Lima, Peru—Javier Ríos was 8 years old when he was killed by a death squad operating on the margins of Peru’s Army in November 1991. His father and 13 other people were shot execution-style at the same barbecue in Barrios Altos, an inner-city neighborhood in Peru’s capital.
“Not a day goes by when I do not think of him. He would be 35 today – a man,” says his mother, Rosa Rojas. “All these years and not a single authority has apologized for what they did to our family.”
No one has apologized, but someone was held accountable: The president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009 for authorizing the Barrios Altos killings and other human rights violations.
But Ms. Rojas and tens of thousands of other Peruvians took to the streets this week to protest a Christmas Eve pardon that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted Mr. Fujimori. The divisive former leader was released after serving less than 10 years of his sentence.
The pardon is the latest chapter in Peru’s efforts to come to terms with the impact of political violence that erupted here nearly 40 years ago. And there’s a lot at stake, from faith in governing institutions to trust of fellow citizens – to whether Peru’s legacy of being one of the first nations in the world to convict a former president in national courts will become moot.
Peru’s government declared 2018 the “year of dialogue and national reconciliation,” defending the pardon on the grounds that Fujimori is ill and his release could foster understanding. On Jan. 9, Mr. Kuczynski shuffled his Cabinet, bringing in nine new ministers he said would help heal the nation’s wounds.
The pardon doesn’t mean “impunity for Fujimori [but] forgiveness given his health,” Prime Minister Mercedes Aráoz wrote in a Jan. 7 opinion piece.
But critics believe the pardon institutionalizes impunity and will further polarize this country of 31 million people. A survey by Datum Internacional published today found 52 percent support the president’s decision, but only 32 percent believe it will lead to reconciliation.
“This is not only an illegal pardon, but the continuation of a betrayal that began in 1990,” says María Chirinos, a homemaker at Thursday’s seven-hour, peaceful march against Fujimori’s release and against Kuczynski for granting it.
“Our presidents say one thing and do another. Look around … you can’t achieve reconciliation with lies.”
Humanitarian relief vs. political move
Fujimori, who held office for a decade, has been a lighting rod in the country since his come-from-nowhere election in 1990. The pardon has put him squarely at the center of a decades-long debate on how to deal with the legacy of a brutal internal conflict that began in 1980.
He took office when Peru’s economy was in tatters, with the economy shrinking by double digits and inflation at 7,000 percent. The Shining Path communist insurgency was terrorizing society and had the state on the run in a large part of the country. An estimated 70,000 people were killed or went missing during the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000, the majority at the hands of the Shining Path.
Fujimori is credited with reforms that got the economy growing again, and for stopping the threat of insurgency: Leaders from the Shining Path and a smaller revolutionary group were arrested in 1992. But the heavy-handed tactics used to clamp down on the insurgencies split society.
In 2000, a wide-ranging corruption scandal unraveled Fujimori’s grip on power. He fled Peru late that year and was impeached. He was arrested in neighboring Chile in 2005, trying to return home. He was extradited and found guilty in five cases, including for the killings in Barrios Altos.
His pardon came during the worst political crisis since the corruption scandal that brought down his government 17 years prior.
Kuczynski faced an impeachment hearing on Dec. 21 for lying to a congressional committee in a corruption probe. He would have joined Fujimori as the only president impeached in Peru’s modern history, but Congress fell eight votes short of the 87 needed to remove him. The president survived thanks to a move by Congressman Kenji Fujimori, the former president’s son. He and nine colleagues abstained, giving Kuczynski his margin of victory.
The government denies it negotiated the pardon, but 78 percent of Peruvians in the Datum poll believe a deal was made to save Kuczynski in exchange for Fujimori’s release. The president could face another impeachment hearing because of the pardon, and a case will be made against his decision Feb. 2 at the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The pardon is “a political decision dressed as a humanitarian pardon,” says Gloria Cano, director of the Lima-based Pro-Human Rights Association that will argue before the court. “We are opposed to the way this pardon was expedited.”
‘Pardon or no pardon’
The legacy of political violence hangs over many nations across Latin America, and pardons and other legal maneuvers to heal these complicated histories of political violence haven’t been showing results, says Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and author of a book on political violence in Peru who was present for Fujimori’s sentencing.
“Governments have tried to decree reconciliation in the past using different terminology, but they have never worked. I do not see how this [pardon] is going to lead to national reconciliation,” she says.
Protesters at Thursday’s march, whether carrying signs or chanting slogans, were clear on two points they find necessary for their sense of reconciliation: Fujimori should be in prison, and Kuczynski should resign, and be jailed, too.
Cristina Planas, a sculptor who crafted large fiberglass vulture heads that were paraded in the march, said civil society has to take a stand. “We have a corrupt president pardoning another corrupt president. It is insulting and I think it is time we said enough is enough,” she says.
Elena Vargas, who runs a small stand selling soft drinks, says she doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. The only way to move forward is for the country to stop looking back at Fujimori’s presidency and Peru’s violent past. “Fujimori did many good things for this country. He made mistakes and paid for them. Keeping him in jail would be wrong,” she says.
Fujimori’s release is a blow to the fight against impunity, Ms. Burt says, but the case remains important: He is still the only president worldwide to be extradited and tried by a court in his home country.
“Fujimori’s verdict was upheld on appeal and resisted dozens of petitions filed by Fujimori’s lawyers over the years,” Burt says. His “culpability does not magically disappear with this pardon. He was found guilty by a court of law, and that fact stands, pardon or no pardon.”