Learning from Peru [El Diario/La Prensa]
October 21, 2008
When the next U.S. president tries to find a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties, he would do well to draw lessons from Peru, which is coming to terms with the brutal legacy of its own war on terror through the trial of former President Alberto Fujimori.
Peruvian prosecutors hold Fujimori responsible for the deaths of 25 people in 1991 at the hands of the Colina Group, an anti-terror death squad of military intelligence officers. While the trial of a former head of state raises fascinating legal questions, it also provides the ultimate arena for debating means versus ends: Can an elected leader afford legal niceties while trying to quash a vicious insurgency? What freedoms can be sacrificed when conducting a war on terror? Fujimori’s extreme path may seem unthinkable in the United States and other long-established democracies, but it provides a stern warning about executive power run amok.
Fujimori was elected in 1990 promising to take a tough line against terrorism. Fighting among the Shining Path guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), and the Peruvian military and police had ravaged the country for a decade, and the little-known candidate pledged to bring it to an end.
As president, Fujimori curtailed civil liberties and radically consolidated executive power. He took direct control of the intelligence services of the armed forces and police, including the then-secret Colina Group, which killed suspected members of Shining Path and political opponents of the government. Fujimori cited every sign of progress in the fight against terror as evidence that authoritarian tactics were superior to democratic ones. In 1992, he suspended the constitution and dissolved congress and the Supreme Court in the name of fighting terror.
For a time, Fujimori’s popularity climbed, though a robust domestic human rights movement kindled outrage over state abuses. Its brave members rejected the notion that the Peruvian people ought to be thankful for the assassinations, torture, kidnappings and bombings in the name of security.
Over time it became apparent that government wrongdoing, including the torture of prisoners and extra-judicial killings, only escalated the conflict. It was patient, humble police work, not the tactics of special “anti-terrorism” squads or the suspension of civil rights, that eventually led to the arrest of Shining Path’s leaders. Meanwhile, unchecked power let Fujimori benefit from massive corruption schemes, ranging from kickbacks for public works projects to running assault rifles for the Colombian guerilla army FARC. Fujimori resigned and fled Peru in 2000, overwhelmed by financial and political scandals.
Peru won Fujimori’s extradition after seven years of diplomacy and litigation. With it came the opportunity to demonstrate it could conduct a fair trial of the former president, rather than one motivated by revenge. Peru deserves credit and international support for doing so.
The trial is essential for the future of Peru’s democracy-and a lesson for every democracy fighting terrorism-because it is an effort to restore a basis for public morality while countering the legacy of a destructive regime. For eight months now, prosecutors have presented the testimony of victims and perpetrators in an effort to demonstrate the degrading consequences of government wrong-doing. In doing so, they are providing an answer to the Machiavellian argument that the goal of national security justifies all means.
Fujimori’s defense counsel argues that the court cannot find him guilty without a smoking gun-written orders that directly link Fujimori to specific crimes. Prosecutors are trying to demonstrate that Fujimori orchestrated a clandestine counter-insurgency strategy based on deceitful language, verbal orders and ambiguous memos that provided deniability to those giving the orders and impunity to those following them. Their case draws on the findings of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established shortly after Fujimori’s resignation, an independent inquiry that documented the deaths and disappearances of over 69,000 people during 20 years of fighting between guerillas and government forces.
The patient progress of international law since the Nuremberg Trials seems to be on the side of the prosecution. International and domestic tribunals have established that superiors are criminally responsible for atrocities committed by their subordinates, whether they helped plan the crimes or deliberately failed to stop them.
Fujimori’s trial is a worthy example for Latin America and the rest of the world, which has seen Indonesia’s General Suharto escape prosecution in his own country and Saddam Hussein tried and executed in a chaotic process. By braving the pressure of angry Fujimori supporters at home, Peru is demonstrating its ability to rebuild its national institutions on the basis of public morality.
By coincidence, Fujimori is likely to face a verdict within days of the U.S. presidential vote, on Nov. 4. Whoever the US president-elect may be, he should pause during his celebrations to contemplate Peru’s achievement in facing the abuses in its recent past-and begin to think about how his administration can do the same.
This article appeared in a shorter form in El Diario/La Prensa.