Gustavo Gorriti, a Peruvian journalist based in Lima, has covered the guerrilla group Shining Path since 1981. He is the author of a book about the movement, Sendero: historia de la guerra milenaria en el Peru, and at work on a second volume. He has written frequently for Caretas, Peru’s leading news magazine, and is currently a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País. During the April 5 auto-golpe, or self-coup, in which President Alberto Fujimori suspended Peru’s constitution and dissolved the congress, Gorriti was arrested by armed intelligence agents and held for two days until the government responded to international pressure for his release. The following interview took place in New York at the end of May.—SK
Sarah Kerr: What was your experience during the coup?
Gustavo Gorriti: Fujimori had been out of public view for several days, and suddenly after the regular Sunday night political programs he made a surprise appearance on TV, announcing that he was taking on absolute powers to deal with the Shining Path threat and do away with corruption and inefficiency in Congress. At the same time government troops were deployed around Lima, getting control of key points and arresting many members of APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), the party of former president Alan García. García escaped, but the minister of the interior during his regime was arrested, and the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, members of the Christian Popular Party, were held under house arrest.
I was the only journalist they looked for. I was arrested at about 3:30 in the morning. Troops sealed off four blocks around my house; there was a company of a hundred or so soldiers nearby. Some army intelligence officers in plain clothes arrived, saying they were members of the state security police and that they wanted to speak to me. I invited them to sit and talk, but they said I had to go to headquarters. They were all carrying Heckler & Koch 9mm. submachine guns equipped with silencers. They climbed over the outside wall of my garden and stood with their fingers on the trigger. The whole thing was, let’s say, extremely tense.
They took me, along with my computer, to the army intelligence offices inside the pentagonito, the “little pentagon” military headquarters in Lima. I had seen signs of surveillance before and had expected that the police would take me. I had known they would come. But I didn’t think they would dare use army intelligence people, who have often been accused of carrying out assassinations and “disappearances,” in the kidnapping. I was left to ponder the consequences of my miscalculation for many hours in solitary confinement.
They almost didn’t question me. They came only once to take away anything that could serve as a suicide weapon, and another time to ask for the password to get into my hard disk. I didn’t give it. And they came three times to offer me food, which I refused, because I had immediately gone on a hunger strike. I was held in army headquarters until midnight the next day, when I was transferred to the police. By the following day there had been strong international protest, especially from Spain and the United States, and they were in a hurry to get me back on the street.
Kerr: What specific measures has Fujimori imposed since April 5?
Gorriti: The new laws Fujimori has introduced are essentially repressive. Habeas corpus has been all but abrogated. The new antiterrorist law defines collaboration so broadly that it could include almost anyone, and it means twenty years in jail. Terrorism cases will be decided in secret tribunals, in which the identities of judges, prosecutors, and even tribunal employees are to be kept hidden. I could be accused of possessing classified documents, and my lawyer and I would not face prosecution in court but would have to respond to the faceless judges through a complex system of written notes, from jail, of course.
In the meantime, since the coup Fujimori has put his own people to work as judges and prosecutors. He made it look as though he were purging only the judges who belong to the APRA Party, which he said was responsible for most of the corruption in the judiciary. But of the 170 or so judges fired, only a small number were from APRA; many were indeed corrupt, but at least a few had records of exceptional courage and honesty. Even before Fujimori put the new people in, army intelligence officers had ransacked archives in the judiciary and in prosecutors’ offices mainly to get hold of all cases in which Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s closest adviser, was involved as a lawyer for drug traffickers, and perhaps other documents that Fujimori does not want the public to see. For more than a week after the coup, scores of intelligence agents carried judicial records away by the truckload. So with the disappearance of legal history and with the appointment of compliant judges law doesn’t exist anymore.
On the night of the coup, Fujimori called together the owners of TV stations and ordered them to broadcast his taped message. Censors were sent to newspapers and radio stations. Only two stations continued to interview opposition members of Congress. One was occupied by troops and went off the air; the other kept on broadcasting until noon the next day, when everyone was arrested. La Republica, one of the leading Peruvian newspapers, came out with several pages lank. The editor of Caretas, the leading news weekly, went into hiding.
