Alberto Fujimori’s return: a political timebomb

John Crabtree
28 September 2007

Alberto Kenyo Fujimori returned to Lima on 22 September 2007 after nearly seven years in exile, to find himself under lock and key. The man who held the presidency of Peru for a decade (1990-2000) finally failed in his attempt to convince the supreme court in Chile, where he had been held since 2005 after being prevented from returning to contest the 2006 presidential election, to block his extradition.

Fujimori now faces an array of charges relating to corruption and human-rights violations during his period in office. Judicial proceedings are due to begin in little over a month, but it will take much longer before his guilt (or innocence) is ever established.  

Fujimori had arrived in Santiago (via a brief stopover in Mexico) from Tokyo, where he had spent five years following his sudden departure from office in November 2000; his Japanese domicile was facilitated by the fact (exposed only after he arrived there) that he retained dual Peruvian-Japanese citizenship. Once on Chilean soil he was almost immediately arrested, and the extradition case surrounding him has attracted attention around the world.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005).

He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Brookings Institution, 2006)

Among John Crabtree's articles in openDemocracy:

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (24 June 2005)

"An Andean crisis of democracy"(16 November 2005)

"Evo Morales's challenge"(25 January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back'(4 April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard"(18 April 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (23 May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (6 June 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (28 July 2006)

"Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds" (18 September 2006)

"Peru: outing the NGOs"(22 November 2006)

"Latin American democracy: time to experiment (30 April 2007)

"Peru: dilemmas of power" (8 June 2007)
Bolivia: a tale of two (or rather three) cities" (18 September 2007

This is partly owed to the rarity of such cases in Latin America, partly to the political implications of Peru's application for Fujimori's return. It is true that high-profile figures from the region have been caught before in the judicial net Bolivia's disgraced dictator General Luis García Meza(1980-81) was extradited from Brazil and is still serving a lengthy sentence in a Bolivian jail; while   

Chile's former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in October 1998 subject to extradition proceedings, though he managed to return to Santiago (rather than being sent to Spain, where the application originated) in March 1990 by persuading the relevant authorities that he was too ill to stand trial.

These are relatively meagre precedents, but there are several former Latin American leaders (some dictators but others not) who living abroad and wanted in their home countries on a variety of charges. Alberto Fujimori's extradition may make several of them feel uncomfortable and, in time, unwelcome.  

The jailed troika

Alberto Fujimori's return to Lima is welcome news to Peru's human-rights community, which has campaigned for this outcome as it has against the violations that accompanied his period of rule. An array of politicians who fell foul of his autocratic regime in the 1990s is similarly delighted. The prospect of a political and legal accounting for the crimes of this decade is increased by the fact that the troika which ran Peru in these years (and more) is now in prison:  Fujimori himself; Vladimiro Montesinos, his intelligence factotum; and Nicolas Hermoza, army chief for most of the Fujimori era.

Alberto Fujimori was obliged to flee Peru in November 2000, only six months after fraudulent presidential elections secured him a third five-year term. Montesinos sought refuge soon after in Venezuela, but was arrested and returned to Lima. The trigger for their precipitous departure was the discovery of a cache of videos systematically detailing the way in which Montesinos had bribed leading politicians and opinion-formers to support Fujimori's government. The sight on television of these "Vladivideos", in which well-known public figures were handed large wads of banknotes to buy their loyalty or silence, had a huge impact on Peruvian citizens.

Fujimori's high tide  

The evidence of scandal and the experience of repression notwithstanding, Alberto Fujimori's legacy is still fiercely contested. His many supporters still regard him as the man who rescued Peru from the verge of economic and political collapse. He had inherited hyperinflation from the previous administration of Alan García (1985-90), and had managed to stabilise this with help from multilateral banks. He then presided over a period of economic recovery, during which real living standards rose rapidly from the abysmal levels they had reached in 1990.  

Fujimori was successful too in dealing with the other scourge he had inherited from García: the Maoist-inspired insurgency, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which had conducted a twelve-year campaign of violence in which (including those killed in the state's own repressive responses) an estimated 70,000 Peruvians had lost their lives. The Lima police force had - via a stroke of good luck, in a raid on a Lima flat in September 1992 - captured Sendero's leader and ideologue, Abimael Guzmán. The leaderless insurgency thereafter imploded.

This return of economic and political order seemed to many Peruvians sufficient justification to support Fujimori's autogolpe (palace coup) of April 1992, when the president closed down congress and then organised a constitutional revision to (amongst other things) allow him to stand for re-election in 1995 for a further five years. The scale of his victory in that year underscored the depth of his support at the time: he enjoyed the confidence of the armed forces and the business community, but he was also very popular in his own right. 

