Proof and Consequence: Peru Convicts Fujimori

A paper trail of declassified U.S. government documents helped confirm Fujimori's complicity in grave human right crimes committed during his ten years in office. His trial and conviction set a landmark historical precedent that will serve as a stark deterrent against future abuses, both in Peru and beyond. The case is also an important guidepost for upcoming justice-seeking efforts in Peru, where many criminals remain unpunished and the full extent of their deeds unknown.

April 15, 2009

Peruvian ex-President Alberto Fujimori lanced his fever-pitched war cry of “Soy Inocente!” at the start of the historic 15-month trial for human right crimes committed during his ten years in office. On April 7, the court resoundingly rejected this declaration, handing down a 25-year sentence, the maximum allowed under the law. The ruling found Fujimori guilty of murder, kidnapping, and crimes against humanity.

A diverse group of protestors gathered before the "Fujimori Guilty" march in the Plaza Dos de Mayo on March 12. The CGTP is Peru's largest trade union federation. (By Tamara Feinstein)

The court additionally ruled for monetary compensation to the victims and their families, while explicitly clearing the targeted victims of any connection to terrorism. The court declared Fujimori guilty on all four cases included in the trial: 1) the November 1991 Barrios Altos massacre of 15 celebrants at a Lima barbecue, including an eight-year-old boy; 2) the July 1992 kidnapping and extrajudicial execution of nine students and a professor from the La Cantuta University; 3) the April 1992 abduction/detention of investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti; and 4) the July 1992 abduction/detention of businessman Samuel Dyer.

The prosecution argued, and the ruling confirmed, that Fujimori was responsible for direct command of the crimes. The argument hinged on his role as the ultimate head of the armed forces and the final link in the chain of command, making him responsible for the grave abuses committed by the "Colina Group," a death squad that carried out the massacres at Barrios Altos and La Cantuta. The court found that Fujimori's national security policies consciously incorporated the activities of the Colina Group, a unit composed of active state security agents that secretly targeted suspected terrorists and government opponents.

Testifying for two days in his defense, Fujimori portrayed his counter-subversive strategy as one of peace and order, and he adamantly denied both knowledge and approval of illegal dirty war tactics. He began by highlighting the crisis he inherited when assuming office in 1990, including an economy in ruins and a conflict raging for 10 years between the government and subversive groups. Fujimori argued that abuses committed by state security forces during his administration paled in comparison to those of the Shining Path and those committed under the administrations of his two predecessors: presidents Fernando Belaunde and Alan García. He claimed that the legal security measures of his administration were so effective that he found no need for an alternative, illegal strategy.

The court rejected this defense, clearly laying out the chain of evidence leading to the conviction. In addition to expert witnesses, Inter-American Court rulings, and the 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, the judges allowed declassified U.S. documents to be submitted as probative evidence in the trial. Kate Doyle, a senior analyst with the non-governmental, Washington-based National Security Archive, testified in the trial on the content and meaning of the declassified U.S. government documents.

U.S. Embassy cable from 1990.

The record laid out by U.S. documents clearly supports the findings of the court. For example, an August 23, 1990, U.S. Embassy (Lima) cable titled (PDF), “Reported Secret Annex to National Pacification/Human Rights Plan,” reveals that Fujimori was reportedly considering a two-tiered strategy – one public and legal and the other illegal and secret – only a month after taking office. As part of the “secret” annex of the plan, according to the cable, “the army will train additional special operations commands to assassinate suspected high and medium level suspected terrorists. These targets will be identified by the SIN [Peru's National Intelligence Service]. Our source alleges that the training of these new ‘assassination teams’ is already underway.”

A subsequent Embassy cable (PDF) from June 30, 1994, titled, “Systematic Human Rights Violations Under Fujimori: Ex-Army Officer Describes his Role in Assassinations, Letter Bombs, Rape and Torture,” reveals that dirty war tactics were a systemic and controlled part of the state apparatus, rather than committed by some detached, rogue elements. The document concludes, "None of the source's statements on methods are new. What was striking, not to say chilling, about his allegations – apart from his total lack of remorse – was his insistence that such violations were the norm, rather than excesses."

The larger documentary record from U.S. agencies reveals details of the abuses committed (PDF) under Fujimori as well as elaborate measures to cover up human rights crimes, obstruct (PDF) judicial and congressional investigations, silence whistleblowers (PDF), and amnesty those involved (PDF).

The Fujimori Guilty March ended in front of the Justice Building in downtown Lima, where demonstrators listened to speeches by human rights activists. (By Tamara Feinstein)

While details from various declassified documents proved useful and were even cited in the final verdict of the court, the record of what the U.S. government knew about these cases is still not complete. The current declassified record is heavily saturated by Department of State documentation, with little information from key U.S. intelligence agencies that had the closest ties to Peruvian military and intelligence agents involved in abuses. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made to the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency remain either unfulfilled or denied in whole.

Furthermore, the final results of the 1994 National Security Council interagency review conducted (PDF) by the Clinton Administration to look into the role of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's de facto National Security Advisor, in alleged human rights crimes like Barrios Altos and La Cantuta still remain classified. Changes at the rhetorical level (PDF) from the Obama administration hopefully will translate into substantive advances toward greater openness by pressuring more recalcitrant agencies into responding rapidly to current and future requests about this and other human rights cases.

The Fujimori trial sets an historical precedent that will serve as a stark deterrent to future abuses of executive power both in Peru and more broadly. But the case is also important for upcoming justice-seeking efforts in Peru, particularly the pending trial of the infamous Vladimiro Montesinos.

Montesinos faces charges over his suspected involvement in the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos human rights cases. In establishing the chain of command within the administration, the Fujimori verdict provides damning evidence towards Montesinos’ complicity with the Colina Group killing machine.

Art installation denouncing the human rights crimes committed during each of the three presidential administrations of the internal conflict (1980-2000). (By Tamara Feinstein)

Other notorious human rights cases still to be resolved include those dating back to the two administrations preceding Fujimori's, including abuses committed at the Los Cabitos military installation in Ayacucho and the 1986 El Frontón prison massacre, and various abuses committed by the Rodrigo Franco Command (a late 1980s death squad). The latter two cases could complicate things for current President Alan García, since both El Frontón and the Rodrigo Franco Command took place during his first presidential term (1985-1990).

While Fujimori's trial may have ended, the larger story continues. Fujimori will undoubtedly appeal the decision of the court, as he did a previous conviction on separate charges. And his daughter, Keiko Fujimori – a congresswoman with presidential aspirations – has vocally promised to find a way to pardon her father for his crimes if she's elected president in 2011.

The two-decades of bloody political violence (1980-2000) continue to divide Peruvians. The national fault-lines were plainly visible during the trial. Fujimori supporters and human rights groups launched rival marches, rallies, and cultural events, while there are others that would simply prefer to forget the violence.

A recent debate over the construction of a national memory museum to commemorate the victims of the conflict underlined these tensions between remembering and forgetting. President García initially refused a donation from the German government for the museum; it was only after a vigorous civil society campaign – including a pointed commentary from famed author Mario Vargas Llosa – that García reversed his decision.

Peru has won an important victory, but the country's struggles over memory and justice continue.

Tamara Feinstein is ex-Director of the Peru Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and a current Fulbright-Hays scholar researching the legal left in Peru for her PhD in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.