Alberto Fujimori: the Tainted Legacy of a Remarkable Leader

Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori is due to stand trial for the 1992 killings of six farmers, just a month after he was pardoned on medical grounds having served less than a decade of a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses and corruption.

Fujimori is released from prison: January 2018

It looks set to be a forlorn and tainted end to a remarkable public life, destroying what could have been an amazing political legacy.

When Fujimori was first elected as President of Peru in 1990, few in the country knew who he was, let alone the rest of the continent. That he would stay in power for a decade – also winning elections in 1995 and 2000 – would have been a prediction few political forecasters made on his ascent to the highest office.

During his time in office, Fujimori used the security services to full affect

What was most remarkable about Fujimori’s election was his heritage. Born to Japanese immigrants, he was raised in a country where discrimination against Asians was common. Indeed, only 1.4% of the Peruvian population hails from Japanese stock, further demonstrating his unlikely rise.

The Japanese first arrived in Peru at the end of the 19th century, seen as a cheap source of agricultural labour at a time of political and industrial upheaval back across the Pacific.

A Japanese steamboat comes into view on the horizon carrying 790 Japanese immigrants into harbour in Peru, 1899

Unlike the Chinese – who had been enslaved and indentured to work in the sugar plantations and guano mines earlier in the 1800s – the Japanese in Peru were quick to lay down semi-permanent roots. Given that almost all of the labourers were men they tended to marry into local communities, establishing businesses that developed a distinctly Japanese identity.

Chinese slaves mined guano (bird excrement) on the Peruvian Chinca Islands. The guano was exported to Europe for use in fertilisers

Successful as many of the Japanese were, their arrival and later residency caused resentment amongst many Peruvians, with politicians passing discriminatory laws to prevent their capture of too much of the economy. World War Two further soured relations, with more than a thousand Japanese Peruvians subsequently deported to the USA, where they were held in internment camps.

So that Fujimori – son of natives of Kumamoto Province who had migrated to Peru in 1934 – should have had the audacity to run for president, let alone win the election, is a fairytale story in itself.

That this man of action would then go on to dismantle the bloody left-wing insurgency that tore Peru apart during the 1980s is simply staggering. Fronted by the Communist Party of Peru (better known as ‘Shining Path’) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA – named after an 18th century rebel leader, himself christened after the last Inca ruler), this internal violence brought untold misery to civilians.

Aftermath of a June 1989 bus bombing carried out by Shining Path

Targeting ordinary people who they viewed as ‘bourgeois’ or foreign-influenced, these terrorists (for that is what they were) became notorious for their acts of indiscriminate violence, torture and executions. One need only read Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes (1997) to get an appreciation of the cloud of fear these groups conjured up, seemingly intent on darkening the Peruvian landscape forever.

It was in 1997, however, that Fujimori’s relentless (some say immoral) counter-insurgency began to make inroads when the the MRTA surrendered and disbanded, their leader killed during a heroic raid by Peruvian commandos after the MRTA had taken the Japanese embassy hostage.

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis ended with the death of just a single hostage

Shining Path, too, was on the ropes, and by the time of Fujimori’s re-election in 2000 the civil war had basically been won. Going hand-in-hand with a surprise economic revival, Peru was beginning to attract the tourists and investors that it’s famed history and beauty merited.

Of course, some of Fujimori’s actions during this period are what have led to his current predicament. Shortly after his 2000 victory, he fled office, seeking sanctuary in Japan.  He was eventually detained in Chile in 2005 and extradited to Peru, where he was jailed in 2007 for abuse of power. A 25-year sentence for human rights abuses followed in 2009 and this latest charge means that Peru’s one-time saviour is now likely to die behind bars.

Whilst it is easy to condemn a politician for taking callous decisions, for using his office to retain power and stifle dissent, the situation he is facing is seldom considered. Fujimori was fighting a terrorist insurgency, a ‘war on terror’ far more threatening to domestic security than the one that preoccupied George W Bush for instance. Nobody batted an eyelid when his administration killed a terrorist did they?

Fujimori meeting George H W Bush at the White House

You need only look at today’s democracies and chart their histories to see that, in the not too distant past, they too were ruled by authoritarian leaders who bent the rules in the name of political and economic progress. Unfortunately, development comes at a price and sadly innocent people will sometimes fall victim.

It is therefore hoped that Alberto Fujimori is remembered for more than his final days languishing in a jail cell. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, his journey was a remarkable one, a journey that thrust Peru into the 21st century in a far more stable and prosperous position than when he took power in 1990.

Long may the revival continue.


