|Peruvian police are on the trail of Shining Path once more [Josh Rushing]
In the latest part of his series, On War, former marine Josh Rushing travelled to the Peruvian jungle to track down the armed Maoist group, Shining Path, who were responsible for killing thousands of civilians in the 1980s and are active once more.
Major Matthew Joganovich insists the US mission in and around the Peruvian city of Ayacucho is "temporary and humanitarian."
Chinook helicopters ferry American troops from the Cabitos air base to nearby villages to "build schools, clinics and conduct medical exercises".
Joganovich says the only the thing the US intends to leave behind is "lasting relations with local Peruvians" and that American personnel are not armed when working in the field.
But, despite such affirmations, American presence in this Andean region, several hundred kilometres south-east of the capital Lima, is a source of painful memories for some locals who remember coca eradication campaigns conducted in past decades.
A demonstration taking place in Ayacucho calling for a general strike demonstrates this animosity with a call for the removal of American troops, or "yanquis", among the protesters' demands.
Joganovich says the Peruvian government selected Ayacucho province as the location for US humanitarian work in the country.
However, suspicions have been raised that the area may also have been selected because it also the birthplace of the Shining Path (Sendero Lumino), the hardline Maoist group responsible for killing thousands of civilians in Peru's 13 year conflict throughout the 1980s and 90s – a group that is now resurgent and active once more.
The people of Ayacucho province suffered greatly in the conflict between 1980 and 1992 that left an estimated 70,000 people dead.
The Huamanga university in Ayacucho city was seen as a breeding ground for communists in the late 1960s and 70s. The Shining Path's founder Abimael de Guzman was a philosophy professor there.
After de Guzman's arrest and imprisonment in 1992 the group gave up their arms and mountain bases, save for an estimated 200 fighters who disappeared into the jungle.
The group resurfaced in Ayacucho. In 2007 Shining Path fighters bombed a military convoy, engaging soldiers in a gun battle that killed seven civilians and twelve troops. It was the worst attack in a decade.
In September a Shining Path fighter was killed near Vizcatan in nearby Junin province and four soldiers wounded. Further clashes have since been reported.
When Al Jazeera visits the area narcotics police have been searching cars and up to 50 or 60 buses every night on the main highway between Ayacucho and the Peruvian capital Lima.
|Coca farms are now the focus of Shining Path's activities [Josh Rushing]
Authorities believe that the Shining Path are now funded and armed through illegal drug activities, a policy that is more mafia than Mao.
Tracking down the fighters requires visiting the Apurimac valley where coca fields dot the surrounding countryside.
Antonio Dominguez, a coca farmer in the valley has had previous encounters with the Shining Path, "Sendero" as locals refers to them.
"Sendero arrived with the idea that the land was going to be for everybody. We would work without owners and without exploitation," he says.
"But then in 1986 Sendero got more militant and they started killing the small farmers that had just a little more land or money… By 1988 they became even more corrupt. And they would kill for women, for jealousy, small things. So the people started rebelling against them."
Dominguez fled the valley in the face of this violence but has since returned to farming because he says it is the best way to support his family, sending one daughter through university with the money he’s made.
Coca farming is legal in Peru but the profits of selling to the official government coca agency, Enaco, are far less than the money to be made by selling to drug dealers.
Dominguez sells half of his crop to Enaco, primarily he says, to prevent investigation from the police.
He says members of the Shining Path "appeared out of the blue" offering to protect his farm.
"They said as usual, that they were fighting against the imperialist Yankees and the corrupt government and that they are defending us. That we can relax because they are protecting us, and we have nothing to worry because they’ve changed their policies."
After Al Jazeera finishes speaks with Dominguez, about 20 men descend on his farm asking if we were there to begin coca eradication. It is unclear if they are Shining Path members.
Four helicopters supplied by the US monitor the area, occasionally destroying a coca processing laboratory, but eradication is no longer a priority for the US as much of the cocaine from Peru is exported to Europe rather than the US.
|So-called self-defence groups say they protect civilians from Shining Path [Josh Rushing]
In one such laboratory, deep in the jungle, 30-year-old Marina works mixing chemicals and processing coca leaves.
She refuses to confirm whether as part of their new mafia style strategy the Shining Path protects the facility, saying only it is "men's work".
In the nearby town of Santa Ana, Manuel Gallegos and his so-called self defence force say they are the only real fighters in the area.
The groups were formed in the 1980s to protect local villagers and peasants from the Shining Path – a role Gallegos says they are performing again after several clashes with fighters he refers to as "subversives".
"Many people get confused thinking that those who cultivate are the traffickers, but no, we are farmers," he says.
For this reason the self-defence group is not opposed to drug traffickers and, given that the Shining Path claim to be helping traffickers, it is often difficult to determine who they are actually fighting.
Santa Ana, the town they claim to be protecting, is also a testament to the confusion. It is very much a town that drugs built.
The only paved street is dotted with pharmacies - owning one legally permits you to buy the chemicals needed to process cocaine. Most of the young men own brand new motorcycles and there is a thriving red light district.
Guillermo Parodi's family ran a vacation centre that was destroyed by the Shining Path in 1983.
After more than 23 years away in Europe he returned to revive the family dream in the valley and demonstrate that drugs are not the only way to turn a profit.
Following death threats and incursions by armed groups on his land, Parodi says it is often difficult to tell who the aggressors are in an are riven with insecurity and violence.
"It's a never-ending story," he says. "And nobody knows anymore whether it's terrorism, whether it's a drug business, whether there's a joint venture between them."
|Shining Path claim they do not target civilians
Al Jazeera finally receives a call that the Shining Path want to talk.
The rendezvous requires an arduous journey deep into the jungle laid flat in the back of a truck to avoid revealing the presence of "gringos" in the area.
Suddenly a hooded man emerges from the undergrowth armed with the same antique shotgun as the self-defence forces. Other figures appear to be moving in the surrounding jungle.
"We only offer protection to the drug dealers, that's it. We don’t work in the business and don't deal. Many people would say so but we don’t. We are not narco-terrorists,” he says.
The fighters claim that this time they are working in the interest of civilians rather than targeting them.
"They weren’t fighting over the right things. Now we are raising the politics. We are starting a new life. We want our fight to be clean.
"Someday I'll fall and I'll die. But any day that I don't fall I am alive and I am continuing the fight."
The man disappears as he arrived – silently and it remains unclear whether the Shining Path are a revolutionary armed resistance group or simply a disparate group of criminal opportunists.