Seventeen bodies have been exhumed from a 30-year-old shallow grave in Ayacucho, the latest of several such graves to be unearthed by authorities in recent years.
The remains are believed to be those of farmers who were kidnapped by the Shining Path rebel group in the 1980s, but forensic experts are still trying to find out who killed them.
“We are investigating if the Shining Path or the army itself was the cause of death,” said Prosecutor Honorio Casallo Díaz.
Casallo Díaz said it was likely that the victims had been kidnapped from Vilcashuaman in the Ayacucho region in the 1980s. Ayacucho was at the heart of Shining Path activities during the ’80s and locals often found themselves caught between the state and the guerrilla group, with neither side shy about using deadly force on civilians.
The government’s security forces were responsible for around one third of the nearly 70,000 deaths and disappearances during the two-decade conflict with the Shining Path, according to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The mass grave is estimated to be one of more than 4,000 in the country. More than 15,000 people went missing in the ’80s and early ’90s, during Peru’s armed conflict, which was the third-longest internal war in Latin America.
More than two decades later, bodies are slowly being recovered, identified and returned to their families for burial. Many of the victims have never been found.
The Shining Path rebel movement was born out of a Maoist-inspired ideal to overturn what its members saw as a bourgeois democracy. Despite the political ideals and rhetoric, the communities most affected by the internal conflict were the country’s poorest. Thousands of peasants, the majority of them from Quechua-speaking indigenous communities, were killed by both the guerrilla group and Peru’s own security forces.
The organization declined in influence in the ’90s when its main leaders were captured, but is still active in some jungle areas, where members produce and smuggle cocaine. Peru overtook Colombia as the world’s largest producer of coca — the raw ingredient used to manufacture cocaine — in 2013.
Last month the U.S. designated the Shining Path a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” announcing that it had evolved into a “criminal narco-terrorist organization” and freezing the U.S. assets of three of its leaders.