By Brian Saady
Last month, the President of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, pardoned the country’s former dictator, Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted of authorizing extrajudicial murders and corruption. Thousands of protestors responded to the pardon by organizing in the streets of Lima.
Many people wonder why Kuczynski issued this pardon to Fujimori, who embezzled as much as $600 million of public funds, according to Transparency International. After all, the current President had promised during his campaign to not pardon Fujimori.
It appears that a quid pro quo prompted this decision. Kuczynski faced an impeachment vote stemming from his involvement with the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, which has paid massive bribes to many high-level Latin American leaders in exchange for lucrative contracts. Thus, it was quite suspicious that Kuczynski’s company received a $782,000 consulting fee from Odebrecht while he served as Peru’s Minister of Economy.
However, on December 22nd, Kucynski narrowly avoided impeachment because 21 members of Congress abstained from voting. Several of Congress members who abstained from voting are members of the opposition party, which is led by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori.
Adding to the appearance of impropriety, her brother, Kenji Fujimori (another member of Congress within the same party), openly took credit for organizing those members to abstain from voting for Kuczynski’s impeachment. And, voilà, Alberto Fujimori received a pardon for “humanitarian reasons” three days later.
This apparent backdoor deal, by itself, is disturbing enough, but it’s more important to fully understand the history of Alberto Fujimori’s abuses of power and the support he received from the United States government.
Alberto Fujimori had a rapid transition into power after working as an obscure college professor. This was, in part, aided by a campaign donation of $1 million from Pablo Escobar, according to Roberto Escobar (Pablo’s brother).
That accusation was publicly aired ten years after Fujimori was first elected president in 1990. However, his links with drug trafficking were known to the U.S. government from the beginning. In particular, Fujimori’s right-hand man and Peru’s de facto head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, was closely aligned with several infamous criminals.
Before joining the Fujimori administration, Montesinos received military training on U.S. soil at the infamous School of the Americas, which is linked with numerous right-wing death squads and military coups in Latin America. In fact, he was kicked out of the Peruvian military under suspicion that he passed secret documents to the CIA.
Afterward, Montesinos became an attorney who specialized in defending several high-level Peruvian government officials accused of drug trafficking. He also represented some members of the Medellín cartel and his services went beyond legal advice, such as arranging a prison escape. His services also brought him into the highest confidences of Fujimori who helped avoid a tax evasion charge during the 1990 election.
Again, the extensive ties between the criminal underworld and the Fujimori administration were well known to the U.S. government. One U.S. State Department memo from May of 1991, “Narcotics Corruption in Peru: Several Shades of Black,” detailed the pervasive corruption with all levels of the Peruvian government, in particular, the military and Montesinos.
In fact, the links between Montesinos and drug trafficking were a matter of public record in all of the major newspapers, yet he was invited to the CIA’s headquarters in 1991 to establish a counternarcotics program. He was provided with a $1 million annually over the next ten years.
With that said, several members of the U.S. Congress wanted to cut off foreign aid to Peru until the Fujimori administration improved its human rights record. However, George H. W. Bush was a strong supporter of Fujimori and urged Congress to provide his government with a $94 million economic and military package. During a White House meeting between the two leaders in September of 1991, Bush said:
Unfortunately, Congress has placed a hold on disbursement of these funds, chiefly because of stated human rights concerns. We share these concerns, and so do you, Mr. President. But you have made progress on human rights, and let’s also then see progress on releasing these funds.
Not long after this meeting, on November 3, 1991, a paramilitary death squad (Grupo Colina) committed a massacre that was authorized by Fujimori. Fifteen people who were falsely suspected of being members of the communist rebel group, Shining Path, were killed at a barbeque in Barrios Altos. He also subsequently authorized the same paramilitary group to commit another massacre in which a professor and nine students from La Cantuta University were abducted and murdered. They also were falsely suspected of being members of Shining Path.
At that time, Peru was in the middle of an unofficial civil war with the country’s two communist rebel groups, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru) (MRTA). Of those groups, the Shining Path, which is designated as a terrorist organization and remains somewhat active, was the far more militant. It’s estimated that their members murdered 11,000 Peruvian citizens.
