Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (left) in 2004.
The extraordinary tale of fugitive former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori took a strange twist in November 2005 when he arrived unexpectedly in Chile. Wanted on 21 Peruvian and Interpol warrants for corruption, murder and human rights abuses, Fujimori had remained free courtesy of the Japanese government, which had welcomed him as a prodigal son in 2000 and subsequently blocked his extradition. Then, almost five years to the day after he fled Peru for Japan and faxed his resignation from the presidency — a getaway seen by many Peruvians as both shameless and traitorous — Fujimori appeared in Chile on a tourist visa, vowing to return to Peru to run for president in April 2006. Instead he was promptly arrested, and is now fighting extradition. Peru’s National Election Board formally rejected his bid on Jan. 10, 2006.
Fujimori’s appearance in Chile was shocking to some of the Peruvian public and the world’s political observers; others saw it as a ploy for attention prior to the upcoming election. Including candid interviews with the elusive Fujimori, filmed in Japan before his return to South America, The Fall of Fujimori demonstrates once again how much stranger truth is than fiction — especially in the minds of history’s players. With a methodical recounting of Fujimori’s turbulent rise and fall, including never-before-seen footage from his regime, the film provides a cautionary tale about the uncertain hazards of populist politics amid terrorism, Third-World poverty, civil conflict and authoritarian government in the name of democracy.
Fujimori in indigenous dress while campaigning for the 2000 election.
Fujimori appears nervous, gracious, diffident and anxious to tell his story when he sits down for an interview with filmmaker Perry in January 2004 at an unnamed Tokyo hotel. The interview came about after an 18-month effort by Perry to speak with the fugitive ex-president, who was well protected by a coterie of staff and family. Perry, in Tokyo in a last-ditch effort to see Fujimori, received only 30 minutes’ notice of his willingness to meet with her. Yet for all the cloak-and-dagger proceedings leading to the interview, Fujimori is disarmingly accommodating and unfailingly polite, alternating between bold statements of his accomplishments and denials of the allegations against him. That first interview turned into weeks of talks, including visits to Kumamoto, Japan, the birthplace of Fujimori’s ancestors, and to a small mat-weaving factory, where he demonstrated his way with common people.
The story Fujimori tells is that of the unknown university academic who ran a grassroots campaign that carried him to the presidency of Peru, and who then vanquished the country’s worst enemies — terrorism and hyper-inflation. He recalls the man who, despite his education and class, forged a common bond with Peru’s poor, and who even used his foreign ancestry as proof that he was an “outsider” to power — much like Peru’s Indian and overwhelmingly poor majority. Fujimori smiles as he recalls the nickname they gave him — “el Chino,” the Chinaman — bestowed with sweeping popular disregard for the fine point of Fujimori’s Japanese roots.
Vladimiro Montesinos, chief of Peru’s intelligence service, Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional (SIN), during Fujimori’s presidency
In Fujimori’s telling, once in office, he was the man who took the tough action needed to avert bloody revolution and save democracy in Peru — even if he’d had to suspend democracy to seize dictatorial powers, in his famous autogolpe, or “self-coup.” As for excesses or instances of corruption, Fujimori says that he was played false by his lieutenants, especially the much-feared Vladimiro Montesinos, chief of National Intelligence Service (SIN).
The story of Peru under Fujimori is much more complicated than he allows, as we learn from a variety of on-the-spot witnesses. Their interviews are interwoven with Fujimori’s, along with a wealth of archival materials documenting Peru in the 1990s. Among those interviewed are Peruvian journalists Luis Iberico, Enrique Zileri, and Gustavo Goritti; Fujimori’s eldest child, 30-year-old Keiko Sofia Fujimori, who took over as first lady when his wife divorced him in 1994 and in April 2006 won a seat in Peru’s Congress; Peruvian congresswoman Martha Chavez; Fujimori’s former press secretary Carlos Orellana; Fernando Rospigliosi, former head of Peruvian National Intelligence; Robert Goldman, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and Anthony Quainton, U.S. Ambassador to Peru 1989-92. Fujimori’s ex-wife Susana Higuchi, who actually ran against him for president while they were still married, gives unusual testimony, via archival interviews, to the impact of politics on a once middle-class family.
Much of what Fujimori has to say is validated by history: his rise to power on an uncanny connection with Peru’s poor; his success in reining in both inflation and the most dangerous of Peru’s two guerrilla groups, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), whose rebels, led by another ex-professor, Abimael Guzmán, controlled over 40 percent of the country in 1990. But in the war on Sendero and the weaker MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru), evidence indicates that Fujimori’s government crossed the line into a “dirty war” of death squads and human rights abuses. Fujimori now faces extradition to Peru for charges including authorizing a paramilitary death squad accused of murdering 25 people.
Why did he decide to suspend Congress and the judiciary in his “self-coup” and assume dictatorial powers? How could he claim to save democracy by overturning it? And what was the country to make of Fujimori’s wife accusing her in-laws of graft?
Ultimately, the release of an unprecedented series of tapes showing Montesinos coolly bribing lawmakers with stacks of cash on behalf of Fujimori unravels his regime and sends Fujimori into a bizarre chase of Montesinos and then into exile. Montesinos, a convicted spy for the CIA and former lawyer for drug lords, was universally regarded as Fujimori’s right-hand man, the shadow behind the throne, ever since he had made the tax troubles facing Fujimori in his first election go away.
The Fall of Fujimori is an unprecedented portrait of a Latin-American dictator and his 10-year reign in a country beset with poverty, class division, spiraling violence and corrupt leaders. “Making The Fall of Fujimori, I often didn’t know if I was making a film, or in one,” says director Ellen Perry. “In Lima, CIA operatives and the Peruvian secret police followed me. While interviewing an arms trafficker in San Jorge prison, I was knocked off my feet by a 7.2 earthquake. But the risks were worth it. Fujimori’s story has all the dimensions of a tragedy, both personal and collective, and has a lot to say about politics in an age of mounting terrorism.”
The Fall of Fujimori was supported by a grant from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund with additional funding by the Mathias Lloyd Spiegel Foundation and Robert Schmitt.