Two days later censorship was lifted. Fujimori apologized to the owner of one paper for any inconvenience, explaining that he had sent troops in to protect the newspaper offices. Ever since, there has been relative freedom to publish, but the basis for press freedom is growing narrower and narrower. For instance, investigative reporting is now legally risky. New laws have been passed making it a criminal offense to publish any information that might, in the opinion of these secret tribunals, help the terrorists.
Kerr: The Bush administration immediately condemned the coup, but the American press seemed at first to accept Fujimori’s argument that strong measures had been needed to restore order in Peru. Reports here usually concentrated on polls showing that 70 to 80 percent of Peruvians approved of the president.
Gorriti: As far as the polls are concerned, Fujimori has had a high degree of approval. But the same polls show that Peruvians expect him to restore democracy very soon. In any case, democracy is not the same thing as the momentary response to a poll; it requires the rule of law and minimal conditions of fair competition among different candidates and parties. If you had been a reporter in Germany in the 1930s you could have written about Hitler’s ratings, and the same would have been true in different periods for Perón in Argentina or Papa Doc in Haiti, among others. And you have to distinguish between genuine support and sham support. A couple of weeks after the coup Fujimori organized a big mass rally in the Plaza San Martín in Lima. Despite free transportation and entertainment, relatively few people turned up, but the “geishas” of the Peruvian press tried to present it as a benign third world version of the Nuremberg rally.
In this case, the US government was ahead of the American press and television, and more consistent in protecting democracy. I’m afraid this belies a certain hypocrisy on the part of many in the liberal press, a sense that democracy is good for us but not for them, that a country only earns it when it achieves a certain per capita income.
Kerr: Were there signs early in Fujimori’s term that he was not committed to democracy?
Gorriti: The only thing he has been quite consistent in is lying. Right after he won in 1990 I expected almost anything. It was clear he didn’t have any experience or expertise, and his party, Cambio 90, had no real political base. During the election he appeared to be a very gray professional, a former rector at the National Agrarian University in Lima who had been for a time the host of a state TV program called Concertando, which means, ironically, coming to an agreement, harmonizing. He ran a savagely critical campaign against the strict austerity measures advocated by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was favored to win the election.
Before the election inflation was running at an impossible rate, almost 10,000 percent a year, the result of years of imprudent spending by Alan García and his APRA Party. Vargas Llosa was prepared to tighten the money supply and drastically cut bureaucratic spending to bring inflation under control. If the people saw him as an overeager surgeon who would amputate an arm to save the body, they hoped Fujimori would perform economic acupuncture, some gentle shiatsu, and suddenly everybody would have a Sony in the living room and a Toyota parked outside.
Then when Fujimori became president he immediately began carrying out Vargas Llosa’s shock policies, which he now presented in very aggressive populist rhetoric. He even outdid them in austerity, because there was no relief program to help poorer Peruvians through the crisis as Vargas Llosa had planned. At the same time he began to surround himself with advisers who became more powerful than the cabinet ministers, although they had not been officially appointed and were not accountable to anyone. Charges had been made that Fujimori lied about the value of several houses that he had built and sold in order to avoid paying taxes. His informal national security adviser and lawyer, Vladimiro Montesinos, had those charges dismissed. Montesinos worked from the shadows, but for all practical purposes he was put in charge of the national intelligence service and began to control the armed forces by conducting extensive purges of the police and then the navy and the army. In some cases officers were falsely accused of plotting a coup; others were fired with no explanation.
Montesinos had been a career army officer and reached the rank of artillery captain. He was expelled from the army in the 1970s, accused of deserting his post and falsifying documents, and he had been forbidden then from entering any army facility. Then in the 1980s the army unsuccessfully tried to charge him with treason for selling military secrets to the Americans. Now, here was the new president giving him everything he wanted. Some army officers tried to make his intelligence file public, but Fujimori ordered the then chief of army intelligence thrown out, and others were expelled, too. Montesinos began to fill their posts with artillery officers who had been close to him and owed him personal favors, such as General José Valdivia, the man accused of covering up, when he was commander of the Ayacucho emergency area, the murder of twenty-eight peasants in the village of Cayara in 1988 by an army patrol. Several witnesses were assassinated afterward. Forty people were murdered in all. Valdivia is now Chief of Staff of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces.