Crossing the Current
Aftermaths of War along the Huallaga River
Richard Kernaghan



malecón huallaga

FIGURE 1.1. Huallaga River

Pressing on for the lowest point, for the ever-most grave, the river with a first cut partitions the valley into two earthen terrains. Only later will these two sides, these moving siblings always lagging far behind currents that hold them apart, become left and right. Orientation appears but only after the initial cut and then only because of gravity’s sway. Does the Huallaga come first? Or do not other smaller streams anticipate its arrival? Tributaries that descend as blades from hills of variable distances, to slice up each side into smaller sections, as they lunge and lunge toward their eventual dive into the mighty Huallaga, where they mix their waters with its waters, into pools whirling round in infinite shades of brown, to swell currents already on their journey down to that faraway encounter where they too will dilute and mix and lose themselves in swirls of color . . .

once, into the Marañón and then again,

as they merge with the Ucayali.

On the second morning she arrived to speak with me in that cement room, Tina described events of recent date: a story where remnants of the war continued the war far from town in the deep beyond of the Huallaga’s left bank. She told me of a place called Bijao, the new frontier she said of timber extraction, where her son-in-law and her daughter had tried their intrepid hands at logging almost two years before. In the extended interlude of waning fury an opportunity arose to uproot all remaining hardwoods from the left bank, not only the majestic mahoganies but the mohenas and the tornillos soon to vanish from the forest. And so, in hopes of securing a livelihood for their future family, they had to venture to that faraway place before it was too late, all the more pressing now because of a pregnancy moving into month five. Because of that baby already on its way, they had a future to think about. And what high expectations her son-in-law had pinned on logging, Tina said, as his new family’s way forward.

If only she had not insisted. . . . If only Sabine had heeded her mother’s advice and admonitions. But her husband’s hopes were her hopes. Where he goes, Sabine said, I will go. Telling Tina, no, she would not stay behind. Not to tend to her infant son. Not in excess concern for a child to come. And so, when they left, she set out with them: crossing the Huallaga, picking up a trail just beyond the left-side hamlet of Bambú, to begin the five-hour journey to Bijao. They were a crew of six: Ítalo and Sabine, with Abel—the then boyfriend and eventual husband of Sabine’s younger sister, Margo—plus three young men Ítalo had recruited to give them a hand.

They had been gone a week when Tina received a folded note, delivered to her house on Malecón Huallaga. It was from Sabine and what it said set Tina at ease. Not to worry, her daughter wrote. They had found an abundance of trees. They were all working in what was a beautiful place.

For several weeks Tina heard nothing more, until one afternoon, after spending the day in the nearby city of Tingo María, she returned home to learn her daughter had suffered a terrible accident. While the men were off felling trees, Sabine was occupying herself with chores at the camp when she slipped on wet ground, falling hard. That first day she said nothing when the men returned late in the afternoon, nothing at all about the bleeding. Day two the hemorrhaging had not stopped, but only when Ítalo noticed how pale Sabine looked did she tell him what had happened and that she feared she was losing their child. Ítalo knew then even more was a stake. And with all the haste they could muster Ítalo, Abel, and one of the workers, named Machín, carried Sabine in a stretcher on the long journey back to town.

When they reached the house, Tina was not there, and her husband, Wilson, had no money to give. So Ítalo and Abel ran door to door, asking friends and neighbors for contributions to pay for urgent care. By the time Tina arrived, they had already departed for the hospital in Tingo María, where doctors would confirm their worst for the child and insist on forcing a miscarriage to save the mother. Tina learned the sad news only later that evening upon her daughter’s return to the house on Malecón Huallaga.

The rhythms of timber extraction did not allow time off for Ítalo to grieve. And with the other two men he departed, early the following morning, again for Bijao, leaving Sabine in Tina’s care. The work crew was now down to five, yet the hazards they faced were only beginning to emerge. A couple of days later two armed men appeared at the camp. They wanted to know: Who among them was named Ítalo Santos? When Ítalo stepped forward, they told him they were from the Communist Party of Peru, that they needed him to buy provisions. They handed him a list with one hundred soles cash, saying that if that were not enough, he would have to make up the difference. Ítalo agreed and, promising to dispatch one of his crew, called out to Machín, asking him to come over. When Machín walked up and Ítalo had explained the errand, the armed men turned to him with this warning: Si tú no llegas, vaya alistando tu cuello. “If you do not return, you might as well begin preparing your neck.”

Machín left right away, taking the two other workers along to help carry back the supplies. In town he checked on prices only to discover he would need upward of 250 soles to complete the list. Short on cash and frightened by what the senderistas—the men from Sendero Luminoso, Shining Path—might do if he dared to show up short handed, Machín decided it was better to stay put.

Two days passed, when back at the camp, Sendero dropped in once again. This time three armed men climbed up to the spot where Ítalo was milling with a “Where’s Machín? He better start getting that neck ready, because he will not be giving us the slip.” That was all they said before turning about and heading back down the hill.

Ítalo asked Abel to go find out what was causing the delay: “These guys are pressuring us here, and we don’t want problems.” Besides, without the help of their crew, the work had slowed to an excruciating pace. So Abel took the trail, descending to the Huallaga River, crossed over and into the town. In no time he had tracked down Machín, who admitted he was scared, too scared to return to the camp. Abel urged him to reconsider. “We’re really close to finishing, and then we can all come home together.” But Machín would not budge, reluctant to give up his distance from Bijao, the only thing separating him from Sendero’s retribution. And in his refusal, there was an intimation of the prevailing political moment, expressed in terms of territorial control. For several streets over, the army had a well-fortified base, with the headquarters of the police nearby—and against neither one nor the other could Sendero gather the will, much less sufficient force, to attack. Such was the moment: suddenly the town, unlike years not so long ago, seemed to offer a modest degree of protection.

Later that evening Machín showed up unexpectedly at Tina’s house with his spirits now high and, to Abel’s surprise, his mind now changed. Thanks to an old debt he had managed to collect, they could acquire the rest of the provisions, and with money to spare! “Let’s go back tomorrow,” he said, “but tonight we should celebrate, and it will be my treat.” Machín and Abel opened a bottle, that became two, and on and on, so much so, that the next morning they woke too hung over to complete the list of supplies, much less travel. When the day after that arrived and they were not even making motions of getting ready to go, Tina began to scold: “Abel! Ítalo is out there alone in the monte. What are you still doing here?”

By this time Sabine was feeling stronger. Three weeks had passed since her fall, eighteen days since losing her unborn child. Worried about her husband, she told her mother she would go with Abel, Machín, and the others when they left for the camp. “Hija,” said Tina, “are you crazy? That’s a terrible idea. You are not going.” But Sabine insisted: “Yes, mamá, I am.”

Since it was already close to noon, Abel, Machín, and Sabine decided to spend what remained of the day packing and resting up so they could depart for Bijao early the next morning. Tina recalled that day, how at Sabine’s request she had prepared her daughter’s favorite food for lunch, and when they were about sit down to eat, they heard a loud banging outside. When they opened the front door, Ítalo stood before them, the last person they had expected to see and drunk as could be. His right hand was heavily bandaged, but he did not want, or was not able, to explain. No, no, nothing had happened, was all he said before his words dissolved into a deep, deep sob. Tina told Sabine to douse him with water; that will bring him to. Even then Ítalo did not talk. He just headed to a room in the back and collapsed on a bed.

Four hours later, Ítalo woke, and finding his wife lying next to him, he told her that he could have been killed. He was all alone at the camp when five men showed up, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, what Tina described to me as “little machine guns, AKM.” Figuring out who was who, out there, was not straightforward. If the war had already receded from the town, across the river it raged on in ways that still felt familiar: in minor details on which the fate of worlds seemed to turn. They were armed with AKM; surely that must have meant Sendero? But Tina insisted that no: they could not have been senderistastheir hair was cut way too short. They must have been Servicio de inteligencia. Rather than express my doubts, I wondered aloud if they might have been an elite group of army commandos stationed in Tingo María. Tina nodded, before going on:

“Anyway, they arrived more or less around one in the afternoon, and to Ítalo they said, ‘Hey, concha tu madre, get over here. . . . You are a terruco.’

The word terruco was an off-the-cuff expression for terrorista/terrorist, though I had heard people from the countryside more commonly use the diminutive tuco, which seemed to carry less sting and even a certain tinge of endearment. In the Huallaga neither Tina nor anyone else claimed to know the origins of the word.1 And while from afar it would seem fair, if not incumbent, to search into shadowy ancestries of Indo-European languages where terror and territory might appear inextricably linked,2 when I say terruco out loud, again and again, it sounds awfully close to terrón, a clod of earth, and even more so to another word for clod: terruño, which is also natal place, or more colloquially still, a plot of land. What tied all these distinct gradations of sense to one another? The answer seemed important, and especially so in the Huallaga Valley, where for many years, simply making a living from the soil or the forest was to leave oneself open to accusation. Here, however, the lead-in phrase concha tu madre / motherfucker set the tone for everything that would follow.

