Like the labor unions, the student movement has seen its rise and fall in Peru, and its fate was also inextricably linked to that of the SL. Compared with Peru's other social welfare indicators, Peru had a relatively high rate of literacy (80 percent), owing in large part to the strong emphasis that both Belaúnde regimes placed on education. The numbers of students enrolled in universities increased dramatically in the 1960s, and, consequently, so did their level of organization. Critics had justifiably contended that the emphasis on education was at the expense of other key social welfare expenditures, such as health.

Students had a strong tradition of political organization in Peru. For example, APRA began as a student and workers union. Student leaders, both of APRA and of the left, also played an important role in the protests against the military regime in the late 1970s. Congruent with the growth in relative strength of the Marxist left in politics was an increase in their presence in student organizations. In early 1991, there was a host of university student organizations, most allied with different factions of the left or with APRA. Some organizations were also allied with the SL or MRTA. Student supporters of the "new" right, such as the Liberty Movement, had also emerged, although they were by far in the minority. The increase in student organization had occurred in conjunction with the curbing of financing for universities and the shrinking of economic opportunities for university graduates, which had resulted in a radicalization of the university community in general. Although a few prestigious private universities continued to guarantee their students top degrees and professional opportunities, the quality of the education attained by large numbers of students at state universities was by no means universal and was often quite poor. Thus, many universities increasingly had become havens for frustration.

The extreme manifestation of this phenomenon was the birth and growth of the SL in the University of Huamanga (Universidad de Huamanga) in Ayacucho in the 1970s. Abimáel Guzmán Reynoso, a professor at the university and eventually director of personnel, was the founder and leader of the SL. The SL virtually controlled the university for several years, and students were indoctrinated in the SL philosophy. The university trained students, mainly from the Ayacucho area, primarily in education; but a degree from Huamanga was considered inferior to the Lima universities, and students had few opportunities other than returning to their hometowns to teach. As jobs for graduates were few and far between, becoming an active militant in the SL provided an opportunity of sorts.

An analogous phenomenon occurred in most of the Lima universities in the 1980s. Poorly funded and staffed, universities had far more students than they could adequately train. Employment opportunities had virtually disappeared, and university graduates often ended up driving taxis. The oldest university in the Americas, the state-funded San Marcos University, had become the center of Peru's student radicalism. SL graffiti covered the walls; police raids on the university yielded large caches of weapons and ammunition, as well as arrests. Professors who openly sympathized with the SL were the norm. In 1989 student elections, members of the student organization that supported the SL won in first place and controlled facilities such as the cafeteria.

Like union members, university students often were confronted with a dire predicament. They were the focus of SL organizational efforts, and at the same time their economic opportunities had virtually disappeared. Peaceful organizational efforts to improve their position had little potential in the current context, yet violent efforts were inextricably linked to the SL. Radicalism was in theory an appealing alternative, but in reality the ultraviolent form in which it manifested itself in the SL was hardly an alternative. Unfortunately, finding a job was also less and less a realistic alternative.

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