The trial of ex-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, due to begin on December 10, will put the spotlight on the large scale of corruption and human rights violations that took place in Peru in the 1990s.
If convicted, he will be the first elected Latin American president in living memory to go to jail.
Hitherto only a handful of military dictators – including members of the Argentine junta that seized power in 1976 and the Bolivia’s General Luis Garcia Meza who overturned democracy in 1980 with the support of that country’s cocaine mafia – have ended up behind bars in their own country.
Fujimori was extradited from Chile to Peru in September, following lengthy judicial proceedings in Santiago. The Chilean Supreme Court finally ruled the crimes allegedly committed by Fujimori were sufficient to justify extradition.
The case against Fujimori centres on his involvement in the corrupt use of public funds in Peru during his ten-year rule as president, as well as his role in authorising two now notorious cases of human rights violations.
The first of these took place in November 1991 in a Lima suburb known as the Barrios Altos, when the military assassinated several people attending a party.
The second was the killing, in July 1992, of a teacher and nine students at the ‘La Cantuta’ university in Lima. In both cases, ‘La Colina’ death squad was immediately responsible.
The scale of political corruption under Fujimori was revealed by the screening of large numbers of videos recorded by Fujimori’s security factotum, Vladimiro Montesinos.
These showed politicians and opinion formers receiving wads of dollar bills from Montesinos to buy their support.
The recordings, screened on Peruvian television, caused such a scandal as to precipitate Fujimori’s downfall at the end of 2000. On fleeing Peru, Fujimori is thought to have taken large amounts of cash with him.
The Barrios Altos and La Cantuta killings represent only isolated instances of human rights violation. According to the authoritative Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, published in 2003, some 70,000 Peruvians lost their lives in the course of a twenty-year war (1980-2000) between the Peruvian state and the Maoist-inspired Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency. The vast majority of victims were innocent peasants caught in the crossfire in this protracted and brutal conflict.
Fujimori was elected president in 1990 on a left-of-centre ticket, but quickly staged a U-turn on taking up office.
His government initiated a thorough-going privatisation of state companies, and liberalised both trade and foreign investment barriers.
In April 1992, with the help of the military, he overturned the constitution by closing Congress and sacking the Supreme Court.
His success in quelling Sendero Luminoso (following the capture of its leader Abimael Guzman in September 1992) and in dealing with rampant inflation made Fujimori a popular figure.
His palace coup was widely applauded. When, having changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected, he won the 1995 elections with more than 60% of the vote.
His authoritarian regime – which respected democratic forms rather than content – ended up using ever more blatant violations of legal procedure to secure a second re-election in 2000.
The country was effectively run in these years by a troika of Fujimori, Montesinos and the head of the army. When Montesinos’ links with arms and drug trafficking mafias became known, Fujimori’s backers in Washington ended up dropping their Peruvian client.
The return of Fujimori to Peruvian soil followed four years of exile in Japan (where he enjoyed rights of citizenship) and then a further year under house arrest in Chile.
While welcomed by most of his political opponents, his return has caused problems for Peru’s current president Alan García, the very man who Fujimori replaced as president in 1990 and who managed to escape arrest and flee into exile during the 1992 palace coup.
The Fujimori case draws unwelcome attention to García’s own role in overseeing human rights violations in the late 1980s. Indeed, many more people were killed in the 1980s than in the 1990s.
Also, García is widely thought to have been involved in corrupt activities of his own, albeit not on the scale of Fujimori’s.
The return of Fujimori raises some more immediate political difficulties for García. His government has hitherto relied on the support of Fujimori supporters in Congress, since his own party, APRA, lacks a legislative majority. The agenda of the fujimorista bloc in Congress, known by the initials AF, has one key priority: the dropping of all charges against their leader.
The Fujimori brand retains its popularity, especially among poorer Peruvians who saw their living standards rise under the government of ‘el chino’ as the former president is widely known. Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, won by far the largest number of votes in last year’s legislative elections. And her loyalty to her father seems unshakeable.
The trial of Fujimori is unlikely to proceed rapidly, and the Peruvian legal system provides his lawyers with plenty of avenues for negotiating their client’s case.
But given its unique status, the trial of this ex-president will be closely studied by various other former exiled Latin American heads of state accused of illegal acts – whatever the ultimate outcome.
John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford. His recent book Making Institutions Work in Peru (published by the Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University) deals with issues of democracy, development and social inequality in Peru over the last 25 years.