“I am not a terruco”—Ítalo insisted.

“You are a logger!”—(They did find him milling.)

“I am a logger, yes.”

“Well then, loggers are terrucos.”

Tina conveyed, compressed there into this ever-so-brief dialogue,3 what had once been a frequent scene of counterinsurgency and, more broadly too, what had commonly happened when one fatefully came face-to-face with one of the sides at war: questioning under extreme duress. Questioning that crafted brute syllogisms repeated again and again to draw equivalences, again and again, between persons and things that would not have been equal otherwise in less turbulent, political times—times when armed men would not show up without warning. Questioning that made those equations, no matter how dubious, stick through threats of impending harm—concha tu madre—perhaps even death. At least out there and at that moment when Ítalo was alone and unable to defend any other claim, just as long as they all had their weapons trained on him.

One of the men, which Tina was now calling commandos, pulled out a combat knife and, stepping forward, brought its serrated blade up to Ítalo’s face. “Here all loggers are terrucos,” he said, passing the blade’s cool metal back and forth, with a soft stroking motion, to make his point, across Ítalo’s right cheek:

“You must be a terruco too.”

For a brief second the commando stepped back, time enough for Ítalo to raise his right hand to cover his face, but immediately the guy leaned back in, pressing the blade’s sharp teeth into Ítalo’s hand, cutting deep and drawing blood.

“If I chopped you up and dumped you right here,” the commando said, “it would cost me not a thing. Nothing would happen.” Then the man said, this time, they would let him off with a warning, but only in exchange for his word: “Look, if someone comes this way, concha tu madre, you have not crossed paths with us. You have not seen us. Are we agreed?”

All this Ítalo told Sabine, alone in their bedroom. All this is what Sabine then relayed to her mother, before announcing she would return to the logging camp. “But you are frail,” Tina pleaded with her. “No, mother, no matter what, I am going. I cannot stay. . . . If they kill us, they can kill us both.”

That was but the beginning of what Tina shared with me, that second morning after meeting for the very first time, back in 2002—the second moment we spoke of her life and about the many histories that touched her, passed through her, that pushed her along. As I will later describe, Tina was introduced to me by a distant cousin Mauro, as a result of my brief role as a researcher for Peru’s national truth commission.4 And though Tina had already given her personal testimony to a local representative of that timely documentary project, about the family members she had lost in the war, Mauro had asked her to speak with me about the broader contexts and events of the conflict, explaining too—though I believe this was not altogether news to her—that I had already visited her town many times and had lived there too, off and on, in recent years. Yet, out of all of what Tina shared that second day, what resonated most, so much so that it has persisted with me ever since, was the overwhelming impression of an impossible place, set at an unfathomable remove—out there: across the river, folded in haze, straining sight but also looking back—an eye clouded over, deep in the left bank, to where everyday events of war had withdrawn so that they might continue. Out there—where Tina, and other people too, would tell me I could not go, not for any length of time—a turbulence persisted to interrupt and render impracticable any and all attempts at securing livelihoods viable and enduring. A turbulence still familiar to this town and palpable too, because of all that had happened before, because of all the war had left in its wake.

This much Tina would have me know: over there, on the other side of the Huallaga River, events still moved in heady swings and swerves that always seemed to turn dire. For what became of the intense hopes and strivings her daughter and son-in-law had wagered on logging deep in the left bank? Something near total loss, Tina said. For not one day after returning to the camp, Sendero summoned Ítalo and Abel to a meeting for area loggers. There they would learn about taxes they would have to pay on every shipment, but the real problem was what happened next. On the trail back to their camp, an army patrol lay in wait to surprise them and force them to lead soldiers back to the very place where the senderistas lingered still, where the patrol would launch an attack and where one of the senderistas in the fury of battle would catch a glimpse of Ítalo. And it was nothing short of astonishing that, despite all that, Ítalo and Abel managed to make it back to their camp, physically unharmed but knowing all too well what they had to do.