Hence, the challenges that Fujimori faced were very clear, but he took draconian measures to eliminate this national security threat. In April of 1992 Fujimori installed what was known as an “auto-coup.” He asserted full dictatorial powers. The Congress and judiciary were dissolved, political rivals were detained, and martial law was established.
Beforehand, it’s clear that U.S. officials were willing to overlook the Peruvian government’s extrajudicial violence because it thwarted a rapid communist terrorist group. However, the coup was too controversial on the international stage. It forced the Bush administration to temporarily halt any more foreign aid to Peru.
On the other hand, the U.S. government continued to privately fund the Fujimori regime. As mentioned earlier, the CIA never stopped making payments for the counternarcotics program of Vladamiro Montesinos, the de facto second-in-command behind Fujimori.
Immediately after the auto-coup, the Peruvian military began aggressive anti-drug enforcement in the Huallaga Valley, which was the top cocaine production area in the country. This region was controlled by the Shining Path and these drug interdiction efforts cut off a major source of income for this terrorist group.
Contrarily, the Peruvian government unofficially sanctioned major drug traffickers who weren’t connected to communism. That included Demetrio Chávez Peñaherrera, aka “Vaticano,” who was a supplier for the Medellín and Cali cartels. The leader of another major drug trafficking organization, Los Camellos, alleged that Montesinos allowed to him to use Peruvian military helicopters for $100,000.
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With these narco bribes, Montesinos funded various anti-communist forces, including Grupo Colina. In the end, as many as 70,000 Peruvians were killed in Peru’s war against the Shining Path and suspected enemies of the state were subject to torture, kidnapping, and murder.
Although he was a brutal tyrant, roughly 70-90% of Peruvians actually approved of the “auto-coup.” In particular, Fujimori’s support was tied to a drastically improve the economy, which was collapsing under an 8,000% inflation rate when he took office. Also, most Peruvians were relieved to see the Shining Path dwindling in power.
However, his popularity was largely due to muzzling the free press. His post-coup regime implemented an extremely far-ranging terrorism law that censored independent journalism. Also, the few journalists who dared to give unflattering coverage were often surveilled by the government, and, in some cases, assassinated.
Fujimori eventually took cursory steps to re-establish some semblance of democratic norms, such as restoring a Congress and judiciary with far less political rivals. A new Constitution was also written in 1993 that allowed him to run for a second term. (Presidents were limited to one term under the previous Constitution that was in effect when he was first elected.)
He was re-elected in 1995 and it was widely viewed, at that time, as free and fair by international observers. However, a former intelligence officer acted as a whistleblower two years later with details of wide-scale fraud in which thousands of police officers were forced to vote for Fujimori and election votes were switched in his favor.
Nonetheless, those steps towards a faux democracy, along with Fujimori’s false PR as an anti-drug crusader, helped persuade the U.S. government to formally restore its foreign aid to Peru. In fact, from 1993 to 1998 Peru received more U.S. aid than any other Latin American or Caribbean country.
In his second term, Fujimori continued with his corrupt and brutal ways, but most of these scandals were kept out of the public eye. One of his most cruel abuses of power was cloaked as a free health care program. As many as 350,000 people (mostly indigenous women) were tricked into a forced sterilization program in which they were told they would receive a free health checkup. Fujimori argued that this program was necessary to eliminate poverty.
Despite his tyrannical reign and links with drug trafficking, the Clinton administration maintained a fairly cordial relationship with Fujimori. After all, Fujimori had all the trappings of a puppet dictator operating in the interest of American corporations.
Case in point, the largest gold mine in South America, Yanacocha, is located in Peru. However, there was a Peruvian Supreme Court case deciding ownership over this valuable real estate. It was a battle between U.S.-based Newmont Mining and three companies based in France, Australia, and Peru respectively. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Newmont Mining due to direct pressure from Montesinos with the judge who held the deciding vote.
