Peru's Alberto Fujimori Took Country on Wild Ride

Strongman Rule Puts Down Rebels But Results in Charges of Abuse of Power

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori swears in the interior minister. Getty Images

Alberto Fujimori is a Peruvian politician of Japanese descent who was elected president of Peru three times between 1990 and 2000, although he fled the country before he finished his third term. He is credited with ending the armed rebellion associated with the Shining Path and other guerrilla groups and stabilizing the economy. But in December 2007, Fujimori was convicted on charges of abuse of power, for which he was sentenced to six years in prison, and in April 2009 he was convicted on charges of authorizing death-squad killings and kidnappings, reported the BBC.

He received a 25-year prison term after being found guilty of human rights abuses. Fujimori denied any guilt in connection with these instances, reported the BBC.

Early Years

Fujimori’s parents were both born in Japan but immigrated to Peru in the 1920s, where his father found work as a tailor and tire repairman. Fujimori, born in 1938, 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 traveled 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 brazenly attacking strategic targets in an effort to topple the government.

Fujimori ran 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, which 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.

Economic Reforms

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.

Shining Path and MRTA

During the 1980s, two terrorist groups had all of Peru living in fear: MRTA, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, and the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. These groups' goal was 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 and 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 1992 Peruvian security forces severely weakened the Shining Path by capturing leader Abimael Guzman 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.

Peruvians credit Fujimori for ending terrorism in their country because of his defeat of these two rebel groups.

The Coup

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. Since his approval ratings were much higher than those of Congress, he decided on a daring move: On April 5, 1992, he carried out a coup and dissolved all branches of the government except for the executive branch, which he represented. He had the support of the military, 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 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.

Scandals

Various scandals involving Vladimiro Montesinos, head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service under Fujimori, put a stain on Fujimori's government. Montesinos was caught on video in 2000 bribing an opposition senator to join with Fujimori, and 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 

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.

He had won the election earlier the same year by an extremely narrow margin amid 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 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. But he did not return to Peru and instead went to Japan, faxing his resignation from the safety of his second home. Congress refused to accept his resignation; it instead voted 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 of crimes against humanity, which alleged Fujimori supported 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. 

Capture and Conviction

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 abuse of power, Fujimori still fared well in polls taken in Peru at the time. On Nov. 6, 2005, he flew to Santiago, Chile, where he was arrested by request of the Peruvian government. After some complicated legal wrangling, Chile extradited him, and he was sent to Peru in September 2007, which ultimately led to his convictions in 2007 on charges of abuse of power and 2009 on charges of human rights abuses, which resulted in prison sentences of six and 25 years, respectively.