“No, Sabine, no; we must go. No time to explain. No time to grab your things.”

The crew abandoned the left bank, leaving behind everything in their haste: cargos of timber and all their equipment. Yet taking with them, in their retreat, their lives but also something new, for now Sendero had Ítalo in their sights as a traitor, as a soplón, and they would not let him go. And so Sabine and Ítalo had no choice but to run. No choice but to flag down a car on the highway, with no time to pack, say good-byes. No choice but to leave the Upper Huallaga altogether, because withdrawing to another region of the country and starting over there was the only way to escape the Party’s vindictive reach. Ítalo, to my knowledge, never did return, and though I know all of Tina’s other children and most of her closest kin, to this day I have never met Sabine—though Tina does tell me that she goes to visit her now and again in the city of Pucallpa.

Flight on a moment’s notice: a situation that before had hovered so close it became familiar enough to haunt each and every day. On a moment’s notice, the command might come to run. And run you could. People would tell you how senseless it would be to do anything else. How intrepid and reckless it would be to stay put and not heed a threat of imminent death. And yet the airs of the intrepid and reckless were precisely what populated so many stories of the recent past, when people spoke as if everyone seemed to be seeking fortunes that, except for the extended embrace of their dreams, far outsized the possibilities of their present circumstances. People spoke as if most everyone seemed willing to take their chances until the moment tides turned. And yet those times were now decidedly in the past, here and now in this town, all the while that over there, they somehow carried on. Here and now, in that cement room near the center of town, Tina sat across from me, rather than out there on the river where she had worked for so many years, the last few with Sabine helping at her side. Even so and even here in that room, with walls reverberating the morning sounds of traffic in and near the plaza, she was in movement, always in movement, and especially so when she launched into a story, like the one she told that day and of which I have relayed barely a fragment.

Tina spoke to me of events from 2000. She spoke of them two years later, when we first coincided: already a moment when political circumstances region-wide were changing in ways that felt new. She spoke of a turbulence unbearable over there. She spoke as if, out there, in a place named Bijao, time were still a weather most foul. And yet between the here in town and a recent out there deep in the Huallaga’s left bank, the broader political modifications under way expressed themselves most overtly underfoot and overhead, which is to say, in altered situations of territory.

By the year 2000, the left bank of the river remained sparsely inhabited. The most visible effects of the army’s empty-the-countryside operations lingered on in the sheer dearth of people. The movement to populate the left bank once again had barely begun, such that two years later when I met Tina, she was only starting to speak of it. Even so, by the year 2000 a generalizing tendency of the coming territorial shifts could be discerned—a year when far away in Lima, the fraudulent reelection of Alberto Fujimori to the presidency roiled national politics, leading to the widespread discontent that would precipitate his flight from the country and the installation of a transitional government.5 In the Upper Huallaga, meanwhile, a tenuous arc could be sketched, marking off the slow retreat of military conflict. The hostilities that had once persisted on both sides of the river would gradually become confined to the left bank and, with every passing year, to ever-more-specific regions and ever-smaller sectors of that other side. And at every point along that sweeping line of retreat, the legal relations that entangled people with actual, material terrains would remain unsettled.

Malecón: a thin dirt road, sometimes no more than a path from which one could look out across the water, from where I could see rolling hills, row after row, ridge after reclining ridge, until they converged with faraway horizons. Somewhere in between the malecón and that receding, and most removed, line were the things I heard about but could not directly experience. What I could do was look out at the expanse and weigh what came back in the distances that could not collapse, those rolling hills, those clouds and how they pressed on, one into the other.

Every town bordering the Huallaga has its malecón: a ridge of earth running alongside the river where a road appears to ride that raised bank in its gradual decline toward low-lying places where canoes gather at water’s edge. Whether ridge or road, the malecón of the community where Tina lives traces the entire west side of town, drawing from the south a northward line that slopes downward, block after block, heading toward the main port in its slow fall to the water. The house of Tina’s family sits beside that road, such that in the years to come to visit her at home meant coming face-to-face with the river and looking, even if for the briefest of moments, at the currents and beyond them to the other side.

So many times arriving at Tina’s house, so many times gazing out across the river from Malecón Huallaga.

