The elections in 1990 proved to be a turning point for Peru. In the run-up to them there were four main candidates: the popular and internationally renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa, with his new right-wing coalition (“Fredemo”); Luís Alva Castro, general secretary of APRA (and minister in charge of the economy under Garcia); Alfonso Barrantes in control of a new left-wing grouping (“Acuerdo Socialista”) and Henry Peace of the United Left.

Vargas Llosa was the easy favourite as the poll approached, although he had blotted his copybook somewhat during 1989, when he had briefly bowed out of the electoral process, accusing his fellow leaders within “Fredemo” (which was essentially an alliance between Acción Popular and the Popular Christian Party) of making it impossible for him to carry on as a candidate. Still, by the time of the election he was back and firmly in charge. APRA, having had five pretty disastrous years in power, were given virtually no chance of getting Alva Castro elected, and the left were severely split. Barrantes was by far the most popular candidate on that side. However, in creating “Acuerdo Socialista,” and thereby taking away half of the United Left’s vote, he effectively spoilt both their chances.

Who is Alberto Fujimori?

In the event, the real surprise came with lightning speed from a totally unexpected quarter in the guise of an entirely new party – “Cambio 90” (Change 90), formed only months before the election – led by a young university professor of Japanese descent, Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori came a very close second to Vargas Llosa in the March 1990 election, with 31 percent of the total against Vargas Llosa’s 35 percent. Since a successful candidate must gain half the votes to become president, a second round was scheduled for June.

Once the initial shock of the result had been absorbed, Fujimori rapidly became favourite to win the second poll, on the grounds that electors who had voted for left-wing parties would switch their allegiance to him. While Vargas Llosa offered a Thatcherite, monetarist economic shock for Peru, Fujimori recommended protecting all public industries of strategic importance – the oil industry being one of the most important. Vargas Llosa was for selling such companies off to the private sector and exposing them to the full power of world market forces.

However, ordinary Peruvians were clearly worried that such policies would bring them the kind of hardships that had beset Brazilians or Argentineans, and Fujimori swept into power in the second round of voting, almost immediately adopting many of Vargas Llosa’s policies – overnight the price of many basics such as flour and fuel trebled. Fujimori did, however, manage to turn the nation around and gain an international confidence in Peru reflected in a stock exchange that was one of the fastest growing and most active in the Americas.

The Capture of Abimael Guzman

However, the real turning point, economically and politically, was the capture of Sendero’s leader Abimael Guzman in September 1992. Captured at his Lima hideout (a dance school), by General Vidal’s secret anti-terrorist police DINCOTE, even Fujimori had not known about the raid until it had been successfully completed. With Guzman in jail, and presented very publicly on TV as the defeated man, the political tide shifted. The international press no longer described Peru as a country where terrorists looked poised to take over, and Fujimori went from strength to strength while Sendero’s activities were reduced to little more than the occasional car bomb in Lima as they were hounded by the military in their remote hideouts along the eastern edges of the Peruvian Andes.

A massive boost to Fujimori’s popularity, in the elections of 1995 he gained over sixty percent of the vote. Perhaps it was recognition too, that his strong policies had paid off as far as the economy was concerned – inflation dipped from a record rate of 2777 percent in 1989 to ten percent in 1996.

The mid-1990s also became the time for the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) terrorists to battle with Fujimori and his government. First, in 1995, there was the capture of a major Lima cell after a 24-hour siege in the suburb of La Molina Vieja. A 26-year-old North American woman, Lori Helen Berenson Mejia, was arrested with the MRTA in the house and is now serving a life sentence in a women’s prison in Peru. Then, on 17 December 1996, the MRTA really hit the headlines when they infiltrated the Japanese Ambassor’s residence, which they held siege for 126 days, with over 300 hostages. Some of these were released after negotiation, but Fujimori refused to give in to their demands for the freedom of hundreds of jailed MRTA comrades, and in March 1997, the affair ended in the storming of the building by Peruvian forces as the terrorists were playing football inside the residence. All the terrorists, many of them teenagers, were massacred, with only one hostage perishing in the skirmish. Fujimori’s reputation as a hard man and a successful leader shot to new heights.

To War with Ecuador

Fujimori continued to grow in popularity, despite Peru going to war with Ecuador briefly in January 1995, May 1997 and more seriously in 1998. The Ecuadorian army, which was accused of starting the skirmish, imposed significant losses on the Peruvian forces. This dispute has been inflamed by the presence of large oil fields in the region, currently on what the Peruvians claim is their side of the border, a claim the Ecuadorians bitterly dispute: Ecuadorian maps continue to show the border much further south than Peruvian maps. The war is not over yet, although the fighting has stopped and at the start of 2000, relations between the two countries appeared better than they had been for decades.

In economic terms, Fujimori also seemed to be just about holding his own. Despite many aid organisations confirming widespread poverty and unemployment in Peru, and despite the nation being hit hard by the El Niño of 1998, the economy had stayed buoyant. Helped to a large extent by a growth in fishing output and a firm hand on inflation, which looked set to drop from its 1999 rate of seven percent to the projected two percent between 2000 and 2002, economic growth had remained steady at around three percent, and in the late 1990s Spain, the US and the UK were the biggest foreign investors in Peruvian communications, energy and mining.

Politically, too, Fujimori gained substantially in July 1999, when he appeared on TV, live from Huancayo, announcing the imminent capture of Oscar Ramirez Durand, alias Comrade Feliciano, Guzman’s number two and the then relatively new leader of “Sendero Luminoso.” An army battalion had already been sent to the Huancayo region in 1997 to destroy Sendero’s stronghold; it took them two years, but they managed to achieve a result just in time for the start of the electoral campaign. At the end of the twentieth century, Sendero were left with only a few scattered remnants in one or two parts of the “sierra” and “ceja de selva,” and just one active cell in the cocaine-producing region of the Huallaga valley.

Rural Exodus

At the close of the twentieth century, apart from the rise and fall of Sendero Luminoso, the most impressive social phenomenon of the last hundred years had been the massive movement from rural to urban living. This was particularly true of Lima, which had, for several hundred years, grown fat on the back of the rich hinterlands of the Andes and, to a lesser extent, the Amazon regions.

From the 1960s onwards the migration to Lima from the Andes was heavy and incessant, with people seeking a better living under its bright lights, and it grew in a rapid and disorganised fashion, doubling in size and population between 1976 and 1999. In 1940 just 35 percent of Peruvians lived in cities; by 1993 this had risen to over 70 percent.

Conversely, so much of the jungle had been destroyed to make way for coca production that the environmental aspects of the situation became at least as critical as the associated law-and-order problems, though in the late 1990s, US airmen were patrolling the skies between Colombia and Peru, shooting down planes which did not respond to their calls for identification. Whether this helped or not is unsure, but by the end of 1999, cocaine production in Peru was on the decline.


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