Serb Nationalism and the Ignition of the Balkans: why we should remain wary of a Greater Serbia

There are concerns in some quarters that rising tensions and ultra-nationalist influence in the Balkans are being overlooked in light of the myriad other crises affecting the world today.

Serbia, in particular, has seen an erosion of its democracy under nationalist President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has made it known – in not particularly subtle tones – that the question of Bosnian and Kosovan sovereignty, not to mention other states in the region, is far from settled.

Vucic has been unapologetic in his calls for a ‘Greater Serbia’

As history has shown, when Serbian nationalism peaks so do regional anxieties, with conflict often only just over the horizon.

This isn’t to say that ultra-nationalism is rife in Serbia today and perhaps that is why Vucic has deemed it necessary to undermine the democratic institutions of his country in a bid to satiate his desires, and those of his supporters. It is no coincidence that he has moved closer to Vladimir Putin, who has shrewdly mobilised nationalist pride and a sense of ‘Russianness’ to distract from the economic decline facing his country, even if that means invading neighbouring states.

Of course, nationalism is typically wrapped up with a fear and repulsion of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’. In Serbia’s case this means the large Muslim minority living in the Balkans, those people denying a unified people a unified nation. The refugee crisis precipitated by the civil wars of the Middle East has only added to this ‘problem’ in the eyes of some Serbs, yet it is an historic issue in the nationalist cause.

A train painted with the moniker ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ had the backing of Belgrade

Nor is this confined inside the borders of Serbia itself, but anywhere that the Serbs inhabit. Controversy has recently been stirred in Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska, with the decision of its Serb president Milorad Dodik to cut the pay of his Bosniak (Muslim) vice-president for his ‘permanent war-like rhetoric…full of lies and misinformation’ aimed at undermining the governing authorities.

More vociferous, and occasionally violent, protests are commonly seen at football matches and in certain Serb-dominated neighbourhoods throughout the region.

Ethnic Serbs demonstrating in Mitrovica, Kosovo

For some, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s may seem like a distant memory, subsequent criminal prosecutions and increased European integration creating an illusion that all has been forgotten. Yet it was these horrific conflicts that were born from the desire for a ‘Greater Serbia’, evidenced most in the actions and rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb President of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s aggression was countered by a NATO bombing campaign against the Milosevic state

Standing tallest amongst many atrocities during these wars is the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica. It is little wonder that every time the nationalist dial is ratcheted up in Belgrade, when the calls for a homogeneous Serbian nation increase in volume, that Europe waits with baited breath.

As discussed, this trepidatious situation is not a modern phenomenon and indeed Serbian nationalism is widely credited as a primary cause for the First World War.

The idea of uniting Serbs in a common territory had been gaining ground during the 19th century, with a parallel state of agitating military and security officials operating alongside the political leadership of Nikola Pasic.

Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia, with its large Serb population, in 1908, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent July 1914 crisis that brought about global conflict.

The Archduke and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist

As a precursor to this was the Serbian foray into the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, largely aimed at acquiring more territory for a ‘Greater Serbia’, including gaining access to the Adriatic through slicing off a wedge of Albania.

It was in neighbouring Macedonia during these earlier Balkan Wars that a lesser known massacre occurred. In a place called Gostivar, advancing Serbian forces vented that wrath on a town thought to have engaged in partisan activities:

Some 300 Gostivar Muslims who had played no role in the uprising were arrested and taken out of the town during the night in groups of twenty to thirty to be beaten and stabbed to death with rifle butts and bayonets (gunshots would have woken the sleeping inhabitants of the town), before being thrown into a large open grave that had been dug beforehand for that purpose. (Clark, pp.112-113)

Other reports of murder, rape and pillage by Serbian forces against Muslim civilians filtered their way back to Belgrade. The authorities were unwilling, or unable, to do anything and Serbian ultra-nationalism continued on its fateful course.

Serbian cavalry enter Skopje in 1912

Now this is not to intimate that we are on the verge of similar atrocities, or that even a tangible nationalist swing in Serbia is a sure sign that the Balkans will go up in flames again. But it speaks of an historic hatred, of a people harbouring a perception that they have been denied their true destiny by outsiders; Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarian imperialists, international organisations, Muslims. Such hatred has the potential to ignite given the right conditions.

World leaders should not be so naive as to believe that the political, ethnic and religious entanglements of the Balkans are at an end. Greater integration may be a step in the right direction but uneven development and historical memory will continue to influence events. And when Serb nationalism peaks, and the clamour for change grows louder, it is often a concrete sign that trouble is brewing.


Clark, C. Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)