In the mid-1990s, in what were her later years as a botera, or river canoe operator, years when she ferried people and their things back and forth between La Roca, on the right bank, and Venenillo, on the left, Tina would leave Sabine in charge whenever she had errands to attend to in town. The story Tina told me on our second day recounted Sabine’s decision to break out on her own. A chance to craft a livelihood with her husband and future family, a chance that ended in misery. Tina, when I first met her in the early 2000s, had her own hopes set on faring somewhat better. She told me that soon she would leave her work as a ferry operator. She had her sights trained on the left bank of the Huallaga, where in a place called Magdalena she would recover her father’s farm in order to try her hand as a campesina once again.

Tina would be going back to the land. Nevertheless, the geographic features of the left bank barely appeared in the story of what her daughter and daughter’s husband had faced only two years prior. Even as lines of territory were roughly intimated, their legal situations too, through a handful of topological figures—hills, trails, ravines, the river (always the river), Tina relayed few details of the landscape itself and almost nothing of what hovered overhead. And yet if political time turns on territory somehow, material terrains themselves perhaps should not be disregarded: not the grounds underfoot or their particular alignment with what presses down from above. For every iteration of political climate expresses a precise relation, an alliance even, between earth and sky.

To ask, in a political sense, what time it is—here and also over there—is to ask what the weather is like—here but also over there. The weather as a momentary yet prevailing political climate is what people in the Huallaga would in casual conversation refer to as la situación, a phrase often weighted in tones more somber than the words surrounding it. Sometimes, to tell the time is but a matter of looking up at the skies for army or police helicopters that might still appear. Or for the Cessnas that no longer do, thanks in part to a region-wide no-fly zone, previously enforced by the Peruvian Air Force and, as one might have learned, with occasional help from some CIA contractors. What’s in or what’s not in the sky can reveal something tangible about the moment—here as well as over there.

Political time can appear in a fleeting atmospheric convergence, whereby movements of air—winds and clouds with their pressures and precipitations—momentarily reach down to touch the earth. It might also name how material terrains simultaneously further and condition political circumstances—circumstances that unfold as historically specific denotations that ramify rumors of how this is this and how that is that. Legal topographies will be the notion I lean on to turn attention toward empirical relations, where lived encounters sometime brush uncomfortably close or where they sometimes are held in check instead as critical distances—palpable expanses across which visible and audible gestures might be conveyed, voids with vibratory charges that are far more often contemplated in silence. The notion of legal topographies asks about commands and threats and so many seizures that leave stings behind to fester, from which claims might later swell as an assertion of rights or as an appeal to unmet obligations. Above all, it points to where one can go—depending on who one is in a prevailing political moment—so as to tease out how empirical relations become implicated in material things and in what surrounds them.

Here in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the extent to which relations of territory and terrain have shifted may resonate in stories told of the war, which render, if faintly, their former outlines. Other intimations may come in fragments ever so small. Through the material traces of historical events that haunt ordinary lives and fieldwork encounters too. Through the abrasions that some bodies accrue as they wear long, thin, and out. In the accidents that happen and the woundings that linger on in senses both mutable and irreversible. In the ways some bodies mend, and in the ways some circumstances refuse to go back to what they were, but without for all that disappearing. The forgotten back injury that returns to keep a mototaxi driver off the streets. The limp sounding off in a cocalero’s every step. The timber beam that dropped to smash a raft operator’s thumb. Tina’s persistent fears of falling. In each of these fragments something of the past endures, sometimes offering glimpses of what might best be forgotten.

All histories have senses that are reversible, which run alongside others irretrievable, on account of what cannot be undone, and on account of the choices that now become constrained to their aftermaths. I have attempted with this book to follow some of those senses, ethnographically, from moments when the Upper Huallaga remained roiled in wakes of war: to trace what returns, while noting what quietly persists amid all that which does not repeat. This book thus strives to move ever closer to the region’s riverine terrains: to what is most obvious and to all that shimmers beside and through the obvious as a semblance of something at once there and no longer there. The approach I have favored here takes inspiration from anthropology, understood as an intellectual tradition, which does not hold to national boundaries or care much about affirming disciplinary distinctions. What I appreciate about that tradition, and what keeps pulling me toward it, are those strands that assert an empiricist orientation by privileging events and relations through a strong sensibility for aesthetics.6 Those strands understand ethnography to be an expressive task, which pushes description to the point where it acquires conceptual resonances, to that point where images unexpectedly emerge. For me ethnography entails finding a way of working that closely aligns with a place of inquiry. By persisting with that place, a process of sorts can take shape, which might allow for the particular, ever-shifting, features of that place to teach singular ways of working. The writing of this book bears the traces of that teaching; above all it conveys a patience, which I might describe as a deliberate hover—not because that’s how I would have wanted it but because that was what the place of inquiry repeatedly imposed. And yet, in moving slow, if only because the place interrupted my best attempts to move fast, I have stumbled onto a principle or two about what ethnography demands, as I grasp it and as I would practice it—not because it is better in some generalizable way but, hopefully, because it can express something different, somehow.

