity for the Shining Path, which a truth commission blamed for the bulk of nearly 70,000 killings in Peru's 1980-2000 internal conflict.
Artemio, by contrast, was one of the most loyal cadres of Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path founder captured in 1992 who is in prison for life.
Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Martin Villena contributed to this report.