Peru Ex-Leader's Popularity Falls

Associated Press -- 2 April 2001

by Craig Mauro

LIMA, Peru - Four years ago, Peruvians hailed President Alberto Fujimori as a hero for ordering a spectacular commando raid that ended a four-month hostage standoff at the Japanese ambassador's residence.

There were questions about whether some of the 14 guerrillas killed might have been shot after surrendering, but people paid little attention.

Today, Fujimori's legacy is tarred by the corruption scandals that chased him from office last fall, and views of the former leader are decidedly darker.

The words ``coward'' and ``cheat'' are commonly heard now, and prosecutors are investigating him for possible human rights violations against the dead rebels.

Their bodies were exhumed in mid-March, following charges that some of them may have been taken alive and then summarily executed during the commando raid April 23, 1997. Forensic experts are trying to reconstruct the circumstances of their deaths.

Proof they were executed would enable prosecutors to move ahead with charges of human rights violations against Fujimori, who took credit for personally directing the operation.

With Fujimori out of office, investigators have spent four months searching for evidence to link him directly to illicit operations of his former security adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos.

The former spy chief is a fugitive from charges ranging from influence peddling to narcotics trafficking. But so far the only formal charges against Fujimori have been for abandonment of office and dereliction of duty.

At the time of the commando raid, Fujimori denied unconfirmed reports that several rebels might have been killed while trying to surrender. But he admitted in an interview with The Associated Press that he gave an order to ``neutralize'' all the rebels.

While claiming no one was killed out of vengeance, he said the priority was to rescue the hostages alive and the soldiers did not wait to find out what each rebel's intentions were.

The government said after the raid that all 14 rebels died in bomb blasts and gunfire as army commandos stormed the residence.

Fujimori is now in self-imposed exile in his parents' native Japan, where he fled in November as the dismantling of Montesinos' network of corruption dramatically ended his 10-year authoritarian rule.

He was granted Japanese citizenship and appears safe from extradition to Peru on any corruption charges. But Peruvian officials argue that proof of summary executions during the embassy operation could lead to Fujimori being tried in Japan under international human rights laws.

The investigation illustrates just how far Fujimori's star has fallen since the heady days of the hostage rescue.

``You had to live in the climate of the time. The operation was so successful that there was no opposition. Peruvians loved it,'' said historian Luis Jochamowitz, author of a biography of Fujimori.

Reflecting on the raid a few days afterward, Antonio Cisneros, a leading poet, said it had given Peruvians ``a little bit of dignity.''

``Nobody expected this efficiency, this speed. In military terms it was a First World job, not Third World,'' he said.

The four-month standoff with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, had badly damaged the Peruvian psyche. It drew worldwide media coverage and set off fears of renewed guerrilla violence that the iron-fisted Fujimori had appeared to tame just a few years before.

After promising for months to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis, Fujimori surprised the nation by ordering the attack as the rebels were playing an afternoon game of soccer with a makeshift ball made from a wrapped window curtain.

Fujimori's popularity ratings quickly doubled to nearly 70 percent and he was acclaimed a national hero.

Fujimori's defenders say the Tupac Amaru investigation is just another attempt by political enemies to destroy his legacy.

``Not giving in to terrorist blackmail is the only good thing remaining from the previous government,'' said Carlos Blanco, an independent congressman and former hostage. ``And now they want to destroy that like everything else.''

Prosecutors are acting on remarks from former Japanese Embassy political attache Hidetaka Ogura, a hostage who published a book last year about the ordeal.

Ogura said that as soldiers led him out of the ambassador's residence, he saw two of the guerrillas alive and detained by commandos. He said a few minutes later he and other hostages saw the third-ranking rebel leader, known as Comrade Tito, in custody with his hands tied.

Another hostage, Maximo Rivera, then head of Peru's anti-terrorism police, said recently he had heard similar accounts from other hostages after the raid.

But several other hostages, including former Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Munante, released a statement in March rejecting Ogura's claims. They said smoke from explosions and fires made ``visibility impossible.''