Fieldwork generates fragments. Ethnographic writing explores those fragments with a patient piecing and re-piecing together. Where that examination does not belittle those pieces but affirms their partiality, it may, sometimes, tap into a kind of latent force. To do that—to find that force of the fragment—perhaps all that is needed is a little creative autonomy, some breathing room to compose. What’s more, since efforts of recollection, continually striving to remember what has just happened, occupy no minor part of fieldwork and fieldwork-based writing, returning to that place, again and again, to grasp how it is changing, while also reaching toward receding moments of pasts that are largely unknown, amid storms that come and go, can create the impression of percolating back and forth through strata of time. This happens in hearing stories people share. It happens in the silences they also keep. It transpires as well in what can be strongly felt without words rising up or falling into place. For even if there is no escape from being carried off in presents that always pass, ethnographic writing moves along cusps of experience, while trying to grasp at other moments now gone: listening, sensing, gauging with a sideways glance.

The place to where I have been returning is a coca-growing region on the eastern slopes of the Andes of central Peru, known as the Upper Huallaga Valley, which beginning in the early 1980s became a stronghold of the Maoist Shining Path.7 That setting has encouraged me to think about how war couples with forgetting. Or in another phrasing: how prior military conflicts (with their repetitions of the same, secret societies, atmospherics of threat and command) come to inhere in postwar landscapes in ways not altogether evident. In this book I am concerned with how the presents of war and postwar pass and how, in passing, they introduce changes, of which in the Upper Huallaga many of the most prominent have been territorial. Where spatial prohibitions have waxed and waned. Where, between town and country, the very material surfaces upon which transit happens have demanded vigilance—because precarious and ever vulnerable to sabotage. Where in the countryside the insurgency claimed dominion over all property in land, all the while thwarting road construction and repair. Where army forts arrived, starting in the towns and spreading from there, to reorder the lay of the valley and what flowed across it in their wake. All this so that later the departure of war might be easily read—as if through some mere reversal of sense—in the rehabilitation of a trunk highway or in the proliferation of dirt roads, reaching out to what had been the most politically remote of hamlets. In the retitling of rural land too, and in the slow shuttering of counterinsurgency bases. All this within the onset of new times that allowed so little space to reflect on how the past lingered, woven so thoroughly into the landscapes of aftermath, or why it was that now most anywhere could feel safe to go, even in the dark of night.

These varied and variable expressions of shifting territory suggest that the specificities of political time can be discerned through careful attention to configurations of matter and movement and to the events that bring them together. The notion legal topographies refers to the empirical relations that emerge through those events to reveal how political time meets terrain, where presents of war and postwar, in their very passing, continually bring earth and sky into ephemeral alliance.

This book has emerged out of materials gathered during multiple fieldwork visits to two Huallaga towns prominent in the Peruvian government’s counterinsurgency war with Shining Path: Nuevo Progreso and Aucayacu. Though separated by a mere forty-five kilometers, throughout the conflict the social distance between them seemed appreciable even though in some respects they have shared many enduring characteristics. Both towns fall pressed, as it were, between the region’s main overland thoroughfare—the Marginal Highway—and the river that gives the valley its name; both have small populations, numbering but several thousand. Their respective significance, historical but also topographic, resides elsewhere: in their tangled relations with the hamlets and rural expanses that surround them, most important, those that lie on other side of the Huallaga River: the so-called margen izquierda or left bank.

