The capture of rebel leader Abimael Guzman, known as "Presidente Gonzalo" to his followers, leaves a huge leadership vacuum for the Maoist-inspired Shining Path.

"There is no No. 2. There is only Presidente Gonzalo and then the party," a Shining Path political officer said at a birthday celebration for Guzman in Lurigancho prison in December 1990."Without Presidente Gonzalo, we would have nothing."

Guzman, who founded the movement more than two decades ago, is also known to his followers as "the fourth sword of Marxism" and "the greatest living communist on the face of the earth."

Guzman, 57, has worked day and night for more than 30 years to destroy what he calls Peru's "rotten and antiquated state."

The Shining Path chieftain was captured late Saturday after pushing the government to the brink of collapse with an intensified terrorism campaign in Lima.

Gustavo Gorriti, author of a book on the rebel organization, has described Guzman as "democracy's most formidable enemy in South America and probably in the hemisphere."

"There are no visible leaders in Peru with anything even approaching Guzman's strategic vision and decisiveness," he said.

Guzman concluded as a philosophy professor in the 1960s that armed revolution was the only way to achieve profound social change in Peru, a country of radical disparities of wealth.

Guzman decided to try to set up a peasant-worker state based on the principles of Mao Tse-tung.

A quarter-century later, the group he founded as a Communist Party splinter and still leads has put South America's third-largest country under siege.

The guerrilla movement has steadily expanded from its mountain bastions and threatens to take control of the impoverished nation.

More than 25,000 people have died in political violence since 1980, much of it connected to the Shining Path, and the government blames it for more than $22 billion in economic damage.

The guerrillas destroy railroad lines, bridges, power pylons, agricultural research stations - any target that signifies progress.

Through it all, Guzman has remained shadowy and elusive, rarely seen except by his inner circle after going underground in January 1979.

Guzman had sought to create a mythic figure of himself as the leader of Latin America's most dangerous guerrilla organization. The Shining Path is estimated to have as many as 10,000 armed fighters and perhaps another 15,000 active supporters.

Miguel Rodriguez Rivas, Guzman's former professor at the University of San Agustin in Arequipa, has described him as "extraordinarily brilliant."

Guzman recruited students at the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho, a mountainous state capital in the Andes 230 miles southeast of Lima, and sent them into the countryside to politically indoctrinate Indian peasants.

President Alberto Fujimori, who disbanded Congress and set up emergency one-man rule in April in response to the group's increasing insurgency, disparages Guzman's drug trafficking ties.

"This pseudo-revolutionary set up a fanatic organization with maddened followers to build an ideal society," Fujimori said last year. "But he has ended up as a vulgar accomplice of drug traffickers."