Alberto Fujimori (1938-) is a Peruvian politician of Japanese descent. An academic by background, he was elected President of Peru three times between 1990 and 2000, although he fled the country prior to completing his third term. A highly controversial figure, he is credited with ending the armed rebellion associated with the Shining Path and other guerrilla groups and stabilizing the economy. However, his administration is considered corrupt and there were many human rights violations during his time in office. He is currently in Peru, facing charges for a number of different crimes.
Fujimori’s parents were both born in Japan but immigrated to Peru in the 1920’s, were his father found work as a tailor and tire repairman. Alberto has always held dual citizenship, a fact that would come in handy later in his life. A bright young man, he excelled in school, and graduated first in his class in Peru with a degree in Agricultural Engineering. He eventually went to the United States, where he earned his master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. Back in Peru, he chose to remain in academia. He was appointed dean and then rector of his alma mater, the Universidad Nacional Agraria, and in addition was named president of the Asamblea Nacional de Rectores, essentially making him the top academic in all of the country.
1990 Presidential Campaign
In 1990, Peru was in the midst of a crisis. Outgoing President Alan García and his scandal-ridden administration had left the country a shambles, with out of control debt and inflation. In addition, the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency, was gaining strength and popularity and brazenly attacking strategic targets in an effort to topple the government. Fujimori decided to run for president, backed by a new party, “Cambio 90.” His opponent was the well-known writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Fujimori, running on a platform of change and honesty, was able to win the election: it was something of an upset. During the election, he became associated with his nickname “El Chino,” (“the Chinese Guy”) which is not considered offensive in Peru.
Fujimori immediately turned his attention to the ruined Peruvian economy. He initiated some drastic, sweeping changes, including trimming the bloated government payroll, reforming the tax system, selling off state-run industries, slashing subsidies and raising the minimum wage. The reforms meant a time of austerity for the country, and prices for some basic necessities (such as water and gas) skyrocketed, but in the end, his reforms worked and the economy stabilized. Pleased to see an economically responsible government in Peru, the International Monetary Fund helped secure loans, and foreign investment increased.
The Shining Path and the MRTA
During the 1980’s, two terrorist groups had all of Peru living in fear: the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA: Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, named after the last ruling Inca, executed by the Spanish in 1572) and the Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”). These groups wished to topple the government and replace it with a communist one modeled on Russia (MRTA) or China (Shining Path). The two groups organized strikes, assassinated leaders, blew up electrical towers, detonated car bombs, and by 1990 they controlled entire sections of the country, where residents paid them taxes and there were no government forces whatsoever. Ordinary Peruvians lived in fear of these groups, especially in the Ayacucho region where the Shining Path was the de facto government.
Fujimori Cracks Down
Just as he had done with the economy, Fujimori attacked the rebel movements directly and ruthlessly. He gave his military commanders free rein, allowing them to detain, interrogate and torture suspects with no judicial oversight. Although the secret trials drew the criticism of international human rights watchdog groups, the results were undeniable. In September of 1992 Peruvian security forces severely weakened the Shining Path by capturing leader Abimaél Guzmán in a posh Lima suburb. In 1996, MRTA soldiers attacked the residence of the Japanese ambassador during a party, taking 400 hostages. After a four-month standoff, Peruvian commandos stormed the residence, killing all 14 terrorists while losing only one hostage. For his success in defeating these two groups, Fujimori is credited by most Peruvians for ending terrorism in their country.
In 1992, not long after assuming the presidency, Fujimori found himself faced with a hostile congress dominated by opposition parties. He often found himself with his hands tied, unable to enact the reforms he felt were necessary to fix the economy and root out the terrorists. As his approval ratings were much higher than those of congress, he decided on a daring move: on April 5, 1992, he carried out a self-coup, dissolving all branches of the government except for the executive branch, which he represented. He had the support of the military and the people, who agreed with him that the obstructionist congress was doing more harm than good. He called for the election of a special congress, which would write and pass a new constitution. He had just enough support for this, and a new constitution was enacted in 1993.
The self-coup was a mixed success for Fujimori: it did allow him the freedom to act as he saw fit to fix the problems with the economy and terrorism. The 1993 constitution, largely drafted by his supporters, was an added bonus. However, the self-coup was condemned internationally. Several countries broke off diplomatic relations with Peru, including (for a time) the United States. The OAS (Organization of American States) chastised Fujimori for his high-handed action, but eventually was placated by the constitutional referendum.