For a good twenty years, spanning the early 1980s and, in some corners, until the mid-2000s, the left bank was another political world. Zona roja: where Sendero Luminoso organized rural hamlets into bases of political and logistical support. The left bank was also where coca could be grown in fields far less accessible to the police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Because the river impeded easy entry and made all who crossed extremely visible and thus exposed to ambush, surprise raids were harder to pull off, requiring helicopters and specially trained teams that could slip in and out. The river also lent a hand to the insurgency’s goal of shaping the composition of rural communities, whether that meant keeping tabs on who moved back and forth between the Huallaga’s shores or banishing under threat of death or, if it came to that, killing, those the Party deemed socially undesirable. Such areas of Shining Path influence existed on the right bank too, especially in the hills farthest from the highway. But those places proved far more susceptible to armed intervention by Peruvian police or military, which hindered the insurgency’s territorial expansion. The right bank, if always vulnerable throughout the war, fell more fully into the sphere of state influence. This was especially true for the towns, which had police stations, administrative offices of local and national government, and eventually, with the declaration of emergency rule, bases of the army. Thus, when rural communities on the left bank looked out across the river’s currents, toward Nuevo Progreso or Aucayacu, they faced island outposts of the Peruvian state. In this manner the Huallaga became the threshold separating one political world from another, a moving material line, laden with turbulence.

The river is arguably what first shapes the region’s legal topographies. Even when that source goes unacknowledged, the Huallaga’s material force resonates in specific routes that roads follow, in shifting physical contours of towns and shoreline farms, no less than in regimes of properties set at a remove from the river’s basin, beyond the reach of seasonal floods. Here the question of how the river relates to its tributaries reappears. For if the Marginal Highway would by the mid-1970s displace the Huallaga as the preferred transportation route through the valley, most of the major locations and settlements though which the road passed (and passes to this day) were named for small streams. These were places where traffic in the earliest years of the road had no choice but to slow and often stop, to contend with the steady flows of low water—descending toward the Huallaga—places that, following intense rains, could become impassable until a series of small bridges were finally built to lift the road up and over. This is all to say the empirical relations of legal topography cannot be separated from the same material terrains, which produce and impinge upon them, not without altering characteristics that are essential to them. Political time moves through those relations precisely at those points where earth and sky entwine. If so, perhaps it is only in intersections of matter, image, and sensation that those movements can be most tangibly grasped.

Again: What do I mean by political time? Sometimes I mean the utilitarian bent of the present and how its particular distribution of unequal rights and obligations becomes common sense. Sometimes I mean time as weather: that Hobbesian all against all fury of civil unrest, which haunts enduring ties between people and property (the very things they would call their own), threatening to sever and dissolve them. Sometimes I mean the little contracts people make with their everyday environments so they might blend in: the “reciprocal topographies” people establish when they appear and carry themselves as current expedience demands, which takes on a heightened urgency in eras of war and immediate postwar, where eliding certain distinctions and even camouflaging (parts of selves, sympathies, and deeds) become imperative, given the legal-existential risks and inducements of the situation.8 Sometimes I mean a specific positioning within and toward a lived milieu, which in aftermaths of war entails a palpable reorientation or a shifting of axes—here subtle, there drastic—toward geographic settings, including the movements that may be made through those terrains. From this side of the river to that. Ahead, round that next kink in the road. And now, coming into view over there, that hill: strange how it no longer seems somehow better to just look away.


1. Concerning the linguistic emergence of terruco, Aguirre suggests some possible paths: most likely from the southern Andes region of Ayacucho, resulting from a crossover of the Spanish terrorista into Quechua, though he concedes there might have been a more profound entanglement as well with words of Quechua descent (2011:118–119). Aguirre’s main concern, however, is with the racializing, stigmatizing, classificatory power that terruco acquired during the war: often as synonymous with the pejorative indio (Indian), designating people of Andean ancestry, presumed to be of darker complexion. For a genealogy of the term terrorism in Peru, tracked back to the country’s beginnings as the republic in the early nineteenth century, see Méndez (2021), who lends clues as well for understanding more recent, less racially marked “postwar” political uses of terruco and variants (terruquear, teruqueo).

2. Though perhaps it’s better to exercise caution with etymological inquiries and consider the advice of Anidjar, who specifically with regard to these two terms underscores the uncertain, “unsettled,” and ultimately undecidable character of what might have linked them together at some, much earlier, time: where words for earth, land, territory, burn, dry, warding away by frightening, and others still, all appear somehow but never definitively connected (2004:54–55, 67).

3. “Oye, concha tu madre, ven acá.”

“Tu eres terruco.”

“No soy terruco.”

“Tú eres maderero.”

“Sí, soy maderero.”

“Ya pues, los madereos son terrucos.”

4. La Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR; Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission). See notes 20–21.

