Fujmori's Trial: An Opportunity for Peru

Part of the monument called "The eye that cries" after it was defaced by unidentified people on Sept. 23, the day after Fujimori was extradited from Santiago, Chile,  to stand trial in Peru on human rights and corruption charges. (Photo: Eitan Abramovich / AFP-Getty Images)

The Chilean Supreme Court's extradition to Peru of ex-president and dictator Alberto Fujimori could contribute to the consolidation of Peru's fragile democracy and may even reduce the culture of fear.

"In this neighborhood almost everyone supports Fujimori," says Nelly, seated on a bench at the outdoor restaurant Virgen del Carmen in the El Oasis slum of Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima.

El Oasis is a monument to poverty—dirt roads; shacks constructed from tarps, cardboard sheets, and bits of plastic, lacking running water or sanitation. The areas recently taken over by squatters still fly a small Peruvian flag on each new shack to try to dissuade possible eviction. The community's little cafeteria is made from plywood; it is the only structure in town built on concrete foundations.

At about noon kids are hanging around, waiting for lunchtime and a meal prepared on a rotating schedule by 25 co-op members. For just half a dollar, the children receive what, for most, is their only hot meal of the day.

Without being asked, Nelly feels the need to explain herself: "They told us that if we didn't go to the pro-Fujimori demonstrations the community cafeteria wouldn't receive any more food. They'd pass around attendance lists and the intelligence service checked to make sure that the co-op members applauded and shouted "Viva" for El Chino. If we didn't show enthusiastic support, the next month we'd receive a smaller delivery of rations." ("El Chino" literally means the Chinaman. Fujimori is of Japanese descent; however, his Peruvian nickname is El Chino.)

The Eye That Cries

The day after the extradition of Fujimori, a dozen supposed supporters of the ex-dictator attacked a monument called "The eye that cries" constructed in memory of the civil war that wracked the country since 1980 when the Shining Path took up arms. The mob threatened the only guard protecting the monument with guns. They chained the guard, forcing him to his knees, while they set about breaking the stone monument on which the names of the disappeared are inscribed, throwing paint over the center of the sculpture.

The monument is the work of sculptor Lika Mutal. It is located in a park called the Campo de Marte near the center of Lima. It was part of the first phase of a tree-lined avenue dedicated to the memory of that era. It represents the first symbolic rapprochement of the victims of political violence. Physically it consists of a circular labyrinth with a four-ton center-stone symbolizing the center of each person; on top of this is another stone, which symbolizes the eye from which a stream of water falls. Surrounding this are 27,000 stones each with a name of a victim recognized by the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation.

For the mothers who live in El Oasis showing their support for Fujimori wasn't a political choice but rather a question of survival. So, to speak of "clientele politics" really adds little to the understanding of the unequal power relationship under which Peru's poor operate. Their public behavior might threaten even something as basic as their survival rations. The Fujimori regime, just like that of Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem, took care of them, facilitating access to their basic necessities but with a strong dose of authoritarianism.

A Special Kind of Dictator

The nervous 69-year-old Fujimori, suffering from hypertension, arrived in Lima on Sept. 22, looking like a caricature of the once-great leader who sneered at adversaries. Fujimori was not elected on merit; rather his election was a protest vote against Mario Vargas Llosa who ostentatiously represented the light-skinned, Lima-based Peruvian elites. The Andean ethnic and mestizo majorities of Peru soundly rejected the openly colonial pretension of Vargas Llosa, leading to Fujimori's triumph.

Shortly after he took power, it became more than evident that a cold-blooded, implacable, and calculating tyrant was ruling the country. He quickly established an ironclad alliance with the business sector and the military. He offered his friends bloody pacts and money in exchange for impunity and a rash of corruption.

In April 1992 he launched an internal coup. Fujimori shut down Congress and manipulated the judiciary by firing members who opposed him. By these means he concentrated power in his own hands and from then on governed with the support of the Peruvian military. He deepened all the problems he inherited coming into office—the dirty war, corruption, militarization of the country (especially in rural areas), and privatization of the economy, opening the doors to multinationals in the mining, oil, and public services sectors. As dictators are wont to do, Fujimori launched expansive public projects that lavished contracts on his friends. These supposedly essential projects left the country wracked by bankruptcy and in its wake followed hyperinflation.