The backdoor deals of Montesinos often involved anyone who stood in the way of the administration, i.e. journalists, Supreme Court justices, and members of Congress, etc. He also blackmailed his rivals, including a sex tape of a presidential candidate. Bear in mind, he used the drug war surveillance technology acquired from the CIA to spy on his rivals.
Fortunately, Peruvian whistleblowers eventually leaked a series of tapes with evidence of stunning corruption on the part of Montesinos. That included rigging the 2010 Presidential election. (Congress passed a law in 1996 allowing him to run for a third term, in violation of the Constitution. A poll found that 70% of Peruvians didn’t approve of him running for a third term.)
This scandal prompted Montesinos to flee to Panama as a fugitive of justice. Nonetheless, the U.S. government intervened unsuccessfully in an attempt to grant him political asylum. He was ultimately extradited and convicted over the course of multiple trials for various charges of corruption, human rights abuses, drug and arms trafficking. His latest conviction took place in 2016 with a sentence of 22 years for the death and torture of two college students who were buried beneath his intelligence agency.
Fujimori, on the other hand, managed to avoid justice for a long time. He resigned months after the tapes were leaked and fled to Japan, the country of his ancestry. In turn, Japan recognized him as a Japanese citizen and refused extradition. However, he traveled in 2005 to Peru’s southern neighbor, Chile, in hopes of running for President again. Upon arrival, Fujimori was detained and eventually extradited to Peru to face trial.
Fujimori’s crimes against humanity are too lengthy for this limited space, yet he has never demonstrated a bit of contrition. He and his supporters point to the national security and economic crises that he inherited upon entry in office, but the tyrannical means that he used, in no way, can justify the ends.
U.S. foreign policy deserves criticism as well. The Peruvian government has continued to receive foreign aid despite similar patterns with political graft and drug corruption. The motivation behind this disastrous policy is fairly straightforward–Peru is a loyal military ally.
All four post-Fujimori administrations have been implicated in the Odebrecht scandal. In fact, the last President, Ollanta Humala, is currently in jail awaiting trial for this scandal. Likewise, the Trump administration has faced public pressure to extradite Alejandro Toledo, who served from 2001 to 2006 and is believed to be living in San Francisco, to face corruption charges in connection with Odebrecht.
His successor, Alan Garcia who served from 2006 to 2011, also has ties to Odebrecht. He returned to Peru in 2001 after the statute of limitations had passed for corruption charges stemming from his first term (1985-1990). During his second term, Garcia infamously granted “narco-pardons” to 400 top drug traffickers and his attorney is now in prison for arranging related bribes.
And the current opposition party offers no improvement. Keiko Fujimori, who lost the last Presidential election by less than 1%, is following in her father’s footsteps. She also has been implicated in the Odebrecht scandal. Furthermore, one of her top aides is under investigation by the DEA for reportedly laundering $15 million for one of the country’s major drug traffickers.
Peru has consistently remained as one of the world’s top producers of cocaine due to rampant corruption, yet the U.S. has never wavered in its financial support. In 2015 the U.S. provided $213.5 million of military/counternarcotics funding when one year earlier as many as 700 political candidates had been either investigated or convicted of drug charges.
In that same year, the AP’s report, “Peru military fails to act as narco planes fly freely,” thoroughly documented the links between cocaine trafficking and the military. In fact, one Peruvian military official was quoted analogizing their involvement in the top coca region as “putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.” U.S. tax dollars not only subsidize the Peruvian military, those funds benefit the federal police force which was exposed in an appalling death squad scandal in 2016.
Suffice it to say, there are many other disturbing news events like these. However, the consistent trend is that the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to these scandals because it is determined to maintain its strong military presence in the region. Furthermore, this military support hasn’t been politically controversial in the U.S. because it cloaked in the name of the drug war.
Brian Saady is a freelance writer whose work covers a variety of topics, such as criminal justice, corruption, and foreign policy. He’s also the author of four books, including two that directly criticize the war on drugs. The titles are The Drug War: A Trillion Dollar Con Game and America’s Drug War is Devastating Mexico. You can follow him on Twitter and check out his website.
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