5. On the popular mobilizations that led to Fujimori’s demise at the start of his third term in office, see Ilizarbe 2017; and Poole and Rénique 2000.

6. If I had to name some of the expressions or places where I see the potential of that tradition, either realized or simply lingering, I might mention the ever-so-brief “Carnaval de Tambobamba” by José María Arguedas; Natalie Sarraute’s early work on tropisms; fieldwork reports by Zora Neale Hurston; stories by Heinrich von Kleist; a handful of Robert Walser’s microscripts; Kathleen Stewart’s writing on Barton Springs, Appalachia, or New England; Lauren Berlant’s reflections on intuition; various passages from Hugh Raffles’s Insectopedia and others still from works by Michael Taussig; the cinematic projects of Rebecca Baron; numerous scenes from the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien or of Gianfranco Annichini Somalvico or from the first feature of Bi Gan; the dreamwork of Michel Leiris; and the most ethnographic of chapters in César Calvo Soriano’s Las tres mitades de Ino Moxo.

7. The Communist Party of Peru–Shining Path / El Partido Comunista del Perú–Sendero Luminoso (PCP-SL) is a Marxist political-military organization, originally inspired by Mao and in particular by his Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s the group began to organize clandestinely in Ayacucho, one of the most economically and socially marginalized areas of the southern Peruvian highlands, in preparation for “armed struggle” against the Peruvian state. The launching of Shining Path’s insurrection, or what it called “people’s war,” in 1980 was symbolically timed to begin as the country carried out elections for a civilian president. Widely cited as the pivotal event that would plunge Peru into an extended period of civil war, Shining Path’s embrace of acts of violence also expressed its absolute rejection of the decision taken by other leftist parties to participate in electoral politics following twelve years of military rule. In retrospect, it is easy to overlook the degree to which Shining Path was once a hermetic, highly disciplined organization that spoke primarily and most stridently through sabotage and selective assassination, which the organization justified with pronouncements that could make sense only to those deeply versed in a Maoist reading and philosophy of history. Seemingly out of nowhere, from beginnings quite humble, and always on a shoestring budget, the Party’s violent, often highly theatrical, actions would by the end of the 1980s achieve a territorial breadth that left few regions unscathed. Militarily, Shining Path would prove less able: tending to fare poorly in any direct engagements with the Peruvian Armed Forces. And yet it was the unexpected, and in many ways unplanned, police arrest of a majority of the Party’s senior leadership, including Shining Path luminary Abimael Guzmán, aka Presidente Gonzalo, in September 1992 that would dramatically undermine its trajectory. From there everything would go downhill for the Maoist Party. Guzmán’s subsequent attempts from captivity to enter into peace talks with the Fujimori government effectively split the movement between those favoring negotiations and those refusing to end the armed struggle. By the mid-1990s the insurgency, amid continual losses from military and police operations and increasingly divided, ceased to have the organizational and political capacity to threaten the stability of the Peruvian state. Vastly diminished pro-Guzmán and anti-Guzmán factions of the insurgency would survive, however, and for years to come: each in their own territorial areas, largely within separate geographic regions of the eastern tropical slopes of the Andes closely tied to the coca/cocaine trade.

The scholarly literature on Shining Path’s rise is vast. The following are essential reading: Degregori 1989, 1990; Manrique 1989; del Pino 1996, 1998, 2017; La Serna 2012; Poole and Rénique 1992; CVR 2003, II:23–169; Stern 1998; and Heilman 2010. There has also been important work by Peruvian historians based on prison interviews with militants, including the principal leaders of the Party (i.e., Rénique 2003; Zapata Velasco 2017). The literature on Shining Path in the Upper Huallaga is much less robust, but see CVR 2003, V:186–208, 259–281. Sendero Luminoso was not the only leftist organization to carry out significant armed actions against the Peruvian state during the 1980s and 1990s. The Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA)—ideologically less radical and cut from a more familiar Cuba-inspired mold—offered an alternative to Sendero for those who also felt electoral politics could not achieve significant social reforms. See La Serna 2020; and CVR 2003, II:254–288.

8. How imperatives of blending in with one’s surroundings become a crucial feature of shifts in political time (from war into their aftermaths) will be an abiding concern going forward, especially in Chapter 7. Here and there, I borrow the felicitous phrase “reciprocal topographies” from Roger Caillois’s early work on animal mimicry (1984).