LIMA, Peru — Soldiers and anti-terrorist police are continuing to comb densely forested Andean foothills in the hunt for the Shining Path rebels who kidnapped 36 gas workers last week.
The hostages were released unharmed on Saturday, apparently as the guerrilla group melted into the jungle to flee the 1,500 troops and 200 specialist police closing in on them.
“The order is to catch them dead or alive,” said Gen. Luis Howell, head of Peru’s armed forces, from the Amazonian town of Kiteni as he oversaw the massive manhunt for the group of around 30 Shining Path fighters.
But that may be easier said than done with the kidnappers hiding in some of the most challenging terrain on the planet — the dense, precipitous cloud forests where the Andes and Amazon overlap.
Despite being less than 100 miles as the crow flies from the tourism hotspot of Cusco, the zone could not be more inaccessible, with the guerrilla group believed to be hacking their way with machetes through the thick undergrowth.
The mass kidnapping was a highly unusual tactic for the Shining Path, which in its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s plunged Peru into a civil war that killed nearly 70,000 people.
More from GlobalPost: Peru backs the US drug war
“They talk in code believing that this will throw us off their trail,” one police officer told Peruvian newspaper La Republica. “The important thing is to detect where their [radio] receivers are.
“That way we can precisely locate them. That explains why they have responded with gunfire to the hunt. They are losing.”
The soldiers and police have the support of a fleet of 10 helicopter gunships, six Russian Mi-17s belonging to the police and four American Huey IIs belonging to the army.
Yet that overwhelming firepower also provides few guarantees. In recent years, the Shining Path has downed several army helicopters.
On April 12, one of its snipers shot and killed the co-pilot, Nancy Flores Paucar, of one police helicopter as it tried to land in a clearing during an attempted rescue operation.
She is one of a total of four police and soldiers to have died so far in the operation. Another 10 have been injured, including at least one, Army Capt. Jose Casas Carrion, who lost a leg after stepping on a crude, homemade landmine laid by the Shining Path.
More from Peru: Shining Path chief reveals gruesome tales
Meanwhile, another two police officers have gone missing. In a statement, Peru’s Defense Ministry said soldiers were engaged in an “intense search” for the pair, “who lost contact with their columns while one of the operations against the narco-terrorists was underway.”
The mass kidnapping took place during the early hours of April 9 as Shining Path members stormed a hotel in the remote jungle town of Kepashiato, where the 36 workers were staying.
The group then reportedly demanded a ransom of $10 million and equipment that could be used to make bombs.
But despite the apparent show of strength, most analysts here believe the move is actually a sign of Shining Path’s desperation. It followed the army’s decommissioning of several of their bases, including the destruction of munitions, over Easter, in the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene rivers (known as VRAE by their Spanish initials).
That is also believed to have forced the Shining Path from the VRAE into the neighboring valley where the kidnapping took place.
Meanwhile, the rebels have been all but liquidated in their other traditional stronghold of the Huallaga Valley, after the February capture of that faction’s leader.
The VRAE and the Huallaga are Peru’s two main regions for growing coca, the key ingredient in cocaine and crack.
More from Peru: Latin America’s hidden growth story
That is no coincidence. Shining Path long ago gave up any pretense at triggering a revolution in Peru and has survived in recent years by charging the drug cartels for protection.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the civil war against the group — including the Peruvian state’s often brutal response — continues to cast a long shadow over the country.
In total, 69,000 people died, principally impoverished farmers in the Andes. An estimated 46 percent of those fatalities were caused by Shining Path, but around one-third was also caused by the police or army.
Last week, Telmo Hurtado, a former army lieutenant, admitted in court to his part in the 1985 Accomarco massacre, in which 69 villagers, including 15 children, were killed for allegedly sympathizing with Shining Path.
Now, more than 20 years after its founding leader, Abimael Guzman, was arrested and convicted on terrorism charges, remnants of Shining Path continue to survive, thanks largely to Peru’s rugged geography.
Yet the tightening noose exerted by the administration of President Ollanta Humala, a former army major who served against the Shining Path in the 1990s, may finally be hastening the demise of what many regard as one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups.
Dressed in combat fatigues, Humala greeted news of the hostages’ liberation with the message: “I want to ask the high commands [of Peru’s army and police] that they continue the efforts to capture these criminals and that they end up in jail, where they belong.”