In his favor, one can say that Fujimori did bring an end to the war and cause a spurt of growth in the economy. The end to the war was attained at a great cost in human rights and the disappearance and torture of thousands of people. Many innocents were arrested and sentenced by anonymous judges in a continuous parody of justice. Fujimori took the helm of a nation wracked by war; an unusual war in that one side, the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path, was responsible for more than half of the 69,280 victims verified by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. This was a war waged against the poor rural Quechua-speaking population—79 percent of the victims were from rural regions and 75 percent spoke indigenous languages (including Quechua). But by the time Fujimori endowed himself with absolute powers, the rural farmers were already opposing the Shining Path, organized in "rounds," and they were winning, as noted by the editor of La Republica, Mirko Lauer ("The Chinese Game of Strategy," Sept. 25).

The sentence of the Chilean Supreme Court brings to light the true face of the Fujimori cult. The 212-page judgment based on the declarations of the ex-commander of the army, Nicholas Hermoza Rios, and of members of the "Colina" death squad denies Fujimori's alleged "ignorance" of the massacres and the infringements of human rights. "There are clear indications that Fujimori, after the coup, had firm control of all of the concentrated state powers and the supreme command of the military and intelligence forces, and furthermore that he created a special group within the armed forces tasked with operations against individuals suspected of subversion and political enemies of his regime" (Angel Páez, "Fujimori Directed a Powerful Illegal State Apparatus," La Republica, Sept. 22).


1989—Alberto Fujimori defeats Mario Vargas Llosa in the second round with 56 percent of the vote.

1992—April 5, launches a coup d'état and dissolves parliament. Convoking elections for a Constituent Congress, his party wins an overall majority. In August, Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path, is arrested.

1995—Fujimori is elected by an overwhelming majority. Police force and military condemned for violations of human rights in the guerilla war are given amnesty. Anonymous judges condemn more than 2,000 people between 1992 and 1995.

1997—Dissolves the constitutional assembly that affirms that the Constitution stands in the way of his re-election.

2000—Fujimori presents a million falsified signatures, which underwrite his re-election. He wins 48.7 percent of the vote, his rival Alejandro Toledo 41 percent. On the night of the elections, thousands of Peruvians protest in the streets claiming voter fraud. Fujimori is proclaimed winner in the second round though Toledo does not concur with the result in spite of scrutinizing 54 percent of nullified votes. The United States and the Organization of American States distance themselves from Fujimori. Videos showing his confidant and chief of intelligence Vladimir Montesinos bribing a member of Congress are shown. In the middle of huge demonstrations against the regime claiming corruption, Fujimori decides to attend an Asian-Pacific forum on economic cooperation held in Brunei; from there he travels to Tokyo and send his resignation via fax. Valentin Paniagua is nominated as president during the transition.

2001—The Commission for Human Rights of Peru asks the Japanese parliament for Fujimori's extradition.

2003—Japan refuses the extradition request. In the meantime, the Peruvian congress accuses Fujimori of the massacre of 15 people in "Barrios Alto," December 1991, and of the deaths of nine students in the University of Cantuta, July 1992.

2004—The Peruvian government ask for extradition a second time to face charges for irregular payments in the amount of 15 million dollars to the chief of intelligence forces, Montesinos.

2005—On Nov. 7 Fujimori makes a surprise visit to Santiago, Chile, where he is detained at the request of the Peruvian government.

2006—The Chilean Supreme Court impedes Fujimori's exit from Chile.

2007—On June 11 judge Orlando Alvarez issues a finding rejecting the request for extradition. On Sept. 21 the Supreme Court revokes this finding and approves the extradition.

The judgment asserts that Fujimori knew of the existence of the "Colina" group and that he authorized promotions, decorations, and other incentives for its members. Also, many people testified to his giving orders to Montesinos, who in turn Fujimori assigned as head of this group.

He transformed the basement of the offices of the Military Intelligence Service into "its operational center," when alongside Vladimir Montesinos, chief of the intelligence services, he "planned and directed" death squad extermination operations.

"These activities," the judgment adds, "were the result of actions planned by an organization or a 'power apparatus' formed by the Military Intelligence Service and led by Fujimori, which fulfill all of the requirements to be considered a hierarchically organized criminal organization" (Páez).