Fujimori separated from his wife, Susana Higuchi, in a very public 1994 divorce. She aired a lot of dirty laundry about their relationship, calling him a “tyrant.” She even threatened to run against him for president. Although the divorce was damaging to Fujimori’s image, far worse were the various scandals involving Vladimiro Montesinos, head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service under Fujimori. Montesinos was caught on video in 2000 bribing an opposition senator to join with Fujimori, the ensuing uproar caused Montesinos to flee the country. Later, it was revealed that Montesinos was involved in far worse crimes than bribing politicians, including drug smuggling, vote tampering, embezzlement and arms trafficking. It was the myriad Montesinos scandals that would eventually force Fujimori to leave office.
Downfall of Fujimori
Fujimori’s popularity was already slipping when the Montesinos bribery scandal broke in September 2000. The people of Peru wanted a return to democracy now that the economy was fixed and the terrorists were on the run: they were a sick of Fujimori’s semi-dictator status. He had won the election earlier the same year, by an extremely narrow margin, amidst allegations of vote fraud. When the scandal broke, it destroyed any remaining support Fujimori had, and in November he declared that there would be new elections in April of 2001, and that he would not be a candidate. A few days later, he went to Brunei to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. As things had gotten uglier in his absence, he did not return to Peru, but rather went to Japan, faxing his resignation from the safety of his second home. Congress refused to accept his resignation, instead voting him out of office on charges of being “morally disabled.”
Exile in Japan
Alejandro Toledo was elected President of Peru in 2001 and immediately began a vicious anti-Fujimori campaign. He purged the legislature of Fujimori loyalists, brought charges against the exiled president and accused him against crimes against humanity for allegedly supporting a program to sterilize thousands of Peruvians of native descent. Peru asked for Fujimori to be extradited on several occasions, but Japan, which still saw him as a hero for his actions during the Japanese ambassador residence crisis, steadfastly refused to turn him over. Montesinos, arrested in Venezuela in 2001 and extradited back to Peru, has spent the intervening years in prison and as new charges against him continue to appear, it is likely he will be there for a long time.
Re-election Run and Capture
In a shocking announcement, Fujimori declared in 2005 that he intended to run for re-election in the 2006 Peruvian elections. Despite the numerous allegations of corruption and misuse of power, Fujimori still fared well in polls taken in Peru at the time. On November 6, 2005, he flew to Santiago, Chile, where he was arrested by request of the Peruvian government. After some complicated legal wrangling, Chile decided to extradite him, and he was sent to Peru in September of 2007. He is currently in Peru facing a variety of charges from graft to illegal arms dealing.
History may not be very kind to Fujimori. His accomplishments are unquestionable: a lesser president would not have managed to untangle the economy and crush the insurgents, both in his first term of office. Some of his methods were forgivable: very few Peruvians look back on his 1992 dissolution of Congress as a crime.
The web of corruption overseen by Montesinos, however, is too mind-boggling in its scale to simply overlook, whatever good Fujimori may have done as president. According to a 2004 Transparency International Report, the Fujimori administration was the seventh-most crooked of the last forty years, siphoning off no less than $600 million during his ten years in office, an astounding haul. Fujimori has repeatedly declared that he did not know what Montesinos was up to, but his claims seem a little disingenuous: Fujimori did not climb to the top spot in Peruvian academia by being stupid. The Peruvian courts certainly don’t believe him, and Montesinos says that he always followed Fujimori’s orders.
As troubling as the stealing are the myriad allegations against Fujimori for human rights crimes. One incident is the Barrios Altos Massacre: on November 3, 1991, masked Peruvian security troops raided a residence in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima looking for Shining Path guerrillas. Fifteen people were shot to death, including an eight year-old boy. Apparently, none of the victims had any ties to the Shining Path, which were actually meeting elsewhere. Fujimori stands charged with being complicit in this case, although evidence that he had anything to do with it is sketchy at best. So far he has only been convicted of one offense: ordering the illegal search of Montesinos’ home in 2000, for which he is serving a six-year sentence.
It would be premature to count Fujimori out, in spite of the many charges he is facing. He holds Japanese citizenship and has stated his intention to run for office in Japan: as an elected official of a different country, he may have immunity from prosecution in Peru. Although he did not run for president in 2006, many of his supporters ran for offices, and some of them won key posts in congress. In addition, as time goes by, most Peruvians are fondly recalling his accomplishments and dwelling less on his failures.
On April 7, 2009, Fujimori was found guilty of violating human rights indirectly: the death squads he approved killed civilians, and he was held accountable. He was given 25 years in prison, which at his age should amount to a life sentence. There is hope for him, however: he is still popular with the people of Peru and his daughter, Keiko Fujimori, narrowly missed being elected president in June of 2011. Stay tuned: this story is not yet over!