The case against

Five years later, much had changed. Fujimori's sudden fall from grace caused a turnaround in Peruvian politics. The new administration of Alejandro Toledo (2001-06) managed to have an Interpol order issued for his arrest, and tried repeatedly to secure the former president's extradition from Japan. As a Japanese citizen with dual nationality, Fujimori was able to resist this, not least since there was no formal extradition treaty between the two countries. The main thrust of the case against Fujimori was his role in various major corruption scandals, and the part he played in two landmark human-rights cases in 1992: the Barrios Altos killings (in which sixteen people were killed) in Lima, and the La Cantuta murders involving the killing of nine students and a university professor.   

It was Fujimori's decision to move from Japan to Chile in 2005 - apparently in a bid to stage a political comeback in time for the Peruvian presidential elections of April-June 2006 - that opened the way for extradition proceedings. The lengthy hearings took different turns before Chile's supreme court ruled in favour of Peru's plea that Fujimori should face justice in his home country; though, under the terms of the extradition agreement, only on the charges upheld by the court's ruling.  

openDemocracy writers analyse Peru's politics:

Ricardo Uceda, "Fantasy Island"(20 September 2005)

Ricardo Uceda, "Peru's election: a second leap into the void"(9 January 2006)

Lisa Laplante, "The cloud of fear: Peru's anti-terror lesson" (7 March 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (7 April 2006)

García's headache

Fujimori's opponents may have greeted the ruling in a spirit of euphoria. But his presence in Peru raises four serious problems for the man Fujimori replaced as president in 1990, and whom only exile saved from arrest in the days following the autogolpe: Alan García.    

The first problem is political. García's victory in the 2006 presidential elections was fairly slim, and his ruling Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana party (Apra) lacks a majority in congress. So far, it has looked mainly to the right-wing Unidad Nacional (UN) party and to a motley band of Fujimoristas (whose party, the Alianza para el Futuro (AF) bears the former president's initials) to ensure the passage of legislation and to avoid the censure of ministers. The single issue on which the AF is rock-solid is on the issue of freeing Fujimori. The government is therefore caught in a bind, in which the one thing it cannot do is to acquiesce with AF's demands.  

If it can no longer depend on the continued support of AF, the government may have to look elsewhere. But its options are limited. It could try to win over some of the supporters of Ollanta Humala, the leftwing populist whom García only narrowly defeated in the second round of presidential elections in 2006. The Humalistas, however, form the largest bloc in Peru's congress and would be difficult bedfellows for a government which has sought to underline its pro-business credentials ever since it took office in July 2006.  

The second problem for García posed by Fujimori's return is that he has skeletons in his own closet, dating from his first presidency. García's government was then widely credited as being one of the most corrupt in recent Peruvian history (a record which Fujimori's own was to put in the shade. García narrowly managed to avoid being nailed in congressional hearings into corruption just prior to the 1992 autogolpe. Any hearings into corruption under Fujimori will almost certainly lead to revived accusations over García's own responsibilities in the matter.

García's rattling skeletons relate to the human-rights issue too, where the current president remains vulnerable to charges of being responsible for the killings and torture that took place under his rule. The findings of Peru's Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission / CVR), published in 2003, conclude that the death-toll during the five years of García's administration was considerably higher than that over Fujimori's ten-year watch. García's critics have accused him of involvement in several notorious killings, including the massacres that took place in the Andean villages of Accomarca (1985) and Cayara (1988). They have also held him responsible for the mass-killings of Sendero inmates in three Lima jails in 1986.  

The third problem is judicial-political. García has said that the committal and trial of Fujimori is a strictly judicial matter; this underplays both its political implications and the way that its eventual outcome (whatever that is) will inevitably focus attention on the much criticised workings of Peru's judicial system.  This system became highly politicised under the Fujimori government, when judges' autonomy from executive control was severely curtailed. The Toledo government sought to reform the workings of the judiciary, but without success; García, likewise, has promised his own judicial reforms, but little has been seen so far.

The fourth problem for Alan García is that the return of Fujimori runs the risk of becoming an unwanted distraction from the business of government, particularly if the proceedings drag on for years. García has sought to make himself the arbiter of the political scene, but Fujimori's return risks dividing opinion along rather different lines: for and against an ex-president who still commands a great deal of support in sectors of public opinion in Peru. An indication of this was the 500,000 votes that Fujimori's daughter, Keiko, won in the 2006 congressional elections; this was far more than for any other candidate and a powerful endorsement of the Fujimori political "brand".  

Alberto Fujimori has made no secret of his ambition to return to power in Peru. If the Peruvian courts fail to find him guilty of the charges on which he has been extradited, he may yet find the way open to realise his ambitions. If they do, he could become a political martyr for a large proportion of the electorate. In either event, Peru's ex-president will retain a significant role in the country's politics.

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