The Chilean Supreme Court granted the petition for extradition for the crimes of attempted murder and harm for the mass murders at "Barrios Altos" and "La Cantuta," as well as for buying favors from congressmen using funds provided by the Military Intelligence Services, handing over $15 million in public funds to Montesinos to buy off the media, and other crimes such as intercepting private telephone calls. As noted by the ex-president of the truth commission, Solomon Lerner, the decision of the Chilean justice system represents "a move closer to international penal justice."

The court considered that the worst damage done by Fujimori was the institutionalization of corruption within Peru: "By disemboweling state power, buying the conscience of the media, of politicians, of businesspeople, of the military; poisoning the conscience of the common man and, by means of the yellow press, diluting personal mores and human dignity; leading to the moral impoverishment of the state. Fujimori is guilty of much more than that for which he is accused" (Interview with Samuel Lerner, La Republica, Sept. 22).

A New Period

Fujimori's legacy came to an end as a result of the mass mobilization of the Peruvian people. Today, President Alan Garcia governs with the support of what is left of Fujimori's political support in the Peruvian parliament, a conservative force of 13 deputies lead by Keiko, the dictator's daughter. Many analysts, and a large part of the public, fear a possible Garcia-Fujimori coalition that could result in a farcical court case and the imposition of minimal punishment.

Fujimori-ism does not currently represent a threat to Peruvian democracy. Polls show little support for the extradited dictator. Garcia, who some view as inclined to make a deal with the ex-president, came down hard on Keiko's accusations that her father was being held in "terrible" conditions. Garcia declared that the prisoner was being kept in a 100-square-foot room with access to a living room and to a private bathroom, as well as having access to an outdoor space of 350 square feet. "We haven't put him in a prisoner's striped uniform, as has happened in the past," said Garcia alluding to September 1992 when Fujimori presented Abimael Guzman (the captured leader of Shining Path) in a cage, dressed in traditional prisoner garb. "There will be no cruelty, hatred, or revenge. His personal dignity shall be respected," assured the president.

However, a large sector of Peruvian society that hates the ex-president has doubts based on two factors. First, that Fujimori is in possession of a large number of videotapes made by Montesinos, his aide at the time, which could implicate members of congress, other politicians, media magnates, and a host of other personalities. He is capable of using these to blackmail those who judge him.

Then there is the military factor. Until now no one, not even a single participant in the dirty war, has been brought to trial. Through a combination of implicit agreements and pressures, the military has avoided taking any responsibility, an unprecedented event in the region. Just how much pressure an army that was never subjected to scrutiny by a democratic government can apply remains to be seen. Fujimori ran a civil-military regime, and it doesn't make sense that the military be exempted from all responsibilities when it all comes down. It is quite likely that Fujimori himself will implicate the military.

Finally, more important than any trial, which could last for months, possibly even more than a year, is the future of Peruvian society and its nascent democracy, the movements and social groups that brought the dictatorship to an end. Anyone who knew Peru back in the 80's and who now walks down its streets today would notice important changes. The country is different, but not truly changed, for that would require social and cultural change (absent in the case of Peru). Proof of this lack of change can be seen in the slums that encircle Lima where five of the nine million inhabitants of the city live. The slums are another country, living in apartheid, where the poor are darker skinned, and come from the Andean highlands, where they speak, dress, and dance in other languages.

These two countries were never reconciled, nor are they coming together, except in a relationship of subordination. To understand the roots of Fujimori-ism one has to enter into the causes of this authoritarianism, whether that be the Shining Path or the Fujimori-Montesinos duo, who represent two sides of the same coin. Deconstructing this authoritarianism would imply removing the requirement for these mothers from El Oasis to cheer "Viva!" in return for receiving bags of rice.

Seven years after the fall of the dictatorship, Nelly and her friends at the canteen have not been able to provide a future for their children, many of whom take part in delinquent activities in the slums. When they go to the police, the police tell them to take matters into their own hands because the authorities are unable to help them. "Since the earthquake in Pisco, the authorities only bring half the previous food supplies," she says without desperation, but with a sense of resentment.

From the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy (C.I.P.).

Translated for the Americas Program by Tony Phillips.

Raúl Zibechi is a member of the Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha in Montevideo, Uruguay, a teacher and researcher focused on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly collaborator of the Americas Policy Program (