Peru's Ombudsman Takes on Fujimori After Success Fighting the Government

The Wall Street Journal -- 9 March 2000

by Matt Moffett, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

LIMA, Peru -- When the army recruiter plucked Fredy Alberto Cusi off an Andean farm and inducted the mentally retarded young man into the infantry, his parents panicked.

They had nowhere to turn -- except the Defensoria del Pueblo, or People's Defender, a government ombudsman that protects Peruvians from abuse by public officials. The agency, which was created by Peru's Congress in 1996, talked army bureaucrats into discharging Mr. Cusi. And after intervening in scores of other conscriptions, the defender's office recently helped win passage of a law that eliminates compulsory military service.

It was another successful campaign for Peru's "Magistrate of Persuasion." In its first four years, the People's Defender has had many successes as a go-between.

Under the direction of a former United Nations official, Jorge Santistevan, the defender's office has won the release of hundreds of prisoners wrongly held as leftist guerrillas and has labored against a federal birth-control program that aggressively promoted the sterilization of impoverished women. It has opposed torture by state security forces and price-fixing by public utilities. And it has involved itself in many small, unpublicized cases.

The defender now is looming larger as another presidential election approaches. President Alberto Fujimori, in office since 1990, is favored to win a third five-year term next month, which could give him the longest reign of any Latin American leader since the heyday of military dictators in the 1970s and 1980s.

To lay the groundwork for Mr. Fujimori's re-election, the president's supporters in Congress, who dominate the legislative body, in 1997 removed three members of the country's highest court who had argued that a third term for Mr. Fujimori would be unconstitutional. Then Peruvian courts, packed with Fujimori appointees, revoked the citizenship of a television-station owner and prominent critic of the government.

Mr. Fujimori's backers point out that polls show his candidacy leading with the electorate. Indeed, he has earned a good deal of public support by bringing economic and political stability to this country.

But the defender has received more than 200 complaints of alleged campaign irregularities. And Mr. Fujimori's operatives have been accused of an elaborate scheme to falsify hundreds of thousands of voter signatures on the president's registration petitions. "Besides the ombudsman, there's no other government representative in Peru today who can look the president straight in the eye," says Francisco Soberon Garrido, a Peruvian human-rights activist. The president has denied any wrongdoing.

When the defender called for an inquiry into Mr. Fujimori's registration drive (the elections, Mr. Santistevan says, have a "factory defect"), the president's congressional allies shot back that Mr. Santistevan himself should be investigated, and possibly removed, for partisanship. TV stations and newspapers allied to Mr. Fujimori have been pillorying the defender's office as a haven for political radicals. Mr. Santistevan says there's enormous pressure in running the Peruvian institution that ranks with the Roman Catholic Church in surveys of credibility and perceived independence from the executive. "This is an island, but if all of the lightning bolts are attracted to it, watch out," he says. "It could explode."

Peru's strongman politics evolved out of the protracted 15-year war with the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, which claimed 20,000 lives and cost an estimated $20 billion. After temporarily replacing Congress and the courts by decree, in what came to be known as the "self-coup," Mr. Fujimori and the Peruvian army finally smashed the guerrillas. But the campaign left basic governing institutions in a shambles.

Persistent international pressure forced the government to create the ombudsman's office as part of postwar reconstruction. And the top job went to Mr. Santistevan, now 55, a Peruvian law professor who had spent more than a decade working for the U.N. elsewhere in Latin America. "It may have helped that I was unknown," says Mr. Santistevan.

But on the morning in 1996 when the defender opened its Lima headquarters, 500 people lined up out front. As the defender gained a reputation for troubleshooting, Peruvians started dropping off elderly relatives they couldn't care for at the agency's front door. When the defender opened offices in isolated provinces, jungle-dwelling Indians called upon it to restock supplies of government snakebite serum. The office has done what it can.

Lacking authority to impose fines or jail sentences, Mr. Santistevan's best weapons are moral suasion, political maneuvering and considerable skill in dealing with the media. An investigation by the defender brought about the annulment of municipal elections two years ago in an Andean region where troops were found to have coerced voters to support Mr. Fujimori's candidates.

A Pragmatic Solution

Mr. Santistevan had to make political compromise with the army in order to solve one of his biggest challenges: winning the release of nearly 500 Peruvians jailed on flimsy evidence during the guerrilla war. The army was reluctant to admit error, but Mr. Santistevan found a way around that: A committee he and the justice minister headed pardoned the prisoners without exonerating them. "Ideally, an innocent person would be declared innocent," says Mr. Santistevan. "But we wanted results."

He got results for people like Alfonso Castiglioni, freed after serving nearly four years of a 20-year sentence for collaborating with rebels. The government never produced the only piece of evidence it claimed to have -- a letter allegedly written by Mr. Castiglioni to a guerrilla. "I would still be in jail if it weren't for the defender," says Mr. Castiglioni.

The defender's office played a key role in reining in a government birth-control program that came to the defender's attention in 1997, not long after a woman had died at a public hospital of complications from a sterilization procedure known as a tubal ligation. The defender came to the conclusion that government health officials had put too much pressure on the woman -- and thousands of other poor and semiliterate women -- to have the operation. Medical workers acknowledged to investigators and local media that they had been given bonuses for reaching sterilization quotas. Health officials had even sponsored block parties to attract new patients.

At the urging of the defender and other human-rights groups, the government overhauled its procedures -- and began to enforce a 72-hour waiting period prior to sterilization operations so that women had time to consider their options. The result: Tubal ligations in Peru declined to 26,000 in 1998 from 109,000 in 1997.